MUSINGS ON ARCHITECTURE AND PAINS IN THE SOMEWHERE
Out into the sunshine!!!!!!! Not exactly. By the time we were through with Customs at Dulles Airport and had found our way to where the pre-arranged taxi would be waiting for us, shades of night were falling (paraphrasing any number of old songs skipping through my brain). It wasn't exactly a private cab, more like a service that took a number of random people on a circuitous route to their destinations. I looked out the window and watched as we wended our way through towns in Maryland heading to Silver Spring. It could have been early evening in late November in New Jersey; it all looked the same. The last bits of light, pink and orange, were being filtered through the grey clouds, framed by the still-leafless trees. The houses looked the same as in my former-neck-of-the-woods, the shopping malls looked the same, the highways with their delays for construction looked the same. I was back in suburban sprawl America, looking exactly the way it did when we left four years ago.
I can't say that my heart sunk when we arrived at our destination, a residence for seniors run by the local Jewish Federation. But it certainly dropped a few inches. When I had last seen Barbara's mother, it was at her cheerful apartment in a retirement village in Deerfield Beach, Florida. In season, 15,000 people lived there. It was spacious and well-maintained, with swimming pools, tennis courts, even a nine hole golf course. Perfect for a certain kind of retirement life. It wasn't where I wanted to wind up, but I never found being there depressing. One, we were always on vacation and were there to relax. Two, Gwen had a full life there. She was in charge of the Century Village library; she volunteered at a local university which had a series of classes for seniors, meaning she could audit any number of college level courses. Of course, she had a car and went wherever she needed to. She had friends by the dozen, a full network of women who took care of each other in good times and bad.
Almost twenty years had passed since she first went down to Florida, and there came the time when she realized that she would be unable to keep going the way she had been. The doctors couldn't perform the kind of knee operations she would have needed. Hard to drive; harder to walk. The distance from the elevator to her apartment somehow seemed to be getting longer and longer. Everything was becoming more and more difficult. Time to move back to Maryland, to a subsidized facility she knew about because family members had been and are living there.
Barbara had been there before to help her mother 'settle in,' so she knew what to expect. I, of course, did not -- although maybe I should have. It's not as if this facility is inherently depressing; it's not. But it is institutional, no getting around it. No gated community extending for blocks and blocks with guards to check the cars coming in the several entrances. Just a desk clerk on duty in a little cubicle in a little lobby. A room with a number of computers, yes, but no large clubhouse with an auditorium where performers entertain and movies are shown. No balconies with soothing views of herons landing in the lagoon; Gwen's balcony faced the parking lot in the back where the big trucks came to collect the trash. You have to notice that it's designed for older people whose circumstances are getting more and more constricted physically, financially, and therefore emotionally. And that is what's depressing.
We arrived in the evening after the dining room was closed and so the lobby was deserted except for the desk clerk, who brought us upstairs to the apartment. Remember, no one had been here -- except for a distant cousin who came in if and when she remembered to water the plants -- for two months. Why can't we find a light switch that works? Why are all the digital clocks blinking? Why is a six week old edition of the Washington Post neatly folded on the kitchen table? Why are there semi-rancid coffee grinds in a dried-up filter in the Mr. Coffee machine? Are we indeed in some semblance of the twilight zone where time had simply stopped? After some effort, we finally figured out which lamps and wall switches worked, enough to bring in our luggage and get settled for the night.
Settling in. That is part of what was so disconcerting. The move from Florida last June had just about done her in. .Gwen had never been able to settle in to this apartment even though both Barbara and her sister Lois had been there to help her. It wasn't just that there were still a few boxes of stuff scattered around; the place just didn't have that "make yourself at home feeling" that the same furniture, the same pictures created in Deerfield Beach. She was too busy shuttling between her apartment, various local hospitals, and the rehabilitation wing of the Hebrew Home in nearby Rockville, where she was the entire time of our visit.
That was our destination the next morning, after first dealing with the car rental place. Sami, a young man whose parents must have come from the great subcontinent, took excellent care of us. But that accent? He obviously grew up in The States, but not anywhere near this Enterprise office. Then he told us that he grew up in Bayside, Queens. Of course. He sounded exactly like our friend Steve L who grew up in the same area.. A good twenty-five years difference in age, ancestors from opposite sides of the globe, but the same way of talking. That's what a neighborhood will do.
Part of Sami's job was to make sure we were completely satisfied. Translation: Did we want additional insurance? Maybe we needed the car for an extra day? Did we want to pay for the gas we used at their price (cheaper than at the station)? Did we want a GPS? Yes, Yes, Yes, and Yes. (I finally figured out what GPS stands for: a Great big Pain in the Somewhere.) Regarding this little gizmo which you plug into the lighter socket and it tells you where you are, we had no choice. We had no idea where we were and where we were supposed to be going. The problem was that this gizmo didn't really either. To be fair, it more or less knows where you are when you're starting out, and you tell it where you want to get to, but then it's more or less pot-luck. If you're on Smithers Road and two blocks away is Smithers Boulevard, chances are the little gadget will get flustered. I can't imagine this device at work in Queens where there might be a 74th St., Road, Ave, and Lane.
So for the next week, we had a running battle with this device. It would tell us to go straight when there was a major highway interrupting the street we were traveling on, blocking our progress. It would tell us to keep going when we knew we had in fact arrived at our destination. It would leave it to our imagination to figure out the subtle distinction between "keep right," "bear right," and "turn right." It assumed that when it said "go east," we could distinguish east from a hole in the wall. All for thirteen dollars a day! I kept wondering: Maybe this little machine has a mind of its own, like in the movie 2001. Maybe it will turn on us. Maybe we'll wind up hurtling over a cliff, or wind up in the only Arab village in the New World, or on the set of some slasher movie.
Now, someone might ask, why don't you just get a road map and be done with it? You wanna know why? We couldn't find one for love or money, no matter where we looked: book stores, gas stations, Office Depot type stores. That's why. At least not for Montgomery County MD. The entire state, yes; the whole Washington DC area, yes; but a map that would show us where C was in relation to A and B in this little twenty mile area we were in, no way, no how. Four years ago before we left, yes; today, not a chance. The word is O-B-S-O-L-E-T-E, one more item no longer needed (think typewriters, bottle openers, slide rules, alarm clocks, even -- dining room tables.) The nice man at the gas station explained that they stopped carrying maps because people had stopped buying them. (Maybe Triple-A still has them, but they don't operate in Israel.)
Since we've been back, I've seen a number of articles which deal, in one way or another, with the dumbing down of the human mind. Many new inventions (think printing press,computers, fully automated anything), while enriching our lives immeasurably, in another way makes it possible to put our brains in sleep mode. We realized, once we could trust our little device to get us from point A, Gwen's apartment, to point B, the Hebrew Home in Rockville), that we were no longer paying attention to where we were going. There were maybe only half a dozen turns, but we realized that if we didn't simply turn off our GPS and (gasp) look out the window at the relevant landmarks, we would never actually remember how to go.
As you would expect from this little diatribe, we had considerable difficulty the first day finding the Hebrew Home in the neighboring town of Rockville, but we did at last arrive. Where we were going turned out to be a huge strip mall of Jewish facilities:schools, social service facilities, a JCC, plus the Jewish Home. Like any of the malls we encountered, this one could have been anywhere. All the buildings were built with the same reddish-brown bricks and had the same institutional look as the building where Gwen was living and all the JCC's in New Jersey. I wonder if the same architectural firm designed them all? Where is Frank Lloyd Wright when you need him?