Friday, December 17, 2010
My grandmother was a young nurse in a hospital in Brooklyn about the time of the events that take place in The Edge of Ruin. (How she used to love nurse books! I could never write one of those, any more than I can write real romance novels. Why is that? Can it be that I know even less about real romance than I do about nursing? But I digress.) My grandmother, whose name was Irene, told me many great stories about her life in nurses' training.
A well-bred, gently reared Canadian girl, she was a fish out of water in New York City. The patients were poor immigrants, for the most part, and being unwashed, most of them smelled bad. Shifts lasted sixteen hours, twenty-four if you were on private duty. Hazardous. Fearing germs, she washed her hair daily, a bad idea given the harsh soaps of the time. Once a patient tried something rude while she was asleep in a chair.
The young nurses were trained in deportment and elocution as well as good medical practice. Most of the girls in her class--Jersey girls, New York girls--could not properly pronounce "I laughed to see the calf run down the path." They said, "I lee-uffed." "I lahffed to see the cahf run down the pahth," was how my grandmother said it. The right way.
The hospital people gave her handy tips for surviving in the city. "What do you do when you encounter a masher on the elevated?" she asked me one day, rhetorically.
I wanted to say, "What's a masher, Granny? What's the elevated?" But instead I said, "I don't know. What?"
"You stare at his feet."
"If you keep looking at his feet, soon everyone will look at his feet. He will be so embarrassed that he will get off the train."
Now, this is a piece of advice I have never had occasion to use. I suspect that modern mashers are incapable of feeling embarrassment, not even if their flies are open, not even if every single person on the train (it would be the subway, now) were staring at them. Very few people in the modern day feel anything like shame.
This is why I wanted to go back to the days when Granny was young, maybe even why I called myself Irene, after my grandmother. I know that things weren't so very different then. Terrible things went on. But there was outrage. There was shame. There was an expectation that people would at least try to be decent.
Also, there were hats. My grandmother was very big on hats.