20 September 2008

Wednesday, Part Two

Here's the rest of what I've got. If you like it, you might enjoy another post about Ruth I wrote last January.

Each Wednesday, the new seminarians take a hiatus from class and go out into the local community to get involved in some form of service; this is referred to by the formation faculty as “field education”. I’ve been assigned to a group called the Little Brothers, Friends of the Elderly, whose mission is visit isolated, homebound, or otherwise neglected elderly. Today is my first day on the assignment. After morning prayer and breakfast, I get in the car to drive down from the far northern Chicago suburbs, to the North Side, where I am to meet up with my program coordinator who will then introduce me to the first of the elders I am to visit regularly over this year.

Traffic has me in its clutches for an hour and twenty minutes. Inside my head, I rail at the drivers alone behind the wheel of each of the hundreds of cars obstructing my way, and then rail at myself for being one of them. Our lack of options does not absolve my conscience. Overhead, the sky is clear and solid. As I approach downtown, massive clouds hang low and thick over Lake Michigan, a snowbank corralled by the imposing skyline. Memories of the approach to Denver from the east drift along before me. Checking myself, the vista regains its immediacy. Say what you will about the Midwest and its paucity of grand scenery, but the vaulty sky reveals itself here in ways not glimpsed elsewhere. The crags and preposterous bluffs of the Cumulus Range are more precious for their precarity.

Stiff and cranky, I make my way into the central office of the Little Brothers, just inside the Loop. A National Geographic on the table occupies me as I wait for Seth, my program coordinator.

A perfunctory “You have a car?” jolts me from my world of burning sands and barefoot Bedouin guides.

We grab a few flowers from the cooler in the kitchen and throw them in the paper bag he’s got with him. On the way to our first visit, I learn a little about Seth in the awkwardly close quarters of the front seat of my vehicle. Having met him only moments before, we proceed to have somewhat of a disembodied conversation as I negotiate the traffic and pump the clutch. He’s a skinny guy, built pretty much like I am, and not much older. His arms swing through a long arc in time to his undulating gait. Three-day scruff grows in patches, and tones of enlightened foreign policy and human interest seep through his voice, the sort that would do well against a backdrop of ambient city noise or a hammer dulcimer on NPR.

“So, you like working with the … ah … old folks, huh?” I make a mental note to come up with better slang as I await the inevitable rejoinder: “Dude, ‘wrinkly hags’ is not the preferred nomenclature.” It doesn’t come.

He ended up with the Little Brothers after wandering a bit, getting ordained out in California from a school well known for its willingness (as he described it) to confer orders on pretty much anyone. As I stare down five years of post-graduate preparation for the priesthood, I teeter woozily at the edge of the chasm that runs roughly halfway between my passenger and me.

Seth’s not a Chicago native but has adapted well to the city life, with which I am not overly familiar. He recently moved after getting jumped by eight kids outside his apartment on his way to the corner ice cream stand one evening. He maced one.

“You maced him?”

“Yeah, I carry it all the time, now. I swear by it.”

This obviously isn’t terribly remarkable to him. I have to prompt him to get the facts that he doesn’t consider worth mentioning.

It turns out he had to use the mace another time on the ‘L’.

“A crackhead got in my face, yelling and screaming at me. I tried the apologetic back-down, telling how I didn’t know what I did to offend him, but that didn’t seem to work, so I got up and started screaming back at him.”


“That didn’t work either. I sized this guy up, and he wasn’t that big, but who wants to roll around on the floor of the ‘L’ with a crackhead? So I maced him.”

More chuckles.

“Did you just leave him there?”

“Well, mace doesn’t really knock you out. I moved back in the train a couple of cars and hoped he wouldn’t come after me. A few minutes later, I saw him coming—is this Addison? Uh, take a left here—so yeah, I headed to the back of the train. I grabbed a bottle on the way. You never know. He was definitely coming after me. There’s a bottle in his hand. I had nowhere to go ‘cuz the train was moving, so we just … stand off, you could say.”

Seth hints at to some of the tactical maneuvering of two bottle-wielders in a stalemate, neither willing to risk losing his one element of defense in a bold projectile offensive. He ended up jumping through the doors of the train just as they closed, implying a studied familiarity with their timing. His adversary pounded them in frustration, screaming with sunken-eyed ferocity as the train rumbled, hotshoes arcing, from the platform.

We make our way to an apartment building run by the Chicago Housing Authority just a few blocks from the lake in one of the nicer parts of downtown. Seth is new to the job, too, and so we’ll both be meeting these folks for the first time. Ruth comes to the door with a smile on her face. That is good; you never know what’s on the other side of that door the first time you knock. The fear of a really difficult encounter subsides as we take in the d├ęcor—every horizontal surface is crowded with trinkets and fleamarket baubles. Around her neck are necklaces of every conceivable variety, obscuring the pins, buttons, and ribbons on her blouse. Her wiry hair is pinned up close to her head and twin folds of skin hang from her neck like they did on my grandma; there was a day when I would sit on her lap and play with them until she got tired of it. I never did. They were so soft and parallel. We only saw her once a year when I was young.

Ruth is sweet and chatty, so she is well into her life story by the time we have been there fifteen minutes. She doesn't offered us a seat as there is nowhere that isn't already covered with stuffed animals. She tells us of how she grew up in an orphanage, made her way to Florida working for a wealthy family as a nanny, then went west to Texas and up through Oklahoma and Fort Gibson where she met a soldier who never wanted kids but got her pregnant every time he was home on leave to visit his young wife. She couldn’t support them on the money she earned from waiting tables so she gave them up for adoption when he didn’t come back from the war, and was reunited with them both in her old age.

Later I found out that he had not died in the war, but simply left her; yet that was not how she told it, and therefore not how I remember it. I believe that it’s not how she remembers it, either.

As the years sweep by in her story, the circumference of her life gradually shrinks in on itself until it scarcely reaches beyond the walls of her little apartment, like the interplanetary wanderings of a comet that has slowed to a tight orbit around the star that would eventually swallow it up. All the kitsch is the last sentimental remnant of a more widely distributed existence; age and weakness had served to concentrate whatever freedom remained to her and bind it to her tightly, and so she had populated these few square yards with the things that could still please her.

And slowly it dawns on me, as it probably dawned on her at some point in the past, that she is preparing for herself a small army of attendants and well-wishers to see her on her way when at last the time came for her to lie on her bed, never to get up again, and let this life of hers dwindle to vanishing.

We leave her the flowers. I’d lucked out. Ruth is a peach.

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