14 January 2011

The Nice Parts

On the eve of my final day of the job that spawned this blog, I feel that I can finally find in it some droplets of affection, however laboriously squeezed from the dense mass of surrounding dread. I've been filling the last few days with words of slightly disingenuous warmth for the place and its residents, so unaccountably nice, saddling me with such heartrending parting gifts as some gorgeous roses and a hideous handbag that smells of chlorine. I know that I will not miss this job. The nice parts of it will be nearly as pleasant in memory as in experience, and the bad parts will, I think, take some minor works of exorcism to lift from me. But I will say this in its favor: it has brought me into closer and more meaningful contact than ever before with people who are truly different from me, and allowed me to like them very, very much.

For instance there is Patty (no, the names aren't real), a guard at a women's prison who has outlived a couple of husbands by now, unassailably tough and radiant with unassuming kindness. There are so many things I could say about Patty. When Barack Obama was elected she took a bus to Washington for the inauguration and came back with two giant black trash bags full of souvenirs – t-shirts, key chains, fake million-dollar bills with Obama's face on it, one of which she gave me. (She tried to give me other things as well.) The first Thanksgiving I was employed there she came downstairs with a whole sweet-potato pie in hand for each of us. Once or twice a week she receives in the mail the “thank you” gifts (address labels, “Indian” crafts) that charities send out to guilt people into paying for them; she tries to send money to them all, and laments when she cannot quite manage it that month.

What is not coming through here is that she is funny. She spends her days shuttling between the inmates on the west side and her elderly, ailing mother in the south suburbs on public transportation and from this material she builds conversations full of humor and totally lacking in self-pity or self-seriousness. Her sister Pris lives in the building too and is more obviously hilarious; you can hear her braying from halfway down the block, and she continues to work blue even upon reaching the echoing lobby. The trick is that she is unfailingly funny and never actually abrasive. It's not clear how she does this.

Pris is huge and compact while her sister seems looser-jointed, more casually assembled, and her demeanor is frankly confrontational when compared to Patty's casual cool. If no one told you, you would not guess them to be sisters before becoming deeply acquainted with the goodness and strength common to each.

There is Mrs. Santos who, more than almost anyone, has indulged my limited Spanish and trusted me to understand hers. She has just a couple words of English: “Hi, honey!” she beams upon entering the office, eyes brimming hugely with good-will and a sort of worry that someone within her gaze may not be entirely happy, her wrinkles alive with an anxiety that seems not wholly unpleasant for her. She has a large family who visit frequently, and they are also very kind, if in a less otherworldly way. Among them are two granddaughters about three or four years old, cousins, one a little sulky and shy and the other flamboyantly sunny. The first day I met them the sunnier one strode into the office behind her grandmother, climbed up on a chair, kicked out her legs and declaimed: “My name is Lulu Modesta!”

And of course there are other wonderful babies. The Carroll girls, a year apart, who need only the prompt “Hello, girls!” to say, in the perfect unison of their slightly froggy voices, “Hiiiiii!” There's Wolfgang, Wolfie for short, who has just recently been transformed from a quiet, highly embarrassable four-year-old who was up for endless games of peek-a-boo into a five-year-old who announces his entry to the building each afternoon with an escalating series of formidable monster noises. He exasperates his saintly mother, Jeanie, who makes beautiful soaps by hand and has shared with me her memories of China, where she grew up: “So dirty! There is dirt everywhere! And just dogs, running around!” In the past year there has been born a new generation of adorable creatures. Now they are just beginning to try to run, having not quite mastered walking yet, or trying out smiles and frowns that gesture towards a real intelligence growing within.

In some ways this job has taught me plenty about human meanness and stupidity. One can take such lessons and use them to recalibrate one's instincts of mistrust or self-preservation, I suppose (though I hope instead to more or less forget them). It's harder for the mind to get a hold on the kind of inexplicable goodness I have also encountered here. Each instance when it comes is apparently sui generis and difficult to schematize. One can only try to preserve a certain attitude towards it, I guess: a standing still before kindness, the mouth slightly open, slightly smiling, for as long as the world will let such peace exist.

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