A Visit to a
Geezer Jail
My old (in both senses) friend Martin has been getting gradually more dithery over the last few years. He is still witty and erudite, with an undiminished sense of humour. However, his grasp of the location of objects (such as himself) in space and time has declined, he gropes for words considerably more often than I do, and his conversation often flies off into odd, obsessive tangents. He has suffered increasing physical problems as well, which made for other difficulties at home. So, a month or two ago, he took up residence in the Happy Haven nursing home, or, as he calls it, his geezer jail.

This nursing home is one of the ones that specialize in what they delicately refer to as "memory care." This memory care takes various forms, of which the most decisive is the door between the residential quarters and the outer lobby. To open the door, and therefore leave Happy Haven, one need only remember a magic four digit code and enter it into a key pad that unlocks the door to the outer world. Enough said.

The first time I visited Martin there, he suggested that we pull off the "Tale of Two Cities" escape plan. "Just let's exchange hats, Sydney," he said, "and they won't suspect a thing until they find it is you in my room."

"And when they discover me," I countered, "should I reveal who I really am, assuming I can remember?"

"No need for that, Sydney," Martin replied, "just say 'it is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done', and let them figure it out."

Unfortunately, I pointed out, his scheme had some obvious defects. First, he would have to remember the four-digit code to unlock the keypad door and leave the premises. Second, even if he got that far, he couldn't make his escape in my car because he no longer drives a car. Third, if he nonetheless did try to drive away in my car, he would undoubtedly run down the first pedestrian to cross his path, and the police would soon close in on him. Maybe an alternative plan was in order.

So, we reconnoitered the place to see if there were any other ways to escape beside the door with the coded keypad. Martin had the impression there was a back door to an outside garden, but after searching up and down a labyrinth of corridors for an hour, we never found it. Strangely enough, no matter where we wandered, we always seemed to end up in the same place, a public sitting room inhabited by several motionless figures who were either residents, cigar store Indians, or zombies. It had a linoleum checkered floor, a fake fireplace, and one of those big, wooden, cathedral-style radios from the 1950s.

There were, we discovered, various common rooms here and there in the labyrinth, and they were all filled with artifacts of the 1950s. One had a classic Underwood manual typewriter and a couple of TV lamps, another had Eames-style lounge chairs and a vinyl ottoman, and a third had a gossip bench telephone table on which resided a rotary-dial telephone. The big wooden radio was dead, the manual typewriter's keys were jammed, and the rotary dial telephone was unconnected, although I suspect that some of the residents often held conversations on it.

A few residents haunted the halls and the sitting rooms. We had some difficulty getting past a gnarled old troll who was rolling his wheelchair around and around in one hallway. In one of the sitting rooms, a little old lady clutching a teddy bear nodded sweetly to us. In still another sitting room, a small group of residents sat enthralled before a Philco cabinet TV watching an episode of the old black-and-white "Lone Ranger" series with Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels.

Martin, still aiming to get at least a look at the outside world, wanted me to drive us to a coffee shop somewhere. But when I heard Jay Silverheels exclaim "Kemo Sabe" for the third time, I was overcome with nostalgia and wanted to stay and see how the episode turned out. "Don't worry about that," Martin said. "It's always exactly the same program on the TV, over and over. It will be on again when we get back." "Of course," he added after a moment, "if you take my place here, you can enjoy that episode a hundred times, if you like. Or even if you don't like." At this, one of the other residents, a sinister crone resembling Baba Yaga the witch in Russian fairy tales, hissed a reproach at us for talking while she was trying to concentrate on the show.

We apologized profusely, and set out to find the main exit door with the keypad. Martin was of no use as a guide, and my own sense of direction, which normally rivals that of Chingachgook, last of the Mohicans, was unaccountably defeated by the environment of Happy Haven. We couldn't find our way to the keypad exit door, or to Martin's room, or to anything else helpful. We just kept wandering in the maze of hallways decorated with velvet wall hangings of dogs playing poker, and past innumerable sitting rooms furnished with 45 rpm record players and Zippo lighters.

My companion, able to conserve energy by leaning on his walker, seemed utterly tireless, even manic. But my own energy was flagging. and a vision rose before my eyes of the two of us roaming up and down the endless corridors for eternity, like the Flying Dutchman on his ghost-ship. "Let's just stop and rest for a minute," I begged, sinking into a kidney-shaped naugahyde sofa. "I think I'll look a little further," Martin said, "but you go ahead and rest for a while, if you need to." Then, after a moment's thought, he added: "By the way, would you mind wearing my name-tag for a bit? Here it is." With that, he trundled off.

While I rested, I became dimly aware that a small group of residents had gathered at the other end of the room. The little old lady, the teddy bear, the old troll in the wheelchair, Baba Yaga the witch, and a couple of zombies seemed to be holding a business meeting. The few words I overheard rather perplexed me as to the nature of their business: they said "chop shop" a few times, mentioned fixing something called a "VIN," and also referred to shipping cars abroad for resale. I guess they had somehow combined meat retailing, vineyards, and international car brokerage, all managed from inside the nursing home. How ingenious! Wondering about this exemplary commercial spirit amongst senior citizens, I drifted into a reverie.

When my senses returned, one of the nurse-attendants was standing in front of me. She touched me on the shoulder and said: "Would you like to get up for tea, uhhh, Martin? We will be serving it in the #3 sitting room in a few minutes." Then she looked at me closely again and added: "You look different somehow, Martin. Have you lost a lot of hair since yesterday?"

"How good of you to ask, Nurse Rached," I replied. "It's kind of a long story. You might say that it was a far, far better rest that I had than I have ever known."

After I declined the tea invitation, I sat there for a while to pull myself together. Baba Yaga the witch was sitting across the room from me, busy sticking pins into a crude rag doll. She gave me an evil smile and cackled: "Had a nice nap, dearie?" I nodded pleasantly, at the same time making the sign of the cross behind my back to ward off the Evil Eye. "Say," I asked her, "did you see where my friend Martin went a little while ago, after I sat down here?"

"Oh yes," she said. "When you had your little nap, he went to the main exit door and fumbled with that keypad thingy for quite a while. Then he cursed a few times and just went back to his own room."

And that was where I found him. Martin had given up the "Tale of Two Cities" plan altogether, and was now busy trying to carve a bar of soap into a replica of a handgun. "Why don't you stay around," he said brightly, "and join me for dinner here? It will be boiled chicken, pureed lima beans, and pureed something else, just like last night." I responded that I would love to join him, but unfortunately I had a prior commitment for that evening. However, I added that I would come back to visit him again another time soon. "Very good," "Martin said, rubbing his hands together. "Next time you come, we can really explore this place."

--- Dr Phage
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