Wednesday, May 2, 2012

At the Wheel

robert langellier

I can rejoice in the days when I can drive the two lane roads fast with the windows down and bright, banal pop playing. Those are the greatest days.
Tonight is not the greatest, it’s a pretty bad night, but it’s a hot night and the windows are down and I’m at least going fast.
            I work in the nursing homes. Or rather, I volunteer in the nursing homes. Or rather still, I invest in the nursing homes. Time, that is. I invest time. I put time in, and it is like volunteering, and I take out experience, and eventually when I’ve amassed enough of that I shape and mold and ball that experience up into a brilliant work of art, a grandiose, seminal masterpiece of magazine literature, which I sell for profit, and that is how it is like working.
            I choose nursing homes to invest in because they are a problem. They are prison-like institutions, which is a simile made to me by the majority of residents I’ve gotten to know. They are inhumane, identity-thieving places that treat breathing, sentient animals like nonbreathing, nonsentient obstacles. They are ugly monsters of bureaucracy, creatures foaming with regulations that tie sprightly elderlies to their unneeded walkers (falling is a liability) and throw pie-baking parties (the most exciting event of the month) to the dumpster because the granny smiths are not FDA-approved. They are waiting rooms for the funeral pyre.
            And it is a growing waiting room running out of chairs. Baby boomers are settling in today, and tomorrow, when the aging process is liable to have become even more arduous and desperate, I will be. That is why I invest in their improvement.
            I try to treat these elderly folk as people. It is a lot to ask of me, but I do it. I do not baby talk them because they are not babies. I do not yell unless they really can’t hear me. I do not talk to them about the weather, or about dinner. I talk to them about their histories and their happiness, and there is much and there is little, respectively. Nobody from this particular institution pays me, and so I have no need for pretending, no motivation for putting on airs. No reason to say, “Ma’am, it’s okay” when I really mean, “Ma’am, be quiet and go to your room if you do not need assistance.” I don’t say either of these things. I have no cause to advertise today’s daily activity as “fun.” I have no purpose toward bustling past a woman murmuring, “Help me…” because she is too frail to get back to her room in her wheelchair in less than ten trying minutes. I have no agenda to buff the appearance of the place. I have no agenda to convince these people that they are invalid and happy.
            My agenda comes from a different source. It comes from no administration, but from the cognizant mouths of residents who very ably tell me what they want and what they need and what they are capable of and how they feel about their environment. And there is a chasm between those two agendas.
            Tonight is a bad night, though, so let’s return to that. It’s draining work, what I do. It makes me happy that I may be doing something good, but it is the most depressing and lowdown feeling experience to be in the place, which makes me even happier that I may be doing something good. I hate being there. It is overwhelming and insurmountable and the unhappy atmosphere is crushing to anyone inside who has no motivation for putting on airs. Rarely do I feel good upon leaving the place. I didn’t tonight. On my way out, I heard a harmonica, and there is no music in that place so the blowing was enough to elate me. I meandered over to check it out, whereupon a desk nurse called me over.
            “Can I help you?”
            “I’m just listening.”
            “You like that harmonica?”
            “Yeah.” A man in a wide-brim Texan hat was sitting in a wheelchair by a side door, blowing. He wasn’t very good.
            “He’s been banging by that window forever now.”
            “Oh yeah?”
            “He lives down the hall that way.” She pointed.
            “Well, I love harmonicas.”
            “Are you leaving?”
            “Yep. I’m out of here.”
            “You wouldn’t mind taking him with you?” She grinned.
            “Sure thing.”
            I walked up to him, and after an awkward exchange, I convince him he ought to play by another door to “get a new view.” Convince is a strong word. I rather told him he should play by another door until he conceded, because it was difficult to make out what he was saying.
            I wheeled him across the hall and gave the desk nurse a nod of acknowledgement. Upon arriving at Pop’s room—that is his name—he requested to be stopped there instead of at the nearest side door. Inside he reproached me.
            “Why did I need to be moved?” Pop is old, but he’s big and he’s confrontational and he’s not taking my shit.
            “I just thought you might want to play at a different window.”
            “What was wrong with me playing there?”
            “I, uh, I just thought that, uh, you’d want a different view.”
            Now he began each word slowly, with seething emphasis. “What was wrong with me playing there? Why did I have to be moved?”
            “Well. The nurse told me to ask if you’d want to be moved somewhere else.”
            “The nurse?”
            “Why couldn’t I play by the door? Why did I have to be moved?”
            “Well. I don’t know. I, uh. The nurse just told me to ask if you’d want to move somewhere else.”
            “I didn’t want to go anywhere else. I was happy right there.”
            “Well you should’ve told me that. I didn’t know that.”
            “Right. Go along. You’ve done your duty.” Pop knew.
            And so I left then, having removed the obstacle from the nurse’s area. I turned the music on loud in my car, and I began driving fast, fast enough to shatter any fear of youth and speed and control that I had before having witnessed the dead, unholy opposite of it.

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