Snoring in the Stacks

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  2/02/2003

Wrapped in all the clothes he owns, a former parking lot attendant sifts through a sheaf of food coupons on a recent Sunday afternoon, daydreaming. Another man pores over a 19th-century novel, still another a calculus textbook, both seeking solace through knowledge. Others show up for the clean, warm bathroom, where they catch a few desperately needed winks.

But where will they go, if Mayor Thomas Menino follows through on a proposal to close the Boston Public Library on Sundays to save money?

"I don't know," says Peter Poulimenos, wearing seven pairs of pants and carrying six large, ragged bags. "I'd probably stay outside all day."

During the cold months, especially now with the temperature hovering in single digits, the Copley Square landmark becomes a magnet for the homeless, attracting so many of the city's downtrodden that on a recent day they occupied nearly every other seat in the first floor of the new building.

With steadily growing numbers of homeless men and women - last month, city officials counted 6,210 homeless in one day - librarians and security guards say they are more frequently nudging chronic sleepers (a violation of library policy), booting people who use restroom sinks as showers or laundries, and calling emergency medical workers on passed-out alcoholics.

One recent Sunday, security guard Richard Edwards had the unenviable task of removing a man from a bathroom stall in the library's basement, an out-of-the way location visited by scores of homeless every day.

When another homeless man complained the guy inside was snoring and sitting on the toilet for about an hour, Edwards marched off to the bathroom. He went to the corner stall and knocked on the door. Nothing. He knocked again, and still getting no response, he opened the door of the stall next to it, stood on the toilet, and said, "Sir, I'm sorry, but you can't sleep inside the bathroom."

Then he jimmied the locked door and roused the man, bundled in winter gear and curled atop the unopened toilet. As Edwards escorted him outside the bathroom, the bedraggled young man looked at the guard and asked: "Can't a man get some peace?"

Seemingly oblivious to the expulsion, Poulimenos, a skinny, homeless graduate of Boston Latin and Amherst College, was washing up in the bathroom and putting on his many street clothes before heading off into the night.

The white-bearded Poulimenos, 64, had spent the entire day in the same seat in the library's Bates Hall trying to solve equations from a dog-eared copy of "Calculus 5/E With Analytic Geometry." When he's not studying integrals or derivatives ("it helps me understand the epicycles of today, in other words the meaning of quantum mechanics"), he reads the Bible, in Hebrew and Aramaic.

He's haunted the library nearly every day for the past nine years, when he began living under a bridge in Charlestown. The son of a cobbler and a one-time gas-station cashier says he would suffer if the library closes on Sundays. "All my books are here."

No final decision has been made on the Sunday closings, floated by Menino following cuts in tax revenues and state funds. "We're all waiting to find out what's going to happen," says P.A. d'Arbeloff, a library spokeswoman.

It would certainly affect Fred Woods, 38, the former parking garage attendant who has been homeless for the past three years. He regularly bides his time at the library watching movies or reading books, including "Wealth Building Journal" and "How to Make Money in Stocks," for a life-skills course he's taking.

Of his fascination with food coupons, Woods says: "I'm always hungry and this helps me get by."

The aspiring lawyer says his happiest time of the day is when he can be alone in his own mind at the library. "This is my quiet time," he says, sitting amid his books and coupons at a table on the first floor of the new building. "The shelter is so intense. There's so many people there, so close to you, you can't think there."

If the library closes, he says, "I'll probably just go to the Prudential Mall, hang around, kill time, and hope I run into someone I know."

For Matt Wilson, the chief problem would be boredom. The 50-year-old vagabond from Tennessee, who says he has worked as a teacher for mentally ill children and has done demolition work, loves the library.

"I'm a reader," he says, his nose nearly pressed to the small print in a book of New York Times front pages. "I'm in pursuit of knowledge. That's what I do."

Then he adds: "It's also nice to get out of the cold."

After years sleeping outside or in shelters where he's forced to leave around dawn, his face is drawn, his eyes are red, and his hands are chapped from the cold. If he can't spend his Sundays at the library, where he said he has learned "as much as a professor" about engineering, art, and other fields, he says he might consider skipping town.

"It's enough to make me think about changing my relationship with the world," he says. "I don't want money or physical possessions, I want wisdom."

David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

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