“This is my son Mark,” the woman said to me. “He wants to volunteer at your library. Please give him a chance.”
She touched Mark’s arm, and he looked up at me. A thousand-watt smile split his face.
Mark appeared to be in his early twenties and was quite handsome. His thick black hair was neatly trimmed, his clothes were freshly-pressed, and he had the whitest, most even teeth I had ever seen in my life.
“Hi, Mark,” I said.
“Mark’s an aspie,” his mother replied in his stead. “Do you know what that is?”
I confessed I didn’t. “Please tell me.”
She told me about her joy over finally getting a son after several daughters. Asperger’s symptoms became noticeable when Mark was nearly three. He didn’t want to be with other children, could often be seen rocking back and forth, and wouldn’t make eye contact. He cried when he heard sirens, thunder, and balloons popping. She ended with, “Mark doesn’t talk much, but he loves to be in libraries.”
“Sure, let’s give it a try,” I said. “How does an hour once a week sound?”
A relieved smile softened her face.
“Come sit in this chair, Mark. I’ll show you how to withdraw books.”
He sat down, a tall cart of books between us. I deleted a book from our library database, then handed it to him and pointed to the bar code.
“Use the black marker to draw two lines over the bar code. That way we’ll know the book isn’t in our database anymore, and we can sell it.”
Mark dutifully drew first one line and then the second line and then moved the marker back and forth until the bar code was totally blacked out.
“Um, Mark, all you have to do is put two lines across the bar code. That’s all. One, two. Look at me. Do you understand?”
Mark looked at me and said “Yes, I do.”
“Let’s try another one,” I suggested.
I chose another book, scanned it, and handed the open book to him. He again dutifully drew one line, a second, and then scrubbed the felt-tip point back and forth across the bar code until only a black blob sat where the bar code used to be.
I chuckled. “Well, you’re making sure no one ever uses these bar codes again!”
He smiled a mischievous smile. “Yes, I am!”
“Okay, here’s another one.”
Slowly and methodically, Mark and I deleted and blackened bar codes until the entire cart was finished. “Let’s count them for my stats report.” He touched each one as we counted aloud. I taped a note onto the cart and pushed it into the back room.
“Good job, Mark.”
He visibly relaxed. “I liked that,” he murmured.
On my desk were several stacks of music CDs to clean. I showed him how to moisten a cloth with alcohol, use his fingertips to hold the disc by its edges, and wipe the disc from center to edge. It wasn’t long before I heard him whispering something.
“What are you saying, Mark? Do you have a question?”
“Levon, Tiny Dancer, Rocket Man, Honky Cat … ”
“Mark! What are you talking about?”
He continued as if he hadn’t heard me. “‘Crocodile Rock,’ ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,’ ‘Candle in the Wind’ …”
Hearing the last, I realized what he was reciting. “Aha!! Elton John!”
Mark beamed. “Elton John is my favorite ... ‘Benny and the Jets,’ ‘Island Girl,’ ‘Grow Some Funk of Your Own’ …”
“Do you know the name of every Elton John song?”
Mark buried his chin in his upper chest and said rapidly, “Yes I do and I can say them in order of when he made them and tell you which albums they’re on and I have them all in my room at home and I listen to them all the time.”
“Mark, you’re amazing!”
Our last task was new magazines. Mark’s job was to pull out subscription cards, stick a bar code on the back of each magazine, and stamp the magazine with the name of our library. I would enter the bar codes into the database.
“Here are the bar codes, Mark. Put one on at the top right-hand corner on the back of each magazine.” I pointed to the spot.
“After I stick them on, can I cross them out with the marker? I like to cross out bar codes.”
“No! No! No! Not these bar codes. These are good bar codes. Those other ones were bad bar codes.” I swiftly laid claim to the marker and shoved it into my desk drawer.
After I had added most of the magazines, I noticed Mark had stopped working and was paging through the new Jet.
“What’s in there, Mark?” I asked.
He closed the magazine and stared at the cover. Beyoncé stared back at him. “I love her. She’s beautiful. Whaddya say, Beyon-say!” Mark whispered.
Then he looked at me and smiled that smile. “Whaddya say, Beyon-say!” he said so I could hear.
I chuckled and repeated his rhyme, “Whaddya say, Beyon-say! Whaddya SAY, Beyon-SAY!” I started clapping softly as I emphasized different syllables.
Mark got into the spirit of things and started his own repetitions. We tried to follow each other’s rhythms and clapping, but got all mixed up. Had we been two little kids, we would have thrown ourselves down onto the floor in giggles.
Suddenly Mark checked his digital watch. “Gotta go. Mom’s waiting.” With that he carefully laid the Jet magazine on top of the stack and stood up to leave. As he turned the corner to go into the hallway, I called after him, “Bye, Mark. Same time next week?”
Mark peeked at me around the cubicle wall, and, with eyes dancing, reprised, “Whaddya say, Be-yon-say!” Then he was gone.
I wondered what first-day-volunteering-at-the-library story his mother got out of him during the ride home.
A short time later, my boss accosted me with, “Who was that guy?”
“Oh, that’s Mark, a new volunteer. He’ll help us once a week for an hour.”
“I’m not going to pay you to hold a volunteer’s hand. You show him what to do and then go back to your own work.”
“Mark and I were doing my work—and very well too. We got a lot done.”
“Just remember—this is a public library, not a social service agency.” He left my cubicle, humming what sounded like “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”
Every Wednesday at 2:00 p.m. Mark arrived on time, ready to work. He carefully pulled out subscription cards, stacked the new magazines in alphabetical order, and put them out for display. When there were carts of withdrawn books, he blackened bar codes and counted books. He cleaned book covers and erased pencil underlines.
Once in a while, I caught his eye and chanted, “Whaddya say, Be-yon-say?” Mark always chuckled, eyes shining.
Occasionally, we had Elton-John duels while we worked. I would name an Elton John song, and then Mark would name one. Back and forth we went until someone ran out of titles. That someone was always me.
One Tuesday I heard the boss’s habitual humming getting louder as he came closer to my cubicle. “You spend too much time with that new volunteer. Tell him goodbye and that we don’t have enough work for him.”
When Mark came in the next afternoon, I whispered that I wanted him to meet someone. We spent the next couple of minutes practicing handshakes and eye contact. I motioned to him to follow me to my boss’s office. Mr. Herrick was busy at his desk shuffling papers and humming. As I started to introduce them, Mark’s thousand-watt smile split his face in half as he exclaimed, “Pinball Wizard!”
My boss looked up at him. “You know that song?”
“Pete Townshend played guitar for The Who and he put ‘Pinball Wizard’ in the 1969 rock opera Tommy—‘That deaf, dumb, and blind kid sure plays a mean pinball’—and in 1975 Elton John sang ‘Pinball Wizard’ in the movie Tommy and he played a piano instead of an acoustic guitar.”
“How about this one?” Mr. Herrick hummed a bouncy tune.
“Give it up. Mark knows all the Elton John songs,” I tried to explain. The boss waved me away.
“‘Philadelphia Freedom’ 1975!” Mark exulted.
“Hmmmmm. Here’s one. You’ll never get it.” He began humming intently.
“‘Border Song’ 1970!” As I turned to leave, the two of them began to hum together “Hakuna Matata.”Exulting, I hop-skipped back to my desk, “Whaddya say, Beyon-say!”