City Paper is not for tourists
Some people go through life content with the usual routine: go to work, talk about the weather, and go home to pleasant dreams of the perfect commute. Carl Cephas is not one of those people.
A merry prankster, Cephas is a short, round man with a bellowing laugh who tries to subvert the 9-to-5 grind every chance he gets. In his job at the Library of Congress (LC), this is no easy task: Many employees in the James Madison Building endure long stretches in the bowels of their windowless workplace, so Cephas likes to add spice to the sometimes dreary shifts. To a Louisiana co-worker, he has shouted a line from the cult film The Alligator People, starring Lon Chaney Jr.: “I’m gonna get you, Alligator Girl!” To another employee who sometimes dons a suit and tie for formal presentations, he has quipped, “Hey geek, gimme your lunch money.”
Over the years, those jokes have prompted snickers and the occasional laugh from other LC drones. But recently, Cephas has come up with a few new in-office gags that his superiors don’t find too funny.
The items in question are a copy of the novel Going Postal and some serial-killer trading cards, particularly one featuring Howard Unruh, the so-called father of modern mass murder. A 28-year-old pharmacy student who lived with his parents, Unruh gunned down more than a dozen neighbors in a New Jersey town in 1949 because he believed they had insulted him.
According to LC authorities, the items hold something more than cultural interest for Cephas. “During the past few months you have been saying that you were going to ‘go postal’ on a few employees, and have also indicated that you were ‘going to get’ certain unnamed employees,” states a May 1 letter from LC Director of Personnel Ben Benitez. “You have a book at your workstation, titled Going Postal and have shown others a card from ‘True Crime Series Two: Serial Killers and Mass Murderers,’ regarding Howard Unrum [sic], who killed 13 people in 13 minutes.”
Without telling Cephas of its investigation or the identity of his accusers, LC officials decided that he might be a human time bomb, ready to go postal at any moment. He was suspended from work and barred from the Madison building, and he has become the subject of a full internal investigation.
The library’s personnel office, for a change, is on the offensive. Renowned as the national treasure that sprang from Thomas Jefferson’s used-book collection, LC is as much a bureaucracy as the Pentagonand it wrote the book on federal employee grievances. In 1992, a group of black employees who sued over unfair hiring and promoting practices at LC received a $15 million settlement. In recent years, employees have complained about the library’s rigidsome have claimed Draconianimplementation of fit-to-work psychological exams, a practice that most other government agencies had long since abandoned.
A 16-year library veteran, Cephas never thought he’d add another chapter to LC’s history of employment conflict. A pop-culture junkie, Cephas had a gig that well suited his interests: retrieving books and musical scores for the Performing Arts Reading Room. Where else can you get paid to nail a reference to “Rock Me Amadeus” by the late Falco or some other forgotten one-shot wonder? Recently, he helped folks from Sen. Ted Kennedy’s office track down a Wings song to be used in a tribute to the late Linda McCartney.
The celebrity work is rare, though. Cephas spent most of his time scouring the basement stacks filling call-slip requests, a game of fetch that can get old fast. To thwart the monotony, he tried to have fun at work, and his desk became a shrine to the movies he worships as head of the Washington Psychotronic Film Society. “I consider my desk a work of art,” he says. “Some people like the Redskins; some people love The Far Side or pictures of cute puppy dogs. I like all kinds of stuff.” A partial inventory hints at his trash-culture aesthetic: There is a squeezable Godzilla clenching a Mardi Gras King Cake baby in its jaws, an empty gumball machine, a squatting Buddha, a Freddy Krueger Head squirt gun, and Dudley Do-Right and Gumby loitering next to a voodoo doll.
Though he loves to show off his collection, Cephas says he took care not to offend anyone who might be passing by. For example, he kept his fake vomit and his fake dog crap inside a drawer, away from those who might not appreciate doo-doo jokes. His sense of discretion, however, somehow failed to impress the folks over at personnel.
According to Cephas, LC’s attack came without warning. He says he had an outstanding work record and had never been reprimanded. “This was totally out of the blue,” he says. “I was never told I was going too far. No one ever said, ‘That’s immoral’ or ‘That’s disgusting’ or ‘I’m disturbed by that.’”
But Cephas apparently grated on some co-workers enough to prompt a clandestine investigation of his workplace conduct. During April, Cephas says, informers were watching his every move, such as his “Alligator Girl” greeting. “Someone must have heard that, thinking I’m gonna get her or something,” says Cephas. (A week before his reprimand, he says the woman told him to stop, and he says he did.)
Last Thursday, Cephas made an ignominious return to his former workplace, an event that drew a squadron of security guards. Accompanied by his union representative, he surrendered the key to his desk, and a search was conducted; Cephas says he was told that LC authorities were looking for a gun. The probe, Cephas feared, might have turned up other quirks that could bolster the library’s case against him, such as a satirical obituary he had penned for a departing employee. “He and I are friends, and we play around like that,” says Cephas.
Cephas’ visit to the library included an interview with a psychiatrist. He told the doctor that he had checked out the ’97 novel Going Postalthe story of the angst-ridden son of a San Diego mailmanbecause the title intrigued him and his ex-girlfriend had recently done a thesis on the insanity plea. “It is a library,” says Cephas. “I check out two or three books a day sometimes.”
And the stack of serial killer trading cards, he explained, was merely part of a mammoth collection of cards that also included the entire Star Trek series. He may have shown the Howard Unruh card to co-workers, he admits, but in the same way he proudly showed off his farting dinosaur. “It wasn’t like, ‘I wanna be this guy,’” he says. “I’m not a brooding, so-called profile serial killer.”
That depends on who’s doing the profile. Don Lasseter, author of the recent book Going Postal (not to be confused with the novel by Stephan Jaramillo), says there are 11 traits shared by most of the 20 postal employees who have gone on murderous rampages in the workplace since 1983. All male, either white or black, often unmarried, often vets, they owned gun collections, displayed antisocial behavior, and had difficulty accepting authority. They also made threats against supervisors or co-workersand many even mentioned previous postal massacres.
“Many of them appeared tense or angry, or engaged in bizarre behavior in the weeks before they exploded with rage,” says Lasseter. “There were exceptions, of course. One guy was sociable and well-likedjust a terrific guyand it came as a total surprise when he did this.”
Some employees appreciate Cephas’ efforts to make the music division a more interesting place. “He’s a funny, fun guy and a hard worker,” says a co-worker who has known Cephas on the job for more than a decade. “Sometimes I bring my daughter into work, and she’s just fascinated with that desk.”
Cephas denies making any threats against fellow employees or offhand comments that he was “going postal.” He says that a passing comment he once made about his brother-in-law’s antique gun collection has been misconstrued into the following charge in the May 1 letter: “You have said that you have access to guns by means of a gun shop owned by your brother-in-law.”
Whatever Cephas’ mental state, library officials are determined to use his entire personnel file against him. “You have had temper tantrums in the workplace, involving overturning a book cart and throwing things around,” reads the May 1 letter. “Approximately ten years ago, you were hospitalized following a violent outburst at the Library.” Cephas says the incident resulted from a heart condition, arrhythmia, that is now under control.
LC officials allowed Cephas back to work on Tuesday but did not tell him whether their investigation is over. Distinguishing between a psychopath and a fan of psychopaths, after all, is an inexact science.
And Cephas won’t make the diagnosis any easier. “I did nothing wrong,” he says. “Why should I have to go through this? It’s kind of like [the LC] is deciding, ‘Oh, you cannot be a free spirit.” Still, he refuses to bend, whether it be in his wisecracking or his desktop, which he says will remain in all its anarchic abundanceif he has any say in it. “That’s just me,” he says defiantly. “I’m not going to bring in Rainbow Brite unicorns or something.”CP