133. Sketches from the Workplace

My job is often satisfying, sometimes discouraging, occasionally hilarious and never boring.

I work in a group home for men with mental and physical disabilities. As a residential trainer, my job is to help these gentlemen—officially titled consumers—live as independently as possible. So many interesting things have happened in my workplace in the past few months that I can’t help sharing a few brief sketches.

(To protect their privacy, I’ve given the consumers false names.)

Mark Twain is a sweet guy with a fine mustache who informs me there are mummies lurking everywhere. The refrigerator, the bathroom cupboards, beneath the sofa—nowhere is safe from these menacing spooks, which will, Mark Twain cheerfully informs me, bite off my throat and eat my eyeballs.

Edgar Allan Poe is an old gentleman who loves Dracula and scary movies. Due to dementia, he’s prone to outbursts of verbal and physical aggression, including cursing and death threats. In his calm moments, however, Edgar Allan Poe is quite a gentle fellow.

Charles Dickens, the oldest consumer at the group home, spends his days lounging in a recliner and watching television, getting up at intervals to amble around the house and shake hands with staff members.

Mentally speaking, Anton Chekhov is baby. He spends much of his time in a wheelchair, but enjoys crawling around the house.

When he’s not roaming the house in a mechanical wheelchair, Jules Verne likes playing with toys and listening to country music on his radio.

Rudyard Kipling gets around the house with a walker. He often sucks meditatively on one finger and stares into space, presumably thinking deep thoughts.

James Joyce is unquestionably the most trying resident of the group home. He suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder and a decidedly obnoxious personality.

Victor Hugo is a short, portly gentleman who smiles, mumbles and speaks either English or Russian—I haven’t figured out which. He bears strong resemblance to both Benjamin Franklin (the American thinker) and Otis Cambell (the drunk from The Andy Griffith Show).

A few consumers have honored me with unique names. On the occasions he remembers my name, Mark Twain calls me “Ayum.” Although Charles Dickens occasionally pronounces my last name as “Took,” he usually addresses me as “Moe” or “Doug.” James Joyce very pragmatically calls me “Man With Glasses.”

They may not always remember my name, but Mark Twain and Victor Hugo never forget my love of coffee. Hardly a shift goes by that one or the other doesn’t smile and mumble, “You want some coffee?”

The simple process of brewing coffee is complicated by Edgar Allan Poe. He’s on a tight fluid restriction, which means he’s not allowed to drink coffee. (My heart aches for the poor man.) Having explained to Mark Twain and Victor Hugo that coffee makes Edgar Allan Poe sick, I conspire with them to keep it hidden. At the moment, the microwave is our most reliable hiding spot.

I’d previously hidden the coffeepot atop kitchen cupboards, but stopped because of James Joyce. Staff members have been warned to keep their drinks out of sight due to his alarming tendency to steal them. Although James Joyce’s behaviors are sometimes frustrating, they can be hilarious. A police siren once sounded while James Joyce was sitting at the table. Glancing warily out the window, he muttered, “The police, they’re comin’ for me.”

I’m fascinated by the unique movements with which consumers move around the house. Victor Hugo pushes his walker with quick, mincing steps. Charles Dickens clomps noisily. Anton Chekhov crawls like an enormous baby. Mark Twain shambles, Edgar Allan Poe prowls, James Joyce sidles and Rudyard Kipling shuffles. Jules Verne wanders vaguely from room to room.

Some of the consumers are cheerful. Victor Hugo, for example, smiles constantly. Only once have I seen him lose his temper. When I tried taking off his foot brace in order to check an injury on his shin, he frowned and threatened to break my neck. It took much self-restraint to keep from laughing.

Not all of the consumers are as cheerful as Victor Hugo. My heart aches for Jules Verne, who seems to be on the verge of tears about half the time. I also pity Anton Chekhov, whose mind isn’t developed enough to understand why people do cruel things like scrubbing him with washcloths and forcing toothbrushes into his mouth.

There are days when I love my work, and days when I simply want to go home, drink tea and never sweep another floor or fill out another document or deal with another human being ever again.

Although I plan eventually to become a writer, teacher or editor, I’m thankful for my job. It gives me opportunities to serve others, and also free coffee.

I can’t ask for much more than that!

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