Arts Desk

Was Carl Cephas’ Separation From the Library of Congress Overdue?

Arts_desk-1

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.

Blog Widget by LinkWithin
  • Simon

    A plaintiff's-side employment lawyer wouldn't take this case. The LoC has a pretty plausible LNDR (legitimate non-discriminatory reason) for terminating this guy.

  • http://www.myspace.com/pauranella DJ Paura

    I happen to have known this guy personally, and he's a good guy and harmless. To can someone after over 25 years of service without even partial pension is inexcusable, in my opinion, unless he was caught selling government secrets or something horrendous to that effect.

  • Reader

    This is sort of weird. I have used their reading room. Mr. Cephas was always helpful. On the other hand, I've seen that Zvonchenco guy scream at people there. That LC office seems to be worse run than any I've ever been in. You can't find anything. A lot of the best stuff they own is almost a secret. Nothing in their catalog. No lists on the Web. If the people in charge there put as much effort into helping people learn what they have instead of awarding prizes for songwriting, it'd be a lot better.

  • carl cephas

    First of all, I'd like to thank Mike for writing this article, but I'm afraid he made some mistakes. The novel I had on my desk was by Stephan Jaramillo, Going Postal (Berkley Publishing Group, 1996. I was not carrying around serial killer cards. They were true crime cards and they were also on my desk. I was not paranoid. It was real fear. The meeting interruption was accidental. She had held the meeting at the front door of our control room. The vitriolic emails were inquiries about my not knowing who Mary really was. The refuse tasks could not be done because I was ill at the time and had just come off sick leave. My foster mom, and my best aunt had just died. I was grieving.

  • carl cephas

    Not only is the suspension indefinite, it is also without pay. No pay check. Doom! I don't have quite the penchant to say Sh*t all the time. I mean, who doesn't say it when they've mistyped or dropped something. Try counting all the swear words you've said all day. They add up. If someone is going to sit right behind you and listen in to every thing said, they are going to get an earful.I was followed around and everything I said, whether it was under breath or not was written down.

  • carl cephas

    There is of course, more to this story. I suffer from uncontrolled type 2 diabetes. My sugars are either very low in which I become drunk-like and somewhat lethargic or they are very high and my brain gets flooded with glucose which causes me headaches,pains, and confusion. I also suffer from severe sleep apnea. I have a c-pap machine but with my allergies, I have trouble breathing. Sometimes I go days with out sleep. When I had uttered that phrase:"Fu*k you, go suck eggs." My glucose reading was over 450 and I was in grievance over the loss of 2 people. Plus what Mary had handed me was a senseless document. It was because I didn't perform an impossible task for her and that meant that I was insubordinate.

  • curious

    Hmmmm... interesting... the Carl I've met a few times over the last few years has always been a jovial downright fun guy. I could see how some would not get his sense of humor, but what does that have to do with his job performance? 27 years is a long time, and I would think the Federal Government would take that into consideration before firing someone because "they just don't fit in".

  • craig chung

    I've known Carl since I was a baby (literally), and I'll tell anyone: he wouldn't hurt a fly (maybe a mouse, though). It seems to me that the LC folks are the paranoid ones, though you wouldn't know it from reading this article. I can't seem to quite articulate my feelings about this injustice, so I'll just come right out and say it: FUCK THESE PEOPLE.

  • white devil

    Shame on the Library of Congress. Without being a witness to any of the alleged incidents mentioned in this article, the lack of any substantial work performance deficiencies makes it clear that these trumped up charges are nothing more than red herrings. Carl's crime is that every once in a while he waves his freak flag inside the hive, and this confuses and upsets some of the drones. I have attended many WPFS screenings and am in awe of some of the obscurities Carl has rescued from the memory hole to share with fellow enthusiasts of the offbeat and weird. It's an amazing public service and I encourage everyone to check out the Psychotronic offerings and to support Carl (it beats the hell out of anyone's Netflix cue).

  • white devil

    P.S. To the first poster, Simon: Go suck eggs!

  • Bertrand Uberall

    Carl,

    I've known you for the 15 years I hung out in the Music Division. I am very sorry about all your problems.

    I am very concerned about your health. I hope you can find a professional to help you control your diabetes better. It's hard, but you can do it.

    Bertrand.

  • The Truth

    Carl,

    I hope you get your job back, buddy.

  • carl cephas

    There are a zillion things that weren't faced in this article. Another one, is that I have been barred from even stepping on LC grounds. I must call in and get approval within 24 hours. Then, I get a police escort and I have only one hour to do any business. They've confiscated all of my personal belongings and have had them packed up somewhere.

  • http://washingtoncitypaper.com Mike Riggs

    Carl: Re the trading cards, I was just working off the language in the LoC's report from that same year. Re the book: We'll amend that immediately.

    As to the article being incomplete: We had to condense more than a decade of work history, personal anecdotes, and 70+ pages of documents from the LoC into just a few pages of text. Stuff always gets left out. I did my best to capture your side versus the Library's. If I could've included everything we spoke about in your interview, and everything the library recorded, I would've. Space simply didn't allow.

    Best,
    Mike

  • Mike

    Carl and I have worked together at the library since 1984. We are also good friends. Around fifteen years ago Carl was our acting supervisor for almost one year. He applied for the position and didn't get it. They brought in a person from outside the LC to fill the position. We had to train this person. Slap upside the head #1. Not long after that he was accused of being on the verge of going postal. He was banned from the library until a investigation was completed. He was out of work for a week or so. The investigation turned up NOTHING!!! He was allowed to come back to work but they always had someone watching him. Just a few years after that another twisted and evil supervisor was hired and called him a trouble maker and treated him like a new employee that didn't know anything about his job. He had to go through training with three new employees and was told he could be fired if he didn't want to go along with the program.To make a long story short there are people here that just don't care for him and have been out to get him for years. He has been under stress and presure for years because of this. His health has also been a major issue for him. At some point a person can only take so much before they snap.The library could have handled this better. This is a man's life we our talking about here...twenty seven years or service and he get's treated like this....THIS JUST ISN"T RIGHT!!!

  • carl cephas

    Thanks to both Mikes.

  • http://www.myspace.com/pauranella DJ Paura

    @ Mike Riggs:

    Don't you think now this is the forum to address the issues that have been left out of the article, considering there is an obvious interests in Carl's plight?

    @ just Mike:

    I completely agree with you. Although I am not privy to the inside information of LoC, 27 years is a long time to just can someone and screw them out of their benefits, unless, as I stated before there was some real threat or danger. If the LoC supervisors felt Carl was a disruptive force that hurt morale to a degree with other employees, then they should have at least forced him into unwilling retirement. Not strip away his pension and benefits in the process. This, I find to be criminal.

  • carl cephas

    The LC needs to change their rules to reflect real time. A man should be able to meet his accusers and be able to defend himself.

  • Myron

    I worked with Carl when he was detailed on my project. He's a good dude and very smart and personable. I had no problems whatsoever. I don't know about any of this stuff but I do know there are people in the LC who can drive a person insane, not that Cephas is. But there are elements here who can make reality appear one way when it is actually just the opposite. Stay strong Carl. Keep the faith.

  • carl cephas

    This will be my worst Christmas, ever.

  • carl cephas

    It WAS the worst Christmas. I received my present from the LC telling me that of Dec. 30 2009, I no longer had a job.
    Real classy LC.

  • Pingback: Video Vault’s Closing Leaves a Less Psychotronic Washington - Arts Desk - Washington City Paper

...