I wrote this story maybe ten years ago about an old client of mine. I have an unfinished book of these vignettes drawn from my early work experience as a geriatric social worker. Maybe I’ll finish it someday. Alexander (I change all the names of my clients for reasons of confidentiality) was a metal worker and furniture designer who was dying, but who still entertained plans to strike it rich. In his cluttered apartment he kept this enormous, wrought-iron, lounge chair he had designed. I still remember sitting in it. It was a great chair. It was a cross between a hammock and a rocking chair. I saw something like it the other day on Fairfax Ave (see photo below), so was reminded of Alexander and his dreams of glory. I went and dug up the old story from my unfinished Old Stories collection:
“Sit down, my friend. Go ahead. Just push some of that junk over, and take a seat. I want you to feel at home in my house. Say, do you want something to eat?”
I looked around at Alexander’s studio apartment.
It looked like a bombsite from his native city of Beirut. Papers were strewn everywhere. Ashes and cigarette butts littered the dirty carpet. The kitchen was a heap of opened cereal boxes and vegetable peelings. Alex’s oxygen tanks stood along a wall.
“Nah,” I responded. “I just had lunch. Say, do you mind if I open the window?”
The air was thick with cigarette smoke.
“No. Sure! Open up the door to the patio. I’m cutting down on the cigarettes. Only two a day. But shit. I been smokin’ my whole life. Since I was a little boy. Did I tell you I come from Beirut? Yeah? Well, that’s what I want to tell you. They had something back then that you don’t have today. We would sit out by the beach. It was very beautiful then. Do you know Beirut? No? I thought you did. Well, let me tell you it was very beautiful then. That’s what I want to tell you. I mean I can’t get it into words. You have time, don’t you? I mean it’s something that I need to say. You see, I’m not just anybody. Here, you see this?”
Alex gathered up some coils of the clear plastic tubing which connected the oxygen tank to his face mask, and he stumbled over to a large, semi-circular piece of wrought iron furniture which lay under a pile of newspapers and magazines. With a sweep of his hand, which was missing several fingers, he cleared the papers onto the floor to unveil a sort of hammock or rocking chair. He began to cough violently.
“Go ahead. Sit down, my friend, and you will experience a comfort you have never before felt in your life.”
I removed a few more papers from the seat and eased myself into the hammock. Immediately the chair catapaulted backward and put me nearly upside down. But then it very slowly rocked forward.
“Adjust yourself in the seat. The chair is orthopedic in any position the body assumes.”
Indeed it was true. It was quite comfortable and rocked ever so slowly and calmly amidst Alex’s piles of papers and wrappers.
“It’s very comfortable,” I commented at last.
“You bet your ass it is. I have a patent on it. Or, actually, I’ve applied for a patent. Or actually, my friend is supposed to get me the patent. He has to call me.…..But you see what I’m trying to show you? I’m an architect. I didn’t always live like this. And when I get the patent, I’m going to get out of this stinking apartment. I’ve been here for twenty-two years. When I arrived from Lebanon, I used to live in my shop, too. Because, you see, when I have an idea, I have to work on it. Look.”
Alex reached forward to show me his right hand. He was missing two fingers.
“It was an accident. I was working like a nut then. Back when I was young I worked like a nut. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Say, do you have time? You sure? I know I talk too much, but it’s just something that I want to tell you. What it was like. That’s what it is that I want to tell you. Say, can you explain something to me?”
These medical diagnoses things. Differential diagnoses. What does that mean?”
“It means the names the doctors give to your illness.”
“Oh. OK. So tell me, what is this one?”
Alex pulled a crumpled, pink, hospital discharge summary from underneath the coffee table.
“Congestive heart failure,” he read.
“It means your heart doesn’t pump so good.”
“Aha. And what’s this? Emphysemas?”
“That’s what you have with your lungs. The shortness of breath. That’s why you need the oxygen all the time.”
“Yeah, I thought so. I’ve had that a long time. You know, I’m only 67 years old, but I feel like a hundred. ‘Cause I’ve seen things in my life, my friend, many things. Tell me, what’s this one? Here. You look at it. I can’t read it.”
He wrapped his two fingers around a yellow sheet and tossed it to me on the chair.
“It says here that you had a myocardial infarct. That’s a heart attack.”
“Yeah, I know about that. They told me that at the hospital.”
“Do you understand these diagnoses?”
“Yeah, I understand. That’s why I have to tell you about this chair. Because when I get the patent rights on the chair, well, then you’ll understand. Say do you know what it’s like in Beirut? No, of course you don’t. But maybe you do. You sure you were never there? No? What they had there was a different attitude. You see, there is a European influence. You could find anything and everything in that city. And as a young boy growing up… Say, you sure you wouldn’t like a cigarette? No?
Well, never mind. What I’m saying is that people were different there. There was different attitude. Not like this Los Angeles shit where everybody runs around and drives around and they don’t give a shit for nobody else. It was different there. People had – how shall I call it? …”
“Aha! Aiwah! You got it my friend. There was respect for family, for an older person, for… say, you sure you don’t want a cigarette? No, eh? Anyhow, it was something that you don’t see nowadays. You see, we would sit out on the beach. …. after a supper. My mother, God rest her soul, she would cook a feast every night. And… I can’t get it into words. You see, the sun would be going down in the Mediterranean Sea. You know Beirut is on the Mediterranean, That means the center of the world. Ah, I just can’t get it into words. But you know what I mean.”