Sunday morning dawned clear and freezing.
I, unfortunately, was not awake for it, and woke up 40 minutes before I had to be 100 blocks uptown. Nearly an hour later, I emerged from the subway stop at 103rd Street wearing tights as pants and a pajama top. Enough snow was still on the ground to inhibit my speed, so I picked my way around what had become hardened ice clumps to the Jewish Home for the Aged.
The air inside smelled of decay and antiseptic, and the effect only intensified as I approached the dining room where I would serve as manicurist for the next hour and a half.
The point of this whole exercise was to lift the spirits of the residents, many of whom were there only temporarily for rehabilitative purposes (broken hip, broken leg, what appeared to be broken spirit in several cases) and needed a distraction from the constant appearance of nurses and mushy food.
My first “client” was a tiny, grandmotherly Jewish woman who had spent her life on the Upper West Side. She and her husband still make a point of getting out on the town, mostly to events at Lincoln Center and literary gatherings, and his daily treks to the hospital seemed evidence of the kind of love that most people seek but rarely find.
As I painstakingly filed the nails around her chapped fingers, she regaled me with stories of their trips – to Europe, to China, to Yellowstone and all up and down the California coast. The life she described was rich with experiences, and made me wistful for the glory days of the United States when families took off on the Great American Road Trip during their holidays and couples married with the intention of sticking it out.
The line of wheelchairs had dwindled to one by the time the glossy nude color on her nails had dried, and as we said our goodbyes, and I glanced hopefully at the large woman slumped over with a grumpy look on her face. She appeared to be asleep, and the other volunteers were already cleaning up.
No such luck. One of the nurses cheerfully called out to me to grab the last patient, then disappeared to start carrying in lunch trays. I threw my entire weight behind the wheelchair and with middling success, navigated her through the maze of wheels to the table, all the while trying not to think of the fresh stitches straining at my abdomen.
With the woman finally situated at the table, I yanked on a fresh pair of latex gloves and asked her which color she preferred.
“No color!” she snapped at me, one eye open.
Undeterred, I picked up a nail file and began sawing away.
“Don’t file! Cut!” she barked.
I calmly explained that I could not cut her nails due to infection risk, but would notify a nurse that she would like them cut upon returning to her room.
You’re not going to cut?, she asked, glaring at me.
I repeated my previous statement, and added that I was just a volunteer there to help her feel pretty and have a little fun. This sent her into a frenzy.
“Goddamn waste of my time!” she shouted, loudly enough for the remaining volunteers to stare. “Just a goddamn waste of my time!”
No, you old witch, this is a waste of my time, I thought as I signaled for a nurse and hastily tried to distance myself from her.
I packed up my materials as quickly as possible, and smiled widely at the other volunteers, hoping they didn’t think I had tried to hurt her.
Some people just aren’t the lemonade types.