“Bamboo Grove” by Lori McNamara, oil on masonite.
Sporting an Indian headdress, he squeezes his accordion. The punch bowl is filled and the place is hoppin’, but the entertainer has competition at this party.
There is Betty who calls cigarettes “potatoes” and all her friends, “baby.” “Hey Baby!” she says when she sees me. Betty is a pixie woman wearing an oversized, polyester dress and knee-high athletic socks—one with a green stripe and the other an orange stripe. It’s hard to know if Betty really likes me or if she’s just an expert brown-noser. I supervise smoking and Betty is addicted. We are in the dining room of a geriatric, psychiatric facility.
There are others at the party. Vashti, a woman with flawless skin who gives beauty advice and always wears a hat; either her face or her hat is crooked, I’m not sure. Vashti is here, not for the company, but for the punch. Like most patients, she is always thirsty. Wanda, a big-boned woman in a long, red velour robe asks where she might catch the streetcar, and Frank, a tall rigid man, stops to confess that he can’t find his keys. He pats his pockets repeatedly as if he knows they were there only moments ago. Residents are allowed few personal items. A patient who brings a wardrobe from his former life usually discovers that someone sitting across from him at dinner is wearing it.
George strides into the Bingo room. Well over six feet tall, he is gangly and thin. His face is sunken as he resembles a life size apple doll. Bingo is popular with patients because they win candy bars as prizes. George likes Three Musketeers; we don’t offer Snickers because, like George, few patients have teeth. I supervise the game. There are long pauses between shouts of Bingo! As I call out numbers, a bald guy announces trains and their destinations as if the numbers I call represent trains departing from particular platforms.
Louis, a toothless patient in a wheelchair, wins a Three Musketeers bar; achieving his objective, he takes the candy and wheels from the room. Betty plays too and prefers cigarettes to candy bars, but takes whatever she can get. Helen, a bright manic-depressive patient, is legally blind; I play her card for her. Helen doesn’t care much for Bingo, but craves socialization, at least when she is in a high. Helen and I have become friends. She shares recipes with me and was the first to introduce me to bacon and avocado sandwiches. Helen loves to read and since she can’t see has convinced me to read aloud to the patients—mostly to her, of course.
Bill, a hefty man, is a notorious visitor to the Bingo room or for that matter to any room where patients are smoking. As Bill approaches the room, patients yell, “Here he comes!” He enters the room at a limping gallop focused intently on the ashtrays. He snatches a hot cigarette butt and stuffs it in his mouth. Walking away, Bill pats his behind—his signature “kiss my butt” gesture after eating cigarettes—his way of flipping us off. Occasionally, however, he can’t wait until the cigarette is left unattended and his nicotine fit catapults him into the room to grab a cigarette from the shriveled lips of an unsuspecting female patient, leaving the frail old woman with her mouth gaping. The Bill phenomenon creates a sense of urgency and an aura of secrecy to smoking sessions.
The end of the day.
I pass the dining room to see Louis sitting alone in his wheelchair. I hadn’t seen him since he left the Bingo game with his candy bar. I approach and call his name. There is no response. As I circle his wheelchair, I see that his head is slumped to one side, and he is drooling the Three Musketeers. I touch his arm. I find a nurse who checks his pulse; there is none. I go home, knowing that Louis choked to death on his winnings.
My senses assaulted.
I recall my job interview and being escorted through the locked doors into the hallway of parading patients. Over the PA system, someone calls, “Housekeeping to the Dining Room.” No catheters, nor Depends; they just let it fly. Some patients are sitting in a large reception room, but most are walking the halls. Those who are not walking are restrained in wheelchairs. Mr. Alvarez slips from his restraints while singing The Star Spangled Banner. He is stuck on “What so proudly we hailed.” I meet Margaret, a woman with huge, wild brown eyes; her right arm is bent behind her head and she clasps her left hand with her right. She seems wired, as if vibrating tightly while she walks: “I’m swimming in San Francisco. It smells like someone’s fishing in my nose.” I guess I’m supposed to behave as if all of this is not unusual, but it seems damned unusual to me. I try to remain calm.
At the interview’s conclusion, I exit through locked doors into the lobby that now seems remarkably quiet and still. What can I do but take the job? I feel someone is daring me.
Religion, or remnants of it.
Alan, an Orthodox Jew, keeps to himself. Each time we meet, he greets me with a handshake as if it were the first time. Alan obsesses over his food because he’s sure it isn’t Kosher. Served the same thing every day—no meat, mostly mushy vegetables—always tasteless. I ask him if he’d like me to bring him something Kosher. One day I bring Kosher bologna and saltines. He is reluctant to trust me, but I show him the Hebrew National wrapper and Alan enjoys the snack so much that it is as satisfying to me as it is to him.
Religion is a sticking point in what remains of patients’ lives, especially those who have been devoutly religious. There is Grace, a tiny withered woman whose eyes are squeezed shut and mouth is screwed sideways. Restrained in her chair, pushed against the hallway wall, her bony legs are intertwined like a cinnamon twist. Grace is a devoted Catholic, but when the priest comes to give Communion she refuses the host. She keeps her mouth shut tight against the wafer, managing to squeeze out a “Noooooo.” Grace feels she is not holy enough. Religion is no comfort to Grace.
For John, religion equals guilt, and he is constantly sorry. John wears a hat and black horn rimmed glasses; he is thin, like most patients, and taller than average. John shuffles—a side effect of the Haldol. The shuffling can get in the way of what John likes to do best. Dance. On rare party occasions and sometimes when there is no music, John finds a dancing partner. They smile at each other for a moment, but John feels too guilty to continue: “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
Then there is Nelda. Nelda was a hell of a Mormon—a hook, line, and sinker, no-doubt-about-it-follower of Joseph Smith—but as she makes her hallway rounds, she alternates between a pious grin and “Hi Honey,” and a “Get your cock out of my ass.” Nelda’s family does not visit.
For those who find some comfort in religion, it is usually in the memory of the music; they enjoy hearing hymns played on the piano and some sing to themselves. It’s not the doctrine that reassures them but the litany of songs they remember from childhood. Maybe they have vague recollections of standing next to a parent in a church pew singing Love Lifted Me.
Safety in numbers.
I sign a few patients out to walk to the neighborhood supermarket. George goes regularly and John likes to go. Mary, a sweet woman whose daughter still visits, joins us. The four of us stick together—safety in numbers.
George is the most fun at the store. Like a scientist, he wants to test everything. He makes me guess the weight of the sugar and wants to know if I think an orange would float. George investigates the produce, and we have the entire section to ourselves as the regular shoppers scatter. They scatter, and Mary feigns appropriate facial expressions and reacts as if George is an amusing, errant child. We have what we’ve come for: Bingo prizes for the most part (a single orange to see if it will float), and we’re in line. John is upset. He scuffles and plops down in the checkout line. “Come on, John,” I say. “We’d better get back.” John’s friends are embarrassed and offer scolding looks, but they are accustomed to extraordinary behavior and the episode is soon forgotten.
Occasionally, John gives new meaning to manic. One such day he enters the Bingo room wearing a broad toothless grin. This day life is askew for the dancing man who is on the verge of who-knows-what, humming all the while. “This table is uneven,” he begins and that is a metaphor for what follows:
Frank Sinatra used to sing but now he went to work for the Ford Company or McDonnell Douglas or something. Rudy Valley—he just sings at the Greek Theatre and the Hollywood Bowl and New York. He doesn’t sing in the pictures anymore. He’s too old; his voice is starting to crack. Then there’s that other singer with Jack Benny—what’s his name- Long? Wong? I can’t think of it now. Rudy Valley might have passed away. I haven’t seen it in the papers.
At this point, Carl, the resident ex-con, shuffles toward John and picks up his dinner tray. John says, “Oh, here’s that Carl; he’s gonna take the tray away.” It’s as if Carl lifts the needle from John’s record ending his remembrance of Hollywood crooners.
Carl spent time at Folsom and San Quentin, but he’s a kinder, gentler, squatty old son-of-a-gun now. He is also the only resident clever enough to know that if he trips the fire alarm, the locked doors will open—one of the skills a person learns in “rehabilitation.” Carl writes long letters that he asks me to mail; they are elaborate works of correspondence primarily to the Queen of England. I’ve tried to explain that I can’t really mail them, but Carl insists that I take the letters. One such letter begins, “Dear Queen Elizabeth of London, England, my home town….” He usually mentions The Royal Navy and identifies himself as a member. He makes many fictitious claims including an appointment at Oxford, but is always respectful of the Queen. Occasionally, he writes to less famous folks. He once wrote to me to request some batteries for his Walkman; that letter began, “Dear Madame.”
Dining in the Bingo room.
The Bingo room doubles as a dining room for patients who are inclined toward socialization; it is something of an honor to dine in the Bingo room. George is a regular and sits in front of a shelf with a globe on it. He studies the globe and asks me if I have visited various worldly sites. George maintains a level of sanity here, but he has his idiosyncrasies. He loves to examine shoes while they are on your feet, and always inquires where they were purchased. It would be trite to call it a fetish as nothing about George is mundane. He is a one-of-a-kind guy—a lifelong learner. Most residents take regular medication; some are more heavily sedated than others; several are practically out cold. George’s prescription consists of a single can of Coors each evening.
Wanda, the woman who waits for the streetcar, also dines in the Bingo room, however, at times she’s too critical. She declares of a resident at her table, “This woman is not a member of the Ladies’ Guild.” Martin, an agreeable, fairly well groomed fellow, attempts to mask the fact that he hasn’t a clue how he was placed at Wanda’s table. He must be reminded each evening of his dining room assignment. As he surveys the room, his eyes say I don’t know any of these people, and he turns to me as if we are business associates: “I’m afraid I’ve disappointed you. Didn’t we have a dinner date at six?”
Betty is not welcome in the Bingo room. Although she fits most criteria, she’s too bossy. Betty’s aphasia prevents her from focused and polite repartee so she persists with a strong will and a shit-eating grin. She huffs and puffs and clacks her false teeth, which don’t fit. When no one else is around, she opens her mouth and drops her plastic teeth to show me that food has accumulated on the dentures’ pink palate; “Hey, Baby,” she says, making a face, “Yea, how ’bout it?” Betty is beside herself when she cannot garner a Bingo room reservation and pleads, “Baby, they’re shoving me out. Why?”
While there is no place for Betty in the Bingo room, she still has a reservation at home. I know because I have been there. Betty once insisted that her husband take her home for a visit and they took me along. A tidy house, Betty gave me a tour including the contents of her husband’s sock drawer. She took me into the kitchen and pointing at each of two placemats, she said, “Hey, Baby, him and me—here, here—the two of us.” Enough said.
They’re better off.
The first time I said it was when they took Alice out in a bag. I saw the bag and I imagined Alice inside. Alice, lover of music, always had to have something in her mouth; I usually had Bingo peppermints and gave her one whenever she asked. When she couldn’t find something suitable to suck on, she would find something terribly unsuitable, and if I saw her I would tell her to take it out of her mouth. She would shake her head, her eyes watering and tell me that it wasn’t what I thought. “Oh no, I wouldn’t do that,” she insisted. And so, when Alice left in a bag, I said, “She’s better off.”
All souls are visible.
Patients receive regular visits from a psychiatrist. Most of the doctor’s time is spent charting. Everything must be documented. If accurate documentation were possible, what would the good doctor write? How can any description do justice? Maybe this is purgatory and some god is surveying the landscape deciding whom to rescue. There are no impediments to evaluating this pool of applicants. When life is boiled and distilled, this is what remains. No posturing, no excuses, no egos, no religion, no wallet, no keys, no teeth—just naked souls circling the halls wearing mismatched socks. The Manor is a living, pulsating allegory; each resident is Everyman, from Frank, who can’t find his keys, to Wanda, who is frantic to find the streetcar. The protective coating that separates those on one side of the doors from those who are locked within is wafer thin and we are keenly aware of it. It is little wonder there are few visitors; coming here is like having your fortune told.
It’s not all a frightening work of art.
Some souls are bared to reveal genuine goodness. There’s Oda who cradles her imaginary baby in a makeshift bundle, and Mary who just wants everyone to get along, and Helen who loves to listen to good stories because she can no longer read them. There is Betty who has lost all the right words but struggles to connect with a kiss on the cheek, and Mr. Alvarez who sings out his patriotic loyalty as he slips from his wheelchair restraints. And there is George, King George of the Bingo Room, who loves his wife even though they are divorced and see each other rarely.
The doors are locked.
We have become co-dependent, the Manor folks and me. I find it difficult to leave this place that I initially found repulsive. My husband picks me up every evening and I subject him to a review of the day’s events. He asks why I insist on reliving everything. He knows the patients well; at least he would were he to listen, but I am often too intense in the retelling.
How did I begin to feel at home here? Do I believe I can make a difference? The truth is if I were gone more than a few days, I would be forgotten, but it’s safe here. The doors are locked.
Unlike their families, I didn’t know the residents before they arrived. I accept them for whom they are when they pass through the doors. I don’t mourn the loss of their previous personas. Just as I accept them, they appreciate me for what I have to offer whether it’s a cigarette, a story, or a walk to the store. Expectations are manageable and we all live in the moment.
A few residents believe that I am also a patient—one with privileges. Sometimes, I let Betty join me in my office. She enjoys stepping out of the race for a moment—to feel special. She is able to think more clearly when she is away from the others. There’s not much for us to talk about but I offer her a cigarette and this afternoon she notices a jet making a trail through a crystal blue sky. Pointing, Betty says, “I used to go in them back east.” She looks into my eyes to inquire, “Baby, do you pay here?” I tell her, “No.” She seems slightly confused attempting to piece it together. “Oh, you don’t. I thought they were working on you.”
Jamie Ritchie Watson has worked as a director of educational outreach programs and served as the Associate Director of Admissions at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana. Prior to her career in higher education, she acted professionally and continues to appear on the stage. Many years ago, while pursuing theater in Los Angeles, she worked in a geriatric, psychiatric facility. Jamie is pleased to be included in this issue of r.kv.r.y., and to share this remembrance of the extraordinary people who touched her life.