Mrs. Santa vs. the Snake

Illustration by Scott Gandell

Once upon a time, I was first appointed a Library Director in Central California. Previously, I had worked in a variety of positions in public libraries around the state for about a dozen years. Some questioned my judgement for accepting the Madera County Librarian post. Almost half the staff had been laid off, there was no book budget, and their Friends of the Library group had dwindled to two members. Not only that its neighbor to the north, Merced County Library, had completely shut down. Madera County may have been right in the middle of California, but its library was on the edge of the abyss.

My first morning on the job was spent in a tense Board of Supervisors meeting during which a small band of ardent Library supporters made impassioned pleas to save the five facility county library system. After a reprieve from the Supervisors, the Library’s comeback story began and picked up steam over the coming months. Volunteer recruitments, an annual fund drive, a Friends membership push, a coffee shop in the main library, a cookbook and history book project, the development of numerous grant applications, and even a Library Bingo Night at a casino were deployed. Because of these successful efforts and especially, the newfound public and local government support, the library not only regained stable footing, but also forward momentum into a brighter future.

For the unfamiliar, Madera County is made up of more than 2,000 square miles of mostly rugged terrain. Its borders stretch from the flat San Joaquin Valley farmlands on its western side where the county seat Madera is located, all the way to the mountainous Central Sierra Nevada region that concludes just south of Yosemite National Park. Its border also wraps around the aptly-named Devil’s Postpile National Monument on the eastern slope of the Sierra.

Madera County’s Main Library is located, as would be expected, in Madera, the county seat which only has a few blocks that make up its downtown. Across the street from the Library on one side sits the Courthouse Museum with its all granite exterior and the 1970s era County Government Center on another. The more modern Madera Police Station is less than a block up the street toward Highway 99, once called the Backbone of California. Several thriving taverns are not much farther away, and the notorious C Street, with 24 hour law enforcement surveillance cameras on the rooftops of its retail shops, looms menacingly nearby.

Madera is like other San Joaquin Valley towns with its extremely high seasonal unemployment rate, particularly during the winter months when many farm labor jobs are in short supply. Nevertheless, Madera is a tough, resilient town where strong backs and calloused hands are prized commodities. Madera had no Farmers Market because most locals saw outdoor fruits and vegetables daily anyway. And for six days a week in the winter, seasonal economic decline and its coinciding freezing temperatures, regularly thrust flocks of shivering visitors into the Madera Library.

During my tenure, my family moved to the town of Coarsegold to reside in the oak tree covered foothills of Madera County. Our main reason was to be able to visit Yosemite National Park almost every weekend. We also loved Coarsegold’s open spaces, mountain views, and the honey-colored sunsets. The town was also a convenient place for the County Librarian to reside because it was centrally located between all four Madera County Library branches: the mountain facilities in Oakhurst and North Fork and the flatlands branches in the Chowchilla and Ranchos areas. Even so, I usually started my workdays by driving downhill to the main library in Madera about 40 miles away.

My commute from Coarsegold to Madera in the non-winter months took 45 minutes. But in December and January it took over an hour because of the enormous fog bank blanketing the San Joaquin Valley floor, sometimes for days at a time. On an especially chilly morning only a few days before Christmas, I was awakened by the shimmering rays of sunlight beaming through our bedroom windows. After hurriedly dressing for work, I scrambled into my car and cranked up the heater while pulling up our steep driveway. Moments later, I was racing down the sunny highway before abruptly slowing down before plunging into the infamous dark veil of Tule Fog. My headlights were useless in the cloudy gray mist. The area wouldn’t have offered much to see anyway, except for the occasional farm or ranch, and a few boarded up fruit stands that had been closed for months or years,

Hitting the outskirts of Madera, I could barely make out the silhouette of a hulking man gyrating his arms by the side of the road. As I pulled closer, I could tell he was garbed entirely in navy blue denim and wasn’t wearing a jacket. I could also see the black bandana wrapped around his forehead almost covering his eyes. I skidded to a stop to ask if he needed help. Instead of requesting a ride, as I’d expected, he gruffly demanded money.

Right then I could see nasty scrapes and fresh bruises bulging out from under his black scarf. I quickly swerved away and accelerated as he reached for my unlocked car door. As I sped off, with eyes momentarily fixated on his shrinking image in my rearview mirror, I was grateful I’d be able to make it to work on time—and in one piece.

Once I arrived at my desk, I began tackling paperwork in my inbox. My thoughts soon veered away from my escape from the desperado who looked like he had recently lost a fistfight. I ‘d forgotten about the ruffian until an hour or so later, When I glanced out from the upstairs window of my office, and spotted the denim-clad roughneck approaching the Library front door. Jumping up, I raced down the stairs and my eyes immediately caught Camille, one of our librarians who was crouching behind the checkout desk with the door of the library safe wide open. She was removing a handful of bills, apparently to make change for someone.

My head then swiveled to see the brute in blue who hadn’t noticed me yet because his gaze was clearly fixated on the open safe and the small woman with her back to him while she crouched down while pulling out a wad of bills. Quickly, I sidestepped between the two, right behind the checkout desk.

“May I help you, sir?”“ I uttered, trying to sound calm.

“Ain’t got not library card!” the man shot back as he craned his neck to look around me.

“You just need to fill out this short form, and show some ID,” I stammered, holding out an application, “It’ll only take a minute.”

The hulk’s darting eyes made it obvious he was much more interested in monitoring the activity behind my back and he didn’t reach to accept the application form. And for an anxious moment I thought he might be about to lunge forward at us.

“You can come back later when you have your ID, sir. We can hold any books you pick out now. The new book section’s to your left“

When he didn’t reply and just stood in place, I asked his name.

“Um…er…uh…Jones,” he uttered. “How late are you guys open?”

“The Library is open until 6 p.m.,” I quickly declared.

To my relief, the man pivoted and sauntered out the front door. I asked that the safe be locked immediately and reminded staff leave it locked when the Library was open.

Camille hadn’t noticed anything dangerous and counted out change into the hand of the customer paying for a lost book. While rushing out the door, I said I’d be right back. Moments later I had breathlessly arrived at the front counter at the Police Station. A detective was summoned and Sergeant Salvador nodded knowingly to my retelling of the threatening event at the library and the man I first encountered while driving to work that morning.

The officer ushered me into a cramped office with bare walls where we sat on opposite sides of a tiny table. Handing me a folder with about a dozen photos, he asked if the dungaree wearing dude who’d just left the Library was in any of them. As I hurriedly flipped through them, I pulled out one showing four scary looking guys who were making strange symbols with their hands as they sat on the hood of an older car. I pointed to the largest of the figures and positively identified him as the man who’d just left the Library.

“That’s Snake!” Officer Salazar exclaimed, “And he’s a violent bank robber who was recently released.”

“I have a strange feeling he’s coming back to the Library right before closing time at 6 p.m.,” I nervously offered, “because of the way he asked how late the library will be open.

Officer Salvador passed his business card into my hand and exhorted me to call the number immediately if I ever saw Snake again. He added that he would assign an extra patrol around the library. He also gave me a photocopy of the photo of Snake with his cohorts and asked me to share it with the rest of the library staff. He added that we were to call the PD immediately if Snake was ever spotted again—and not to hesitate to call 911 if necessary.

Returning to the Library, I individually shared the information. I tried to dig back into my work, but found myself continually looking at the library entrance from my window. After I had gone to stretch my legs downstairs around a few hours later, I noticed a large shadowy figure standing outside the Library door, He was dressed all in black with a baseball cap pulled low around his eyes. I hustled to the nearest phone and called Detective Salvador and told him that Snake was right outside the door of the Library.

“We’re on our way!” was all I heard before the phone slammed down.

When I glanced toward the library entrance, I could see Snake slither inside the front door until he stood motionless in side the entryway with his head tilted down. Seconds later, right behind him entered Millie, a volunteer who was dressed up in her Mrs. Santa Claus costume. Each year she donned her festive homemade outfit to read holiday stories to kids in the Children’s Room.

I had completely forgotten about the holiday story time scheduled for that afternoon. The dozens of kids who were impatiently waiting for Mrs. Claus certainly hadn’t. In a tight cluster they gleefully rushed to the front door to greet and hug the woman adorned in bright red from head to toe.

Snake was suddenly pressed against by a small herd of obviously delighted tots who were trying to reach for the candy canes in Mrs. Claus’s bag. Fidgeting briefly, Snake gave a bewildered expression, and then bolted out the door. The clamoring kids didn’t notice and continued frisking Mrs. Claus as I followed Snake out the door, trying to keep a safe distance

A patrol car screeched to a halt next to the sidewalk and I could see Officer Salvador motioning me to hop in. Once inside, I rode with him as he sped up and down the surrounding streets and alleys. Other police cars could be seen combing the area in other directions and I explained what had just occurred. Even though Snake had departed less than a minute earlier, he was already gone without a trace.

“Snake must’ve had a getaway car waiting for him,” Officer Salvador enjoined, “and it’s a good thing Mrs. Santa Claus arrived right in the nick of time, even with all that fog and holiday traffic.

Steve Fjeldsted is the Director of Library, Arts & Culture for the City of South Pasadena