Winter, the season of death. Waiting for rebirth. There will be a Springtime rebirth to be sure, but in January life seems at an ebb; all is cold and gray and lifeless.
Working outdoors the long, cold and dark days turn my mind unbidden to thoughts of mortality; my own and that of others. People I've known and encountered, sometimes very briefly, in my life as the Phoneman.
I try to think about hot summer days with friends, about kayaking and playing disc golf. I wish I could conjure up memories of campfires and grill parties and fresh tomatoes and swimming pools. And being warm again.
But the deeper we get into winter the foggier those happy images become, until it almost feels like they never happened at all. Like they're someone else's memories and I'm just borrowing them.
I was in a nursing home to connect a phone line for an elderly man I'll call Mr. Miller. I went to the gentleman’s room first and introduced myself, explaining why I was there. The account was in someone else’s name, which is not unusual in senior centers. Often, the person’s kid or grandkid will pay for the account so they can keep in contact with Grandpa. Eases the guilt over not visiting, or being able to visit in person, I guess.
Mr. Miller was alert and seemingly fit. I told him I needed to leave for a while to check the wiring and that I’d be back as soon as possible. He wanted to chat but I brushed him off. No time for idle chatter, gotta keep moving.
I had worked in this particular place before and I knew there were two different phone rooms I needed to access before going outside to connect up the dial tone. First I went around a few times trying to get the keys, then I encountered some problems with the wiring and it ended up taking me longer than usual so it was probably close to an hour by the time I got back to the room.
Four black women in white uniforms were in the room stripping the bed, chatting and joking with each other. I asked where Mr. Miller was and one of them said “Oh, he’s dead.” Blinking, I said “Excuse me?” and she said “Yeah, he died.” Then they went on with their work, chatting and joking and acting like I wasn’t even there.
I was shocked that they could be so nonchalant about the fact that a man had just died in this room. But as I was gathering my tools I realized they must see this all the time and that the joking was a type of coping mechanism; that they simply could not let themselves get too close to any of their patients.
I started to think about how awful it must be to see new people move in and know that they might not be there long and about how truly heroic the work these women do actually is. I thought about how I was probably earning three times as much as them just connecting some silly wires together while they changed diapers and kept track of complicated medications and dealt with death on a regular basis.
Not being sure what to do with the job, I closed it out as I normally would. "Dial tone good to jack per tech." Someone would get a bill for this work.
For activating a dead person’s phone line.
As I was leaving it occurred to me that I may have been the last person Mr. Miller ever spoke to before leaving this world. If so, his last human interaction was with a man too busy to talk to him. A man who ignored him.
I THINK I ALMOST KILL A CUSTOMER
There was a wheelchair ramp leading up to the front porch. It was a modest house in suburbia and I was there to install a phone jack. I knocked on the door and, after a moment, a middle-aged man in a wheelchair answered. He had tubes in his nostrils, trailing a long hose to an oxygen tank across the room. He spoke with one of those little amplifier things you hold against your throat that always sound so weird and metallic.
He ushered me in and showed me where he wanted the jack, at the base of a counter separating the kitchen from the dining room. Pretty straightforward job.
I drilled a hole through the floor and threaded a wire down to the basement, connecting it to the house main wiring and then went back upstairs to place the jack. I was on my knees working with the wiring, my back to the man, when I heard a slapping sound. I looked around, didn’t see anything and went back to work. Then I heard it again, louder this time. I turned around and the man was facing me, eyed wide and panicked; he was slapping the side of his chair and pointing at the floor where I was working. I looked down and noticed I was kneeling on the fucking air hose!
I jumped up, freaked out.
“Oh my God! I’m so sorry! Are you ok? Ohmygod ohmygod!”
Then the guy put the amplifier to his throat and, with a sick smile, said, “I was just fucking with you.” And started to laugh soundlessly, shaking with mirth.
He was just fucking with me.
I was so rattled that when I tried to continue working, my hands were shaking uncontrollably and I kept dropping my pliers and screwdriver. I excused myself, saying I needed something from the truck and went outside to suck down a cigarette and get a grip on myself.
I started thinking how fucked up it was to do that to someone, and what a dick this guy must be. Wheelchair or not; missing larynx or not; that was just flat out sadistic. So, after I calmed down I went back inside to finish up, determined to just get it over with and split. The guy had been watching me out the window and said in that robotic sounding voice.
“Cigarettes are how I got this way.” Laughing again.
I GET ELECTROCUTED
I was working at yet another senior center, not the one where Mr. Miller died. Mr. Miller died at a nursing home; this one was a “retirement community”. The kind of place people with money go when they can’t or don't want to live on their own anymore and their families can’t or don't want to accommodate them.
A “Retirement Community” smells like food and flowers and potpourri. They’re filled with active, attractive people with silver hair and white dentures who still drive their own cars and get out and do things. They have concerts and mini movie theaters and workout rooms.
Nursing homes smell like piss and shit and Lysol. They’re filled with disheveled, bed-bound people with no teeth who mumble and moan to themselves. They share rooms divided down the middle by a curtain.
Retirement Communities have “activity directors” on staff. Nursing homes have overworked, underpaid brown and black people on staff, trying to remain positive amidst all the despair.
So I was metering wires in the senior center mechanical room which was only accessible from the building exterior. A maintenance man had let me in and disappeared when I explained it might take a while. I’d been there before and the wiring was a mess. Nothing was tagged properly; wires hung from the terminals in massive multicolored snarls like some ratty old clown wig.
The terminals were near the floor so I was squatting down on my haunches with my meter between my knees. I’d probably been there 15 minutes, testing wire pair after wire pair; trying to find one I could use when I clipped onto an alarm circuit.
Alarm circuits carry dangerous amounts of voltage and are supposed to be clearly labeled with red warning tags. This one was not.
I don’t know how much time passed before I regained consciousness but when I did, I was about eight feet away, across the room with my back against the wall and my legs splayed out in front of me. All of my tools had shot straight up out of my belt like bread from a toaster and were scattered on the floor in front of my meter, which was still attached to the hot wire pair.
I was seriously dazed and I seemed to have smacked the back of my head on the cinderblock wall. I’ll never know for sure if I shot across the room or staggered there before collapsing. Either way, there I was.
It took a few minutes for my head to clear. I didn’t know what had happened. Did I have some kind of seizure? Except for the knot on the back of my head I felt ok and I stood up, a bit shaky, and walked over to grab my meter. Even though the dials were red-lining from all the voltage, I still almost grabbed the clips to disconnect them which would have zapped me a second time. My brain was so fogged that I was looking right at the meter, seeing it but not seeing it.
Luckily, I finally did get it before I hurt myself worse. I got some thick rubber gloves from the truck and disconnected my clips. I put a proper warning tag on the alarm circuit, gathered up my tools and went on working. This time though, I kept the gloves on.
I wonder now what might have happened that day; how many different ways it could have gone. What if I had cracked my head open? Would I have bled to death before someone found me? What if I had created a ground and, instead of shooting backwards, closed the circuit and slowly cooked in place?
Whoever connected that alarm system didn’t take the few seconds to properly tag it. I’ll always wonder who it was.
Three stories about death: near-death, fake death and actual death. There have been others of course. There was guy I barely knew killed by a snapped power line while he was up on a ladder, or the guy whose National Guard unit was sent to Iraq and who never came back, there have been colleagues who died from disease and accidents, retirees who died from natural causes.
Death is just another part of life and it's all around us all the time. I guess I just notice it more or think about it more in the winter, when nature seems to be reinforcing the message; reminding us of what is in store.
Curiously, when I consult my work diary, I notice all three of these particular incidents happened in the winter.