Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Old Lady in 209

[ These days, I can rarely be bothered to sign into my old MySpace account, and I'm hardly alone there. The writing is on the wall: MySpace is going the way of GeoCities. Throughout 2010, I'll be on a salvage mission to bring the best of my writings from MySpace over to Your Daily Joe. Today's entry was originally posted November 28, 2005. ]

The day after Thanksgiving, I started feeling symptoms. Scratchiness and irritation in the top-back of my throat. A sinus infection. It was accompanied by a headache. Then again, the headache may have been caused by the movie I was watching, Rent. The next day, the symptoms got a little worse. By Sunday, when Helen and I were browsing for Christmas gifts on the Venice boardwalk (still not made of boards), I had a full-bown cold.

I figured Sunday would be the peak of my cold. Turns out, today was the peak. (That is, unless it gets worse tomorrow.) Without even medicating myself, I had the feeling that my head was floating along while my body ran to keep up with it. Despite my sickness, I was ready for work on time. Actually, I was ready even earlier than usual. This gave me extra time to relax and chat with Helen, and still enough time to get to work early for a change.

At about ten minutes to eight, my head floated downstairs and out the apartment building. My car was parked around the corner and up the street. As I turned the corner, a short old woman approached me. She had a thin face and short hair. She had at least three visible layers of clothing on -- it was a cold morning -- and she carried a cane for support. Oddly, though, the cane was colored in the fashion of a blind person's guiding cane. From several driveways up the block, the woman hailed me, waving her hands around and calling out to me. She was in the direction of my car, so I just continued along my path until she stopped me. She began talking to me before I had reached her.

And then she never stopped talking.

She showed me a flyer she was holding. She had found it on a telephone pole. It was a picture of a lost dog, and some phone number to contact the owner. "Could you read me the street sign, please? It's too far away. I'm legally blind, you see, and I can't read that sign over there."

"We're on the 11800 West block," I told her.

"West," she repeated. "It's west, and that's east, and east is where I live, and this is Washington Place." I could tell she was committing this information to memory through some mnemonic device.
She continued talking to me, "She told me she lived off Washington. But is it Washington Place or Washington Boulevard? They're so close together. It could be either one. I went to this house up the street and they wouldn't help me. It wasn't who I thought it was. It used to be someone I knew who lived there. Well, I didn't know her. But she had seen me around, and she knew who I was, and she wouldn't turn me away without helping. But the man said, 'I don't think we can help you.' And they closed the door on me. Now, do I look like a criminal to you?"

She did not.

"I have to get really close to the houses in order to read the house numbers. I'm legally blind, so I can't read it from the street the way you can."

Did she need me to help her find an address?

"Well, I don't know if it's on Washington Place or Washington Boulevard. They're so close together and she wasn't specific. It could be either one."

Did she find somebody's lost dog?

"Oh, no. I wanted to find out what type of dog it was."

There was a picture on the flyer. It was clearly some sort of lab mix. But this woman wouldn't be able to see it, because she's legally blind, you see. She began holding onto my arm, partly for support and partly as a blind person's way of making eye contact. And maybe -- just maybe -- a small part of it was to keep me in place. I looked at the time. Eight o'clock. Well, I wouldn't be early for work today. That's ok. I rarely am. Such a shame, though, because I could have been.

"I'm going to the doctor today."

Was she going to ask me for a ride?

"Not for my eyes. I was declared legally blind seven years ago. They were bad then, but they just keep getting worse. I have an appointment at ten. I have to take a shower and then catch my bus. Would you mind telling me what time it says on this watch?"

She rolled up her sleeve to reveal three watches. She pointed at a specific one. That particular watch said 8:05. I'm not sure what the others would have said.

"You're such a kind young man to tell me. My name is Kay."

"Hi, Kay. I'm Joe."

"Joe. J-O-E. Joe. I can't write this down, so I have to remember. Joe, Joe, Joe. Joe, my name is Kay. Well, legally it's Kathleen. K-A-T-- well, don't tell him your life story, Kay. Kay Elliott. Kathleen G. Elliott. 'G' was for my legal name, Gettys. My great-great grandfather named Gettysburg, over there by Philadelphia."

I couldn't dare light the fuse for a conversation about Pennsylvania if I told her I was born there. I kept silent.

"Elliott. E-L-L-I-O-T-T. Not one T as in T.S. Elliot. But you already know about that."

She proceeded to hold the watch an inch away from her left eye.

"If I hold it here, it comes into focus. Of course, that blocks out all the light, so I still can't see the time."

Her grip slid from my arm to my wrist. "I have to go to Kaiser at ten. It's a urology appointment."

Oh my.

"I have to go upstairs and take a shower and come back down here to catch my bus. I ride the bus a lot. There was a nice negro boy in 307 that would give me a ride sometimes, but he moved out. That's the apartment I want to switch to. They're going to kick me out of my apartment. I don't think they've done that to anyone before. My apartment is such a mess. Well, remember when they inspected the fire alarms in each of our apartments? I was out of town at the time. So many people in my family are dying right now. I was up there in Seattle visiting them. I had no choice. Wouldn't you know that they took 29 pictures of my apartment while I was gone? It's such a mess in there. So now they keep sending the letters. And I've been living in this building for so long. I'm on rent control, you know? I only pay $850 a month. What do you pay?"

What gets me to my car faster - to just tell her, or not to? I told her. What harm could it do to tell an old woman how much I pay for an apartment? Over $1000, I told her.

"Yes, see? My apartment is so big. They could probably get $1400 for it."

If it actually is big, she's probably right.

"So they have all the evidence they need now. They can just tell the management company that Kay destroys her apartment. And then they'll evict a little old lady. Can you believe that? And where am I supposed to -- how old do you think I am?"

I'm really bad at guessing ages, but I would have said 70.

"71!"

Good guess, Joe!

"But my second career is coming. I used to be a college educator. I'm not a teacher, I'm an educator. And the nation needs educating right now. I used to have that little negro boy --"

At this point, she looked at the ground and used her cane to point at a spot, as if he might be standing right there.

"And as long as I had space, I could teach him anything. I don't have enough space. My apartment is such a mess. And if they're going to kick me out, well, I need a place to keep all those boxes until I can move. I could put them in 307."

Wait a minute. 307 now? Negro boy? Did she teach the same guy who used to drive her to the doctor? Was she getting confused? Or was I?

"How old are you?" she asked me. She was surprised at my answer. "I would have guessed 35. You have a maturity about you. And your voice is very mature."

My voice?! I've always found my voice to be too high. And particularly on this day, my voice was significantly weakened by my cold -- even more nasally than usual. That settled it: this lady was crazy.

"I have to take a shower and come back down for my bus. I have to change. I can't go to Kaiser looking like this. I ride the bus, you know? I don't like to look affluent when I'm on the bus. But I can't go to Kaiser looking like this. I should let you go." She held one of her watches an inch from her eye again. "I can still make my bus."

Folks, I assure you, this was a major abridgment of the actual conversation. There was so much more to it. Topics included the religious affiliation of our landlords ("some people say they're Christian, but then, well, you know how people are"), the legality of her pending eviction ("I'll sue them so bad"), and her newfound hope to write and sell screenplays -- the afore-mentioned second career. Hey, everybody else in this town wants to work in the movies; why should the elderly be any different?

"You don't seem like a criminal to me," she said. I thanked her.

She grabbed my hand... the hand I had been using to wipe my nose all morning as the cool breeze had been agitating my cold. If she were not legally blind, she might have known to avoid my hand.

"You're my angel in this building. What's your angel name?"

Huh? I don't know? Kal-el? Do people have angel names? Do I?

"I'll think of an angel name for you that starts with J. And I'm Kay. J, K. J, K." She continued up the street, presumably to take a shower and catch her bus, repeating "J, K. J, K."

At this point, my head was throbbing. My disease was putting pressure on my brain and my nose, I was later than I ought to be for work, and this well-intentioned old lady -- who may or may not be getting evicted from apartment 209 -- had used up whatever patience I had stored up over my four-day weekend.

I was truly baffled. When I first saw her, I had been expecting her to ask me for directions somewhere. Then I expected her to ask me if I had spotted a runaway dog. Then I expected her to ask me for a ride somewhere. Then I gave up on expecting anything.

And now, I'm scared. She knows where I live. She knows where I park. She knows what I pay in rent. And although I would expect most people -- particularly elderly ones -- to forget most of that trivial information, those mnemonics seem to work wonders for her. What does she expect from me? Am I to help her in her legal battle against the management company?

Maybe I'm just supposed to be someone who listens to her every once in a while, and be her angel.

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