by Madeline Laughs
Today I’m in one of the most depressed cities in the USA. My job is to find out how everyone is doing. Not an easy task, but a worthy one.
Something happens in my brain when I lock into the work process. Explaining it as a shutdown seems appropriate, but it’s not a total black out. I’m still present, but large parts of me stop firing. When you’re in a situation that causes discomfort some people describe it as a disconnect. They can expedite the feeling by closing their eyes and imagining another place they’d rather be. This is kind of how it feels, except I’m not feeling discomfort. Well, not all the time. There are some days I walk away from my job in tears of frustration.
I can feel it coming on. A curtain starts to close in my head protecting the bits of me from whatever is on the other side of my vision. I become calmer, more focused, more observant and I seize every nuance of what’s happening in front of me and can record it without bias, without emotion. It’s a slow motion blink and then it’s just there with me, like an old friend.
The problem is that I can execute this easily at work, but in my personal life the disconnect never visits. Trust me, there are days when I wish that curtain would snap shut and never open again.
Knocking on the door of the trailer I’m thinking about the three other people in the same park I need to touch base with before it gets dark. I wanted to see this gentleman first because he was much older and I had the feeling he’d be asleep as soon as the sun set. I knock again a little louder. I can hear him inside shuffling around. Perhaps he was already sleeping.
The door cracks and he peers around the edge to see my face. I notice there are no peepholes in his door. Smiling he opens the door wider and invites me in. This is the most daunting part of my job; entering someone’s home. The subject’s willingness to allow me in to ask questions about their life while sitting on the sofa where they just napped, or in their favorite chair lends a certain intimacy that you can not plan. Like a vampire I cross the threshold into their lives and I suck out the details of their existence onto the paper in front of me while I sit with my legs crossed at their dining room table with the mismatched salt and pepper shakers and the pile of bills they can’t pay.
They are either overjoyed to see me, or they hate me. There’s no in between. I usually know within the first 90 seconds whether it’s going to be an easy interview or a difficult one. There have been quite a few times I’ve been mistaken though. My missteps occur when I’m dealing with a mental illness along with poverty and a mismanaged life. I can’t predict how those results will come about, or how the interview will end. It can go from easy to frightening in minutes and backing towards the door is my only option. This is why I always position myself with my back towards the one exit I’m sure of.
Being on your toes is the most crucial part of the job. Just last week I found myself sitting on a sofa in a young man’s living room when the hairs on my neck started to stand straight up. He had stopped answering my questions and was starring at me instead. I watched him over my reading glasses. He was a big guy and he lived alone in this apartment complex. Learning disabled and employed part time, he was not particularly angry, but I deduced that he could be easily agitated. I knew I had reached that part of the interview with him from his body language. This is when the subject starts to observe the observer.
We watched each other like this for about 20 seconds. My rule is to wait for them to speak first. “You’re really brave to be doing this.” He cupped his chin in his hand and leaned forward even more into my space. He was curious now. I cocked my head to the side and raised my eyebrows in a questioning look. He picked up my cue instantly. “You know, going into people’s apartments out here. Alone. You don’t know these people. There are crazy people out here!” I sat still. I waited for him to continue. Engaging him at this point would lead to a conversation and I wasn’t willing to give him that. That was too personal. Besides he hadn’t asked me any questions. He was merely feeling his way around trying to gauge my level of fear and insecurity. That was also too personal.
With his huge body tipped in my direction and his eyes going from my eyes to my hands to the tops of my knees, I took the chance when he was not focused on my face to check the distance to the front door. I could make it if I had to. I tapped my pencil on my clipboard to break his reverie. Once I had his attention again I resumed the interview. I never broke protocol, I didn’t utter a word that was off script, I never let him see past my curtain.
Respondents are not often comfortable breaking the stride of the interview once it gets started. They follow along easily if you continue a steady pace and leave no chance for boredom or irritation to take root. The pace can be hypnotic, like a metronome click clacking a rhythm, or it can be urgent like a fire truck to a burning building. Judging who you need to be with each subject is what I do in those first minutes of introduction.
I wouldn’t say that I’m a pretty girl. I think I have a pleasant enough face though. Wide set eyes and a small nose with an easy smile that can make any situation comfortable and safe. Parted lips with eyes opened wide and a slight lean in a subject’s direction can beg a question that receives an unguarded answer much quicker than if I had actually asked for the information. It’s those moments when I am in the zone that I think I get the best data.
I sit at the small kitchen table that has been pushed against the wall under a window. This has become a table for one out of necessity. The lack of space, but also the lack of company means the window is his interaction with the world. I glance through the nicotine stained curtains and his view is of the trailer next door. This is what he stares at over his morning coffee, over his warmed up, leftover dinner, everyday of the rest of his life here on earth. This is his world.
I am now a part of his world.
Managing my intrusion on people’s worlds is important to me. Making as small an impact as possible and leaving behind no marks, scars, or litter to remind them that they opened up and shared with a stranger is tantamount to preserving not only their self worth, but in preserving my own sanity. I don’t want to remember every visit I make. Dumping the data in my mind as soon as my day ends is an exfoliation that keeps me ready to get up the next day and start all over again. Without it, I couldn’t continue to absorb the negativity and the heartache that bombards me out here.
This is why I wish I could engage my curtain of numbness in my personal life some days.
I used to bring things to do when my day ended. Sewing projects, books, software I wished to master, movies I wanted to watch. I stopped doing that when I knew the assignment was going to be a tough one. I take the elevator to my room. I edit my work recalling nuance and facts that I didn’t have time to record in the field. I sharpen my pencil again and again and try not to break the tip as I scratch out words to describe another human being. I order room service and I turn on my computer to begin a data dump to my home office. Once I’ve refueled, I put on my gym clothes and my sneakers and I ride the elevator back down and I begin to do a data dump of my own in the hotel gym.
I let it all go there.
Each connection to the equipment, the pounding of my feet, every lift of my hips and arc of my arm releases another person and their sadness into the atmosphere. I sweat them out. I give them back. I do not need them to be who I am. I only require a visit and their attention for a few minutes in order to do what I do.
A massage therapist told me once that she vigorously washed her hands to her elbows after each client. She said she did this for hygiene, but mostly to wash away the enormous amount of metaphorical pain and energy she absorbed when she worked a body’s muscles and aches.
I shudder to think what I would become if I neglected the stored pain and energy I absorb daily.
The elderly gentleman sits down across the table from me. He uses his hands to grip the tabletop for support as he lowers himself into his chair. His is the one with the soft pillow tied to the seat. The pillow has a lasting impression of the many hours he has sat here, starring out the window at the trailer next door. He doesn’t know any of his neighbors. They never come to see him.
Once he is settled I begin my process. I reintroduce the study. I explain a little of what we’ll be doing, though not too much. I have realized that giving too much away tends to upset the subject from overload of information. So I am frugal with my introduction. I open my pad and I ask the first question.
I can feel my heartbeat slow. The grip on my pencil becomes looser. I stop thinking about what I’m doing and I perform the task that I have done a million times by now. My eyes canvas the subject. I look for hidden meanings, I probe for more details. I smile, I lean in, and I tease another clump of flesh away to make a whole picture, to tell the whole story of every person within my segment of clusters.
With a slow blink, I cease to be me and I become what I need to be to get what I came here for. It is my only investment in this moment in time. My curtain closes and I am no more than an empty vessel being filled. The top of my head opens and I take it all in. I sharpen my pencil again and again and I try hard not to break the tip as I scratch out the details that will describe another human life. Engaged only on the most primal level and disconnected from everything that makes me human.
Sometimes, for a split second, I peep around that curtain. My eyes will soften and I can see what is really sitting in front of me. I touch that humanity. As I age, the urge to take a look becomes more intense. The question of my motivation becomes louder in my head and I wonder what I’ve done to myself. It only lasts for a nod and then it’s gone as quickly as it surfaced.
When I wish most for the switch to activate in my life outside of work is when I am wading through the dynamics of a group. The politics of everyone’s relationships along with the connections and the secrets can be overwhelming at best. I am more inclined to bounce than to sit it out most times. Those are moments I challenge myself to be patient rather than impulsive. Those are times the slow blink could serve me well, and yet it evades me the most.
When I work I become invisible with the blink of an eye. I fade into the background and wait for it to be over so I can come alive again. When I work I hang onto nothing of value except how to do my job.
The question that remains is what am I when I’m not working? Who do I become and where did I come from? What takes up the room in my head that is filled daily with the breakdown of the human race? Shall I fill it with the arguments of why it’s happening to all of us? Shall I voice an opinion that will never amount to anything more than the energy it took to bang it out on my keyboard? Who the fuck am I then? What does that even fucking mean? And really…who the fuck even cares or listens?
I wonder how often someone looks at me and they slow blink themselves into a morphed image of what they think I need to see in order to just get a little closer to me. How much of me seeps into an empty vessel and gets dumped out as data to be shared, analyzed, discussed and then discarded like yesterday’s garbage? Am I a link to be shared? A life to be criticized?
Do you really want to know what my fucking problem is? Or are you just looking for another way to feel better about yourself? Really…do you care? Do you care about me? Are you searching your heart for a way to take care of me? Well, why not?
If you aren’t, you need to start. That’s all we have here in this life is each other.
When I work I feel nothing for the data I collect. But when I’m sitting here writing this for you, I feel everything and yet I know that I am nothing more than a wisp of smoke in a room full of electric fans.
At least I make an appearance. As long as my presence is felt, as long as I am able to withstand the rush of wind intent on snuffing me into oblivion, I will continue to open my true self up to vulnerability and what is real. Experiencing what is the truth about living everyday has taught me that all the games, the deceit and the pettiness of life is not worth the time it will take away from why I wake up in the morning.
I close my pad at the end of the interview. I smile at the elderly gentleman knowing he’ll be gone from this world soon and wondering why he has held on for this long. I marvel at his resignation of loneliness as I shake his frail hand and pat his arm. I ask him not to see me out because I know what a chore it will be for him to rise from his pillow-covered chair. He nods and I know that more than anything he wants to walk to the door with me. He wants to place his hand on the small of my back and feel the warmth of another person. He longs to stand in the doorway and watch as I walk to my car. He wants to be ready to wave when I turn around and see him still standing there, a vital important part of our society, bidding me farewell with a smile and the encouragement to keep going and to make a difference any way that I can.
And then…I blink.