an american asylum

I’ve written a lot lately, but I haven’t published it. And some of the things I get to write daily are only seen by a few on the “outside” who need to approve it. Anyway, the following was prompted by an old work acquaintance’s facebook status that begged people not to put their elderly loved ones into a traditional nursing home. I started to write a long-winded comment in response detailing some of my own experiences in nursing homes as a worker, but then I realized that was kind of rude — bad netiquette if you will (this is apparently a word now).

Someone else had quickly commented that there are more bad nursing homes in the US than good ones. That sounds about right, but the anecdotal evidence I can put forward is strictly from personal experience. But as I got to thinking about my past with regard to a convalescent home, I came to recognize a broader picture of experimentation on and disposal of human life on this continent in my relatively short lifespan.

The second job I had in my life was at a facility that could be defined more technically as a place for convalescence than an “old folks home”, though I don’t remember anyone actually leaving after they had supposedly recuperated. It was thought of as a relic from times past even as I knew them at the young age of 16. That I was entering into my second job at 16 speaks to the idiocy of my own upbringing, I think. My employment at that age guaranteed my survival in some forms even though I was nominally housed and fed by the people charged with my care. If I wanted anything “extra” to make my still young existence more comfortable, it was abundantly clear to me that girl, you better work.

The old-fashioned quality of this home causes me to look back on this part of my life as an extended scene of a depressing film that had its endearing moments. That I view it in that way speaks to the rapid evolution of tech in these last twenty years to my mind, and I’ll get to some of that in a future post. It was an actual asylum that existed in the mid to late 90s — maybe it still stands. However, I will never go back to the hellhole of the map dot it stood/stands on for the rest of my years on this planet. In any case, the people it housed had all been declared insane. In a small turn of fortune for them, it was very low security, and if the residents had the ability to leave on foot, on their own, they had hours throughout the day to do so. There was usually no question that they would return if they continued to want to have a bed to sleep on and food, albeit institutional, in their bellies.

I was a cook, and I tried to make the corporate mass-produced components of their meals as palatable as I could. I can think back fondly on some of the things I was able to provide that the residents actually wanted seconds on and seemed thankful to consume. And my god, they were quite simple tweaks I was able to upgrade using the “standards” of nutrition we were given to work with. And my boss was a creative woman herself and encouraged my culinary exploration, a skilled dietitian I looked up to and whom I was giddy to work with. She was my schoolmate-friend’s very cool older sister who would buy me booze and cigarettes on our after hours.

I don’t think she would normally “contribute to the delinquency of a minor” — in fact, I recall her trying to keep me away from some of the “rougher elements” if I wanted to be able to have the contraband she could provide. I was often babysat by her and her boyfriend while I partook, and she didn’t want me on the marijuana or other psychedelics that regularly floated around our small town. Somewhat ironic, that, but I was a good worker under her watch. In another ironic twist, this form of relaxation and camaraderie wasn’t always shared with her sister, my peer, who didn’t have to know work at that age. Another bond we shared — sibling order and the expectations that came from it.

One summer between my high school years — my full-time seasons, of course — the entire staff of a more typical nursing home our parent company had newly acquired all walked out. We were asked to scab as our facility had a full staff that could compensate in our absence, just my boss and I. I don’t regret being pulled into it for that reason, however. The home was a good three to four hour drive from us, and the state of it was horrendous. And don’t forget that these were people, humans, held in a state of decay hidden from the outside world and mostly forgotten. I cannot imagine that compassionate loved ones who may have wanted to be around the people crammed into this place would have let this condition go unnoticed.

The kitchen required hours of cleanup before we could begin service. The amount of stuff we had to toss from the refrigerator was depressing, and the demands made of us in a hot kitchen with barely functioning air conditioning in the dead of summer made us irritable. My boss made me cry at one point, but she quickly apologized and we pushed the food out to these neglected shells of once more vibrant beings. From what we had to work with on that first day, I remember that our hastily prepared tuna melts were a hit.

A week flew by, and after our double shifts, we slept like rocks on our motel room beds. There was not much else to do but work and sleep. I have blocked out most of the dilapidation of this place — upon first impression, it was clearly falling apart. Faux shutters clung to the windows by splinters of wood, as if the overgrown vegetation once designed to invite visitors and potential residents was bringing it to the ground in hopes of swallowing the whole thing up, including the poor souls trapped inside. Stainless steel medicine carts stood askew in the hallways, like they had been abandoned by people escaping a fire. Why did the staff walk out — did they actually have pride in how they treated these folks? I never found out. But we afforded this private company enough time to hire new, and we went back to our well-oiled machine with fat paychecks.

I, my boss, and the other kitchen staff took pride in our kitchen. The building was older but pristinely kept by all departments. It had a “bad reputation” in the town for allegedly holding murderers declared insane, and that I worked “there” was held as some kind of folklore by my peers. There were still some older residents who had lived in its more traditional house-structure predecessor before they had been transferred to our facility that was built in the 70s. It was rumored to have been purchased by a practicing witch no one ever saw come out of the house, complete with a basement designed for animal sacrifice that she had painted a large red pentagram on, so the story went.

The more likely story is that she was simply an older woman who wanted to be left alone, but buying the compound in its entirety was weird to us because the place was just creepy. It had its own small cemetery, and it was said that very few of the crumbling tombstones were marked with the actual names of those buried beneath. They were rather said to have been descriptions of the people themselves. The compound was miles away from the town, eerily almost a straight line across the highway from the newer institution. One night, several friends and I drove out there in multiple cars with flashlights to see if we could read the tombstones. Almost as soon as we worked up the nerve to search the premises for ourselves, a light in the large house came on, and we bolted out of fear for knowingly trespassing. And for other reasons we had been previously scared by, obviously.

That was one of my dumber teenage moments among many, and now I look back on those years bittersweetly. I wish I would have had more people in my life who encouraged more stringent academic standards. High school was utterly boring to me, and I excelled in the normal routine of it all in spite of myself. Teachers even allowed me out of class to work. We had plenty of AP classes, but no one really cared to show me the way in those. I was a worker; I was making adult decisions and comforting idiot adult “caregivers” in my life well before I was waged, even. But by the same token, I’ve found meaning in my life by working for those more marginalized than me in some capacity throughout my combined career. Despite some of that futile regret, I would not want to change that history for all the calculus and early exposure to the so-called European masters I could have found myself with.

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