The Doctor’s Waiting Room as Neighborhood Bar
by Lesley Sudders
“So I tol’ her, folks in my family could be anywhere from four-foot-eight to six-foot-six, and from high yeller to black as the ace of spades.” I chuckled at this nice woman’s vivid description of her ancestors. She was my newest waiting room acquaintance. “And,” she went on, “I’m descended from Tecumseh. Not only that, but I came from people in every one of the Five Civilized Tribes. Do I look like an Indian to you?”
I’ve been meeting people in doctors’ waiting rooms lately. As I’ve gotten older, I spend a heck of a lot more time in these places than I do in the neighborhood bar. I don’t even have a neighborhood bar. It dawned on me that it has been a while, a long, long while, since I met anyone in a bar, if I ever did. Selective memory hard at work here.
Maybe the new neighborhood bar is Starbucks and its ilk. No matter. I don’t seem to have a hankering for hanging out. Going to the doctor is not optional.
These reception area denizens don’t become friends, but strangers with whom to pass a moment while waiting to see the medical staff. Some might accompany a friend or relative who is in to be seen or examined, poked, or prodded that day. I’ve been blessed with generally good health, but now have more things to attend to in the medical sense, at least on occasion. Hence the waiting room salon.
Surprisingly, conversations don’t always revolve around aches or pains. It’s okay when they do, though. Sometimes that’s preferable.
One woman struck up a conversation with me about events in discussion on the television news channel. I soon believed this person had resigned herself to a senile old age without being senile or all that old. It wasn’t an actual diagnosis I’d sussed out, just her attitude of having no interest in doing anything other than watching television. She had a good income and medical coverage, courtesy of AT&T. “I worked there for 20 years. That’s the least they could do for me. And now I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do.”
I wasted a good 15 minutes thinking of things that might interest her enough to get moving – physically, intellectually, or emotionally. Staying active is critical to good mental and physical health, I said. I suggested volunteering, going out to lunch or shopping, getting a hairdo of some kind, taking a trip, joining a gym, learning a new skill – hell, even finding a neighborhood bar. Anything. Maybe even talking to someone about depression.
At her age, which turned out to be my age, staying active is a blessed necessity. I’m not blunt by nature, but I finally said to her, as they called for me to collect my husband from the eye surgery recovery room, that if she didn’t find something to do, she would likely be senile and maybe even dead in a couple of years. Her companion for the day, a young man she had introduced as her tenant, nodded at me over her head several times, as if to say, “That’s what I told her.” I was exasperated with her, but I do wish her well.
I had a lot more fun with Tecumseh’s descendant, Wanda, and her engaging grandson, age 7, as they waited for his mom to have some lab tests. I didn’t think she looked like an Indian, and said so. I’d heard about the so-called Five Civilized Tribes from my mother, an Okie, who claimed Cherokee heritage. Although I did not suppose Wanda possessed higher education, she was smart, articulate, and friendly. She apparently came from a family with an active oral history tradition (a dry way of saying they told good yarns about old Uncle Stubby and Great-grandma Anna, and someone who’d escaped slavery and fled North).
New York State, my former home, has nine Native American reservations. I visited most of them in connection with my work in the 1970s. Long Island has two, and I became friends with some of the Shinnecock residents. I told Wanda about them.
Despite their color, mostly black, the Shinnecocks self-identify as Native American. Their jackets at the time bore slogans that said “Red Power.” The pastor told me Dutch settlers had black servants, not slaves, who had intermarried with local Native Americans. The more colorful account is that many men had been dragooned into the whaling industry, and were lost at sea. A slave ship ran aground, and the women went out on the ice and rescued the slaves. Most agree that both versions have some truth. Wanda was pleased to hear about the women’s gumption.
I had brought a book to pass the time. Instead, I truly enjoyed talking with this woman and her grandson, who had a few charmingly told stories of his own about a cousin by blood, or somebody. It wasn’t really clear. Doesn’t matter. He already has the tradition down.
They called my name and we said our good-byes. When I went home, I refreshed my memory. The Five Civilized Tribes – a name given to them by the European colonists – included the Choctaw, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek (Muscogee), and Seminole.
Tecumseh was a Shawnee born in Ohio. A famous namesake was General William Tecumseh Sherman, who marched through Atlanta. Apparently his parents had forgiven Tecumseh for siding with the Brits in the War of 1812.
You can find great characters, worthy of being recorded in one’s scribbles, in unpredictable places. Maybe I’ll venture to Starbucks after all and see what’s shaking there.
Lesley Sudders has published a mystery, The Brodick Affair, writing as Les Brierfield, and is at work on her next novel and several short stories. A Colorado native, she lives in Arizona with her husband and writing collaborator Eduardo Cervino (E.C. Brierfield). Follow her blog: Les Brierfield, Author. Lesley welcomes contact at firstname.lastname@example.org.