People often bring donations into the library. I’m used to just saying yes to whatever it is someone wants to give me. If the library can use it or sell it, great. We thank them in our prayers each night before we go to sleep. If not, we hand the person a donation receipt and respectfully lob their spider-infested magazines into a recycling bin.
Today a guy came up to the counter and said, “I’d like to donate these pens to the library.” Then he pulled the contents of my mother’s kitchen junk drawer circa 1979 out of his pocket. He had everything from dull little golf pencils to promotional medical ballpoints, and there might have even been an old Flair in there, though I could have been expecting one so much (my mom loved Flairs) that I imagined seeing one.
“Well, thank you!” I said, starting to bunch them all together and wrap a rubber band around them.
“Okay, you’re welcome. I’ll just take some of your pens now,” he said, and he started to pick through the flower pot on the counter that we keep our pens in. “I want some black ones.”
Now, what would you do? Because there was not a shred of doubt in my mind that the answer here was No, you cannot help yourself to whatever you like just because you think it’s an even trade that you just invented and then sprung on me before my tea was ready.
“No,” I said.
“What?” he said. “Oh, uh, you . . . use the black ones?”
First of all, what place of business can you ever go into and swap your old, shitty pens with? Especially a place that’s barely staying open due to budget cuts. Second of all, just no. If he had said, “Hey, I need a black pen, could I swap you?” I probably still would have said no, but there’s a small chance I would have considered it. Looking back, I’m sort of sorry he got me at the counter instead of one of my warmer and more generous coworkers. With me, he’d have had more luck just asking to borrow a pen and then leaving with it. I imagine he wanted to avoid that black mark on his karma, but at least he wouldn’t have had to withstand me treating him like a kindergartener.
However, while he was still standing there wondering what to do next, I looked over the pens he’d “donated” and saw a black one he’d missed. It did cross my mind for just a moment that he had no need for black pens at all and I’d caught him in the midst of a deadly ruse in which he’d infected the pens with anthrax as a way to protest recent fee hikes.
“Here, take this one back, it’s black,” I said, not unkindly.
He took it. I didn’t want to shame him, and I understand times are hard, but I am neither mentally nor emotionally flexible enough for spontaneous bartering.
Although last month I let another guy take two used red Sharpies, but he gave me a dollar for them.