Friday, June 03, 2005

Ups and Down's

A couple of years ago, I went to visit my mother who had experienced congestive heart failure. She was staying in a Southeastern North Carolina Regional hospital and was recuperating nicely once the doctors decided how to treat the irregular heart beat that had caused the problem. It was near lunch time, so I volunteered to go find us lunch in the hospital. I took my mom’s order and headed for the elevator for the ride from the seventh floor to the first where the cafeteria was located.

After watching several elevator cars go past our floor on the way down, and noticing only one or two that stopped on the way up, I realized that there was a problem with the mechanics of the system. I had waited a good ten minutes, which, in a hospital, seems an eternity for some reason. Apparently, the only way to get an elevator going down was to catch one on the way up. To test my theory, I pressed the "UP" button and a car soon stopped to take me to the top of the hospital before returning to the first floor in express fashion. I got out and picked up our food.

When I returned to the elevators, I found a crowd was waiting for the next available car. Next to me was a candy-striper, a young lady with Down’s-syndrome. Having had a cousin with Down’s-syndrome, I was very impressed with the fact that she was working as a candy-striper, although I noticed that she was a bit slumped over the cart full of medical records that was held in front of her. Every few seconds, she would loudly exhale and snort before stating "I been waiting forever for this damn elevator. Jesus Christ!" She would then shake her head as if she had never seen anything so disgusting in her life and she would loudly declare "Jesus Christ!" which, I gathered, was one of her favorite phrases, just before harumphing and snorting loudly. Startled a bit, I took an uncomfortable but unconscious step back.

Having learned about the elevator problem earlier, I realized that this lady was trying to take her cart from the first floor to the basement and that no cars were stopping for her. I pressed an "UP" button and soon, as sure as I had expected, the elevator stopped on its way up from the basement. Deciding to be helpful, I turned to the lady with Down’s-syndrome and I said to her that I had learned that the elevators were broken and only stopped on their way up. I suggested she might want to get on the elevator going up and then ride it back down.

Error!

She took a huge step back from her cart to allow herself room to extend her arm accusingly in my direction, and just as the elevator full of basement people opened, she started shouting "Don’t you tell me what to do," as if I had just told her to stick her hand into flame or to pick up a coiled copperhead. Hospital time slowed to an excruciating tick, tick, tick, as she repeated over and over in her nearly bass voice that was working its way up to tenor "Don’t YOU, tell ME what to do!"

The people from the basement all looked at me as if I had been convicted of rape. I heard one in the back of the car ask "What is wrong, Cindy?" with deep compassion in her voice. The arm followed me as I walked into the elevator car of sneering faces and I heard the voice say "He was trying to tell me what to do. Don’t you TELL me what to do, dammit" Her voice was now cracking as if she was going to break into tears.

It was a bit of an uncomfortable ride to the seventh floor for me as I tried my best to convince the fifteen or so people crammed into that small space that I had not told her as much as suggested to her that she might want to take an "up" elevator and that I had not touched her in any way at all. Everyone had a smirk on their face as if they didn’t believe me and I was resigned to guiltiness in their eyes, as no one was going to take my word over that of poor cussing Cindy.

I finally got to my mother’s room and was greeted with "What took you so long?" I wasn’t particularly thrilled to hear that admonition on top of the other one, but instead of strangling my mother, I just got out our food and told her about Cindy. She snickered a bit as she ate her sandwich.

I stayed another hour or so with my mom before I needed to leave to let my dogs out for a walk at her house and to do some things around Mom’s house that she isn’t able to do for herself. I took my leave and headed for the elevator. It was still not functioning properly, so I pressed an "UP" button, and once the car arrived, I got on board and rode to the top of the hospital on my way to the first floor. I had no sooner gotten out of the hospital when the blinding summer southeastern North Carolina sun hit my eyes and I realized that I had left my clip-on sunglasses in my mother’s room. This was particularly perturbing because I knew that the elevator ride alone would take as long as half of my trip across town to her house. Still, I could not bear the brilliant sunlight, so I headed back in.

I pressed an "UP" button and waited. Soon, one of the lights over a car lit up and the little bell rang an off-tone ding just as the door to the elevator opened. I looked up from my feet into the car as I started to get on board and among the crowd of chattel on this car I saw her looking back at me, eye to eye. "YOU!," I heard. I quickly jumped back and tried to push the elevator buttons to make the door close, but it had the opposite effect. "YOU had better leave me alone, dammit," came wafting from the elevator door as I hid with my back to the wall between the elevator shafts. As the door finally closed, I could hear Cindy snorting and exhaling expletives of all kinds in my general direction.

I finally got a car to the seventh floor, walked into my mother’s room to hear "I thought you left half an hour ago." I just said, "I forgot my sunglasses. I love you," then turned and walked back out.

º º º

I was once in an elevator in London, England, having boarded quietly with several others who were awaiting the car. We had filled the car to capacity. I pressed my button for the fifth floor when I heard a female voice with a heavy southern accent come out of one of the far back corners of the car, "Would you "maaa-yash 3" please?" I knew immediately these girls were from North Carolina. Few people who speak English use the phrase "Maaa-yash the button" and here I had heard it spoken in London. In my best southern accent, I asked, "Where are y’all from?" "Charlotte, North Carolina!" they said proudly. I just smiled.

º º º

When I was twelve years old or so, my brother and his wife took me to New York City to visit for the weekend. We stayed near Times Square in the Dixie Hotel, a place that had a peculiar smell of cat urine throughout. Having never been in a building that large or tall, I was fascinated by a lot of things. One was a glass enclosure opposite the elevator. It had a slot at about eye level and on occasion, I could see a piece of paper go wafting past my floor on its way down to some unknown destination.

I was waiting for an elevator one day, just checking out this glass slot when the doors opened to reveal one of the hotel’s "bell-boys", a man likely in his forties or fifties who smelled of cigarettes. I walked on the car and asked him what the slot was for. He said "It is a mail slot," as he leered at me in a lewd sort of way.

"Ah," I replied.

Not content to remain silent, he said, "Yes, it is a mail slot. I could lick stamps, stick them all over you and shove you in there and mail you anywhere in the world."

Not knowing just how to respond to that invitation, I just answered back with an incredulous "Really?"

He replied "You have big feet for a boy your age…"

Thinking quickly, I said "Oh, man! I left my wallet in my room," and I pressed the button for the next floor and got out of the car.

º º º

The son of my mother’s first cousin was born with Down’s Syndrome. He lived in a small town in Southeastern North Carolina, not too far from the South Carolina border. He was a huge sports fan and loved the local High School’s basketball and football programs. His parents saw how much he loved the sports in which his school excelled, and knowing that he would never be able to participate in his own right, they allowed him to become a kind of school mascot. He was allowed to walk the sidelines during the football games and sat court-side with his parents during basketball games. It was said that when his football team scored a touchdown, he often had run so quickly down the sidelines in excitement that he was already there in the end-zone to greet his players when they scored. He was an exuberant fan who showed a whole town how to enjoy life and how to celebrate small victories.

Before I knew him, I had gone to watch my own high school basketball team play against the team from his home town, on their court, in the District tournament finals for the right to advance to the State tournament. His team was very good and ours was as well. Either team would have made a great entry into the State tournament, but only one could win.

During the game, we could see a man in the opposing team’s crowd with the obvious signs of Down’s Syndrome across the court from where we were seated. He was so animated, that before long, we, as teenagers, became more focused on his actions than on the game. When his team had the ball, his arms were extended as if he were directing the offense for them. He would follow each pass and if a shot were made, he would slap his hands together as if there had been a great miracle of happiness to befall him. If our defense was good and the shot was missed, he would stomp his feet angrily. His emotions were very out in the open for us all to see. When the referee would call a foul on one of their players, he would become so angry that he would point at the referee, then reached down to unzip and re-zip his fly very quickly and to point to his crotch, letting the referee know his opinion of the call.

That did it. My friends and I began to laugh uproariously at this entertaining character from the opposing team. We laughed for the rest of the game and we were still laughing when the game ended in our victory. After the presentation of the District championship trophy, my mother walked over to me and said "Ronnie, come here. I want you to meet your cousin." My friends looked at me with wonder and I looked back at them thinking "Which cousin?"

We started across the court in the direction of the opposing team’s fans. To my surprise and adolescent horror, my mother led me up to this man with Down’s Syndrome and to his parents. She introduced the parents of the man, her first cousins, to me and then they introduced him to me. They said "This is your cousin Ronnie. He is from Union High School and you should give him a hug." I looked at him. He had tears rolling down his face from having seen his favorite team defeated. He shook his head vehemently. No way was he going to hug a boy from Union High School when they had just beaten his home team. His mother insisted. He held back for a few seconds, and then with a kind of Stevie Wonder movement of his head, he resigned himself to having to give me a hug, and broke out in a huge smile before reaching out to embrace me. I broke free just in time to see my friends across the court falling into each other with laughter.

This man continued to live in his small town. Soon his parents both died, but they left him enough money for him to live on comfortably in their homeplace. He apparently had a fixed routine of stops that he made through town during a given day and if he didn’t show up, the townspeople would go find him to make sure he was well. When football and basketball season arrived, the school activity bus would make a stop by his house to pick him up on its way to their "away" games and someone always made sure that he had a ride to the "home" games.

A couple of years ago, on a late autumn day when the sunlight was casting long shadows, a local woman was driving through that small town just as he, unusually agitated for some reason, stepped out into the street. She never saw him. Instead, the sun blinded her, but she heard a bump and came to a stop to find that she had tapped him with her car. It was not, by any means, a deadly blow, but he had fallen backwards and hit his head on the curb. The blow was instantly fatal and he was gone.

The whole town had cared for this man for years. With him, they had attended the sporting events that held the town together through difficult times. They loved this man as much as any family could love their own child. When time came for his funeral, the local schools were closed to pay homage to him and to allow the students to say goodbye to their mascot and biggest fan. He taught us all to love a little bit better that we could have had we not known him.

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3 Comments:

Blogger Laurie said...

It amazes me that no one has left a comment about this great piece.

I could hear it in my mind being read aloud on "This American Life."

6/15/2005 01:36:00 PM  
Blogger Ron Hudson said...

Hey Laurie!

Thank you for your comment. I have not found the secret yet for getting large quantities of comments and feedback, but I appreciate the compliments even more when there are fewer of them!

6/15/2005 08:17:00 PM  
Blogger Vickie said...

A friend of mine pointed me to your blog and I haven't been able to leave yet.

I don't get a whole lot of comments on mine either, so don't feel so alone.

You have wonderful stories to tell and amazing ways of telling them. This was only the second one I'd read, but I think I'd like to come back.

I hope you continue to post, I'd like to continue to read...

6/15/2005 08:37:00 PM  

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