Friday, September 22, 2006

Of sandals and sealing wax

She showed up in the library over 10 years ago and we called her Crazy Susan. Libraries are like the kind of home Robert Frost wrote about in The Death of the Hired Hand - "the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." As long as you don't greatly disturb anyone, spit on the floors or make a bomb shelter out of the books, you have as much right as anyone else has to be there.

And she was. There. Four or five days a week, for hours, using the old electric typewriter on the second floor, bashing out page after page of God-knows-what, harassing government officials on the student phone, standing at the circulation desk pulling staff members into conversational mazes with no entrance or exit point.

She's bright and well-educated, I think. Her vocabulary and confidence will fool you at first. You listen, automatically, and if you aren't quite following what she's saying, you'll figure it's just that you weren't listening carefully enough, or need more details. So you'll ask. You'll say, "I'm very sorry, but I'm not sure what regulation you're referring to," or "I'm sorry, but I'm not quite sure how to help you with that, can you be more specific about what you're looking for?" In any event, you'll start with, "I'm sorry..." because Susan has a professorial air and you'll assume, because you're at work in a library, that whatever she's talking about has something to do with searching for information.

Enter the maze. She will continue to talk until you realize that nothing she says connects - at least nothing you can access connects. Sometimes, she'll stop dead, listening to things you can't hear and then, as if a switch were thrown, she'll plunge back in. There is no polite way to stop the flood of words, short of getting up and leaving.

I used to dread her appearances. A political activist gone mad, a civic-minded citizen obsessed with community but without the gravity of a sane mind, Susan orbits into diatribes both acrimonious and aggrieved. She wears on your nerves. She demands your time.

We felt a little ashamed, my coworkers and me, for calling her Crazy Susan. But she was difficult to like. Still, she had a right to be there, and no one was going to throw her out for having a particularly exasperating form of mental illness.

We felt ashamed but also admired her a little. It's hard not to wonder what happened to her life, this older woman with the fabulous vocabulary and mind set on overdrive. She wears whatever bright pinks and purples and emerald greens can be found at the Salvation Army and keeps her white hair combed into two jaunty ponytails. Her blue eyes are alive and sharp. If she is poor and mad in our eyes, in her own, she is a force to be reckoned with.

J, one of my coworkers, is more patient than me, and Susan adopted her. A less than enviable adoption, given the frequency of her visits and the length of time she can keep you from your work. We devised a system, because J could not force herself to be rude, where I would leave the office and phone in a fictional emergency so that J could excuse herself.

The day I stopped calling her Crazy Susan, I was alone in the office, slowly being buried by incoming paperwork and Not In The Mood. Susan loomed in the doorway, looking pointedly towards J's empty desk. J's father had been gravely ill and was dying. She'd been out of the office, off and on for weeks at that point. I had no choice but to engage...

"J's not here, Susan."
"When will she be back?" Alright. Alright. No need to be crappy and no need for her to keep coming in looking. I don't want to divulge details of J's life, but...
"Susan. There's serious illness in her family. I don't know when she'll be in." Susan nods. She holds her hand out.
"I knew something was wrong," she says, "and I brought her this to cheer her up." In her hand is a single serving package of chocolate pudding.

Susan doesn't have enough to eat. Susan, as far as I know, may not even have a home. Tears start to well up in my eyes as I absorb the kindness of the offering.

"That's so nice of you," I tell her, "but I don't think it would keep. I'll tell her you came in. I'll tell her you brought it for her, okay? I know that will make her feel better."

After that, I called her Susan.

Tonight, Susan rode the bus home with me. She talked about the mini-eco-systems that exist all along the south shore, and I said how this one big tree, blown over by Hurricane Juan, still comes into leaf each year, with only a root or two left in the soil. Susan rambled about how they should have community Christmas dinners for old people and single women, and about how Bin Laden could be so rich, with all those possibilites to do good or live a beautiful life and choose instead to promote death. Somewhere in there, there was something about shipping 40,000 pairs of sturdy sandals somewhere- or maybe, she said, they should send running shoes - and didn't I think they deserved to be held to some kind of standard? I only got bits. The rest was in her mind. At mile two of the bus ride, trying to follow was like attempting to pick my way out of a snarl of barbed wire. I hung in. Trying my best to catch the bits I could and respond to them.

And she was smiling when I got off. She looked happy.

I was smiling too.

20 comments:

zhoen said...

When I was 17, I started working at a local branch right down the street from the Social Services office. Each aide and librarian was assigned a "Friend." Or chosen by them, more like. Mine was a tall, colorful woman who leaned in too close. I figured out that she was very hard of hearing. Odd, certainly, but I grew to like her.

Teri said...

...pulling staff members into conversational mazes with no entrance or exit point.

Love that line. Having worked in retail for many years, I sure have been there!

Great story.

Marigoldie said...

So, so, so good, LJ.

beadbabe49 said...

that was kind of you, lj...and yes, there is often a certain lucidity among the mentally challenged, but the circuits seem to be shorting sometimes.

LJ said...

Zhoen, that seems a very humane policy...the library assigning staff a "friend." I wish we had enough staff for such a venture. As it is, it just happens when we have a moment & see someone floundering.

Teri, I think everyone in public service has to deal with people who are lonely or unbalanced in some way, be it retail or another service profession. And we become captive audiences. Off and on we get folks in the library who are sane enough, but seemed starved for conversation...

Marigoldie, thank you. Glad you liked it.

BB...Yes, there seem to be clear patches with a lot of people...but the common ground, maybe, is needing to communicate and be heard, no matter how mentally ill. In fact, that's really just a need we all have, I guess. In some Native American societies, the mad were guided by the tribe's shaman - through their visions and back out. They were considered gifted by the spirits.

chuck said...

Associative thinking, thought- disordered, fellow, kindred, wounded-spirit souls/folk...simply allowing each other 'sacred space' and attention leads to healing...

I am such a beginner at GIVING MY FULL ATTENTION TO ANOTHER OR OTHERS...but I know it is worth my effort!

jess said...

Peculiar people are such a gift. They give us odd stories to tell on otherwise humdrum days, along with the opportunity to remember exactly where we are on the spectrum of sanity. And making it through the barbed wire isn't always necessary. Sometimes it's enough just to wave and acknowledge the humanity of the one on the other side. Nicely written, LJ.

LJ said...

Chuck...I loved the first paragraph of your comment, the run of associations. And maybe one of the up-sides of aging is that we start to know it is important to give full attention. Bad as we are at it from lack of practice.

Thanks Jess. To tell you the truth, I see myself in Susan sometimes. My rants, my how-can-they-be-so-stupids, my "they shoulds" and "why don't we's"...Push my chemicals a little more out of whack and it could be me.
And I believe you're right, it's the acknowledgement, the effort that matters most. For me, too. It did me good to try. Glad you liked the piece.

Anonymous said...

Jeeezus... I forgot all about Susan... it will never fail to amaze me how that happens.

Last night I was enjoying a few frosty pints with some o' me mates, just after reading this post. I must have been obviously distracted, Jake asks me "Where do you keep going off to?" So I regale the table with some of Susans' finest riffs (she's eminently quotable, if nothing else).

-"I think, (gesturing to I.L.) that that woman's full of keys!"
-"Hitler is quite alive, he's all over the place, when he died, all the little bits scattered and got stuck everywhere."
-"You should really, really, ride cheese out."

Never any context, save the internal one you mentioned. Abrupt starts and dangling phrases. Man...

I'm glad you can deal with her a bit better now, and really, everyone, you can't imagine how absolutely exhausting this person can be. She Never Tires. She'll linger, accuse, meander, harangue, and grind yer bones for her bread. I used to run away a lot.

Wow.

Anonymous said...

Dammit, did it again. No name.

I, and the fellow who wrote that last comment, are marko.

LJ said...

Wow, indeed. What fabulous quotes from Susan. My best one is her interaction with T...when Miz T was a new student assistant.
Susan: There is a black cloud hanging over the office.
T: Oh? Do you know anyone who could get rid of it?
Susan: I used to, but he died.
To this day, I think it was one of T's finest moments.

zhoen said...

The "Look, it's your friend, " thing was not policy. Rather the coping within a staff of six people, two of which were 20 hour a week students, dealing with so many needy and deranged folks. When someone left, the new staff inherited the old friend. Which could be quite a shock. Poor Billy got the guy who wore galoshes and parka all summer.

LJ said...

Zhoe...grinning.
We had one, before my time, who planned the defense of Halifax in full battle dress, with maps spread out all over the second floor.
When they found his hand-laundry in the washroom, they finally had to ask him to leave.
May we never go there, huh? Or if we do, may there be a "friend"...however unofficial.

herhimnbryn said...

In my previous 'office' my co-workers would also ring me with a fictional emergency. But like you there was one person who persevered with me and made me see the light at the end of her internal maze.
She had bought up two wonderful children and had a husband who was always there for her, even when she didn't know where she was herself.
I arrived one day at her house and she took me by the hand to her garden.......in a colourful garden bed was a pair of shop window models' legs. These were upside down, stuck in the earth at a jaunty angle and adorned with black fish net stockings and red baseball boots.
I laughed out loud and holding my hand 'M' smiled, got up close, looked in my eyes and said, " I just wanted to make you smile on a Friday".

LJ said...

H...Do you ever wonder who the crazy ones really are? What a great story.

Mary said...

Very touching. Wonderfully told. You treated her as an equal and you both gained by it.

Great comments too.

LJ said...

Hi Mary. The comments are often the best part, I find. I'm always pleased when an entry triggers people to answer with their own experiences. Thanks for yours.

phlegmfatale said...

Wow, this is a gorgeous story. And being someone to whose name people have often attached the tag "crazy," I can empathize with her a tiny bit. I love that you were able to put aside your understandable annoyance for her. At the end of our lives, I don't think any of us will reflect and think "I should have spent less time being kind to people." You're a sweetheart.

LJ said...

Generally speaking, that IS my motto.
"I think I should have spent less time being kind to people." But it takes a lot of discipline. Grinning.

Katie said...

I had a lot to catch up on here!

LJ, I really love this post.

I think at one point or another in all of our lives we have had someone who at first glance or first impresssion or intial judgement did not really show who they are. Sometimes even over great lengths of time, we don't see that person within.

But one day, we catch the light shining through. Just a gleam, and our whole paradigm of them shifts. We never look at them in quite the same way again. Everything is changed. They surprise us and take us off-guard. Making us think the next time we look at someone else.

This is so poignant, your story here. And it is one of those moments out of everyday life. A moment we can all relate and connect too. A moment that in and of itself is seemingly unimportant. But that is deceptive. And sadly there are some people who miss it. Who overlook it. But you never do LJ.

Love this one, really really.