The library was nearly empty when it happened, save for a few caffeine-fueled souls fighting their way through last-minute essays and cramming for exams. I myself was in no state to be awake, much less to be studying, but nonetheless there I was, trying to put the finishing—make that the starting—touches on a paper of my own.
I had arrived there that evening with grand intentions, but as my energy dwindled so did my motivation to tap out thousands of words for the flimsy purpose of pleasing my T.A. So, as one does when avoiding work, I turned my focus to people-watching—a late-night, one-time, short-term ethnography of sorts.
My fellow library-goers that night struck the usual mixture of fervid notebook scrawlers, dejected Facebook scrollers and a few old guys drinking orange juice straight from the carton as they laughed to themselves and chain watched YouTube videos.
Aside from a few shared glances, almost everyone kept to themselves, locked into whatever it was they were doing.
I too must have been locked into my procrastinatory people-watching, because I didn’t realize someone was near me until I felt an abrupt tap on my shoulder. Startled, I turned to see who it was. A round-faced man, seemingly college-aged, sporting a few days of beard scruff and an ill-fitting black hoodie, opened his mouth to speak.
“Can you watch my stuff?” he said, in a tone far more serious than one typically uses to make such a common request. The expression on his face was alarming, his eyes pleaded for a response. “I won’t be gone long,” he promised.
“Yeah,” I said, “that’s totally fine.” I assumed he just needed to use the bathroom.
“Please watch it closely,” he said. “It’s the stuff on that table.” He gestured toward a four-person table a few away from mine that was laden with wrappers, Redbull cans, a laptop and a couple notebooks, before turning to walk out of the room.
Moments after he left, I noticed someone walk toward the table where his stuff sat exposed—the very table that had just fallen under my jurisdiction. With a calm, confident walk, the man approached. His suit and tie made for an odd sight at this hour, but the kid who left had seemed a bit odd too, so I thought nothing much of it.
The suited man pulled out a chair and sat down at the table. I didn’t know for sure if he’d been sitting there before, but I couldn’t assume he meant any harm— surely he wasn’t a laptop thief. He must know the kid who was sitting there, I thought to myself.
Every few moments I’d make a passing glance around the room to see if the man had moved from his chair. He hadn’t. He just sat there, waiting—arms crossed at his chest, eyes staring blankly at the table. It was weird, no doubt, but what was I supposed to do?
I kept watching.
Eventually, the man made a move. Slowly. Methodically. Something was in his hand—a flash drive, it seemed. He jammed it into the USB port on the bathroom kid’s computer. Dozens of windows flew up onto the screen, scrolling and scanning in a futuristic frenzy.
The man noticed I was watching, but seemed unfazed.
I knew what I had to do.
Without breaking my gaze, I stood up from my spot and pushed in my chair.
I walked toward the man and asked him: “can you watch my stuff?”
I left and never came back.