Ava Pertinence awakened at half past five in the morning wondering what if anything her life meant to anybody, particularly herself. She sat on the edge of the bed peering into the dark shadows of daybreak. Skylight was squeezing through the blinds on a quiet street in Kenwood, three quarters of mile from Lake Michigan. There was a bare outline of her slippers. She slipped her feet into the coarse wool of the slippers before standing, wondering, wondering what anything was about. Her senior organization was losing its executive director. They were also on notice to move from their present quarters and had not yet found another place. To stay alive they needed to raise large amounts of money soon. The struggle never seemed to end. Emailing all her friends for support was on her agenda but was barely a solution. It was one of those mornings when she wondered in the 80 years she had lived on the earth if she had many any difference at all.
She just couldn’t linger on it. There were too many things needed doing. Her bowels needed evacuating big time to begin with. Next the bicycle brought from the basement. There was a northeast wind coming from the lake for which she had to prepare as well as pulling together the swim gear including the fins. All of this had to be snugged on the bicycle with bungie cords before leaving. Of course she couldn’t forget the keys to the bicycle lock and the house before swinging into the heavy traffic on Lake Park and 47th Streets passing under the viaduct of the Metra then up on the pedals to climb the pedestrian bridge which inclined and turned on itself for 100 yards as it crossed over Lake Shore Drive. She then hurtled down its incline taking her to the path along the lake watching carefully north and south for the possibility of collision from the north or south.
She followed it to the museums where she turned west to 11th Street, climbed the ascent of Roosevelt Road which began @ State Street, avoided the street traffic on the sidewalk until Canal then another ascent to Taylor which she took further west, crossing the bridge over the Dan Ryan, passed alongside the buildings of UIC until getting to Aberdeen. There she leaned the bike against the bicycle rack and did a few more stretches before locking it, picking up her gear and entering the swimming pool locker room @ Sheridan Park.
She swam close to an hour. During that period thoughts of how to enhance her existence crossed her mind intermittently during breast stroke, side and back strokes, and stubbornly held on during crawl. The water was passive, imperturbable, did not criticize or make comments. It was impassive to her entering it and even allowed her to make a path, parted for her with no resistance in every direction like it had for Moses. She thought about this water, so gentle and yielding to her, which when pushed by wind built such force and momentum it could destroy nearly everything in its path.
Soon, barely realizing it, her mind switched to Palme. Palme was just turning fifty. Anna had met him on the lake roller blading. They were neck and neck into the wind, she on the bicycle he on his in lines. Ava could not believe his strength and enthusiasm. He laughed as he raced her all the way to the history museum where he was in charge of exhibits. Their laughter heightened as they approached Oak Street and North Avenue. Ava was excited that this longish haired 50 year old youngster who had arms and legs flexible as rope and powerful as hausers. He swept the entire path, left and right, completely dominating it. It was a challenge. She had to maneuver the cycle to keep from striking him.
He had given her his card and asked for hers. She gave him a prescription blank, told him she was a retired physician five years. And “I’m a pretty good cook and baker.”
“Yum. You are just the person.” She wanted to know what he was getting at. “I like good food but too busy to do much about it.”
That was another opening for her. “There’s a good Persian restaurant on Diversey. When can we go?”
“Come on in. We’ll have some coffee.”
“I have to tell you. I have been curious about you for months. Do you mind if I am not shy?”
“I didn’t think you were. But I am usually too busy. Hope you drink espresso.” He proceeded to put teaspoon after teaspoon of coffee in the machine.” From then on she baked him whole wheat buns and supplemented it with beans, peas, rice, pasta. The door men in the lobby of his building got to know her pretty good.
He emailed his appreciation frequently. In a month he was asking her to museum exhibition openings and to the Hyde Park Art Center to help him evaluate paintings. He was collecting pieces from some of the more well known artists. He wanted to eventually sell them once they increased in value which he was sure they would. “My exhibits, my art are my restaurants, food , excitement, entertainment.” She wanted to tell him his nearness, presence, his compliments were her excitement, her art. She wondered when he would recognize her inadequacies, her eighty years in which she failed at so many things. Yet, he never asked questions pertaining to age.
It was not unusual for her to wake several times during the night after dreaming the same dream. The dream consecutively and continuously exposed her incompetence at the postal service where she had been the chief medical officer. It had been ten years. There was too much of blame in the dreams. She fought like anything to deny the blame hurled at her. She did not carry the blame very well because she could see there was some truth that was not deniable. She failed the employees. And in so doing had failed herself. She struggled to find ways to break them of their unhealthful habits. She could not figure ways to convince the managerial staff that the employees needed an intense orientation in health and needed to be rewarded for healthy habits. The supervisors knew only one thing. And that was the mail had to be moved no matter it was moved by alcoholics, smokers, drug addicts, people who hadn’t the slightest concept of how to eat healthily, exercise, get rest.
The mail had to be moved. The union was of no help since they were the worst smokers, drinkers, addicts and would move heaven and earth to get at you if you interfered. Their concept of a good life was a fancy car, the best shoes and slick silk suits with which they could parade themselves on weekends, or go like the devil the 500 miles to Memphis Saturday so they could be back on Sunday night or at least Monday morning. It was more important to show the world how far up they had come than to do anything worthwhile for their own bodies and health. They were sure the fancy medicines, the doctors and the hospitals would patch them up somewhere along the line when they started to crumble. Good money could buy anything. Why not health and well being? What the hell did a white, Jewish doctor coming out of the west side know about the needs of black people, the juice of enjoyment, the strength of money and status?
Over and over to herself she repeated, a dream is a dream. She didn’t have to answer to anybody. The problem was that in all the intervening years what she had done and had not done at the post office would come to her: jogging along the lake, showering, shaving her legs, eating her cereal, even putting on her coat and while purchasing groceries. Bad decisions about patients and people clung to her like molasses. And the dream reinforced her lack of insight into people who were trying to make a living, build security for their future, build some reputation for themselves. And they did not help her peace of mind when she came up against supervisors, managers who hadn’t a clue about fitness and health and not much interest in finding out its significance. They were on schedule to move hundreds of thousands, millions of letters, envelopes, ads, periodicals, magazines. Health and fitness was another world, almost another solar system which had little pertinence in their professional lives.
She wanted to wade in amongst the letter sorters, the mail handlers, the truck loaders and get them to get rid of their cigarettes, get them to eat regularly, encourage them to make better food choices, and make twenty minutes for exercise. That twenty minutes would be a heck of an investment for the postal service that would reward it in spades with less injuries, less illnesses, less disabilities. Ava was certain of it. But she had quite a lot of competition: the mountains of material avalanching through the machines, the hollering, yawing, humming, hammering, pausing, pulling, scattering, ejecting, rasping, stamping of paper and cardboard coming from the gears and straps and wheels coarsing like a waterfall fed by overflowing spring rivers and creeks being fed by the spring melt of winter snow.
The employees looked at her as management’s effort to deprive them of some of their privileges and management looked at her as some of kind of idealist divorced from reality on whom they could never rely or be sure would support their rules and regulations.
She wanted desperately for people to understand their real needs, not just their trumped up, TV addled, material ones. She had been at it for two years. She was convinced the people on the mail room floor looked on her merely as another part of management, to push them to move the mountains of mail. Everything had to do with the movement of mail. The entire focus was the stamped articles coming at people from all directions. The people themselves were not considered much more than the belts and pulleys, nothing much beyond the force of electricity, the power to send paper and packages to the ends of the country, the world. That they were human beings with all the needs of humans was secondary. Few people had more than high school or a few years of college, but they moved millions of tons from anywhere to everywhere.
In the interview for the job she told Mark Loggia she wanted to make people want to be well. Mark was fed up with injuries on the job and the amount of light work necessary to accommodate those injuries. “Mr. Loggia, you got a lot of mail out there. This may sound crazy but your employees, the people who work for you out there, are really athletes.”
“Athletes? Be serious. I’m asking you to cut injuries and you’re giving me baseball and football.”
“It has a lot more to do with football and baseball than you realize. The difference is these folks are working eight to ten hours a day, five, six days a week. No athlete works out that long. They are continuously on the move. What are they really doing? They’re doing work. You cannot do work without using muscle power. They are using the muscles athletes use, maybe not as strenuously, but they are using the same muscles over and over, hundreds, thousands of time. The difference between them and the athletes is that their muscles are not trained for that kind of endurance and stress.”
“Maybe so, Doctor. But I want less injuries and less light work. You figure it out and do something about it. Unless we do something to change things, the budget will reflect the costs. I do not want that to happen. You fix things up and I will support your muscle and joint talk. Whatever it means.”
Ava hated the injuries. Often she didn’t know if people really had pain. It was easy to fake muscle pain. She had the funny feeling that the pain was connected frequently, that there was a direct relation between how bad the pain was and what had happened between the person and their supervisor. The miracle was that as long as the machinery held up millions of pieces of mail would hurtle through it. The miracle was there seemed to be no way the machines could stand up to the continuous pounding demands of the buttons, commands, vibrations, electrical jabs. Teams of people, twenty four hours a day made all the paper and cardboard flow. It was like taking control of an avalanche, a gigantic mud slide and directing them carefully on their way. Like reining in a two billion team of horses, raring to go, busting at the harness, seemingly out of control but in reality, logically directed.
Was it also like when you walk? As you step out, with all those hundreds of muscles, bones, joints, ligaments, tendons and gravity has you in its grasp and you don’t even think about it as you smoothly balance yourself on one foot, then easily shift your balance to the other with barely a thought. Or like a fire, an explosion, confined in a space of the engine where it is kept powerful, but confined so that it transfers its energy to move what needs moving without causing damage while completing a task that is helpful. She put it all on paper. She could draw the diagram, could formulate the equation. Good nutrition, daily exercise equaled decreased stress and reduced injuries. Once she could do that it would be easy to get people to cut smoking and reduce alcohol. Often you wouldn’t have to say much. It would happen without lecturing. It sounded simple. Except how did she get from there to here?
Injuries were the reality. She couldn’t just wish them away. What was the technique for judging them and the person having them? Injuries were much more mechanical than illness. –The machine pulled in my glove. Before I could break free my hand, the machine crushed it. -I was bending over picking up a load of books from the pallet when there was this searing pain in the back. I dropped all the books.-I got my foot caught between the loading platform and the truck. –I fell the seven feet from the loading platform. I guess I must have landed wrong. My ankle is bigger than the knee and cuts me like a knife.-
She did have to worry that in addition they might have diabetes, cancer, liver disease. Sure they might. But mostly they’d just have the injury. All she had to know was a little about the joint and bone mechanics. Had to know where the ligaments, tendons were and the muscles which surrounded and often moved the joint. Knowing how the joint moved and what moved it, she could almost tell where the injury was without an x-ray and often what to do about it. It was a wonderful process, knowing without actually seeing, only with feeling and moving. Knowing where the cruciate and collateral ligaments were located, how the femoral condyles fit into the meniscal cups and rocked in its saucers.
She wondered if the head nurse, Vivian Robinson, might give her some insight. “I’m not sure what it is I am not doing. I seem to be getting no place.”
“Where you want to be, Dr. Pertinence?”
“I know what sets people up for injury, but I cannot get through to them or management.”
“You mean you actually thought you would?”
“Yes. I thought so. It is so clear to me.”
“Dr. P. you doin’ OK.”
“You know what I mean. The people on the floor seem unsure of me. Management wonders what I’m up to. Many steer clear of this office.”
“Well, let’s see. First management. You make them think you’re a bit fishy. You won’t give them the records of people like they so used to getting. You tell them it’s against the regulations for them to be looking into employee medical records. They ain’t heard that before though they knows it. The people moving the mail. That easy. We are management. Part of it anyhow. I can tell you management has not been their friend too many times in the past. So getting their trust may not be in the cards. If they can help it they do not want you or me too much into their business. If you want another ear full, it’s up to you. Lot to stomach from ordinary people. You don’t deserve it, Doctor.”
Ava looked at the nurse. Now what was she hinting at? Or really driving at? She had her ear to the ground. She had come up from East St. Louis. Ran off from an abusive husband years ago. Studied nursing in Chicago. Had never gone back to the man. Actually took up with another whom she introduced as her husband. She knew the people on the floor of the mail room because in many ways was from the same hard, unforgiving background. They talked with her like she were family. So she knew something and was keeping it until Ava demonstrated she could listen without turning her back in anger.
“Come on Robinson. Tell me. You might as well. I know you got something I need to hear though I may not want to.”
Robinson sat down. Motioned for her to sit too. “You know Marla Sanders, the woman who chews tobacco, up from Cairo, Illinois? You keep thinking she’s from the deep south. Well she ain’t even though she talks like and looks like a cracker and holds her moonshine like one. You know what she says when you goin round spouting all your good hygiene ways, your nutrition and exercise ways? She says you meddlin’ in other people’s business. It is none of your business how much people drink and smoke. And definitely what they eat. Maintains you like some kind of neighborhood gossip some kind of horse manure exercise machine which got nothin’ else to accomplish but making people wear themselves out trying to imitate like they not tired when they need the rest. My gosh. Eight, ten hours of work. Then you want them to exercise?. You a meddler. Make no mistake. So then her man friend Harris maintains he never knew any moments he didn’t think of eating and drinking and chasing after women. Except now things have changed. He often can’t remember what he is chasing after women fer.”