Writing Life

Unlikely Saints

It’s been about a year since I went to emergency with my hockey playing concussed daughter. At the time, all that concerned me was her head, but I instinctively sat between her and the homeless man. Beside him, on the other side, was an old man and a middle-aged woman, his daughter I assumed. I felt sorry for the old man, having to sit next to the homeless guy, not because he smelled, which he did, but because he was edgy, unpredictable. I was watchful, protective, ready to move my daughter, who was playing a game on her phone.

One of the nurses sauntered over to the homeless guy. “Let’s see that foot,” she said.

“It’s kind of dirty.”

“Never mind. Just take off your sock.”

He took it off. The foot was swollen and bluish.

“Did you fall off the roof or jump?”

“Fell,” he said.

“Were you drunk?”

“Oh no,” he said.

“Were you on any drugs?”

“Yes,” he said. “Yes, I was.”

“Okay, we’ll get to you soon. How about your arm—that’s a terrible bandage. Did you get that at ER?”

He nodded. “Yesterday.”

“We’ll take care of that, too.”

The old man didn’t hide the fact that he was listening. “Not too bad,” he said to the homeless guy. I worried for him. I didn’t think it was a good idea to start conversations with strung out men showing evidence of careless violence. “Look what I’ve got.” He raised his pants leg, showing off old gouges and scars in his calf.

“Wow,” the homeless guy said. “How’d you get that?”

“I rode my motorcycle into a van. Back when I was young.”

“Hell raiser,” the homeless guy said.

The old man smiled. No, he grinned, face lighting up. “You know anyone in Innisfill?” he asked. (It reminded me of the little girl on a beach in Israel who asked me if I knew Ellen in Canada, and I wondered if he was losing his marbles.) “I’m from Innisfill,” he said.

“You know Jackson Radfill?” the homeless guy asked.

“Sure,” the old man said. “He lives around the corner.”

“He’s my cousin. I used to play at that house.”

Right then the nurse called us to an examination room. All I cared about was my daughter’s head, and, over the days that followed, waiting for her to smile again. But the conversation stuck with me, the pleasure on the old man’s face, the respect he gave to the guy next to him, their mutual interest in each other, the unlikely discovery of connection lifting both out of the moment. Something ordinary, but uncommon, a kind of unselfconscious decency. A hell raiser with long scars and scooped out flesh and unstinting humanity.

Writing Life

The Gentle-Hearted Computer Scammer

Sometimes I like to toy with the scammers on the phone. It’s an exercise in quick thinking, saying whatever comes into my head, messing with them until they hang up in an outraged huff. This time it was the Microsoft scam. You know, they call and say that they’re from Windows and they’ve detected errors on your computer. The conversation went like this.

Him: “I’m calling from Microsoft Windows, Ma’am. We’ve detected dangerous errors on your computer. Do you know that it’s under attack?”

Me: “But I don’t have any computers.”

He pauses, startled.

Him: “None at all?”

Me: “No, it’s against my religion.”

Him, with a laugh: “I’ve never heard of such a thing. What kind of religion is that?”

Me, calm and earnest: “You see, I’m not allowed to use anything invented since the 1950s. I can talk on the phone because that existed in the 1950s, or use a typewriter. But not a computer.”

Him: “But why? How can anyone live without a computer or a phone or anything?”

Me: “Look at the world around you. Do you think it’s that good? Or maybe it was better before.”

Him, quickly, excited: “You know, you’re right. I had a problem with being addicted to my phone! I was on it all the time and very late. It was terrible, and I tried hard to get control of it. I’m better with it now, but still, it’s not good.”

Me, sympathetically: “It can’t be much fun working in a call centre, calling people about their computers.”

Him: “No, no. It’s terrible, and I hate it, but I have to have a job.”

Me: “If you could do anything you wanted, anything else, what would it be?”

Him, eagerly: “I want to build things.”

Me: “Could you go to school for that?”

Him: “Oh, I did, Ma’am. I went to school to study engineering. I couldn’t get a job in it, but I applied to many places, and I hope I will soon.”

Me: “I hope you will, too. You’re a good man, and you should have a good job.”

Him, effusively: “Thank you, I really thank you. It was wonderful talking.”

Me, startled, embarrassed because I was messing around, and amazed, touched, grateful that somehow, in the midst of my bullshit and his deceitful script, there was a genuine connection, a meeting of hearts, “I’m sure that you can do it.”

Him: “Bless you, Ma’am.”

We wished each other a good day, and I hung up the phone.


The Oldest Woman’s Secret

The reporter sits across from me and asks very nicely if he can record our conversation. Video, he says. I know what video is, I tell him. My voice doesn’t sound like my voice. I’m 115 years old. I used to be the second oldest person in the world. Since February, I’ve been the oldest person still alive.

“1900 isn’t that long ago,” I tell him. “It’s still the twentieth century.”

“We’re in the 21st now,” he says kindly.

I could smack him for his kindness, if I had the energy. “I know that. I’ve still got my marbles.”
People want my secrets of a long life, like it’s something I invented. I was a laundress. If I had the brains to invent something, I wouldn’t have washed and ironed clothes for a living. “I was a laundress,” I tell him. “That was my first job. I did the laundry in one of those homes for unwed mothers. It was a good one. Not like the ones that you hear about that make the girls work in the laundry themselves, all heavy with the baby and breathing in steam.”

“How many children do you have?” he asks.

“Young man, didn’t you look that up on your thing. What’s it called, your moogle?” I’m teasing him. I know he’s got a mobile phone and you google it or you siri it or something.

“Let’s get right to the part you’re interested in,” I say. “I have sixty-two great-great grandchildren. There is one great-great-great, a wee baby. I’ve outlived two of my children, but the other three are still kicking. I’ve got no secrets of life to tell you. I’m a crabby old woman waiting to die in a nursing home. The only reason I’m in such a nice nursing home is that I’m the oldest woman in the world. Otherwise my children, and grandchildren, and great-great grandchildren would let me rot.”

I know that’s not true. They’re all good enough kids, but this young man is getting on my nerves. My vision isn’t what it used to be, and he looks all shadows and shapes to me, no face at all, but he talks down to me and that’s one thing I could never stand.
“What did you do after you became a laundress?” he asks. “I know I could look it up, but I just want to hear how you talk about your life in your own words.”

“I started working at fifteen,” I say. “It’s easy to calculate. So that was 1915. In 1930, with the crash, I lost my job and I scrabbled for a living. Then came the war.”

“The second world war,” he says.

“I would really be old if it was the first!” I snap. Then I decide to take another approach. “What about you?” I ask. “You tell me about yourself. If I like the story, I’ll tell you the secret of my long life.”

There’s no sound for a few minutes. Then he turns off the video. “You sure?”

“Yes,” I say.

“Ok. I’m from a small town in Montana. I have a younger sister. My father is dead, my mother is a waitress. I’ve been a journalist for three years, ever since I graduated. I have a lot of debt. I support myself by making online porn videos because journalism doesn’t pay. If you tell me a story that nobody else knows, maybe I can give it up.”

“Bullshit,” I say flatly. After a 115 years, I know it when I hear it.

He sighs. “I’m a runaway from an abusive family?”


Found Art

installation on dumpster
(click for flickr)

I was walking along Dupont Street, a formerly semi-industrial street nearby, now in process of change and unsure of its identity. It features construction companies, expensive car dealerships, a barbershop, a sandwich shop, bull-dozer rental. I came across this installation on the side of a dumpster close to a cement wall. It could only be seen if you were paying attention, looking for something interesting in a place not usually considered beautiful.

Book Reviews

A Girl In Hitler Youth

The Shame of Survival: Working Through a Nazi ChildhoodThe Shame of Survival: Working Through a Nazi Childhood by Ursula Mahlendorf
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ursula Mahlendorf was born the same year as my mother. They were kids during WW2, teenagers by the end of it. While my mother was in a concentration camp, she was in Hitler Youth–so you can imagine the personal interest I bring to it. I found it a gripping memoir, as much for her personal story before, during and after the war as for its perspective on indoctrination and subsequent guilt.

Mahlendorf’s writing is lucid and evocative. I came to the memoir to find out more about the BDM (Bund Deutscher Mädel), the teenage girls’ branch of Hitler Youth. But ultimately what kept me riveted to the book is her personal story, and her ability to bring it to life layered with reflections of her older self.

She grew up to become a pacifist, left-leaning, pluralistic professor of literature and feminist studies at the University of California Santa Barbara. I would have liked to know more about how that change occurred. For example, she mentions that she came to know holocaust survivors personally–I’d have liked to hear how she related to them and how that affected her as well as them.

Having said all that, the memoir is gripping for what it is: the story of a determined and highly intelligent girl living through the Nazi era in a single parent household. She was neglected by a mother who drank and partied when she wasn’t consumed by the demands of survival, and Mahlendorf had little love from any quarter after her grandmother’s death. The only thing that gave her a sense of belonging was Hitler Youth until she discovered that it was based on hateful lies. And yet, despite betrayal and rage at the way she was shaped, she re-shaped herself in an image of her choosing.

It’s a book that excited me while I was reading it, that left me with the sense of having been elsewhere and elsewhen, wanting to talk it over. As soon I was done with it, I was passing it around.

View all my reviews