For ten years, the Delray Public Library has been a site of democracy in action. Within its walls, the most senior of Delray Beach's citizens have argued the great issues of the day, sometimes intelligently, sometimes contentiously, and sometimes both.
But no longer. Old people, as it turns out, are too damned violent for libraries.
The "Current Events" discussion group, held weekly at the Delray Public Library, has been canceled. Stories from within paint a terrifying picture of a group in rapid devolution, losing all semblance of civility as Election Day drew nearer. Dentures clenched in rage; women raised liver-spotted middle fingers. Fistfights broke out in the parking lot. Sometimes, the library
resembled a moshpit.
"I bent over backwards, as did the library, to try and accommodate them," said Bonnie Stelzer, the library's director of community relations, when reached by New Times over the phone. "The library has over 300 programs, and this is the only one that has caused such difficulties. We believe people should be allowed to meet here, should be allowed to exchange ideas here, to have opposing ideas here... But in recent years, the group has turned into more than just a heated discussion. When politics is in the mix, as you know, the mood becomes a little escalated. Which is fine. The library is fine with that. It's when it crossed the line to physical altercations -- screaming, yelling, complaints from other patrons -- that's when we have to take a serious look at it. And we've spoken to the group several times."
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Stelzer wouldn't tell us the nastiest thing she has heard from the mouth of an angry senior. "I can tell you, it would be something you'd be quite surprised to hear," she said. "These are people with children, grandchildren. I wonder if they would have tolerated that kind of behavior if it was one grandchild to another."
The latest fracas began when one of the discussion group's few conservatives, Chuck Lehmann, assumed the dais and began railing against "foreign money" financing the campaigns of Democrats. Another group member, an unnamed female, told Lehmann to "shut up." A brief argument ensued in which Lehmann called the woman an "old hag," and then the woman "flipped him the bird."
"What I think happened here," said Stelzer, "is that the middle-of-the-road people, the moderates, they basically gave away their time, and the sparring of the extremes took over. If people are flexible, if they're willing to listen, you've got a reasonable debate."
Stelzer is sad about the departure of the Current Events discussion group but professes a cautious optimism that the group will continue meeting elsewhere. She said the expulsion could teach them a valuable lesson in civility. "Why not? You're never too old to learn something new."