Mys­te­ri­ous li­brary pa­tron em­bod­ies Christ­mas magic

Asian man’s rit­ual of do­nat­ing coins to the li­brary touch­ing.

Austin American-Statesman - - AUSTIN360 DAILY - Su­san Milam Susie Milam is re­tired from Ar­ling­ton Pub­lic Schools in Vir­ginia and now vol­un­teers in var­i­ous Austin pro­grams. Do­ing Good To­gether is or­ga­nized by In­ter­faith Ac­tion of Cen­tral Texas, in­ter­faith­texas.org.

He’s a small man, weath­ere d tanned skin, touches of gray in his hair, teeth a lit­tle large for the rest of his face. His features are Asian; Cam­bo­dian, pos­si­bly. His clothes are plain, unironed, prob­a­bly not very clean. His feet are al­ways bare in warm weather, cov­ered in socks when it’s cold. He is al­ways smil­ing shyly, and his eyes twin­kle. Per­haps he was a doc­tor or teacher in his former coun­try, but I can bet­ter en­vi­sion him in a scene that in­cludes peas­ants or farm­ers.

He lives in a very mul­ti­cul­tural neigh­bor­hood, and he is a reg­u­lar vis­i­tor to the branch li­brary where I worked part time. His vis­its fol­low a pat­tern and have been go­ing on for sev­eral years.

It al­ways goes like this: He comes in (hav­ing re­moved his shoes and left them out­side on the porch), walks over to the cir­cu­la­tion desk, smiles and bows, with his hands to­gether as if in an at­ti­tude of prayer. Our part in this rit­ual is to smile, put our hands to­gether, and nod or bow in re­sponse. He then ges­tures to his left, which we have learned means, “I’m go­ing over there,” and we say, “Thank you.” He goes over to the sug­ges­tion box, puts in the scuffed and scarred coins he has picked up off the street, and we all re­peat the ges­tures, smiles, and thank-you’s again. And he leaves.

The only real in­for­ma­tion seems to be that he was spon­sored into this coun­try when the first great in­flux of Viet­namese and Cam­bo­dian refugees ar­rived in the late 1970s. But, if that’s true, that’s where our hard facts end. No one knows his name. No one on the staff speaks his lan­guage, so no one knows why he hasn’t learned English, whether he has ever had a job, where or with whom he lives. And most cu­ri­ously, we don’t know why he does what he does.

He has never used the li­brary for any of the nor­mal ser­vices it of­fers to the com­mu­nity, in­clud­ing us­ing the bath­room or water foun­tain, as home­less peo­ple reg­u­larly do. We don’t know what he thinks the li­brary is, or why he ex­pe­ri­ences such ob­vi­ous plea­sure in giv­ing us money.

We do know one thing fairly cer­tainly, though: in spite of what­ever chaos he might have ex­pe­ri­enced in his ear­lier life, what­ever pri­va­tions might have lim­ited his pos­si­bil­i­ties, what­ever hor­rors he might have wit­nessed, he has a sweet, gen­tle, happy and gen­er­ous spirit.

I think about him a lot as Christ­mas ap­proaches. His story is one of mys­tery and a cer­tain magic, just as the sto­ries of the Na­tiv­ity are, and just as the story of Santa Claus is. Could this small, smil­ing, rum­pled man be Santa Claus, or Je­sus in deep dis­guise?

Do I want to know the de­tails of his story? Maybe not.

And yet, know­ing that most of the de­tails in the Na­tiv­ity sto­ries are not sup­ported by ev­i­dence doesn’t keep me from be­ing drawn into the mys­tery and magic of hear­ing them again each year. And know­ing what most adults know about Santa Claus doesn’t keep me from en­joy­ing watch­ing chil­dren ex­pe­ri­ence the mys­tery and magic of that side of Christ­mas. Know­ing the de­tails of this man’s life might re­move some of the mys­tery, but he will al­ways be for me an ex­am­ple of good cheer, gen­eros­ity ... and yes, magic!

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