ONCE or twice a year a letter arrives from the town library with one of those see-through windows that either promise a check or threaten a bill - or worse. When the see-through window does, in fact, come from the library, it's worse - definitely worse.
Above your address on the pale blue paper - cool as ice - the motto is printed: ``Library Cards Are Priceless.''
Like most homilies, these words carry a hint of menace, especially since the message is a computer printout - especially since, below your name and address, in all capital letters, the robot delivers the command: PLEASE RETURN OVERDUE ITEMS.
In a tone any collection agency might admire, the notice continues: ``Our records show material listed has not yet been returned. Fine is computed from due date below.''
The meter is ticking. But that's the least of it. The phrase keeps repeating itself in your mind: ``I owe, I owe.'' And you're thinking about a lot more than the money. You stand accused of misappropriating public property. You have let your community down in deeper ways not specified. You have broken the heart of a social contract that nobody ever wrote and you never signed. You are guilty, after the manner of Kafka, or maybe Woody Allen.
It was Woody Allen years ago who did a stand-up routine about the consequences of the overdue library book. He imagined police cars converging about his house, red lights flashing. A voice resonates from a megaphone: ``The house is surrounded. Come out with your hands in the air.''
As the whole neighborhood gathers to witness his disgrace, Allen stumbles forth, the overdue book in one upraised hand.
The world is divided into two parts. There are the people, like Woody Al-len, who take these matters personally, as if they and they alone are the target. Then there are the other people, who are confident that all petty regulations, up to and including stop signs, are designed for the rest of the population, not them.
What are we to be called? - we, the law-abiders, who presume every police car on the highway is following just us. We who receive IRS forms about this time of year with the certainty that a notice of audit will be enclosed. We who tremble when our toss at the litter basket (with the $50-fine sign) wobbles on the rim before falling in.
Call us the cadets of civil obedience. We are the players by the rules, and then some. We pay parking tickets within 24 hours, and when the turnpike toll light still remains red after the correct deposit, we throw another nickel or dime in the basket.
Try telling it to the computer, but the fact is, we do return books to the library punctually - compulsively. Nevertheless, when we receive our summons, we hunt everywhere for the books we no longer have before we dare ask the library to check its records.
This is comedy - the material of self-deprecating comedians like Woody Allen.
No great religion or philosophy was ever founded on the principle of getting your library books back on time.
Such a moral imperative is barely the beginning, and certainly not the end, of the ethics-and-character issues we are all rapidly getting weary of.
And yet the poet W.H. Auden - hardly a man given to shopkeeper's morality - once observed that the duty of the artist, like everybody else, is to pay his way, to meet the small obligations of life.
In a world where White House bureaucrats consider themselves beyond accountability, where Wall Street speculators play the economy like a slot machine, where law school professors pick and choose their laws to obey - well, who knows? Perhaps civilization depends more than anybody realizes on the existence of a given number of people who will not jaywalk at 3 o'clock in the morning because it's against the rules - and besides, all these policemen will pull up and surround you, sirens screaming, red lights flashing. The first thing they'll do is check out your driver's license for any previous jaywalking convictions - and then, oh boy, they'll really get down to business and ask for your library card.
A Wednesday and Friday column