My supervisor-to-be greeted me at the front desk of the facility as if I had been hand delivered, on top of a hot-fudge sundae, by God. Disheveled and forgetting to breathe, she rapidly slapped together an application from scattered folders, answered questions on the phone with one ear and corner of her mouth, barked out instructions over the walkie-talkie with the other halves, ate her fifth coffee cake of the morning somewhere in between–while admitting she had a food addiction–and gently answered dogged questions from a growing line of lost, sobbing, dementia-driven seniors needing hugs of reassurance that all would be well.

A part of me was ready to flee, as she grabbed my fore-arm and leaned into my face with eyes that looked ready to well up with tears at any moment, but she intoxicated me with her superhuman, empathic abilities, and so when she exclaimed that I was perfect–that I was just who she was looking for—particularly after two days of cancelled interviews–between her cheerleading gusto, passion for caregiving, and my well-hewn, self-brain-washing techniques to appear positive, perfect and upbeat–I got snagged.

I needed a job fast. Earlier, at the frigid hour of five a.m., Miss-No-I-Can’t-Help-You at the UPS Delivery Assistant call-in center, finally admitted, many conversations later, that she didn’t care that I had couch-surfed across the Valley, now cycled an hour and half to my cycling delivery route, nor that UPS had promised otherwise. As reality dawned on me, I desperately hit Craigslist to find the assisted-living receptionist ad, gleaming like the North Star, amid the scam-ridden cesspool.

Of Miss-UPS-No-Heart: “She’s new. Try to forgive her,” I mused, as I culled a cute outfit together from recesses of my duffel bags: a navy and white polka dot blouse sporting a handsome, poufy bow beneath the chin, pearl-button earrings, red lipstick, black, ankle-length, peddle-pushers, and red—to match the lipstick–soft-bottomed flats—I looked like Mary Tyler Moore crossed with an ‘80’s Lucille Ball at a Wimbledon tennis club. My inner, gleeful, pre-Christmas Tiny Tim, proclaimed, “You’ll get to lift everyone’s spirits through the holidays!” The teenager in me chimed in, “who knows, maybe you’ll meet a Man!” while my adult-self searched for cheer in the drear.
As I filled out my application, later that afternoon, on the carpet, between my duffels, sudden hillside fires, aided by careening and feverish Santa Ana winds, smoked out the neighborhood where I had just peddled round deliveries. My UPS dream—my chance at a union job—finally!–with benefits–that kept me moving and out of physical pain–was clearly over. But my new supervisor said she would overlook the fee for the background check! This could turn into a ‘real job’! They were already brewing “big plans for me”! Even the general manager–she could tell–he “really liked me!—unlike the other girls—already”! It all seemed so meant to be.

At the old folks’ home, it was warm and cozy. Christmas carols streamed day and night from my computer, and everybody shuffled, except for the RA’s and my supervisor, ladies who moved as if their pants were on fire. But never mind that, she reassured me with her arm-clamping, I was perfect for the job. Soon I’d fit right in–it would be a cinch–she mumbled, Christmas cookie crumbs spraying from her lips, “you can memorize the 90-plus residents’ names and apartments!”

My first day training, relieved to be employed again, I spouted witty repartees, which my supervisor seemed to get and laughed back at, thank goodness. It was just the General Manager in the adjoining office, who seemed taken aback at a subtle crack, asking me if it was sarcasm. Uh…oh. My snazzy, insta-job-outfit got neatly tucked back in a duffel. I now wore the required, head-to-toe black…black, and more black, just like the four out of five previous jobs. Ah, UPS…at least there I could dabble in dark and warm tones.

Despite my hourly pay, this was no shabby senior home, assured the brochure and monthly bill per resident. Next to the lobby’s, thirty foot Christmas tree, draped with ornaments the size of basketballs, pillows on couches were fluffed, the hot chocolate and coffee machine’s overflow dispensed, and the popcorn machine popped regularly, thanks to yours truly. These duties, and many more, were supposed to happen without my ever leaving the front desk, according to Mr. GM, taking meticulous notes on my whereabouts. I wondered when he would provide the Star Trek transporter, because a person can’t physically wash out a coffee machine catch-all and answer a phone before the second ring–at the same time–without taking out an old lady with a walker.

Meanwhile, Mr. GMan spent most of his work hours listing criticisms of the front desk gals. My supervisor waved the lengthy lists at me during increasingly frequent, hysterical venting episodes, her long hair flying this way and that, even though I had only been there a week. “She trusts me,” I gloated. Was it his comparative composure, or the itemizing of every fault known to human kind, that earned him his six-figure salary? (I knew how much he made, because my supervisor almost blew her top when she stumbled upon it in a file.) When there, he insisted on air conditioning because he was hot in his office, despite all the residents st/rolling by, noting the extreme chill, fretting over catching the flu, and hacking up a lung. Now covering all the major holiday shifts, I shivered under my down jacket and merrily answered phone calls with “Happy Holidays!” between chattering teeth, pondering, in my spare seconds between transferring calls, when my catapult to a ‘real job’ was supposed to happen.

GMan’s important meetings consisted of informal chats with the Owner of the building, who sauntered in around eleven. A middle-aged, overweight man, with darting eyes, Owner murmured on his cell phone about personal matters, sat on the office couch, rather than interface with the legions of displeased residents, swarming in front of my desk. Pros at The-Art-of-the-Dodge, Owner and GMan, stood around grandly and throat-cleared often then disappeared swiftly at the hint of a crisis. I deliberated where they hid, through a secret door to a bar behind the rec room, puzzle table? Once a resident tipped over and spilled from his wheelchair just outside the front door. GMan officiously cried out ‘Man Down!, leaping up from his desk fast enough to get there after four nurses had already righted the situation, then strutting around, arms crossed, basking in his own, benevolent glory.

The lobby teamed with activity. Mystified regulars circled slowly, or sat and stared aimlessly into space while Oscar Peterson tunes rescued whatever sanity I could hold on to. The fish tank got cloudy every other day and the fish tank repair guys had to be called in again, while Owner, overcome with gravitas at these events, always materialized to oversee the de-clouding operation. Meanwhile, I frantically, but elegantly composed–to GMan’s calligraphic standards–a note about how Lilly still didn’t have toilet paper, one eye following 118, who stood motionless, staring out the window, hands folded neatly behind her back as if standing at a putting green. Lured again by nature’s culprits–chirping birds and California sunshine—she got a pretty good start, as I dropped my handiwork and chased her down the sidewalk–GMan-splained, “That’s the fifth break for it this morning,”–after I returned, breathless–“Keep an eye on her.”
The reprimands from GMan–for leaving my desk for such responsible behavior–were handed to me–via my supervisor—much later, after he’d left. (Why was there no security, by the way? And how was it that a resident, with such a severe case of forgettery, could so easily walk out? And how can I send an RA after her, when all were otherwise engaged? And why is there nobody at the front desk after 7pm?) Nobody really wanted to hear my concerns, because I was the one who had administered annoying, continual, walkie commands all morning to get unavailable RA’s to rooms 214, 112, 320…RA’s yelled back at me over the walkie or in my face, showing me little sympathy as they ran by, fanning their backsides.

Strapped to my desk now, going to the toilet became my small triumph. “Stop seeing the negative—try to enjoy the moment—c’mon!–sing along to a Christmas carol!” I’d remind myself, holding my pee, as I entered into the log the sixth package that day for the hoarder in room 406, wondering how to get it to her. Owner’s orders were to leave it, while GMan insisted all packages had to be delivered immediately. Should I hire a carrier pigeon? Pay off an RA for special favors? I wiped down the front desk with a wet-wipe, while one of the residents expressed concern about a newcomer, who appeared severely, mentally impaired. “How did he get admitted here?” she whispered. I nodded toward GMan’s office. “He’s obviously got special needs!!!” she continued. I shrugged and forced a smile, humming along to Elvis crooning “Blue Christmas,” wet-wiping repeatedly over an imaginary spot as I glanced down the lobby, calculating when to make a break for the restroom.

And so, complaints whirled in, like moths to a flame. So-and-so didn’t get her ice-tea again. There were bed bugs in room 204. Why hadn’t anybody gone to room 316 for the last two hours?–She’d been pressing the call button all morning, and really needed to use the bathroom. Where was the tray for 405?—he’d ordered it three times already! In thick accents, residents from foreign countries haggled me for medication for their aches and pains—what, do I look like a vendor at a fish market? I’d call out for a translator, but all four RA’s were busy stacking themselves like cheerleaders–imitating a forklift–to heft the obese woman and her husband in 128 from their wheelchairs back to their easy chairs, while 113 yelled at me for denying him his second allotted cigarette of the day, though clearly that was all he had left to live for. I stuffed my latest complaint into GMan’s box. Nothing felt funny anymore.

Regular conversations with the RA’s ran along the lines of—“I thought there were supposed to be four—wait, there’s only two of you today?” They’d wince, lightning bolts blazing from their eyes. Nobody explained why to me, as each huffed by, rolling eyes, dropping tray orders on the desk, yelling out a room-order, repair-request, or hastily grabbing a prescription to deliver to the Med-tech. To catch an RA on break meant finding a wretch about to keel over and kiss her shoes. To enter the break room hosting a lunch gathering meant facing a pit of Amazons about to instigate a riot. Telling glances indicated the urge to confide in me, but the magnitude of the situation necessitated either a summit at Camp David, or emergency, coronary attention. Once, three of us drew up a written request to get paid for not taking a proper lunch break, because there was no way on Earth any of us could leave our posts without causing serious damage to a resident, or two, or three…a small act of courage–perhaps the start of a unionizing coalition!–I daydreamed.

Straining to make sense of it all, my imagination took off. Now a self-appointed ombudsman, appointed by the City, I assessed the joint, clipboard in hand. The kitchen staff were sheltered in the dining hall, so I noted: “Busy. Relatively stable.” Harried housekeeping passed by, lost behind the flurry of laundry and cleaning carts, and cursed at me for confusing them with the RA’s. “Impending civil war,” I jotted down. Distressed family members and private nursing aids—oops—I forgot, they don’t work here, but they sure as hell look like it!!! The recreation manager, a decades-long survivor of frequent proprietor turnovers: “Genius!” The fix-it guy and shuttle driver–bleary eyed: “Overwhelmed!” The driver had confided in me that he couldn’t afford a room anymore. Notation in the margin “Homeless?—sleeping in shuttle van?” Next to 83% of the staff I wrote in large block letters: “GROSSLY UNDERPAID—OVERWORKED—UNDERSTAFFED.”–circled with red ink—“REPORT TO THE CFPB ASAP!”—wait, there is no Consumer Financial Protection Bureau anymore…

As for upper management: the Wellness Director—yikes–another member of the clandestine puzzle-bar. Brandishing a gilded chained, black, quilted, Co Co Chanel purse, she appeared in the lobby at 11-ish, loudly hobnobbing with Owner and G-man, three steely black-widows sharing the same web. Her in-box rarely checked, I wondered how she even got the job, since she looked better suited to work behind the make-up counter at Bloomy’s. Impressions of her yelling at the next senior citizen–who she’d most likely over-medicated–invaded me as I peddled home. I fantasized about booking off-the-clock interviews with the RA’s, submitting an under-cover, investigative report to Frontline. Meanwhile, I missed my supervisor, who I hadn’t seen for a while. She had collapsed and taken sick days to convalesce at home.

As for highlights, one of the residents, a former chief executive for a major, television station–and a family man who spoke devotedly of his eight brothers and superhero mother–fell in love with me. When I overlooked the dandruff covered shoulders, food stains around his mouth, and occasional, unzipped pants, I played along and flirted a little, even bringing him a cheap plastic comb at his request, because at this fancy establishment, simple items like combs and bars of soap were hard to come by, bartered like paraphernalia in a prison. One thing led to another, and he started pulling up a chair, assuring me that our fondness for each other would be kept secret, promising he’d arrange for a friend to get me a Toyota, all between confirming the time on the clock every five minutes and verifying my name. In spite of Eartha Kitt’s ‘Santa Baby’ playing in the background on Christmas Eve, I had to tell him pointedly to stop, as he inquired repeatedly what time I got off work. “If only I had a penchant for older men,” I sighed, “I’d be a multi-million-heiress by now.” Our resi-mance was all downhill from there. A couple days later he fell, and I sadly watched my now fragile buddy get lifted away into the ambulance.

On the eve of dismantling the blithe, holiday décor, so too evaporated whatever veneer shielded me from the neglect, chaos and cruelty that permeated the place. There were a few hostile and bratty residents who began taking out their futile, apartment-bound existence on me, the confined gal who had to answer the phone. When I asked GMan–always too busy doing whatever he did from behind his computer screen–how to handle so-and-so–whose incessant demands left me speechless–he waved the calls toward the wellness department, where nobody answered phones, so they inevitably circled back to me. I began to see a pattern…duh. Sometimes a gal, no matter how well-intentioned and hard-working, just can’t win.

Sensing that my small war would soon be over, I obstinately stared past GMan more often, and my heart filled with imminent-departure admiration and gratitude for so numerous other fast friends. A good number had survived the Great Depression, served in a major war, taken good care of themselves, their families, each other, provided well. Brittle-boned, but character tough and bright, grey-haired sprites offered me a cautious word here, a laugh there, chocolates, a dollar-store gift, a squeeze of the hand, camaraderie, while younger, lonely souls suffered horrible afflictions and bravely faced looming death with little familial support. I bonded often. We had surmounted the cold, loneliness of the holidays, the dying time of year, together.

For a few days, sheets of rain made the trip by public trans and foot shivery and harsh. The first sunny day, my supervisor returned to work refreshed, and a scheduling snafu made it clear that the universe had other plans for me. Management didn’t deserve the customary two weeks’ notice. Even though I warned my supervisor, I regretted how the breaking news hit her, but self-preservation was in order. A watershed of tears broke, we shared a full embrace, and I walked out, self-esteem intact. When I returned to pick-up my paycheck, GMan, holed up in his office, never met my glance. I shared my last hug with the oldest dame in the building, my angel of mercy–coincidentally named Mary–truly hand-delivered—to sustain me all winter–by God. (And since I’m not a Christian, that’s truly saying something.) It took me half a mile walking before I could climb onto my bicycle. A gal just can’t ride, through a stream of tears, in morning traffic.

All Rights Reserved. Copyright Alicia Sterling Beach