Morning is a place

The hospital staff resume their activities at a little past 5 in the morning. A technician rolls in the nebulizer unit for the first of four breathing treatments Grandpa takes each day, everyday, even when he's at home. Someone disappears behind the curtain, and I hear Melvin wake, startled and confused. "Here to take your blood pressure, Mr. H_________," the nurse's aid explains. His voice is either compassionate or condescending. I close my eyes, and when I open them, the room is dark again, and Grandpa and Melvin are snoring contentedly. It's a quarter to 6, and the hallway is now abuzz with nursely doings. In spite of Melvin's best efforts, I have won the battle for control of the thermostat, and the room is cold. I imagine Melvin rolling out of bed, barefoot and wearing only his inadequate smock, and decide to commit a minor act of treason, nudging the thermostat up to 75. Grandpa is still firmly in the grip of the Ambien, and he won't be awake to complain for at least another hour.

At ten past 6, two nurse's aids enter the room, with various monitors and instruments in tow. They each turn on the fluorescent panel above their patient's head, and Grandpa and Melvin are greeted with a synchronous, cheerful, "Good morning, Mr. ___________." It takes Grandpa a good half minute to figure out where he is, and what's going on. I put my hand on his shoulder, look into his eyes, and say Good morning, Grandpa. He smiles up at me, not quite certain of anything, but happy just to see a familiar face. "Good morning, Davey. Did you sleep there all night?"

"Yup, right here. I told you I wasn't going anywhere. The nurse is here to get you all fixed up this morning. Think it'd be OK for me to run down for a cup of coffee and some breakfast?" His eyes have focused, and he is rattling off a list of questions and complaints to the nurse's aid. He doesn't answer me. I pat him on the shoulder again. "I'll be back in a minute Grandpa."

"Well, where ya going? Are you leaving? Where's Ellen?"

"No, Grandpa. I'm not leaving. I'm just getting out of this guy's way so he can take care of you. I'm going down for a coffee. I'll be right back. And Grandma will be here in a couple of hours." He smiles at me, and I'm uncertain whether anything I've said makes sense to him. "I'll be right back, Grandpa."

"OK, Davey."

It's half past 6, and I'm seated in a booth in a diner about two blocks from the hospital. It's 9 degrees outside, and the roads are covered in black patches of ice, invisible in the pre-dawn darkness. I've ordered the Big Boy breakfast - two eggs (over medium), sausage, biscuits and cream gravy - and already finished a second cup of coffee before it arrives. Over the past couple of days I've been working on a syllabus for a public speaking class I begin teaching next Tuesday. At the moment I'm scanning a copy of Malcolm Speaks, the collected speeches of Malcolm X, looking for course material. When the food arrives, I lay the book on the table, cover up, and a bespectacled Malcolm X points a finger up toward the waitress. She stares back, mouth slightly agape, then looks back to me, "Uh, enjoy your breakfast, sir." I get the feeling it could be awhile before I get a refill on the coffee. To my pleasant surprise, it isn't.

I'm sitting in a booth at the front of Friendly's, a diner frozen in the 1970's. The illuminated sign out front advertises this as "The place you want to eat." If you could pick it up and transplant it to Austin, building, menus, waitresses, clientele and all, you'd make a small fortune off the clever and stylish hipster crowd. The decor would be described as kitschy Americana or retro hillbilly chic. The regular patrons, who embrace the place without any sense of ironic detachment, would be regarded with amusement, as if put there merely to add an element of authenticity to the scene. A group of regulars have gathered at two tables in the center of the restaurant, and they are talking loudly, calling the waitresses and busboys by their first names, and greeting everyone who walks in the door. Except for me. They smiled and nodded, and I smiled and nodded back, and that was the extent of our acknowledgments. I have an urge to reassure them that I am not one of those hipster assholes, but I know they don't really care one way or the other.

But I'm not a hipster asshole, I reassure myself. I know this because the sensation I experience here is not ironic amusement but overwhelming nostalgia. This place is a well-preserved slice of Oklahoma City circa 1975, the Oklahoma of my youth. The brown vinyl benches and glittered Formica tabletops could easily be thirty years old, or they could've been installed last month. The wood-paneled walls are decorated with oil paintings in ornate, gilded frames, all depicting various nature scenes - the profile of a stag drinking from a placid mountain stream; a snow-capped mountain glistening in the sunshine; a bass splashing at the end of a taut line. A four-foot wall divides the booths, proudly displayed atop which is a collection of woodcarved roosters, a tin coffee pot, plastic tulips in a crystal vase, and several pairs of ceramic salt-and-pepper shaker figurines - boy and girl skunks; a corncob and an eggplant, both wearing tophats and spats; a hen and a rooster; two sombrero-wearing cacti. This could just as easily be my Grandma Doris's kitchen, and I could be five years old. There is nothing ironic about this place. I feel homesick for a past life.

I shamelessly lifted the title of this post from a Stars of the Lid song. Maybe I'm more of a hipster asshole than I'd like to admit.


Blogger MommaS said...

I read this, and it made me cry.

2:00 PM  

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