Friday, May 05, 2006

The Enemies of Reading

Chewing Gum For the Captive Eye: Television In Waiting Rooms.

by Hugh Gilmore

In which the author, the owner and proprietor of an Old & Rare bookshop in Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, is forced by a horrible emergency to fight back against certain social forces, but then must confront the damage he’s done on the human front.

I did an American bad thing, but I was provoked. This is my side of the story of what happened that day, April 20, 2006.

My general rule about 5:30 a.m. phone calls is to not answer. It can never be good news. But since my son is away at school and my mother-in-law is infirm and might need us, I answered.

My nineteen year-old son, who is blind in one eye as a result of "retinopathy of the premature," was calling to say he thought the retina in his "good" eye was detaching. He could see a shadow, like a window shade drawing, in the corner of his eye. We all knew what that meant from seven years ago when two retina surgeries failed to save his left eye. Up we sprang to gather him from Arcadia University in nearby Glenside and dash to Wills Eye Hospital.

From my wife, Janet’s journal that night:

“I packed a few clothes, some audio tapes and iPod for Andrew to take to the hospital. Looked around his room and saw the wealth of books and videos he’s collected so carefully over the years to enhance his knowledge of comedy, and started to well up at the thought that he might never be able to read or watch movies again.”

Myself, I try not to think at such times. At the hospital, the usual interminable insurance hassles and red tape kept us in the waiting room much longer than my nerves wanted to handle. I said, at different intervals, to three different receptionists who’d seemed in charge, “Look, I brought cash. I’ll pay cash for someone to look at my son’s eye. Time is the enemy. He needs to be seen.” This plea brought sympathetic nods, but no obvious actions. Things move so slowly in emergency situations.

Except when it’s THEIR emergency.

As in: “Sir, Don’t touch that!”

“Sir, what are doing, sir?”

“Leave that alone, sir”

They’d all cupped their phones, or dropped their clipboards to stare at me, while Ms. Cerberus cried out to stop me from turning down the TV.

The whole time we’d been waiting, the reception room television spewed audio pollution at us. Some asinine program like Good Morning America. People going through the charade of pretend news while actually shilling for the guests’ new money-making ventures. God, it was loud, and it’s such an awful noise that in way resembles human voices. No one was looking at it, the hour being early yet, so I’d walked across the room and reached up to touch the damned monster. I upset the staff so much you’d think I’d tried to kick their barking shiitizu.

“Sir, Other People are watching it, sir.”

“No, they’re not. They’re trying to read.”

“Sir, she’ll take care of it, Sir.”

They were just this side of macing me when a young woman stepped from behind the barrier desk and aimed a giant remote at the television. The sound bar showed and dropped two notches. Still too loud, but I suspected the remote had a button for calling security, so I went back to inwardly-fuming docility.

When the doctor examined Andrew a bit later, we learned that our son’s guess was right. “There’s some elevation of the retina in the corner,” he said. Surgery was scheduled for the next morning.

* * * * * * * * * *

Okay. Next day. Though Andrew is nineteen, they allowed us to keep him company through admission and prep. We met the surgeon for the first time, asked our feeble questions, got some sense of the stages that would follow, and then it was time for our son to be wheeled away to pre-op.

Again, from Janet’s journal:

Only one parent was allowed to accompany Andrew into the waiting area as he was prepped for surgery. It was me. Hugh had to phone the school, etc. The doctor started an IV, not too delicately, from Andrew’s reaction. A doctor wrote “BH” over Andrew’s right eye. I asked, “What does that mean? ‘Begin here’”? but the doctor said, “No, Bernard Hurley, that’s my name. We initial the eye after we determine which one is to be operated on.” Good procedure, I know from experience.

Then they put a blue shower cap on Andrew and got ready to wheel him away. I looked into his eyes and thought that might be the last time he saw his mother’s face, and I started to cry. He said, “Don’t cry, Mom.”

I hugged him tight, so he wouldn’t see more tears, and told him how much I love him. They took him away from me, and I broke down completely, hot tears of self-pity and godspeed-wishing and such a sense of sorrow for my little boy, who’s been through so much pain. He is a Wednesday’s child, indeed. He once said that everything bad that ever happened to him happened on a Wednesday.


After that, we were told to go up to the family waiting room on the 7th floor. We did. Three other people sat in there. I couldn’t tell if they were together or not. Two were men who were sleeping in that deeply-settled posture that said they’d been there quite a while and still had a long ways to go. The other was a woman who knelt on the seat of her chair, facing the window, gazing moodily out and across the rooftops.
I felt bad for them. I hoped whomever they were waiting for would be all right.

Jan and I were nervous. I hoped reading a good book might get me through this next hour. I took out my book, Time Was Soft There, a memoir by a man named Jeremy Mercer, who lived for a while at the famous Shakespeare & Co. bookshop in Paris.

Three pages later, just three pages, trying to fight the cold panic in my guts, I saw a young woman and a man wearing a T-shirt and a looping chain with lots of keys on it come in the waiting room. They seemed to be family to the window woman, who used a remote to turn the high overhead TV on.

The TV on! Crap, and double crap. And why so loud always?

The lady asked the man, “How this thang work”? He stood on a chair and started turning channels. Their voices were respectfully quiet and said they, for sure, came north to get here, but why, if they knew to keep their own voices down, did they not see the offense in letting the TV voices scream so loud?

I’m thinking, “Christ, can’t you folks live without entertainment from the outside world for a little while?” The occasion of grave medical danger calls for peace and contemplativeness. Thousands of dollars go into consulting psychologists who tell the hospital what color to paint the room and what kind of art to put on the walls in order to calm people. Then they allow these stupid, monstrous boxes to scream at us.

The two sleeping men started to stir a little at the noise. I was just this side of saying, “Excuse me folks, can we vote on this TV thing? Majority rules?” counting on the sleepers’ votes, but then I saw they both had long pre-Elvis sideburns out from under their truckers caps. I’d ‘probly’ be outvoted. Or popped upside the head. Such an un-American suggestion in these touchy times, when everyone’s lining up side-to-side, head-to-tail, to sniff out the other guy’s patriotic pheromones.

Sho nuff, the sleepers awoke, and then, as though there’d been a secret snap-count, they broke from the huddle and all five went outside for a family conference in the hall. Leaving the TV on as a kind of bookmark. I gritted my teeth and tried to steer my capsizing patience towards a calm place in my heart. The TV woman stepped back in and used the remote to turn the TV off. They all left. Peace at last.
But for how long?

The agitation the scene caused me rode over my greater worry about Andrew. I did not want to sit there and have to put up with any more TV.

I put my book down, still only three pages done, and looked in the corridor. No one there. I walked up to the nurses’ station and turned around and walked back toward the lounge, trying to determine the sight lines into the lounge. I couldn’t see the TV in the corner till I got six feet from the entrance. Good. Great.

Janet watched me come back in and walk to the end of the room and stand under the television, like I’d been sent to stand in the corner. She knows my proclivities after twenty years of marriage, so she went back to her magazine. I looked up behind the TV, to see the hook-up. Two cables, a black and a white. I hoped they weren’t screw-ons. They take more time than pull-offs.

The window lady suddenly appeared in the hall. I dropped an arm and massaged my neck. She stepped in and looked at me. Puzzlement crossed her face. Why would a grown man would be standing in the far corner, under the TV set, in a hospital waiting room, while his relative was getting his eye operated on?

I pointed at a landscape print on the opposite wall and said to Janet, tilting my head this way and that, getting perspective, “Yeah, you can really see how it works from here, the way the mountains blend with the sea.”
Window woman walked out and began pacing the corridor.

This situation was ridiculous, I knew, and inappropriate for a father waiting for his son’s eye operation to finish. But I had felt assaulted, and my rights to worry in peace been disrespected. Yesterday, waiting for the diagnosis, there’d been that terrible TV in the waiting area. Now, waiting for the operation, here was its nasty kid brother. And they were just two of the evil spawn of whatever coven had loosed them on the land. In my cardiologist’s office two weeks ago, at 7:15 in the morning: The Morning Show. At the Social Security office on Midvale Avenue, while I sat captive, an intensely loud and violent video with Harrison Ford –The Fugitive?- split my skull. In nearly every restaurant that has a bar. In some supermarkets. Even at Conicelli Nissan, up on Ridge Avenue, the small waiting-for-your-car-to-get-well room is dominated by a shouting 32-inch bully practiced in the martial arts intended produce vestibular ear pain.

It was in Conicelli’s waiting room that I first struck back, in fact. My fellow inmates had dwindled to one other than myself. When he finished his time served and left, I looked the TV in the eye and thought, “You’ve had it, Bluto.” I took the remote from its forehead and pushed the Off button. Then I removed one battery. Then I hid the remote behind the TV.

The quiet was instantly serene. I could occasionally hear a phone ring in the background, or the pleasant whirr of the power lug-nut remover, the sounds of progress toward my deliverance. I returned to my book, The Disinherited, by Jack Conroy, one of the hundred books I hope to read this year if I can overcome such obstacles.

About six pages later, a woman came in and sat down. A minute later, a man. Then another woman. The first woman said, “Anyone mind if I turn on the TV? I hate to miss my soap.” No one quite said yes. No one said no. I kept reading and didn’t look up. Just smiled inside, a pleasant current flowing through me like warm cocoa.

“How ya turn this thing on?” she said.

“Push the power button.

“I did, it don’t work.”

“Maybe it only works with the remote.”

“Where’s the remote”?

“Maybe they keep it at the service counter.”

“Now, why would they do that”?

“Maybe people steal them.”

I stirred, shifting cheeks at the mention of such criminal actions. Taking the remote - that would be stealing, wouldn’t it? If someone wanted to give you a hard time about it, you might have to face police action. But, what about taking a battery? Technically, it’s not mine. I got up and went to the lavatory. I took the battery from my pocket and put it on the edge of the sink so I couldn’t be convicted of stealing it. I ran the water for effect. I came back and sat down.

One of the counter guys had retrieved the remote from where I’d hidden it and was aiming it at the screen, making those energetic little pretend recoils with each button push. He apologized when he couldn’t get it to work.

“Maybe it needs batteries.”

Just one, if anyone wants to get technical, but two good things happened at once just before the thunder clap of the battery’s discovery. One, I’d just finished the third chapter of The Disinherited. Two, my car was ready. I love Conicelli. I really do. I’ve bought two cars there. As their slogan says, “It’s A Nice Place to Do Business.” But they put a TV in the reading lounge!

As did Wills Eye Hospital, which I also love. A great place for saving eyes to watch the TV’s installed in every room.

I was still standing under the TV with window woman walking away from me. I reached up and pulled the white cable out of the back of the TV. I left it propped against the back, looking like it was still on duty, but knew I’d undone the tie that binds.

Back to my seat at once. Andrew’s operation should have taken forty-five minutes. It lasted close to three hours. Plenty of time for our worries and apprehensions to grow. I was barely able to read, but grateful that the family waiting room was quiet.

Twice during the time we waited, the five out-of-town addicts came back in for a TV fix but, “It’s not working right,” the woman said. When I was younger I’d enjoy a scene like this: a great little prank But she sounded so frustrated I felt a bit guilty. I wanted to tell them I’d pulled the plug and offer to fix the problem, but I kept my mouth shut. The hours dragged by, but at least they were quiet ones.

Then we were called to talk with the surgeon. The operation was over. We listened nervously as he explained. More extensive surgery was required than he’d thought. Everything looked good though. Retina was flat. Andrew came through fine. He’d awakened from the general anesthesia. He’d be able to come up to his room soon. As for his studies, he’d not be able to read for about a month, so finishing the semester at school would probably not be possible. We’d worry about that later. More important was the fact that his vision was probably saved.

Jan and I went up to his room to wait for him. In a while he was wheeled in. One of life’s more horrible inducers of the feeling of helplessness is the sight of your child on a gurney. Just as my heart sank, it rose again when the nurses asked Andrew to lift himself onto the bed. He did. And moved to the middle when they asked him to adjust himself. When the nurses left, Jan and I stroked his brow, talked gently to him. Heard his kindly, polite voice respond. Oh happy day.

Jan would stay over. I would go home. We three sat together in the quiet room, watching the shadows lengthen slowly across the city and the wall of Andrew’s room. A loving, still-a-bit-worried, family gathering. Absorbing the peace from one another.

Just at dusk, I said goodbye and left. We’d talk later. I’d go down and across the street and stand near the Wills Eye entrance, next to the bicycle rack, and wave up to the 7th floor. Bye Janet. Bye Andrew.

I left the room, feeling sad, but somewhat relieved. One critical stage of the ordeal had been endured. As I rounded the corner I could see people sitting in the family-waiting lounge across from the elevator I’d take. Some other poor souls still waiting to learn the fate of their loved one’s vision. I pushed the button and stood with my back to the room. When the elevator bell dinged I stepped in and turned around and pushed 1 and waited to be taken down. I looked across the corridor.

Oh no. The same people. The window woman, the guy with the key chain, the two sideburned guys, the younger woman, all still waiting for fate to make the call. And, to my chagrin, riding quite plainly at the surface of their worried faces was the easily-read disgust of people who are bored out of their damned minds because the damned TV ain’t working!

Damn. I felt sorry for ruining their evening. I didn’t need the lounge to be quiet any longer. Some people need television to get through their grief. I could cure that family’s problem in a jif. Just go in there and reach up and slip that white cable back over the female end. Instant fix. I worked on the wording of my apology in my head. Didn’t mean nothing. Wasn’t thinking. Not in my right mind, worried with worry.

The doors closed. I felt myself being delivered away.

Two days later, just so you know, while he showered, the goo stuck in Andrew’s eyelids washed away enough for him to declare that he could see. Just light and shapes, but after two days of total darkness, it felt like a miracle to us all. He continues to recover. We’ve been guiding him to his final classes. Exams are next week. Arrangements and accommodations have been made.

5 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

At last, some literate, non-political writing in the blog. What's happening, a staff reveolt at CH Notebook, too, as there was at the Local last fall?

Mon May 08, 09:34:00 AM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a relief to read someone not involved in the madness of the small circle of politicos who've been monopolizing conversation on the blog and in the Local.
More "Enemies of Reading."

Mon May 08, 12:57:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

give it up, john. the old anonymous ask & answer routine

Mon May 08, 03:39:00 PM EDT  
Anonymous Jose Rodriguez-Walkden. said...

Hola. In my country we say, "you can't make a paella without breaking shellfish". Next time, just turn the batteries the wrong way around, and they'll assume the remote is broken. Hope to see you soon, and feliciades to Jan and Andrew too.

Thu May 11, 11:35:00 AM EDT  
Anonymous Stan M said...

It's nearly 14 months since this entry was posted, but I feel the need to weigh in, since I was subjected to the same intimidation by TV this morning, as we waited for my wife's appointment at the pain management clinic. (Talk about irony...)

Ten years ago, we were called to the hospital E.R. in the small hours of morning, after being notified that my ailing father-in-law had been transported there from his nursing home bed. It was to be his last night on earth. We waited several hours to be allowed to see him, in an otherwise empty waiting room that was being blasted by the "Psychic Friends Network" broadcast, in which the on-duty psychics were telling callers about all the marvelous things that were about to happen to them. It puzzled me that not a single person had called and been informed of an unanticipated death, illness or other bad event.

After I could stand no more, I walked into "the back," found the Old Man in his cubicle, and we exchanged a few words. Had I not taken matters into my own hands thus, he would have expired without a goodbye from his daughter and son-in-law, while this awful blather was assaulting us.

Fri Jul 06, 05:33:00 PM EDT  

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