Magic bus 

Enlightening lives one book stop at a time

click to enlarge Ryan Boyd, right, and Aaron Jacobsen with his bags full of books inside the bookmobile. - PHOTO: DETROITBLOGGER JOHN
  • Photo: Detroitblogger John
  • Ryan Boyd, right, and Aaron Jacobsen with his bags full of books inside the bookmobile.

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.

"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."

Like many patrons who've grown attached to him, Milner makes small talk with him, keeping the conversation going just to keep him around a little while. Then she's satisfied and announces, with mock impatience, that the visit is over. It's Salad Day in the downstairs cafeteria, after all.

"I want you to scat and go to the next place, 'cause I'm going down to the basement where they're having free salad, so skadoodle," she says. "And Aaron, you get your jacket the next time you come."


The day
continues on this way.

During the afternoon, Jacobsen will visit Peggy Ruth Bell, who just had back surgery but insists on showing she can still dance. "Don't I look good for 62? I can drop it like it's hot; I just need a little help getting back up." And she demonstrates.

He'll stop by Otis Carter's apartment, where the gentle 85-year-old simply says, in a wispy voice, "Beautiful. Beautiful" at the sight of bags of fresh books.

He'll drop in on Aretha Hudson, 65, who will come to the door in a housedress and do-rag and will debate him about English royalty centuries ago.

And he'll get several embraces from Theresa Fryer, 86, who grew up in Wales and lived through the Blitz during World War II, and will share with him, as she has before, the aloof perspective of someone whose house was hit by a bomb and who lived through it. "If you got a roof over your head, you got clothes on your back, you got food in your house, that's enough," she tells him in a still-thick Welsh accent. "All this other stuff is gonna come. You can't worry about it."

After the last stops, as the day winds down, Boyd and Jacobsen head back to their branch in the hulkingly slow bookmobile. Jacobsen reflects on the job.

"It's satisfying, 'cause you do a lot of legwork, you get it done, you sit back with a cup of coffee or just relaxing, going, 'That was a good day.' You meet some big characters. It's just a good day all around."

McCormick says the bookmobile is about more than just the mechanics of bringing books to people. It's why the program has lasted so long, through all the other changes the library's gone through, and why it'll continue. Because there will always be people in the city, some lonely and hiding, who still like having books to read and a familiar person to talk to.

"Books people keep alive, books are friends, they are company," she says. She plans on retiring in a few months but knows she'll still volunteer at the branch from time to time. "We have a lot of seniors in our city who don't have family, and their books serve as their family. That's what they tell us."

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