Mysterious library patron embodies Christmas magic
Asian man’s ritual of donating coins to the library touching.
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!