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As the lead library technician for the Library of Congress’ music division, Carl Cephas specialized in retrieving obscure rock and jazz materials for patrons. To a handful of his coworkers and managers, he specialized in being a major headache. There was the time he told his supervisor Mary Wedgewood, “Fuck you, go suck eggs,” after she served him with a written reprimand. The time he “engaged in a long and very loud” phone conversation about the dead mice he’d trapped in his apartment, which some of his coworkers believed was “intended to disgust everyone in the room.” There were the many times he refused to clean up the cultural curios that cluttered his work area, his penchant for introducing the word shit into conversation, and his habit of greeting his friends by bellowing, “Hey motherfucker!”
The library placed Cephas, 49, on indefinite leave this summer after 27 years of employment.
For the last three months, Cephas has spent every day in a rickety upright chair in his condo in Mount Pleasant. Empty cans of Canada Dry club soda and stacks of DVDs litter the living room floor. Two billowy orange curtains keep the room dark. A barely touched bottle of Smirnoff vodka sits within easy reach of Cephas, who is dressed in a baggy red T-shirt and brown cargo shorts. The Eagles, Cephas’ team, are pounding the Giants on a rear-projection television, but he says he’s too busy worrying about bills to appreciate the Giants’ impending loss.
“Right now, I don’t qualify for unemployment. All I get is health coverage,” Cephas says, “so I’ve been living off my friends at work, who are like my family.”
His union initially fought the suspension, citing a letter from Cephas’ doctor that said he “can suffer from altered mental status and exhibit confusion” as a result of his diabetes but has since suggested he go on disability. Doing so wouldn’t require him to stop DJing experimental jazz, vintage punk, and campy rock tunes one night a week at Lucky Bar, or to quit hosting the Washington Psychotronic Film Society, which he’s run as an unpaid volunteer since 1998.
Cephas says he’ll settle for disability. “My doctor thinks this job is killing me,” he says. But he won’t just disappear without his pension. Besides, he’s fought the library before and won.
In 1998, Cephas was suspended from his job for referencing the worst lines of the film society’s catalog of b-grade horror movies, carrying around serial killer trading cards, and flashing his copy of Terry Pratchett’s satirical science fiction novel Going Postal. All were jokes, he told Washington City Paper at the time (“Psychotic Reaction,” 5/15/1998), but that didn’t stop his superiors from placing him on unpaid leave pending the results of a psychiatric evaluation. The Library’s weeklong investigation concluded that Cephas was just a pop-culture junkie who liked to pull his coworkers’ strings, but the letter it sent him on May 8, 1998, allowing him to return to work, contained a stern warning: “I am advising you in the strongest possible terms,” wrote Ben Benitez, then the director of personnel, “that disruptive and confrontational conduct will not be tolerated at the Library.”
For several years following the “going postal” incident, Cephas says he kept his head down, convinced he’d been forever branded a problem employee.
Cephas’ recent problems began on Feb. 24, when, he says, complications from his diabetes caused him to forget to sign in to work. When he did remember, he signed in for 9:30 a.m., forgetting that he had arrived at 9:55. Walter Zvonchenko, a music and theater specialist, noticed the discrepancy, and tape from a security camera confirmed it. The initial reprimand delivered by Cephas’ then supervisor Stephen Yusko caused Cephas to feel that he was being targeted for being disabled. Paranoid that the library was trying to get rid of him once and for all, Cephas responded to all requests from his new supervisor Wedgewood with increasing antagonism. He interrupted a meeting, sent vitriolic emails, and refused tasks—such as an order to unload a hand truck—that he felt had been assigned to him for the sole purpose of proving that he was incapable of doing his job. His paranoia culminated in the “go suck eggs” remark.
Mike Wireman has worked with Cephas since 1982. “He may have said something,” Wireman says, “he may have used some bad language once or twice. But they’ve pushed and pushed him, like they’ve wanted him to do something, to act out.”
Cephas admits he overreacted (“I was being sarcastic,” he says about the “go suck eggs” incident) but says that the hostile atmosphere in his division, along with his diabetes, made it difficult for him to act normal: “Sometimes when my sugars are low or high, I get confused and agitated.” He cops to the potty mouth: “Being in the control room is like a locker room, so we sometimes are like, ‘Hey dude, hey motherfucker.’” He’s very aware of how his coworkers perceive his rambunctious behavior. “My voice gets very loud, because I’m partially deaf…if you put all that together, it’s like, ‘This guy is fucking crazy.’”
What he doesn’t understand is why that’s earned him the boot. “In the old days,” Cephas says, “people used to say, ‘If something’s gotten done, that means Carl is here today.’”
“It would be difficult for me and the vast majority of my colleagues to characterize changes in library culture over the past three decades, as few of us have been at the library that long,” says Matt Raymond, the library’s communications director. “But we have had regulations regarding standards of conduct for a very long time, and we expect all employees to adhere to them.”
“He’s not your average person,” says Wireman. “Almost everybody at the LC likes him.” Some of those people donated more than $700 to Cephas for his condo fees and food. Manuscripts technician Tracy Barton was one of them. “We worked in the stacks since we were kids,” she says.
As a gofer at the Warner Theatre in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Cephas went to extraordinary lengths to see that Lena Horne, for example, could get fried chicken late at night or that Cab Calloway could get to a horse race. He brought that same energy to the library, digging through the music archives, finding scores and other musical paraphernalia for patrons as privileged as Ted Kennedy and as mundane as the average music nerd. “A reader comes in with a slip to the circulation desk, we take the slip, and we find the book,” he says. “It may be in sheet music, music theory, or music literature. We find it and send it up in the dumbwaiter.” Another of his colleagues in the music division, who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, says that Cephas “was exceptionally good at finding lost materials. If I had to find something, my last resort would be going to Carl.” (All of Cephas’ supervisors declined to comment for this story.)
As with the library, Cephas’ decade at the helm of the Psychotronic hasn’t been problem-free. He’s had a hard time putting down roots at venues, mostly because of the content of the the movies he shows. In January, the Psycho (as Cephas affectionately calls it), was booted from the Meeting Place on 17th Street NW after the bar’s regulars complained about the anal rape scene in the grindhouse movie Isle of the Damned.
The Eagles are up by 16 points. Cephas leans forward to read the score, and then wipes his forehead with a tissue. An attorney he spoke with has refused to take his case. Disability looks better and better. “I gotta keep my cool,” he says. “I don’t want to go out like this. It’s embarrassing.”
*photo by Darrow Montgomery.