The American Caliban (substitute) wrote,
The American Caliban
substitute

Workplace stories: The Smoker

P. was a file clerk at the hospital where I was a first a transcriptionist and later the supervisor. I worked with her for almost five years.

She was a short, slight woman in her late fifties. Her greying black hair was cut short and she had thick black-rimmed glasses. Every day she wore the same thing: black jeans or work pants, a t-shirt, and a Pendleton type button down overshirt. She lived in the Valley with her partner, an older woman with several disabilities that kept her at home. She never used the word "lesbian" or referred to sexuality in any way, in fact.

P. was a person of routine. Her job was to file and deliver medical reports. Every day on a strict schedule she would go from place to place in the hospital picking up some and putting others on the chart, and then return to our office to file, mail, staple, and prepare more reports. She was incapable of variation. If one day the anesthesia sheets were later than the radiology dictations she got flustered and misdelivered things. If the need arose for flexibility she collapsed and refused. A new computer system was a life-changing disaster. Kept on her train track, though, she was content, pleasant, and hard-working. She loved the music of the 1950s, television sitcoms and game shows, and rest.

Every day she had a cheese sandwich, plain, from the cafeteria. She would sample just about any food once, but she'd always go back to the sandwich. Precisely at her shift end she would clock out and head home to have dinner and then watch television with her partner. By her report the weekends consisted of more sitting and television. She always worked Christmas and Easter for the overtime. She said it was because she was a Jew, but really it was because she needed the money and never had much to do anyway.

P. was from Chicago. Occasionally she'd wear a bowling shirt completely covered with patches advertising leagues, victories, tournaments from a 25-year career. She had left bowling years ago, mostly because her partner couldn't participate. She never talked about the Chicago days, or the bowling, or much of anything except current news and weather and a little office politics.

She was obliging and pleasant in conversation. Practically anything anyone said would get a "You got that right, babe" or "Yes ma'am!" If she disagreed or didn't want to address something she'd just silently shake her bowed head. Any trouble related to work would immediately be brought to me and handed off with a characteristic palms forward gesture: "It's all yours, boss. I dunno."

I believe P. smoked more than anyone I've known. There was always a pack of Marlboros in the overshirt, and she must have been a three-pack-a-day smoker. Getting to close to her was not recommended due to the intense cigarette smell.

Because she could only do certain things, on a certain schedule, P. was constantly terrified that she'd lose her job. As a result she was a terrible paranoid and office gossip, and went about the floors on her rounds gathering any kind of unreliable information she could about the hospital. During a union fight in the nursing department she wholeheartedly supported management, wearing the anti-union button and arguing with nurses on the floor. When layoffs were announced, she was a fount of detailed misinformation about our imminent doom. She took great delight in bad news and declines and falls. With the same characteristic shake of the bowed head, she'd say over and over "That's what I'm telling you, yup, yup, that's how it is, it's a damn shame" about the day's crisis or gloomy news story.

Her greatest challenge arrived the day the new anti-smoking regulations went in. Suddenly she couldn't smoke anywhere near the building, only in certain areas away from entrances. Before that she'd taken lots of unofficial little breaks to suck down a cig, but now that was impossible. And she couldn't take enough breaks to feed the habit, or other employees would complain and I'd have to ask her to cut down. Several of us tried to help her with smoking cessation information, including the head of pulmonary medicine.

P. had a better solution. She broke up her runs to the floor into smaller chunks, so that she could deliver them more often. Since that still kept her inside hospital walls, though, she had to find a way to get a smoke. Her solution was to avoid the covered walkway between the two buildings and skip the elevator, and instead walk down a long staircase that took her from the top of a hill to the turnaround and main hospital entrance. It was about a thirty foot stairway. She'd light up at the top and inhale the whole way down, stubbing the cigarette out in the ashtray at the bottom. Then back into the hospital to finish her rounds.

So she did learn how to be flexible, after all. I never talked to her about her technique, but I admired her victory over circumstances.

Later that year so many of my staffers complained about the long walk to get outside to smoke that I got them a short cut as a favor from another department. We had a card key that opened into a secure area, from which they could easily step outside into a loading dock.

The secure area was full of dead people, though. Throughout my day, people would come to my desk and say "I need to smoke. Can I have the key to the morgue?"

While I was working there, my father died suddenly. P. came into my office right after I'd told everyone, and stood there for a moment as if pulling together for a confession. "I just wanted to tell you," she said. "My mother died when I was 25, on Mother's day. I've never got over it. I just wanted to say I'm sorry." Then she delivered the characteristic head shake and went on another set of rounds.

I wonder if she is still alive? It's been ten years since I left; I doubt it.
Tags: characters, hospital, personal narrative, reminiscence, smoking, work
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