The information desk at the indie bookstore where I used to work is a concrete fortress. Black, pitted surfaces and a waist-high counter made me feel A) totally safe, and B) oracular, like the Pythia at Delphi. For an hour a day, I could survey the vastness of my domain and solve book-related questions for the print-loving suppliants who came to ask for help.
One day, a thin young man in his late teens or early twenties approached the information desk. I remember thinking that he looked, well, intense. "Can I help you?" I asked.
"Yeah," he said. "I'm looking for a book on snakes."
"Snakes in the wild or snakes as pets?"
"Snakes like this."
And he held up the tiny snake wrapped around his right hand.
At this point time seemed to slow down. I was able to look very carefully and very quickly at a host of important details: the snake was flicking its tongue in and out and bobbing its snakey little head, so it was definitely alive. Not a fake snake. A real live snake, six inches from my nose.
The young man stood there waiting patiently for me to scream, or faint, or generally lose my bookstore cool.
Unfortunately for this young man, I had recently gone to the zoo. And I remembered one of the things I learned from the reptile house. "Ah," I said, voice steady and calm. "I see that's a baby king snake, with one of the peculiar color variations from being bred in captivity."
The young man blinked. "Um," he said. "Yeah."
"We've got the books you're looking for right over here."
I walked him over to the nature section and the shelf of snake books and then returned to my concrete fortress. Less than a minute later, the young man and his snake were on their way out the door—the snake looked calm and complacent, but the young man looked distinctly unhappy.
I saved all my pity for the snake.