A man with a dented forehead, rotten teeth, and dark gray hairs scattered around a bald piece of head was the only person in the hallway near the entrance of Birchwood Terrace when I arrived with the Chinese food I was sent to deliver. His gray sweatshirt was covered in yellow and brown stains, and he was stationed firmly on an old, mahogany bench.
“Is this 43 Starr Farm?” I asked.
I don’t know why I did; he had a vacant stare on his face—the kind that is a natural indication of a person not capable of providing concrete information—information like who, in the entire Birchwood complex, ordered General Tso’s chicken with vegetable lo mein. In hindsight, most people who aren’t haggard-looking and mentally disheveled probably couldn’t provide that info, but it was just me and him, and I had food to deliver. His response was what I’d expected, just more drawn out than I had hoped.
“I, well, it, there—if you, uh,” he began to get up, struggling to lift himself from his perch.
“Thank you,” I said, trying to save the man the effort.
“If you—try to—talk with, I, uhh,” said the man shuffling after me as I walked past abandoned offices in search of someone who wasn’t a patient at this storage center for the soon-to-be deceased.
The Smell forced its way up my nostrils as I turned onto the main hallway that connected the various wings. A sour mixture of shit and near-death intensified and was worsened by ammonia and whatever other disinfectants the staff used to try and keep the collective sickness from floating throughout the building.
A young kid with braces was collecting messy dishes left outside the rooms. Like the patients he cleaned up after, his face was dull with boredom and subconscious disgust.
“Hey,” I said, snapping him from the tedium of his task,
“Did you order Chinese food? Or do you know someone who did?”
“Na, man. Sorry.” And back to work he went.
As I spun in place looking for where to go next, I realized the customer’s number was on the receipt. My excitement faded when I called, got the emergency help desk of the facility, and was promptly placed on hold. I walked around poking my head into random rooms in search of someone to guide the Chinese food to its rightful owner, eventually finding a dining hall where many residents were sitting and staring at a tiny television in the corner. The walls were pink and dingy, weathered with the same neglect as Birchwood’s patients.
Some of the kitchen staff sat at a table away from the elders. I asked about Chinese food while still on hold with the help desk. Again, nobody had a clue. A nurse came over after wiping spittle from a resident who had trouble getting all their food down.
“Try the desks,” she said.
“Desks?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she replied. “There’s four throughout the hospital.”
“Oh,” I said, mentally cringing at the idea of spending any more time in Birchwood. I thanked her and pressed on towards the first desk.
A little lady in a wheelchair with the face of a turtle and the body of a pear lethargically rolled into the middle of the hall with a medicated glaze over her eyes. I avoided eye contact and hurried by, stopping at the first desk where the only woman present hadn’t ordered Chinese food.
The Smell was growing worse and I felt myself becoming ill. But it wasn’t entirely the Smell that was twisting my stomach and tying a knot in my throat. Each patient I saw was an even more depressing sight than the person before them. A group of wheelchair bound seniors were organized neatly in rows watching Sportscenter on TV—it seemed like punishment for some unseen transgression against the staff. After all, none of those people looked as though they wanted to watch ESPN and see fit and able people doing remarkable things. Then again, they all were hard to read. Their faces were those of the lobotomized and their bodies were withering bags of flesh, drooping from the pressures of gravity.
When I got to the second desk, loud, long screams filled the air.
AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH! AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH! AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!
The screams grew in volume, and the pain the man was experiencing became more and more evident as his voice began to crack as whatever was causing his discomfort worsened. Meanwhile, the nurses hanging around the second desk were used to this and were jovially discussing their excitement over the new season of Housewives of New Jersey.
How could they manage to joke and laugh and smile in such an awful, miserable, hellhole of a place? I thought.
I was so caught up in my own shock and confusion that I didn’t even say anything. Instead, I stared off into space until one of the nurses asked, “Can I help you?”
“Yes,” I replied. “Who ordered Chinese food?”
None of them had placed the order, and I was starting to think this was some cruel prank, but one of the nurses knew whose food it was.
“Here,” she said as she waved me on to follow her. She stopped in the hallway, pointed down it, and said, “Go around that corner and into the second door on the right. Cathy will be in there.”
I moved briskly towards the corner, rounding it with the precision of an Indy car. The man’s screams were getting closer, but I didn’t really think too much about it, and continued into the room where Cathy was inserting a catheter into the screaming man’s penis. The man went silent when Cathy stopped what she was doing to look up at me.
“I’ll be with you in a second,” she said before returning to the task of sliding the tube back into the man’s urethra. All I could do was hold up the Chinese food as I backed out of the room.
My brain had been jostled to the point of total cognitive loss. No thoughts went through my mind for a moment. And soon all I could see was the vision of a thin, plastic tube being slipped into the decrepit dick of a dying and utterly helpless old man. Cathy exited the room, took off her gloves, and approached me as I leaned on the desk, struggling to maintain consciousness as well as keep the contents of my stomach in place.
“You don’t look so well,” she said with a smile.
“Yea, no.” I replied. “Not…I’m not.”
I handed her the receipt, which she signed and returned to me. Once I gave her the food, I got the hell out of there as quickly as possible, dodging an assortment of hazy patients, medicine carts, and a one-legged black woman in a wheelchair who must’ve shit herself as I passed.
Once outside, I collapsed onto my knees and began to dry-heave, my chest constricting violently to prevent the crab ragoons from coming up. I sat there for a second, breathing heavily and trying to wrap my head around one of the most traumatizing things I had ever seen—worse than any Lemon Party or Tub Girl. It was my own personal Vietnam.
After swiftly rolling and power smoking a cigarette, I made the decision then to be put down by a loved one if I am ever in a state of total helplessness like many of the people who were abandoned there. Birchwood and places like it are essentially an awful form of Purgatory. And while the experience was miserable in its own right, it was made worse when I looked down at the receipt to notice that Cathy didn’t even give me a tip.
written: Nov. 5th, 2009