Friday, January 27, 2012


She found, quite by accident, that her old washing machine made money. At first there was an occasional nickel or penny on the bottom of the speckled blue tub when she finished taking out socks and blue jeans. “Strange,” she told herself. “I know I checked the pockets.”
            Then she began to find quarters and, once, after doing a load of bathroom throw rugs, she found two 1974 Kennedy half dollars.
            At first she put the coins on top of the dryer in a chipped ashtray painted with bright green stick-like palm trees with the word Mexico painted around the edge. When that was full she poured them into an old blue Mason jar. They clanged against the glass almost musically. That, too, was soon full and quite heavy.
            From the Mason jar, she transferred them into an empty detergent box on the floor next to the old washing machine. Then she lovingly wiped the top and sides of the machine with a solution of warm water and Murphy’s oil soap. The machine was the bright spot in the corner of the dingy basement.
            The more laundry she did, the more money she found. She began to change bed sheets twice a week and curtains twice a month.  She even made her children change their clothes twice a day.
            Once, as an experiment, she ran the machine through an entire cycle without any laundry in it. All the machine yielded was a small, unfamiliar coin that she finally identified as a British half-pence.
            Into the detergent box it went, also. By now the sides of the box were bulging. She was unable to lift it. So handful by handful, she transferred all the coins into a scrub bucket and covered them with a layer of old dust rags. She pushed the bucket, inch by heavy inch, under the laundry tub and made a mental note to buy another scrub bucket. Then she looked through the house for more laundry to do but there was none.
            So she went next door to visit her widowed neighbor, old Mrs. Brown. She took with her a half dozen raisin oatmeal cookies, Mrs. Brown’s favorite, and stayed a bit for a cup of tea. Earl Gray with lemon. Mrs. Brown looked exceedingly tired and feeble.  When she offered to do the old lady’s laundry, Mrs. Brown was so very grateful.
            That load of laundry yielded a 1924 twenty dollar gold coin. Curious, she took it to a coin deal for evaluation. He told her it had a MS 65 grade and offered  her a large amount of money for it, which she refused.  She also refused any payment from Mrs. Brown when she carried the clean clothes back to her. Mrs. Brown gave her the name of another widow over on Stewart Street who might also appreciate help with her laundry.
            The washing machine labored from morning to night as the number of people who needed help grew longer. The house had an ever present aroma of warm soap, the constant chug-chug of the motor and an underlying rhythmic sound of water swishing back and forth.
            That is, until one very chilly morning, all swishing stopped.  A load of sheets from  Mrs. Martin over on Maple Avenue lay motionless and soggy. The machine had just quit.
            The repairman said it couldn’t be fixed. “It’s too old. They don’t make parts for it any more. Too bad, really” he said. “They were great washers in their day. Don’t make them like that anymore.”
            “Can’t you at least try?” she asked. “I’ll pay you extra.” But he couldn’t.
            She yanked the heavy sheets from the washer, splashing water over her shoes and onto the gray cement floor.  She wrung them out, one by one, as much as she could before throwing them into the dryer.
            It took a long time for the sheets to dry but after she pulled them out several dollar bills lay in the bottom of the dryer.

Friday, January 13, 2012


He said: “We’re early.”

“Traffic wasn’t bad,” she said, shifting her purse from one shoulder to the other. It was heavy, full of everything she might need and some things she would never need. “We made good time.”

“I didn’t notice the traffic.”

“Of course you didn’t notice.  You were asleep.”

          “I was tired.”

          “Lucky we got a meter with time on it.” She smiled at him.

“Yeah, right. Lucky. That’s what we are. Lucky.” He began to walk towards the intersection.

They paused on the corner, waiting to cross. The light changed, the robotic white man lit up. They crossed the street along with an assortment of others. An hunched over old woman in a bright pink shawl and straw hat frayed around the edges, a tall man in a gray suit, carrying a leather brief case, teen girls with bare shoulders, wearing flip-flops that slapped against their feet. Down the street she saw a large crane, its long neck like a great metal giraffe stretching up above the street lights. Orange cones stood as street barriers along with police cars, lights flashing.

         She nudged his arm; he pulled away.

       “Look down there. They’re getting ready to film the Black Knight.”

The band of his watch was loose; he slid it on his wrist to see the time.

        She frowned at him. “You didn’t even look.”

He shrugged.

 “Let’s go see the movie. When it comes out. Watch for people we know in the extras.” She watched his face, waiting for his reaction.
He didn’t respond about the movie. He only said again: “We’re early.”

“I know. Maybe we could get some breakfast. We have time.”

“I’m not hungry.”

“All right then. Maybe just coffee?” She motioned to a woman nearby. Excuse me,” she said.

        The woman was craning her neck, looking down the street towards the filming.

“Excuse me,” she said, again, louder. “Can you tell me a good place for breakfast or coffee? Some place nearby?”

         The woman smiled broadly. “Pamela’s. Right down there on the other side of Forbes. Just a block down. You know the Pres-i-dent ate there.” She pointed; her fingernails were long, pointy  and painted a brilliant red. “Cross back over the intersection and make a left. Then cross over at Atwood.”

“Thanks. Sounds like just the place.”

“So we’re crossing another intersection?”

“Yes. At least one.”

                Pamela’s was low and squat, dwarfed by sprawling hospitals, ancient churches, and the Cathedral of Learning towering in the background. Inside, people were clustered by the door, waiting to be seated. The building was small, narrow and long like a railroad dining car that had jumped its track and was stuck there in Oakland.

Small tables ran along each side. Waiters turned sideways to pass each other in the center aisle. Back to back, butt to butt they passed, carrying plates of pancakes and eggs or trays of dirty dishes. A

hand-lettered piece of paper taped to the cash register read: Sorry, no debit or credit cards. $$ Cash only $$.”

The menu was a tri-folded piece of blue paper. The one she opened had a blood-red smear of ketchup along the edge. He laid his menu down, unopened.

“Anything to drink?” the waitress asked. She smiled at them. There was a gap between her front teeth.

“Coffee, no cream and water, please.”

“And for you, sir?


She walked away.  Banana Walnut Hotcakes was printed in large letters across the back of her tee shirt, the words stacked one on top of the other like so many hotcakes.

The coffee was hot and pungent with the smell of newly roasted coffee beans. Steam swirled up in a light mist. She sat the coffee aside to let it cool.

“Ready to order?” The waitress took a pencil from behind her ear and an order pad from her back pocket.

“I’ll have the spinach feta omelet. It sounds healthy. Don’t you think it sounds healthy?”

The waitress nodded. “And for you?” She looked at the husband.


“Nothing? Do you want two plates so you can share?”

“No. I want nothing.”

They sat in silence waiting for the omelet. Around them, people were talking, laughing, eating.

When the waitress brought the omelet, so large the edges draped over the side of the plate, the woman asked her: “Is it true the President ate here?”

“Wish it was.  I’da loved waiting on him. He ate at the other Pamela’s. Down in the Strip.” She laid the bill face down between them. “You know, don’t you, that he flew the owners, Pam and Gail to the White House for some special breakfast or something. Just imagine. Wish he had eaten here. More coffee?”

The woman shook her head. The waitress moved to the next table.

“Imagine,” the woman said. “The President might have eaten here. If he hadn’t gone to the Strip. Might have sat at this very table.”

“It’s not important enough to talk about. Might have is not important. So stop talking.”

She couldn’t finish her omelet. It was either too big or she was no longer hungry.

“How far away is the office?” he asked.

“Couple of blocks. The Falk building, corner of Fifth and Lothrop.”

“That’s uphill from here?” He looked at his watch again, sliding it again to see the face.

“It’s Pittsburgh. Everything is either uphill or downhill. You know that.”

He looked away as she picked up the bill.

She took her wallet out of her purse and checked to make sure her little green notebook and a pen were in the side pouch.

“Look,” she said, holding up the notebook.  “I’m going to take notes.”

“You think I won’t remember what he says?”

“I thought it would be a good idea. You know. To take notes.”

“Stop talking.”

They walked in silence uphill.

Saturday, January 7, 2012


Why would anyone write the hospital room number in magic marker around the side of toilet paper? I mean, really, now, get serious.

I understand hospital personnel using permanent magic markers to scrawl their department name on wheelchairs and pulse oximeters and everything in between with the futile belief this time-honored ritual will guarantee that particular piece of equipment stays right within reach, if needed. Nope, it doesn’t happen that way. Wheelchairs marked PACU end up on pediatrics, blood pressure cuffs labeled ICU are tucked away in a drawer on Telemetry.

Once, on duty as charge nurse in an ER, I asked a nurses’ aide to look for wheelchairs in the admissions waiting room because the ER had none. And, believe me, an ER without wheelchairs is like an ambulance without tires. She was gone for quite a while, and returned with a cafeteria tray loaded with enough breakfast for a lumberjack and the Sunday paper tucked under her arm.

“Did you check out front for wheelchairs?” I asked her.

“Sure enough, I did. And there are wheelchairs out there.”

“Why didn’t you bring some to the ER?” I asked her.

“You only asked me to check. You didn’t ask me to bring.” There is logic, and then there is logic. But I digress.

Back to the toilet paper.

As a recent inpatient, I noticed my room number written in magic marker around the outside edge of the toilet paper in my bathroom. (Have things gotten that bad in health care that marauding staff wander from department to department confiscating toilet paper?) Any section of paper taken from the roll had a random series of black dots along the edge. Would the user end up with black dots on their bottom?

Back to the original question: why would anyone write a hospital room number in black magic marker on the outside edge of a roll of toilet paper?

Just asking.