Friday, July 16, 2004

Martha Stewart's New Entombment Line

Dearest Madeline,

It happens that today I was at the service entrance of Vanderbilt Hospital. It was the end of the day, around 7pm. A friend & I had to enter the immense complex of medical buildings through the freight elevator. But to get to them there is a gauntlet of smells to overcome.

One is the vat of used cooking oil that the recyclers come to empty every month whether they need to or not. That's at the bottom of the steps. Next to that there's the school bus-sized dumpster that holds solid waste. This thing is clearly always overflowing, which reminds me of the age old axiom, "You can never put too much waste in a biological dumpster." But the piece de resistance is the warm liquid waste container. It holds leftover & spoiled milk that is thoughtlessly removed from the patients' rooms & deposited there in the 97-degree drum-shaped kiln.

When I was quite young in elementary school, the janitor had presented himself in front of all of us students one day. He had informed us that before we left the lunchroom, we were to walk up to one of four of his wheeled mop buckets & pour our leftover milk into them. He said they were for his sty of pigs he had back on his farm. Now, I don't think that even the most trashy of pigs would fancy warm, spoiled & backwashed whi-colate mixed nasty milk from some elementary school, not even on their worst day.

And I never actually saw the pigs or the farm. No one else ever saw the pigs or the farm either. Some of us weren't sure they existed. But I have to believe that they did because had they not, what would that say about the janitor? I don't mean about him lying - I mean what was he doing with all that swill? That would have to be good for at least 5 points on the "Is Your Custodian A Maniac" test. And if he had turned out to be a twenty-four carat baked kook that had an impressive & catalogued slop collection, what would that say about the HR department in the Livingston County School District? I need for the farm story to be true because otherwise it would be too much for my na├»ve heart to process. I'm thankful it was a mystery that I was too young & distracted to investigate.

Well, the wall of stench at the medical center today had reminded me of the pigs, even though it was truly difficult to think of anything at all while walking through it. When approaching this area, it was hard to imagine anything that could make it smell worse. Normally we would make sarcastic comments about it & distort our faces in reaction to it. But today we couldn't overcome the devastating effects enough to amuse ourselves. It could really take away your breath & thoughts. And you'd be happy for it.

As we were waiting for the vertically sliding split steel doors that open into the elevator, we were silent & held our lungs still. And we didn't even glance at each other because we didn't want to acknowledge our own presence in such a filthy & hopeless place. I nodded toward the doors indicating that they were about to open. We anxiously clustered toward them though the elevator hadn't yet stopped. Even the hot iron box that would transport us to the basement seemed like a chariot flying us to the promised land with its stale & unripened air that lay beneath the massive complex. And as the doors slid noisily up & down out of sight, I could see that the elevator was carrying a passenger.

I stepped back to make room. My friend did not at first notice what was going on, but stepped out of the way too when the passenger pushed the gurney out. Upon it was a body. The man navigated this corpse around like a real pro. He went around us like he was pushing a casino cashbox cart back to the count room. Even though he had clearly used this service entrance many times for very likely this same reason, something did not seem right.

I noticed that the body hadn't been put into a zippered bag. This person had been stretched out coldly on this gurney to be taken from the hospital, presumably to the funeral home, covered in nothing but blue hand towels. There they were, placed out end on end so as to cover the entire body much like I would do at my house if I couldn't find a proper tablecloth for a dinner party. Don't they put corpses in those body bags anymore? Don't those seem more sterile? Are we not to use those now? What's wrong with them, do they pose a choking hazard to toddlers or something? Why hand towels? Were they out of sheets?

Here's this guy, just a few days ago he had been paying taxes. He had probably seen this week's episode of Matlock. Most likely he had thought about whom he was going to vote for this November. Possibly he had irritated the crap out of someone all week with his incessant Catholic priest jokes.

There laid possibly not an unhappy life. Maybe even a very successful one. Maybe he married his high school sweetheart. And he might have even learned the purpose of his own life along the way. Perhaps he had raised some wonderful children & tried to teach them what he had learned.

Some years ago he had been born somewhere in a beautifully decorated maternity ward, probably not unlike the one on the 4th floor of that very building, designed to comfort & encourage new parents & families. He had most likely been in & out of the hospital from time to time during his life for, perhaps, a broken leg, bronchitis, gallstones, or even an injury from a deli slicer. But each time, almost certainly through the front entrance or the Emergency Room.

And yet, here at the end, he's been taken out of this world by way of the service entrance. The loading dock where the trash is piled up. Where the unwanted liquid waste is poured carelessly into steel drums, the odor is unbearable & a hospital worker hums to himself while doing his God-forsaken job of hosing down the filthy platform like it's the hippo house at the Toledo Zoo. And in the background a blue handtowel-laden buffet cart squeaks & rocks toward a white van that's already running because the KFC All-You-Can-Eat Buffet is about to close. If you weren't paying close attention, the whole scene could be mistaken for the clean up & tear down of a well catered hotel convention event.

It all made me think of how I'd like to be taken to my final resting place. How would I want my closing parade to be routed from my place of death to where my body would spend its eternity? What swan song would be fitting while my soul found its way to Valhalla or wherever I decide I want to go? I'm quite sure I don't want to be rolled like a steam table of cold dishtowel-covered cornbread through the wash room past the rotten "to be composted" bin at Luby's.

I suppose I'd much rather be laid in the back of a pick up truck & driven after school to an imaginary farm to be buried next to a drove of pigs that love half-eaten fish sticks & warm Hi-C drink boxes.

Sounds kind of nice actually.



More tales from Roderick Usher.