The Passing Parade: Cheap Shots from a Drive By Mind

"...difficile est saturam non scribere. Nam quis iniquae tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se..." " is hard not to write Satire. For who is so tolerant of the unjust City, so steeled, that he can restrain himself... Juvenal, The Satires (1.30-32)

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

A DEATH IN THE FAMILY, SO TO SPEAK: I don’t like whining; complaining about things you can’t really do anything about has always struck me as counterproductive at best and usually annoying to anyone who has to listen to you go on and on about whatever it is you’re going on and on about. Years ago, for example, I worked with a woman who’d talk to anyone at all about her poor health, especially as the poor health of her reproductive tract, a subject I would just as soon skip as a topic of polite discourse. Don’t get me wrong; she was a very nice woman, very active in her church, and she got on well with the patrons, but asking her how she felt today was invariably a big mistake, since she was always more than willing to tell you whether you wanted to know or not.

I remember she once began a conversation in the lunchroom with a new employee about how well her son was doing playing Little League baseball, which was true; the kid was hitting .432 that year and did a great job in left field; and then steered the conversation, as I knew she would, to the subject of her health with the steely determination of the swallows returning to Capistrano, a temperance advocate to the saloon, and my brother to the fifty-dollar window at Saratoga. I sat there trying to eat my lunch, a sausage and meatball parmagiana hero from the Albanian pizzeria down the street when my medically malcontented coworker discussed, in explicit and altogether gruesome anatomical detail, the extensive webbing her gynecologist had found in her uterus during her last checkup. I got up to leave; I am always uncomfortable when women talk about things like this, something I chalk up to a lack of prolonged exposure to women and their health problems; I have no sisters, only brothers, four of them, and Mom would sooner cut her own throat than discuss something like this with us; my discomfort at the turn this conversation took compounded by the previous conversation about her son, the two subjects suddenly combining in my mind to produce the bizarre image of her playing the outfield, trying to shag fly balls with her pudenda. This image was sufficiently bizarre for me to choke on a piece of sausage, from which fate the new employee rescued me by the quick application of the Heimlich maneuver to dislodge the offending chunk of pork. The new employee, who, like me, is still slaving away in this egregious mold pit, later thanked me for giving her an excuse to terminate a conversation that was beginning, for her, to border on the utterly surreal.

So I do not want to appear to be whining when I say that I wish people would find somewhere other than our men’s room floor on which to pass away. I realize that dying in the bathroom has an ancient and honorable history. The great fourth century heresiarch Arius, who held that Christ was not co-substantial with the Father in the Holy Trinity, died in a commode, his bowels exploding, according to one contemporary chronicler, as a sign of the wrath of the Almighty, although more secular historians suggest poison as a more likely cause of death. King Edmund II of England died in the bathroom as well, stabbed to death by an assassin hiding beneath him in the toilet, the assassin no doubt thinking that there must be an easier way to earn a living. In more modern times, Lenny Bruce and Elvis Presley both died in their bathrooms, and Rolling Stone Keith Richards has almost died in his bathroom enough times for him to earn an honorable mention here. But passing away in the men’s room of a public library bespeaks a certain lack of gravitas unworthy of the public library as an institution. The deceased would have been better off passing away while hunched over some scholarly tome in the reference room, death alone ending his unquenchable thirst for knowledge; dying in the men’s room smacks of simple carelessness.

I know I shouldn’t complain about the gentleman’s passing in this manner, that I should instead view our men’s room as a stage on which the great drama of human existence is played out. As T. S. Eliot’s Apeneck Sweeney has it, all of life is but birth, copulation, and death, and of the three two have occurred in our men’s room. There are no births to record as yet, but several years ago our security guard discovered a man and a woman in the men’s room attending to a call of nature other than the two specified in the architect's design criteria. The disinterested observer might wonder why two people would choose such an otherwise romantically unconducive place for an assignation, but Cole Porter’s birds, bees, and even uneducated fleas do it in circumstances even less congenial than those found in a modern American public lavatory, so perhaps we should celebrate the power of love to overcome one's physical and psychological circumstances rather than dwell on the somewhat off-putting location of those circumstances.

It may be the shock of the new that is driving me to this prolonged bout of whinging about a man who obviously had no control over the time and place of his passing; I’ve been working here for just about eighteen years now and this is my first cadaver. Maybe if I hauled corpses out of here every other day I might have gotten used to the process by now. After all, people check out library materials all the time; I suppose that there’s no real reason they can’t check out themselves if they wish to—this is a public building, after all, and so long as they don’t break the law or bother the other patrons or make too much noise then people can more or less do what they want. It’s just that after a long day spent trying to find out how many carpeted passenger carriages there are in Europe I would rather not deal with a small army of cops, firemen, and paramedics trudging into the library in search of the deceased, although I did learn that the equipment that paramedics use for CPR and defibrillation actually talks them through the process. The voice of the machinery sounds an awful lot like the guy who does the p.a. announcements at Grand Central, and it must seem a little strange to the coronary stricken commuter as he lies on the platform in the middle of a circle of increasingly desperate emergency medical personnel that his last conscious act on Earth is wondering whether or not this is the 5:25 train to Poughkeepsie.


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