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Ken Marques
By Ken Marques, Manson, Wa
Practical thoughts on faith, politics and community
Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Not Louie...Lou

 Ken Marques

"Is anyone sitting here?" "No", I responded, "please join us." Without a word he began to empty his Walgreens plastic bag; placing four pieces of silverware neatly on the white tablecloth. Then he took from the bag a yellow cup and a small carton of fresh milk, placing the milk carton in the cup. As he was seating himself, a young waitress came to the table picked up his yellow cup and milk carton and disappeared into the kitchen. Strange, I thought...bringing your own silverware and cup to the dining table of this upscale senior living facility.

"My name is Lou...not Lewis, not Louie....just Lou. I'd ask your names but why bother, I'll forget them anyway", he said. Somehow we didn't take his blunt statement as offensive. Perhaps it was because he appeared sincere and not condescending in any way. We nodded our heads in unison as if to say we understood. The waitress returned to our table and placed Lou's yellow cup filled to the brim with milk. Lou gave the waitress a disgusted look and shaking his head he said, "How many times do I have to tell you people to not fill the cup to the brim?" The waitress apologized and left unaffected by the remark. We were sure Lou had made many such chastising comments to the wait staff before tonight.

That was our introduction to Lou, a seven year resident of the fanciest assisted living facility in Palm Desert, California. The following half hour or so of conversation between bites of wonderfully prepared food; Lou told us stories regarding his life before his seven year confinement to the desert, as he put it. His stories seemed plausible and above reproach until he asked the question: "Do all of you believe everything I've told you?"

Mary, Jerry and I looked at one-another with surprise. I spoke first. "Frankly Lou, I believe most of what you've told us. However, I can only speak for myself when I say that I always reserve at least some room in anyone's story for embellishment. Embellishment or my much preferred word "fudging" always makes any story more interesting". Personally I enjoy creativity, even when it's slightly altered from fact. Our invited guest smiled with flashing eyes and chuckled quietly to himself. His elfish look gave him away. While there may have been more untruth than truth to his stories, the fudging was harmless as we enjoyed the stories. To reciprocate in kind, I spun a yarn to see if Lou would take the bait. I told Lou that I was Mary's grandson and that Jerry was my uncle. I then asked Lou how old did he think I was. He pondered a moment. You could see his mind calculating...what gave that away was his moving lips doing the math. Finally he stated that I was this side of 60. I smiled and asked him if he believed everything I had told him. The twinkle came back in his eyes....he knew then he had "been had" and we all laughed.

During dinner Lou told us that he was born under a bridge in New York City. I'd forgotten the name of the bridge, but he said, at the time it was one of four bridges that connected Manhattan Island to the rest of the city. I was halfway listening when I realized the puzzle regarding the silverware and yellow cup. Lou was a Jew. The religious laws of his faith require that eating and drinking implements had to be ceremonially cleaned and each vessel had its intended purpose and never to touch different food groups. I took that moment to attempt a light-hearted comment. "Lou" I said, "Now I know of two Jews who were born in unusual places. You, under a bridge and Jesus in an animal feed trough." Lou, quickly responded, "I understand that your Jesus friend received expensive gifts from three wise guys. All I got was a second hand teddy bear with a missing button eye from my aunt Gilda."

I feigned a sigh of relief as I was not confident Lou would accept my comparison of his birth with that of the Christians divine Messiah.

Out-of-the-blue, Lou volunteered his age. "On March 23 of next year I'll be 100 years young". The table went quiet for what seemed an eternity. Then Mary spoke the expected response, "Lou, you don't look it." She was right. Even though Lou was severely bent over (which put his head very close to the plate in front of him) he looked more like a gentleman in his mid eighties with poor posture. Certainly his mental acumen was more youthful than what is expected of someone nearing 100 years.

We learned that Lou was a teacher of shop arts in the NYC public school system for 38 years. He was quite proud of his contribution of providing employable trade skills to students of one of the poorer boroughs of NYC. The majority of his students came from fatherless families, with working mothers or those that stayed home and relied on government welfare. Lou digressed, his story led to the state of the poor in NYC. While Lou was proud of his work with students, he was disappointed with observing the attitudes of many of his students. So many of them had learned how people work the "welfare" system and were proud to talk about it. The odds that many of these students would repeat the same life dependency on the government dole were very high.

Lou is best described as somewhat of a curmudgeon. He placed emphasis on the negative side of life. At times Lou seemed angry but then again he would lighten up and dismiss his negative remarks as if they were not important. There were only a few mentions of uplifting events in Lou's life that he shared with us. I sensed that he was not willing to share the happy times for fear of boring us with pleasantries that most of us experience. Apparently his emphasis on the negative side of life had caught the attention he wanted from previous audiences. The operative words here are "the attention he wanted." Wanting attention, to be recognized and appreciated are common human desires, but it seems that it becomes more noticeable in children and the elderly.

I find it fascinating to listen to the stories of the elderly especially those who reside in Assisted Living Facilities. There is a common loneliness shared by these sometime forgotten people. They know their physical limitations and all the other attributes associated with having lived a long life. They feel the absence of conversation and interaction with loved ones who don't visit often for one reason or other...the other may be to avoid involvement. Their self-esteem is subject to frequent disappointment...the mailbox is empty more than occupied by any kind of correspondence from solicitors let alone loved ones. Their stories fall on deaf ears (not literally) because they are repeated to the same people day after day.

Jerry, a famous collector and purveyor of antique jewelry, commented on the unusual shape of the gold links in a necklace that Lou was wearing. "Lou, the links on your necklace is rarely seen these days and especially here in the states." Jerry went on to explain that he had only seen them once before several years ago in Israel. They were worn by a prominent Rabbi in Bethlehem as he recalled. Jerry was on assignment with the Associated Press back in 1948 when Israel became a nation. Jerry remarked to the Rabbi how attractive the design of the links was and the Rabbi was so please with his observation that he invited Jerry to coffee and told him the history of the necklace. Before Jerry could continue, Lou spoke. "So you met my grandfather?" Jerry's eyes widened and jaw dropped. "You're the Rabbi's grandson?" He said. With elfish eyes peering over his eyeglasses he smiled. Lou retorted with tongue- in -cheek, "Smart fellow you are... I am the eldest grandson of the late Rabbi Benjamin Lewis Bornstein." Silence ensued for a moment as we all considered the odds of a chance meeting of the grandson of a person met thousands of miles away and many years ago. Mary spoke first, as she is normally the one who keeps conversation from dying. "Lou, what was it like having a prominent grandfather and did he ever come to the states to visit?" Mary had a productive way of getting in two or more questions in a single breath. She once said that the elderly don't have time to waste... so they get as much in one sentence as possible. Mary is wise beyond her years. Before Lou could respond, the waitress set our food before us and as she left, winked at Lou and bid us all a bon appetit. It amazed me that the wait service in this facility is far friendlier than in a common restaurant where the tip depends on the civility and caring of the wait staff. These servers are paid a salary and no tips are allowed. The food and service here would be the envy of any 4 star restaurant in the desert valley. I was reminded by Mary, that the price of admission here is quite substantial and thus sets the expectations of the residence. The old saying, "you get what you pay for" is applicable to Lou's and Mary's home.

I have a tendency to ask myself questions during conversations with people. Sometimes this becomes awkward as I tend to miss what the other person is saying and that is very rude. Nonetheless, my ill habit persists. I wondered how a retired school teacher was able to amass enough money to afford the rent at this palatial hotel/home. I have a little bit of shame for thinking that school teachers are unable to reach the level of income to afford such luxury. My question, was answered almost as I thought it. It seemed as if Lou was reading my mind when he blurted out... "I bet you're wondering how a school teacher can afford this place...right?" I'm sure he saw my face flush as I feigned yet another weak reply. "Oh, ah...well it really isn't any of my business." I said. Again, Lou had another gotcha moment at my expense. "Investments!" "Stocks, bonds and a touch of luck...timing is everything in the market", he said as his chest puffed up a bit. He went on... "WW2 was not good for millions of Jews in Europe...but for some of us in the states, the postwar era was a goldmine. You couldn't miss if you put money in AT&T, General Motors and anything to do with building and outfitting a house. Those of us who put some money away to invest rather than blow it on good times got ahead in life." "Young people don't have a clue...they think life is forever and they have plenty of time to begin to save." "Will they ever learn?" Before anyone at the table could respond, Lou continued. "Smart phones, video games, fancy clothes, expensive vacations...these things are keeping young people from saving, I invest in those companies that make that stuff and I get paid well. I guess I should thank the young people rather than criticize them."

We were near finishing our meal when Lou asked if we would like to hear more stories about his time as a teacher. As best we could, each of us offered an excuse in order to avoid more of the same one-sided conversation. Jerry was first to respond. "Lou, Mary has had a long day and our guest here (Ken) has a business appointment yet this evening, so we had better put your stories off for another day." With that said, the three of us got up from the table and bid farewell to Lou and quickly made our way to the front door before Lou could respond with a guilt "Sure leave an old man sitting by himself at a table". He did however get in the last words... "Thanks for inviting me and's been awhile sense I've met good listeners like you".

Too late...guilt settled in as we walked to the door.

There are thousands of Lou's, many in your community. They are the almost forgotten; lonely and have a need to feel useful and of value, not unlike the rest of us. Many of these seniors have few visitors and some go for months without any contact from someone outside their small community of like souls. It is painful to watch as they go each day to their mail box and find nothing. Would you consider, stopping in one of your local senior assisted living facilities and strike up a conversation with the first person you see as you enter the front door? Chances are that elderly person has been sitting there awhile waiting for a ride, a visitor or just hoping to talk to someone.

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