Bustin' Out 

He'd been sent to a psych ward once already for complaining, so he was looking to get out of the nursing home fast.

I wait in the alley behind the nursing home in my battered van with its liver spots of rust. It's like a getaway car, engine puffing and side doors wide open, ready to whisk a guy I'll call Willie to his new apartment. He wants to make his final exit from the nursing home through the alley delivery door, quickly and quietly, before anyone asks questions.

Willie is 40 and muscular, with a baseball hat perched atop a big ball of hair. His oversize wheelchair is circa 1975, a wobbly aluminum box between two wheels that clank with each revolution. Just before we enter the nursing home he says, "You guys are my brothers, OK?"

Who'd ever believe that long-hair grunger Mark and I, two white guys, could be his brothers, except maybe in the spiritual sense? But Willie says defiantly, "I'll tell them, 'Since you must know my personal business, my mother slept with a white man. OK?'"

We tell him he can do all the talking. We'll just carry out his boxes.

Maybe slipping out the back adds to the drama for Willie. Maybe it feels more like tunneling out of the stalag--it isn't nearly as much fun to just roll out the front door. Or maybe it's necessary to sneak out. I've heard stories from friends in other cities who've made a hobby of springing folks in wheelchairs from nursing homes that when the nurses find out they call security. And then the guards say stuff like "You are not authorized to take this patient off the premises."

Sometimes it takes real elaborate schemes. One of the best tips I've heard for successful nursing-home liberation is to recruit some wholesome people who look like the types who like to take cripples on field trips. Maybe dress them in square-dancing clothes or something. And once you're out, just don't ever come back.

So maybe Willie's wise not to take any chances. Maybe they couldn't do much about it but threaten and tell him he'll come crawling back some day. But who knows? A destitute guy like him, an ex-convict and all, is a valuable commodity for a place like this. Every month he's here the nursing home gets a check from the state for his room and board. And he's easy money, in the sense that he doesn't need any help. He can dress and feed and do everything else for himself, and his mind isn't orbiting Mars. He wound up here because he was fresh out of prison, disabled, and broke, and didn't have anywhere else to go.

But maybe they'll be glad to see him go because he's one of those troublemakers. He got my number from a flier for an ADAPT fund-raiser a few weeks back and said he was looking to get out fast because he'd been sent to a psych ward after he complained about conditions to state officials; he was afraid he'd get sent there again. I know other nursing-home troublemakers that's happened to. Some of them subsequently won big lawsuits.

The walls by the nurses' station are painted that glossy institutional beige. An old woman in a robe and slippers paces back and forth, mindlessly spitting over and over like she's trying to get a hair out of her mouth.

Willie checks in at the nurse's station. "I'm taking some more stuff to my cousin's house," he says. That's his cover for why he's been packing up and moving out boxes lately. He told them he's had too many things stolen, so he's moving what's left.

As we enter the elevator he does a quick maneuver around a pool of chunky slime on the floor. "That's the welcome mat," he says.

On the next floor Willie tells a man with a mop, who's wearing a T-shirt that says "A Friend With Weed Is a Friend Indeed," that someone threw up in the elevator. We proceed down a long corridor cluttered with medication carts to his room. His boxes are already packed. He pushes open the cage door of a nearby freight elevator, one of those ancient models that you have to land just right to get it even with the floor. A handwritten sign on the wall says, PATIENTS ARE NOT ALLOWED TO USE THIS ELEVATOR. Willie puts the elevator lock on so we can load his boxes.

A man who's 50 or so bursts out of a room proclaiming excitedly, "I'm gonna get my check! I'm gonna get my check!"

"That's his MO," Willie says. "That's all he ever says."

Willie's had seven roommates in the nearly two years he's been here. He never had a choice in the matter. They'd just move a new guy in with only a curtain between them. One pretty much lay in bed and blathered about how he could cure a woman of any disease she had by urinating on her and how he was going to "kill the niggers." Another spoke only Polish and liked to urinate in garbage cans. They were all basically like that. Willie never had anything resembling a relationship with any of the men he's shared a room with.

Someone on a floor below starts pounding on the elevator door. The man with the mop appears, looking for the mess Willie wanted him to clean up.

"No, in the elevator!" Willie says loudly, enunciating clearly. The janitor doesn't understand. "He's from the Dominican Republican," says Willie. "El-e-va-tor!" he says, moving a flat palm up and down. "Vo-mit!" He lunges forward and gags. A light bulb goes off in the janitor's head, and he runs off.

The pounding on the elevator door downstairs is like a kicking mule. A young man, one of the aides, walks by and asks in a curious voice, "You going somewhere else, man?"

"Uh, uh," Willie says, his eyes wide with innocence. "I'm just taking these boxes to my brother's house."

Willie unlocks the elevator and sends Mark down with the boxes. We go around to the other elevator. Willie pushes the button, and we hear the gears grinding in the shaft. "Sounds like a dying dragon," he says.

The slime has been cleaned up. "They know when I say something I'm like E.L. Hutton," Willie boasts. "They'd better listen."

Mark bounces Willie in his chair down the two cement steps of the delivery entrance. Willie rolls himself onto the van lift, rides up and inside.

Mark hops into the driver's seat, and we scoot away. Sooner or later they'll realize Willie's not coming back.

The lobby of the public-housing high rise where Willie has arranged to live is dark and gloomy. But the walls are clean, and the elevators work. They yawn open. In the corner of the one on the left are soggy cigarette butts in a pool of urine.

Up on the 12th floor Mark slides a huge box to the end of the hall where Willie's apartment is. It's so heavy he can't lift it. When he asks what's in it, Willie says, "Nightmares. Missing medicine, wrong medicine, people going into the medicine cabinet, not even nurses." Someday he'll write a book, he says. Someday he'll sue.

Willie's new place is a one-bedroom cube, about 500 square feet. No bed in the bedroom. Just a lot of boxes. His bed is the lounge chair in the living room. Next to it is a threadbare sectional couch. On the chair is an old manual typewriter with a sagging ribbon as worn as the couch. A boom-box radio is on the windowsill.

Directly below is a park where children play Little League ball. Greens versus whites. Beyond is a spectacular view of the skyline.

Willie's especially proud of that. "This is God," he says, grinning with satisfaction. "God put me here."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mike Tappin.

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