Alexis and I have a routine when it comes to going to the Munster Med Inn for her sister Martha’s birthday.
A couple of curious things happened on the way into the party room. We got off of the elevator at precisely the time that all of the nurses and orderlies had wheeled everyone they could out into the hall. All of these people, most of them extremely old, were sitting in wheelchairs in a row. Maybe 10 or 12 of them. I wanted to pull out my DSLR Sony mirrorless camera and take a side-angle photo. All of their faces were at the same level and they were parked in a row. It would have made a picture that could tell a story without any words.
My other impulse was to pull out my tape recorder and talk to them. One woman shouted out –
“Someone’s having a party. Ooooh-oooh-ooh.” I would’ve started there. She projected her voice well. I wanted to know the life stories of all of them. One man, about my age, was wheeled out of a room in a helmet. I thought I recognized the guy but I can’t put my finger on it. I can picture all of these patients lined up in a row and I can remember every detail of the crevices in their faces and the brightness in their eyes. I am a whore. I want their stories.
For the party, we wheel Martha into the East opening in the table that they have in the party room. We give her pizza and tell her funny tidbits in Spanish. She once travelled the world teaching people English, in places like Korea and Japan. Now, she can’t do that. It could be a really sad moment, but we’ve done it so many times that perhaps some of the sadness has subsided. We’re left with something like sadness but it isn’t sadness at all. It’s another word that no one has invented yet.
There’s a window in the second floor party room. It looks out over Calumet Avenue. There’s Burger King, One Price Cleaners, the Marathon station, power lines, telephone wires, and, of course, a ton of cars and trucks roaring by.
I know this land. I grew up in the neighborhood behind Burger King. When they used to have a counter that looked out onto Calumet Avenue, I would sit there with guys like Joey Chruby, Steve Wohler, Mike Mintz, Russel Gouwer, Jon Pupillo, Kevin Swarthout, John Brodersen and others. We would shake change from some source or another and walk to Burger King and buy a Whopper or, if you didn’t have enough, you would just buy a hamburger. We would sit at the counter that looked out onto Calumet Avenue and watch the cars and trucks go by.
There was a lot less of cars and trucks back then. Sometimes, when we did sleepouts in tents overnight in a backyard, we would sneak down to Calumet Avenue and play catch in the middle of the street in the middle of the night. There was that much brightness from the streetlights and all of the businesses.
Once in a while a cop would come by. If you waved in a friendly manner, they would keep driving. If you snarled, they’d pull up and tell you to get off of the streets. But that was rare. If you’re a cop and you’re driving around in the middle of the night, wouldn’t it give you just a hint of pleasure to think of playing catch in the middle of the night in the middle of Calumet Avenue?
Now, if you tried that, you’d be run over. And you’d lose your baseball as a truck roared by and with its travelling wind velocity carried your ball with it.
It was, all in all, a decent childhood. There were some rough spots, but if the three or four of you wanted, I could tell all sorts of stories like the ones that Jean Shepherd did. He grew up, of course, just a couple miles down the road a few generations ago.
Back to the party in the second-floor party room of the Munster Med Inn. You get a little bit of guilt when you’re walking around the party room, dressed in your sleek jeans, your hair combed, your teeth freshly brushed – and you watch Martha struggle. I’m used to it now, but when she first started showing signs of MS decades ago, I felt bad about everything. I felt bad for Martha, my wife, her family. And I felt guilty that here I was walking around healthy and free, and there she was rolling around in a wheelchair neither of these things.
"But for the grace of God goes you," my mom used to say. She used to say it in one of the houses behind Burger King where my four brothers and sisters and I and my mom and dad and, for a time, my uncle Dennis lived. As I mentioned, it was a pretty good childhood filled with the right amount of chaos and love.
And here’s what I was thinking – Here I am looking out on the second floor window on a sunny December day at all of the activity along Calumet Avenue. I am looking out at my past and my present – is this also my future? Will I one day be celebrating my birthday in this party room? Will I one day be situated in a bed that overlooks Calumet Avenue just off of the 80-94 exit? Is this where I’m headed?
Maybe. Maybe not. The thing to note is that a young woman contracted a horrible disease and it has slowly taken her body away. I don’t know if there’s any more to say on this topic.
…. Yesterday, I also announced on the Purdue Northwest vs. Grand Valley State men’s basketball game. I drove the mile and a half from the Munster Med Inn to the Purdue Northwest Fitness and Recreation Center and took a seat at the press table. Sam Michel actually did the play-by-play and I did the color. Purdue lost again. They were down, at times, by almost 40 points. It wasn’t much of a game. The Pride of PNW are now 0-10 on the season.
As the three or four of you know, Purdue Northwest jumped from NAIA to division II NCAA. It hasn’t been a pretty jump. We’re getting blown out in every sport. It probably won’t be like that forever, but for now it’s painful to announce an entire half when you’re down by 30 points. Expect more of it.
… Later, Alexis and I met up with a group of us who have been together for a long time. It’s four white guys who married Hispanic women. We got together for dinner and fell into the same rhythm that we always do. The women go sit at the table and the guys stand at the bar and commiserate about the challenges of being married to a feisty Mexican woman. Dave Kusiak, who appears on the radio a lot, tells the best stories of this massive struggle. Matt Reardon, John Salzeider and I mostly listen. Kusiak, with his East Chicago Polish slant on things, tells the story of what it’s like to be married to a Mexican woman better than anyone in the world.
Kusiak also tells the best stories about Lake County politics and getting backhanded by his dad and about the trials and tribulations of being a roofer better than anyone in America.
“That’s what I do. I tell stories,” Kusiak will tell you. And I can tell you this – when you’re standing at a bar drinking a Diet Pepsi and Kusiak is on a roll, there is no better storyteller in America. I wish I could bottle his enthusiasm and plot lines. It’s truly entertaining.
Kusiak did say something yesterday, however, that garnered a slap from my wife. I won’t say what it was. We ate tacos and enchiladas and Alexis and I were in bed by 10:30 watching Netflix. Dinner was 8pm. We must be getting old.
…. That should do it for the three or four of you this morning. The plan today at some point is to drive to the mall in Michigan City and do some Christmas shopping. Maybe we’ll run into you there.