Wednesday, July 2, 2008

How We Treat the Powerless

This video reminds me of a couple of incidents I've had working in the restaurant industry, although it might not seem that way at first glance. (I cribbed this from Janet Reid's blog; my original comment was so long I decided to turn it into a post.)

What I mean is: Even if this is an isolated incident (which I don't think it is), it makes me ashamed to look at it.

When I was in my early twenties, I worked in a restaurant that was next to a state-run mental hospital. Every day a few patients would come in for pie and coffee. I'm afraid the staff had a lot of fun at the expense of these people (myself included, on occasion, I'm ashamed to say). That changed the day I sat down after a shift and talked with a patient who was having a cup of coffee.

I don't remember the gentleman's name. He was a jazz musician in the sixties; a good player who had plenty of work. Until he got sick with schizophrenia. Then he had many electroshock treatments (that was the preferred method at the time), and after wasn't "too good with numbers." His hands shook like he had Parkinson's. He seemed like a gentle soul. After that conversation, I never made fun of a mentally ill person again. When another patient came in alone and ordered a beer for himself and his "friend." I gave him a beer and two mugs, and he split the beer by pouring half of it into the other mug and setting the mug on the opposite side of the table. As the evening wore on, the "friend" turned into his wife. I found out later her death was the trigger for his illness; he was so overcome with grief he just started pretending she was there, and after a while that became real to him.

Although I'm afraid I still didn't handle things well. When he asked for a fourth (or fifth?) beer, the manager told me not to give him any more. Not wanting to upset him by telling him we were cutting him off, I simply told him we were out of beer. All of it. He peacefully left, but I'm afraid he looked rather confused.

Not to bring a national debate into this, but I'm all for national health care if people like this get better care or are prevented from falling through the cracks all together.

The other day I was waiting for a bus, and when it came, a guy in a wheelchair actually had to demand that people let him board first so he could find a space for his wheelchair. I saw a lot of people rolling their eyes, like the guy was demanding so much. But I thought the fact that he had to not just ask—but demand—said a lot. And what it said wasn't good.*

*Don't get me wrong. I'm no saint. I've shoved my way in on days when I'm in a hurry and not paying attention, even when people were trying to get off the train. But I do make an effort, especially these days, to have some manners.


Natalie said...

Wow, I think this is the most heartless thing I've seen for a while. It is such a same that these beautiful people don't get the help and care they need.

And your story of the man and his wife, touching. I got teary.

Whirlochre said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Whirlochre said...

I used to look after some vulnerable people and still bear a scar on my arm from where a chair was swung at me in abject uncomprehending rage. But at no stage was I the once-in-a-blue-moon doctor who sanctioned the removal of teeth. And left it unsaid till visiting day when the poor woman's parents arrived to find their daughter's rights had been violated without their, or her, consent.

freddie said...

Thanks, Natalie. I was touched by that when I heard it, too.

That sounds awful, WO. That doctor sounds like something out of the Marathon Man.

writtenwyrdd said...

That's horrible. Thanks for posting about it. It is sad that it is so easy for people to be so callous. And sad that she had to die alone and ignored with others around her. Reminds me of Doris Lessing's story The Old Woman And Her Cat. Same sort of ending. That story has haunted me for over twenty years.

A lot of great posts on your blog, but I've been busy and haven't read many blogs the past month. I'll have a lot to catch up on!

freddie said...

Never read any Dorothy Lessing, WW. I'll be sure to add that story (and others) to my wish list. Wasn't she the writer who muttered "Oh, Christ" when she won the Nobel Prize for literature? And now she can't stop complaining about it? I just think that is made of awesome.