He rolls up to the reference desk with his push cart, a furry hat hugging his balding head. I no longer have to look up from my keyboard to determine if it's really him approaching because I recognize his shuffle. It's familiar to me now. His disheveled shirts, unbuttoned halfway down his belly, frame curly black chest hairs and a few strands of gold jewelry. There's a gap in his smile where teeth used to be and his fingers are covered in an assortment of gold rings.
Sometimes he unloads the messy contents of his cart onto the reference desk, asking me to research each item and give him a print out of what I find. Sometimes he wants objective answers to very subjective questions. Sometimes he just stands at the reference desk, scattering the items on it with a clumsy turn or excited sweep of his magnifying glass. And sometimes he hurls follow up questions at me for minutes at a time, oblivious to the other patrons waiting for my attention.
My coworkers and I regularly roll our eyes at the mention of this man's name. After all, he's a daily visitor at the library, a dutiful reference desk attendee. On bad days we complain about how socially awkward, impatient, and frustrating he can be. "Doesn't he understand that we have other work that has to get done?!" I sigh and roll my eyes with them, but I almost always walk away from those conversations feeling a bit guilty.
Because really, 1) it's my job to answer questions from the public, no matter what they are (with a few exceptions). Whether all twenty come from one man or twenty men doesn't really matter.
And because 2) Mr. Elkins is a human being—a child of God—just like me. During those shifts, when I choose to see this man, not as a pest or an inconvenience, but as a child of God, and when I choose to engage and connect with him as a fellow human being, suddenly I feel very blessed. Suddenly, these are the most important conversations of my day.
Mr. Elkins has taught me about patience, kindness, and humility—about what it really means to love and serve others.
When he turns to leave at the end of the night with his push cart and the pages of information he pays with in pennies, he always says, "Thank you, Sarah." And I know he means it. But, even on the nights when my frustration gets the better of me, I know that I am the one who should be thankful.
So thank you, Mr. Elkins. Thank you for teaching me so much. Thank you for your charming quirks and your toothless smile and your insatiable curiosity.
And you're welcome too. You are always, always welcome.