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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

One Writer's Quest to Find (People Having) Sex in the Library

Posted By on Tue, Feb 14, 2012 at 11:30 AM


I've seen my share of salacious flap copy, but a friend's promotion of the forthcoming novella she edited for Harper Collins, Lust in the Library, caught my attention: "Some like it hot, and some like it in the reference section."

"Do they?" I wondered, "or is this truly fiction?"

Lust in the Library is certainly not the first book, erotic or otherwise, about a librarian with a bun a little too tightly wound for the kind of shelving she's interested in, and yet ... I worked at the New York Public Library and the Brooklyn Historical Society for years. The tawdriest act I ever encountered was a scantily clad teenage page chastely hugging another. In graduate school, I frequented the library's "pillow room" to read American history in the comfort of a tattered bean-bag chair, but it never lived up to its name or reputation.

While doing research for a recent post, "Checking Out," author Avi Steinberg claims he conveniently sat within earshot of "moaning sounds" that "terminated in muffled resound." Encouraged, I returned to several branches in San Francisco at random hours, from Larkin Street to Ninth Avenue, but all I encountered were patrons using the facilities as the administration intended.

Some people have all the luck.

I checked with a librarian friend in the Bay Area who agreed to speak with me as long as I kept her identity a secret. She, too, had imagined that one day she would encounter something carnal at work. Alas, her stories veered toward the scatological. There were ample tales of diaper malfunctions. Impetuous teenagers apparently smear blood-clogged maxi pads on the bathroom walls. The most frequent accounts were decidedly unsexy, starring the impecunious patron who adopts the public space as home.

Craigslist will save me, I assumed. Tell me about your sexcapades, I wrote, anticipating a flood of obscene, anonymous responses that never materialized. A week later, I had received one e-mail in total, and it was disappointingly mild. A former clerk at the Malaga Cove Public Library in Palos Verdes had once discussed Anne Rice's Sleeping Beauty with a colleague, who then inquired about his particular alacrity for sadomasochism. He panicked. She darted. He's thought about the encounter ever since.

At long last, a mutual acquaintance agreed to e-mail me under the pseudonym Randy Smith. From 1987 through 1990, Smith worked as a student assistant in the Government Publications section of San Francisco State's J. Paul Leonard Library. Utilized mostly by students of law and supervised by "two Filipinas and a Rastafarian man who knew what was going on," traffic greatly increased during the weekday evenings.

Visitors weren't heading for the card catalogues, but rather the men's bathroom. Stalls were separated by a wood divider through which some resourceful denizen would drill a "glory hole" to accommodate anonymous oral sex. It was a known meeting place, dubbed a "tea room" by men who like public, anonymous, quick, um, encounters with other men. Close to 20 men walked with determination straight to the bathroom door on any given day, failing to even glance at the stacks, Smith said.

An upper floor of SF State's J. Paul Leonard Library (the building in the background) was once a "tea room" -- is it still? - VARDS UZVARDS / FLICKR
  • Vards Uzvards / Flickr
  • An upper floor of SF State's J. Paul Leonard Library (the building in the background) was once a "tea room" -- is it still?

"They knew where they were going," Smith said.

The administration attempted to temper the visits, hiring an "old, white, homophobic rent-a-cop" who accurately accused Smith of being complicit.

"Goddamn fags who can't keep their dicks in their pants," the rent-a-cop would rant to the Rastafarian boss, an unsympathetic civil libertarian.

Like me, Smith heard about the rendezvous, but never saw any action. He witnessed men going in and coming out. He heard the rent-a-cop regaling employees with tales of confrontations. He frequently used the bathroom out of necessity and curiosity.

"I never came across men having sex," he lamented. His own initiation day did come, but it was in far more public space -- the back stacks. He and fellow student assistants, "all young, healthy and horny," would earn their hourly wage while making out, engaging in oral sex, and "on a couple of occasions, full-on intercourse."

Undeterred, the administration upped the ante by replacing the wooden divider in the men's room with a metal one, which proved unmalleable. Foot traffic all but came to a halt. The tea room had met its end, apparently.

Like any writer, I prefer direct interaction with my primary sources, but all my attempts were thwarted in one way or another. I have not, to this day, witnessed sex in the library, and it seems that most people share my inexperience. For me, that's where this story ends, but libertines beware: I'll find you yet.

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Alexis Coe


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