Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Chapter 6: Bellevue and a captive audience

From Sarah’s Journal:
On train all day Sunday, Aug. 11th. Very dry and flat; immense white fields. Not very interesting except to note what immense ranches and homes; so far apart with no trees except a few near their house to protect them in winter from snows.
We got off train at different stops for 10 or 15 minutes. Moose Jaw was one stop After we left Calgary the scenery was then so marvelous. Such a wonderful change, that we were afraid we would miss something. We then began to climb the Canadian Rockies, getting our first view of the Bow River.

You can only look at wheat fields so long. My mid-day Sunday, the Doc and his family had given up on taking in the scenery. For Sarah, that’s saying something. The woman seems fascinated by everything we encounter.
“Did you grow up blind and only recently get your vision through some miracle?’’ I teased her.
But by now, even Sarah had given up on the scenery. She was snoozing peacefully in our little car. Margaret was reading a book that had caught her attention in the window of a Chicago bookstore.
“You have to read this,’’ she told me excitedly the next day, after she was a few chapters in.
“What is it?’’ I asked.
“It’s called “The Maltese Falcon,’ ’’ she said. “The man at the bookstore said it just came in last week. I bet it’s going to be a best-seller.’’
I laughed at her excitement over the “new’’ book.
“I’m sure it will do well,’’ I said. “I saw the movie. It was pretty good.’’
Margaret gave me an odd look.
“Oh yeah, I forgot.’’ I said. “But you are right. It’s a great book. My friend, Lowell, lists it as one of his favorites and he’s a well-read man.’’
Doc was looking absently out the window, stopping every now and then to make a notation on a big pad he held on his lap. He seemed deep in thought.
I passed a few hours poring over the edition of the Star-Tribune I had bought in St. Paul, gleaning interesting facts from even the most mundane stories. The newspaper was filled with little items that gave me an insight to what life was like in a bygone era, which for everyone but me, wasn’t bygone at all.
“Doc?’ I said.
“I was wondering how you found me.’’
Doc placed his notepad on the seat next to him.
“Well, you were sort of famous, at least in my circles,’’ he said.
Doc said that my name had come up during the cocktail hour while he was attending a psychiatry conference in Philadelphia. The wife of a colleague – I gathered she was a prominent lady in New York society – had been talking about a trip she had made to Bellevue with the Greater New York Women’s Benevolent Society. The group apparently took time to visit hospitals and orphanages from time to time.
“And that’s when she told me about you,’’ Doc said.
I did remember the ladies’ visit, mainly because the staff spent two days cleaning our quarters, fussing over the most minor of details in preparation for the visit from these important visitors.
I had been at Bellevue for about three weeks and spent much of the time being amazed at what I was being told. They were telling me it was 1930. That’s the sort of information you naturally question, especially when you weren’t even alive in 1930. It was one thing for my fellow patients to agree on the year – with the exception of Tom, of course, who was convinced it was 400 B.C. – but when doctors, nurses, staff and orderlies confirm it, you begin to wonder.
As much I was amazed at what I was being told, it’s far to say everybody else was even more fascinated by what I was telling them. Some of the patients, of course, did not see anything unusual about me talking about what would happen in the future. As G.K. Chesterton once wrote, a man who believes he is a poached egg sees nothing remarkable about being a poached egg. It’s the people who know better that find it interesting.
So the people who seemed most transfixed by more stories about my stories were the ordinary workers. The doctors, as you might suspect, were more interested about what stories told them about my “condition.’’
But it wasn’t that way with the staff, the orderlies, janitors, nurses, etc. They liked me stories because they were so very interesting.
Before long, I was holding court in the day-room on an almost constant basis.
At first, I told them what I considered the important things – how the recent crash on Wall Street would usher in a decade-long depression the likes of which America had never seen. I told them about the treachery of Pearl Harbor the monstrosity of the Holocaust and Hitler; the depravity of Stalin.
They listened intently, but I sensed they were beginning to grow weary of the grim details of history.
So I began to change the nature of my glimpse into the future. I told them about Corvettes and Ferraris, of television – it’s like having a movie theater in your living room. I told them about microwave ovens and cell phones and the internet, concepts they found difficult to grasp. Of course, I told them about Neal Armstrong and the moon walk, which seemed to delight them.
I guess my best audience, though, were the black night orderlies and janitors, who sat quietly as I told about what was in store for their people.
I told them about Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers and watched with satisfaction at the wonder in their eyes as I related his story.
I told them about Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights movement. I told them how he was shot and killed in Memphis and they could believe that.
I told them about how King would open the door for a black president in 2008. That, they couldn’t believe.
“This negro president, what’s his name?’’ one of the janitors asked.
“Barack Obama,’’ I said.
The men snickered and the janitor said, “Aw, suh, now we know you is funnin’ us.’’
Before long, I had become pretty adept at tailoring my stories to the interests of the audience. Nurse Kennedy was a movie fan, so I told her about the great stars that would soon emerge on the scene – Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Audrey Hepburn, Bette Davis. I told her of the great films that would soon mark Hollywood’s Golden Age – GoneWith the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Citizen Kane, etc. Ditto for music. These lectures on “The future of Popular Culture’’ were always the most popular topics, even more popular than my rather grim assessments of the world-shaping events that would soon commence. Some things never change, I suppose.
In the hallways and offices, I quickly developed the reputation as a most inventive man.
The doctors, meanwhile, did not know what to make of me. I gave no indication of mental instability outside of my insistence that I belonged to another time. Nor did I fit the profile of the typical amnesiac. I knew my name, when and where I was born, the basic details of life you might expect from a middle-aged man.
But it was the time element that had them stumped.
I found out later that after telling the doctor that I was born on July 9, 1959 in Tupelo, Miss., as the sixth child of Fred and Mattie Smith, who lived at 1104 Simpson Street, that they dutifully tried to confirm my story.
What they found out was that there was, indeed, a place called Tupelo, Miss. But none of the other information could be confirmed. They couldn’t find a Fred or Mattie Smith in Lee County and there was no record of a Simpson St. in Tupelo. Obviously, I could not have been born in 1959.
But in every other conversation, the doctors reported that I seemed perfectly normal and, in fact, quite intelligent.
When Doc returned from the conference in Philadelphia, he called a friend who was an administrator at Bellevue and arranged an examination.
The Doc was apparently as mesmerized by my stories as the orderlies had been. He returned almost every day for two weeks. By the third week, he had arranged to take over my case – pro bono, he insisted. Two weeks later, he had moved me into his magnificent estate, just two blocks from Teddy Roosevelt’s childhood home.
I did not move into the basement quarters normally reserved for the housekeeping staff, either. I was moved directly into an elegant guest room.
I was part of the family, it seemed.
And that meant, I was part of the family vacation.
Sarah woke, stretched and peered out the window.
“My, just look at the wheat fields,’’ she said. “Beautiful, aren’t they? What could they possibly do with all that wheat?’’
“In a few years, most of it will be rotting in grain silos,’’ I said, ‘’while people in cities stand in line for watered-down soup.’’
Sarah’s face darkened.
“How you talk!’ she said dismissively.

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