Published: June 15, 2011
"We're trying to get it pulled together, remodel it, because it was damaged," says Gail Jackson, 55, the home's new owner. It was a foreclosure they got on the cheap. The place had been empty and ransacked, tagged and torn up. Now they were trying to reclaim it as a home. "We just haven't gotten it together yet. It takes time," she says, softly.
She's tethered to an oxygen tank whose hose ropes around her head to feed air into her nose. Though she walks, she's too sick to get out anymore since she developed COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) a few years ago. "I don't smoke," she explains. "It was environmental."
Jackson used the bookmobile for years, back before she got sick, back when she lived in a nice riverfront apartment, when its visit was a luxury, not a necessity. Now she relies on it because she can't get out anymore.
"It's exciting, you know, to get these books when they come once a month," she says. "We love the bookmobile. We love the library. We're avid readers." Along the wall, two shopping bags full of already-read books affirm her point.
She lives here with her mother, Blanche Taylor, 78, who sits at a small fold-out table with a large, plastic machine in front of her and a wooden cane across her lap. She went blind two years ago and she too doesn't leave the house much anymore.
Now she devours books using a specialized, old-fashioned tape player loaned to patrons like her, using cartridges containing long volumes that fill the air with hours of prose at a time.
"Everybody needs to know about the bookmobile," she says. "I'm fortunate to get the audio books from the library, which I didn't know existed, but which has been great for me because I love to read, and I haven't been able to since I can't see. It's just been a blessing."
Jacobsen, now running behind on the route because everyone wants to talk with him awhile, says a polite goodbye, turns and leaves behind him two dedicated readers in a battered house full of words — in books, on tape and all over the walls.
It's hard for them not to get attached to the people they visit. But when all your customers on these runs are elderly, those you befriend may not be around for long.
"It's gotten me a couple of times," Jacobsen says. "It really has. You're not supposed to get possessive, but they're such good people and they can pass away in the night, and you're just like, wow. It's just all shock. But this is part of the reality of the program, dealing with seniors."
Sometimes they get the call from a family member, canceling the service because the patron has passed away. Other times they find this out firsthand.
McCormick, who's been with the library on and off for 26 years, has heard from employees who have walked in and found someone near death on the couch, or collapsed on the floor, or lying still in their beds.
The ones who come to the door on their own often press a librarian into service, asking them to do things like grab something off a high shelf, or mail a letter for them, or otherwise just keep them company because it's the only human contact they'll have for a long time.
"We're somebody that sees them, and we're somebody they know they can depend on once something is wrong," McCormick says. She points out that many grow to trust the bookmobile librarians so much they leave the door open for them to come in, especially if they're bedridden. But the librarians never know what they might find once they walk inside.
"It's not always good," McCormick says.
The city's library system has been in the news a lot lately — budget woes, spending controversies, layoffs and threatened branch closings. Just about everyone on this route has heard these stories and is rattled, and asks about it.
"They worry about us," McCormick says. "They're like, 'Are you sure you're going to be OK? How is this going to affect you? And they want to give you their little 10 and 15 dollars, because they want to do everything they can to keep the service and keep the libraries open. Detroiters have always liked their libraries."
She says despite the city's ongoing budget problems, the bookmobile is safe. In fact, her branch won the National Library Service Award last month, and she and the staff have been invited to Washington, D.C., to be honored.
"With all the mess that has been going on, we were really glad to hear that we were doing something good here at Detroit Public Library," she says.
"Now I'm gonna fuss with you, Aaron. Where's your jacket?"
Julie Milner, an 80-year-old living on the sixth floor of the River Towers senior apartments along the Detroit River, is hounding Jacobsen because it's a windy day outside and she thinks he'll catch a chill. If Jenkins in McCauley Commons thinks of him as her boyfriend, Milner has made him her grandson.
She too is listed in the library files as a shut-in. "I'm all alone," she says. "No brothers, no sisters. I got grandchildren but I don't see them. And every time I see them they got their hand out."
Her place is like all the others — neat, ordered, full of the hallmarks of elderly people — an afghan draped over a chair, knickknacks arranged neatly on shelves, and a TV — always a TV — playing loudly in the background.
Milner, like others along the route, gets a bag filled to the top with books. She can read a whole novel in a single day. There are enough people like her in this complex that the staff started a book club for them. And several use the bookmobile.
"These people are really into their books," says Almira Mathis, senior services coordinator at River Towers. "These are avid readers. They just love to read. Some read a book in two or three days, and that's all they do."
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