Years ago I worked as a receptionist for slave wages at a local nursing home. For the most part, I had nothing in common with anyone. I made a few friends in the office. They were great people but were all familied and coupled up, much older than me, and we remained nothing more than work friends. The office workers were friendly for the most part but pretty miserable when it came to their jobs. I couldn’t blame them. After the billing department wrestled my yearly raise of 35 cents per hour down to 25 cents, and then the following year from 35 cents to 15, I couldn’t imagine how they’d been treated over the years.
The nurses at this facility were the best paid on the staff, but were the meanest and nastiest of them all. They used to come to my desk and boss me around, put this away, call this person, look this up in the phone book. Eventually I started to bark back, “What?” I’d say, and they’d repeat their command. I’d raise my eyebrows and stare them down until they put a “please” in front of their sentence, then I’d glare at them as they walked away and mumble obscenities to myself.
The nurses aids were some of the sweetest and nicest people who worked there. They too made slave wages like I did and had to wipe peoples butts!
Then there were the housekeepers, a group of men who took out the trash and otherwise cleaned the facility. They had one dirty job, but were some of the nicest most pleasant people who worked at the nursing home. They seemed happy to be there and everybody loved them, though, I can’t imagine that they made much more that I did, this was after all, a tight fisted non-unionized facility.
There was one housekeeper who always exchanged pleasantries with me. He was an older man and a Jamaican immigrant. On Saturdays, when management wasn’t around, he’d stand by my desk for prolonged periods of time and tell me stories about his family and about the corrupt Jamaican government. Sometimes, he’d ask about me and what I wanted to do with my life. I wearily told him about my art and writing. I told him just a little, because I was so used to negative reactions from people. They’d either voice their disapproval of my choices, look at me like they felt bad for me, or like they thought I was nuts. My friend didn’t say anything harsh like the other people, or roll his eyes. In fact, he never seemed to have a bad thing to say about anyone or anything, even though he had a very hard life. I was impressed by his positive attitude and he often recounted the following to me,
“The time to be happy is now,
the place to be happy is here.
The way to be happy is make others happy
and have a little heaven down here.”
The most miserable people that worked in the facility were the dietary aids who worked in the kitchen. For the most part they were back biting older women who lived unhappy lives. One summer, I needed more hours so I elected to work in the kitchen. The women, who seemed otherwise benign when they visited my office, weren’t so nice in the kitchen. In fact, one woman had no problem throwing utensils at me when I tried to assist her with washing the dishes. It’s not surprising they had no patience for my confusion as I attempted to fill the trays with the correct dietary orders.
That is why one day, when I when I was back working at my desk and a beautiful foreign girl came to my office to get a key, I was shocked to learn that she was worked in that kitchen. Like me, she didn’t seem to belong there.
I was aware that I didn’t fit in there from the beginning, when I desperately took the job, after dropping out of art school. Unable to find anything else, and grief stricken after losing my grandmother, I didn’t know what to do with myself. Sometimes when I worked late, and no one was in the office, I’d stand by the big window and watch the sun go down. I’d think to myself what am I doing here? And more importantly, how am I ever going to get out?
Soon, I began talking to the new girl, she was likely another person who slaved away in the nursing home for a low wage. Unlike me, she had to wake up at the crack of dawn to get to work, while I got to leisurely stroll in around 7:30. It turns out, my new friend was from a faraway city called Prishtina. The name had a beautiful ring to it, especially when she said it with her Eastern European accent. There was nothing light and airy about the place with a beautiful name. It was the scene of a violent war in Kosovo, where women and children were murdered and raped in their homes, and entire families were killed. She lived through the war and came to this country years later as a refugee.
Before moving to the US, she studied art in a very prestigious university in the city with the beautiful name. She was one of the top artists in her class and specialized in abstract print making. She was about to enroll in their masters program after completing her bachelor’s, but in a split decision, came to the US to follow her other dream of living in the States and learning fluent English.
The more she told me, the more I felt like she was the last person on Earth who should be spending their entire day trapped in a kitchen with three nasty old women. She knew it too, but was resolved to the fact that for the time being, it was what she had to do. Each day, she kept herself going through her dream of one day having her own art exhibition.
Sometimes I would go to her apartment for Turkish coffee. Turkish coffee was much different than what I typically drank. It was made by adding finely powdered coffee to boiling water, the grounds would sink to the bottom of the cup, sugar would be added, and then it was ready to drink. She served the coffee in these tiny intricately painted cups with gold leaf trim and matching saucers. The way we chatted and sipped from the delicate china was reminiscent of little girls having a tea party.
The first time she came over my house for lunch, I jumped at the chance to make her coffee, American style. I had just bought a bag of strawberry shortcake flavored Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, too. I brewed the coffee, and poured it into an oversized mug, then mixed it with French vanilla creamer. I laughed to myself as I thought about how refined her coffee was and how boisterous mine seemed in comparison. Regardless, it was all part of the cultural experience, and I think she enjoyed my coffee as much as I liked hers.
Towards the end of my tenure as a receptionist at one of the least favorite jobs I’ve ever had, a coworker came to my desk and invited me to a party. I was tired of the politics of the job and in a really bad mood that day, I just didn’t want to be bothered. I lifted my brow in shock when she told me it was a going away party for Mr. Smith. A going away party? It was a rare occurrence that a resident ever permanently left the building, unless of course, it was with the undertaker.
“A going away party?” I scoffed at my coworker, knowing that people rarely left the facility, “Where is he going?” I demanded with sass.
“He is going to die. He has a brain tumor.” I swallowed hard, and without saying anything else, asked her to watch my desk. I walked over to the dining room where they were having the party. The room was full of balloons. People sat around a long rectangular table eating cake. At the head of the table was the guest of honor, Mr. Smith. I was still trying to think of something to say to him, as I approached, “What a beautiful party,” was the most innocuous thing I could come up with.
“Why thank-you, “ he said, “Have a piece of cake or two. Have as many as you’d like.” I just smiled and said thank-you.