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Dewey, I hardly knew ye

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They're getting to you everywhere. Who? The number people. You'll know them by the greenish cast to their complexion, a computer tan.

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Worst for us, they usually have relatively shielded positions of imagined administrative authority, which they use to generate endless asinine policy changes. They're shielded, so you cannot usually look them up and give 'em at least one good swat to try and knock some sense into them. Daddy always said that just because it didn't always work to swat such an imbecile, it never hurts to try. Of course, then he'd look at me.

There I was in the library, sampling the simple delights of the Dewey Decimal system way back when we still had that. I had found my book, walked up to the counter, removed the sign out card from the inner flyleaf, and prepared to sign my name.

"No!" said the female person sitting behind the counter, eying me. She went on, "You cannot sign your name any more, just your number."

Which number, I asked her? Can I just pick one or do my parents have to number me?

She looked a sharp look at me, and said, "Well, of course, you'll use your library number."

I said, can I use seven quadrillion, six bazillion, three hundred and ten? I always liked that one.

"No," she said, "your number is ..." and she looked into a numbered (of course) file, and told me: "OT915737."

That didn't seem like me at all, and I told her so. I've always considered myself more of an artist than a prime number kind of guy, more twos and fours and eights.

"If you want a book," I remember her telling me, "sign your number."

I don't understand why I have to give up my name, I told her.

"Well," she said, upset that I didn't understand, "this way, no one knows who checked the book out."

I told her, could you tell me the number of the person who came up with this? So I could talk to them? She eyed me a bit harshly, I thought. Who was I to interrupt her petty posturing on this, she seemed to say with her eyes.

Then she said, "This will be library policy from now on."

This still burns me, even though it happened nearly 20 years ago. As if that scar wasn't bad enough, 10 years ago I got a bar code for my name. Libraries used to be such pleasant, quiet little places.

I'm still not sure why they were afraid to let my name get out on a check-out card. I suppose I could be blackmailed, should it get into the hands of book kidnappers, or something. "Send us a thousand dollars, or we'll tell everyone that you just read a book on the warming of the planet written by a, gasp, Democrat. This in a county that voted Republican could, I guess, go badly for me.

About then, since I was just standing dumbstruck at the counter, the young woman manager came out of her office. She was, I will admit, even though she turned out to be one of them, a nice number all on her own. "Hi," she said, "is there a problem?"

I said to her, sorry, I, um, didn't get your number.

She stared at me.

OK, I told her, here's what worries me. First we wear out my name, according to your policy, by signing it everywhere here and there, until it's gone. Then I use my number until it's all gone. What's left? (Yeah, innocent me. Ten years later, a bar code, that's what.) Do I disappear? What if I call home and Mom answers the phone, asks "Who is this?"

Well, I would say to her, do I sound familiar? I don't have a number anymore. Who was I when I was ...

The nice number slammed the "closed" sign down on the counter, and wearily retreated into her office, and closed her door.

All these years later, it occurs to me that I may not have gotten her number, but I got something of hers.

And, all these years later, here I am, just a bar code now. Dammit, Dewey, I never appreciated you when you were mine.

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