Published: June 15, 2011
She was waiting for him at the window.
For part of the morning, Marion Jenkins sat at a table, eating a bowl of Shredded Wheat in her fourth-floor apartment at McCauley Commons, a housing complex for seniors. The TV blared daytime shows in the background.
Jenkins, 81 years old and barely 5 feet tall, had seen the Detroit Public Library's bookmobile pull up outside, and watched as Aaron Jacobsen, its 41-year-old librarian, stepped out with bags of books and walked into her building's lobby. She had fixed up her hair that morning, she says, in anticipation of his monthly visit.
He was due here at exactly 11, but the time came and passed with no knock on the door. She grew dismayed and wondered, did he forget about me?
"I got a chance to get real sharp and he's not coming," she says. "He'd be up here by now."
But as doubt grows and minutes pass, a knock finally comes, and standing in the doorway is the guest of honor, holding two heavy-hanging department store bags full of books, dozens of them, courtesy of the Library on Wheels, the DPL's mobile unit that for years has been known around town simply as the bookmobile.
She's thrilled about the books, but she's happy just for his visit really, because Jacobsen is one of her few contacts nowadays.
"He's a doll," she says of him. "He's one of my boyfriends right here, but he doesn't know it."
Jenkins falls into that category loosely referred to as shut-ins, people who for whatever reason almost never leave their home to go into the world. The world has to come to them.
"It's a absolutely wonderful service for the seniors that can't get out," says Pam Duncan, the administrative manager at McCauley Commons. "A lot of them don't have transportation and are just physically unable to get out, and some of them don't have family to take them."
This is the first of many visits to shut-ins the bookmobile has this morning. A librarian and a driver make rounds like this around town five days a week, two weeks out of every month, bringing within these books a glimpse of people and places these people would never otherwise see.
"It's kind of their way to get out, reading all these different things," says Ryan Boyd, the 29-year-old bookmobile driver. "You run into people, you can just kind of tell they don't get out at all, and we are their only contact."
This program was known in blunter days as Service to Shut-ins and Retirees before undergoing several name changes. But the mission remains the same. In a city where half the population can't read, they'll bring the written word to just about anyone who wants it. Along their routes, every stop they make is a glimpse into someone's private, reclusive world, one that few from the outside see.
Except for the guys from the bookmobile, who are not only welcomed into these homes but find themselves regarded as more than just delivery men. They're enlisted as helpers, as company, as substitutes for family members who've died or who don't bother coming by anymore.
"They've learned to trust you," says Carolyn McCormick, 67, the coordinator of specialized services in charge of the bookmobile. "You're their family."
The DPL has operated its bookmobile since 1940. The program is based at the Douglass Branch for Specialized Services on Grand River near Trumbull, which also houses several other programs, like the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.
Two bookmobiles make the rounds. Each one, a newer-model mini-bus with shelves instead of seats, can hold thousands of books.
One is full of children's material and makes stops at public schools in Detroit where the libraries have been closed or aren't staffed by a librarian anymore, rendering them closed anyway.
The other is stocked with genres such as mystery, romance, biography and modern novels. It visits far-flung homes, densely packed senior apartment complexes, and riverfront retirement communities, serving adults who can't make their way to a library on their own. New patrons come by word-of-mouth, or by postings on bulletin boards in recreation centers and retirement homes.
Sometimes the bus pulls up and people will come to browse inside the climate-controlled vehicle. If someone requests a title they don't have that day, the librarian will special order it and bring it next time.
The job has become more challenging, though. Layoffs in the past year cut the number of bookmobile drivers down from four to one. And mechanical issues with the bus intended for schools means they're down to one bookmobile. Every week, one set of books has to be hauled off it and replaced by another set.
On every route the bookmobile is staffed by two employees — Boyd, now the lone driver, and a librarian whose job it is to drag heavy bags of books up flights of stairs and down long hallways. Today, it's Jacobsen's shift.
Boyd, who comes from Ohio and who heard of the job opening from his father-in-law, himself a DPL employee, has been here a year and a half. Jacobsen, who moved to Detroit from Nevada to attend Wayne State, has worked here seven years. Both men, warm and friendly with their customers, love the work and speak with real affection for those they visit.
"What I love about this is, you meet the seniors and they're good souls — the smile in their eyes, the smile on their faces," Jacobsen says. "I'm serious about what I do, but I want them to enjoy the experience, no matter how brief. I want them to come away positive. I like to get the person to smile. I'll do something silly, I don't care how old you are."
Next stop is a house on a curved east side street where half the homes are boarded up and the other half look like they soon could be.
It might be the strangest stop of the day. Jacobsen climbs creaky wood stairs to the second floor of an old Tudor duplex and enters another isolated world. The walls of the sparsely furnished living room and dining room are covered in spray-painted gang tags. One reads "Grand mafia kings bitch." Another claims this house for the Green Boyz. Holes dot the walls between the scrawlings. And in this setting live two frail women.
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