Monday, October 20, 2008

The Flu Shot Line

If there were some kind of ersatz Statue Of Liberty in the lobby of the Geary Street Kaiser Hospital waiting room, on its plaque would be engraved, at least during Flu Shot Week, “Give me your deformed, your cranky, your morose patients botched beyond all repair.” I would keep the part in Lazarus’s poem about them being wretched refuse. And maybe add something about them standing in a line that snakes all the way around the building and out into the street, where some of these expendable masses narrowly avoid becoming the latest statistic in pedestrian mortality reports. The prophylactic promise of the flu shot, though it may just be a psychosomatic panacea, has become matter-of-course each October for these hypochondriac folks, most of whom are either pushing eighty, strangely disfigured, dripping snot and saliva or other unrecognizable types of bodily fluids from every orifice, suppurating ad nauseum, and who share the same bitter, maligned facial expression of abject resignation. They come in on walkers, in wheelchairs, electric Rascal scooters, and hobbling along with canes. Crotchety, scowling, crookedly bent over, hacking up a lung, drool hanging from their dentures, they stand in these block-long lines and wait for their prized flu shot. Kaiser has a Flu Shot Clinic that they run for a two-week period every October. All it really is, is about five or six nurses armed with needles at fold-up tables. An ever-alert security guard monitors the lines, sending the next patient to the next available nurse as they are freed up. Usually there are two lines of people waiting on the half-dozen nurses giving the shots. Why there are two lines, and what is the difference between the two lines, are subjects of much conjecture and debate among those standing in the lines. Often times fights will break out between members of these lines, which are only divided by about ten feet, and the poor security guard will have to step in and separate the warring factions. In actuality, nobody really knows the reason for having two lines, but I assume it has something to do with making the wait seem shorter, as having them all stand in one line may send the thing all the way out to Ocean Beach, and Kaiser doesn’t want sand being tracked into the antiseptic environment of their hospital. So people stand and wait and curse their luck, chewing their gums and shouting at the voices in their head to shut up. A certain sanity is severely lacking in these valetudinarians. Facial tics, unsightly wounds, limbs shaking with Parkinson’s, outrageous Tourette’s-like shouts and coprolaliac jeers, random acts of selfishness, and mayhem abound. Watching the people in line is not a completely unpleasant way to spend an afternoon. In fact, it can be very entertaining, for those with a more sick sense of humor. I once saw an octogenarian woman spit right in the face of a morbidly obese man sitting atop a high-powered Rascal—fully stocked with dual front coil springs, mid-wheel drive, shocks, and power brakes. The guy glowered at her and screamed, “You will be dead by the time you reach the front of this line, you fucking whore!” while the sputum was still dripping off of one of his numerous chins. The old hag just leaned on her walker, which had cut-in-half tennis balls attached to the back legs, and gave the corpulent fellow an icy stare while contorting her haggard and bird-like features into a horrendous grimace. The fat man’s face got red and bloated, more than it normally was, with many veins throbbing and a few white boils looking as if they were about to pop, and I thought he might buy the farm right there, but the spry and fearless security guard was quickly on the scene, and diffused the situation by offering the over-sized Rascal rider a free bag of doughnut holes from the bakery next door. This security guard is a man to be admired. He has the Herculean task of keeping the warring nitwits in the line, well, in line. And, remember, he also is the one who controls the flow from the front of the lines to the nurses with the needles. This is no small job, and I think he is well underpaid for doing it. He doesn’t complain though. Mostly he just stands there signaling people and shouting, “Next!” each time a spot opens up. How he regulates both lines at once I will never understand, but he makes it work. The lines both keep moving at a pretty much constant and equal rate. It is a thing of wonder. I stand there in the hospital lobby on long autumn afternoons of dim sunlight and breezy susurrations of wind, and I watch them, the botched, the lame, the undignified afflicted, stand in those lines and wait. By the time they make it into the actual lobby they’ve already been standing in line for quite a while on the sidewalk outside. Their hair is tousled. Leaves and trash are attached to their clothing. The skin on their faces is rugged and sun-chapped. Small children, come only to keep their grandparents company, have hit puberty. People’s dogs have died. It is a long and torturous wait. It always amazes me how patient these people will be, waiting all that time in line just to get their precious flu shots. These same people who probably hit the gas through yellow-turning-red lights; who might make mad dashes, using their shopping carts like Bumper Cars, at Safeway to get to the checkout line first; who run across the street against traffic to catch a bus that is just closing its doors; who waggle their claim check in front of my face in the pharmacy, complaining that they just don’t have time to wait, “In that big old long line,” and screaming at me, “Just help me, come on, all you’ve gotta do is just grab my pills and give them to me. I cannot wait! I want to talk to your supervisor!” Most of the time they aren’t even that nice about it. All I know is that they spend a hell of a lot more time waiting in this flu-shot line than they do in the pharmacy’s line. But, for some reason, they all seem to have the time to do this absurd thing every year—to stand there in the flu-shot line through rain, sleet, and, well not snow in San Francisco, but any other kind of inclemency of weather, and they hurl much less acrimony at the nurses than they do at us pharmacy clerks. It baffles me. I don’t question such things though. I just stand there and watch them as they come in through the propped open doors of the hospital lobby: the deformed, the cranky, the morose; as they come in single file, knees buckling, faces straining and burdened, arthritic hands holding on for dear life to the bars of their walkers and canes; as they come in from the street, strabismic, looking lost and craning their necks to get a peek at what they think might be the end of the line, the place where a nurse trained in the delicate art of phlebotomy will have them pull up a shirt sleeve, wipe down a spot on their upper arm with an alcohol pad, ask them if they are allergic to eggs, and finally will give them that shot, that injection of a killed influenza virus that they believe will ward off sickness, and maybe some fear and trembling unto death too. It is not for me to say that they are wrong, that they are suffering from a delusion forced on them by a government that is only interested in making money for drug companies, that they are lonely and scared and are just looking for something to give them comfort during a period of hopelessness and uncertainty. I just stand there by the wall, eating an egg salad sandwich on my lunch break and trying to whistle, watching them come and go and come and go, this steady stream of people, all of whom are spending their time in this way, waiting, waiting, and waiting. It is a very important thing, their waiting, and it is profound in the most basic and everyday sort of way. It is something to be doing with this time that you are allotted to be alive in. Waiting. No different from me. No different at all. I stand there against the wall in the lobby of the Kaiser Permanente on Geary Street with my sandwich in my hand, and I smile.