Helping Hands And Improbable Odds: Tales From The Information Desk

My once-a-week volunteer job at a medical office building across the street from a major hospital and not far from where I live has been, on the whole, fun indeed. I’ve been at the gig for about eight years, and usually look forward to hauling my ass out of bed at 6:30 AM so that I have time to wash up, down a couple of cups of coffee and a bite, and play a few rounds of tiddlywinks with my pet chimp, Chomp. When it comes to tiddlywinks, Chomp almost always wins. Chomp ain’t no chump . . . Chomp’s a champ!

Anyway, back to reality: The job begins at 8:00 AM on Tuesdays. For four hours I man the building’s information desk, which is on the ground level of the structure’s three stories. I handle a fairly wide range of visitors’ questions about doctors’ offices, the locations of bathrooms, payment options for the parking garage nearby on the grounds, etc. And I try to untangle situations that visitors aren’t sure how to resolve. You wouldn’t believe, for instance, how many of our fellow citizens can’t find their cars in the parking garage or their spouses who were supposed to meet them in the main lobby near my desk.

The infamous information desk

Like I said, I get a kick from the job, from helping people out to be specific. Hell, plenty of folks have helped me out over the last many decades. It’s only fair for me to do my wee share in keeping that mode of behavior alive and prosperous.

Two Tuesdays ago, aka the 23rd of January, wasn’t a typical day at the ranch though. There was plenty of the usual, yes. But two incidents definitely were outliers. And they’ve stuck in my mind. I was a helper-outer in one of them but not in the other. Yours truly is now about to send recaps of  the events into cyberspace.

It was a dreary, rainy day. The skies had sent down billions of gallons of water by 10:00 AM, at which time the rains slowed to a medium drizzle. It was around that time that a guy came up to me at my post to let me know that the toilet in the men’s room had overflowed and that a fragrant pool of water was all over the floor.

“I’m on it,” I said, and called the housekeeping and maintenance departments. The former’s charge was to clean up the mess, the latter’s was to unclog the toilet. And I taped a note to the loo’s door, advising the males of my species that the room was out of service and that additional facilities could be found upstairs.

The worker from housekeeping arrived first, not long after I placed the call. In the midst of doing his thing he came out into the lobby, hands wisely encased in bright yellow rubber gloves. One of those hands was holding a small rolled-up black umbrella. He looked my way and hoisted the contraption.

“Somebody left this in the bathroom,” he said. “Should I put it somewhere? Trash it?”

Wow, volunteers aren’t meant to deal with heavy decision-making! “I’m not sure,” I answered. “How’s about we . . . ”

“Trash it?” he asked.

“Right,” I confidently replied.

Into the narrow thigh-high trash can near the elevators the umbrella went. Another piece of whatever destined for a landfill.

The infamous trash can

Forty minutes later the conditions outside worsened. I could hear heavy rains coming down, though from where I was standing I couldn’t see them. A fellow I’d noticed earlier entering the building was now about to leave, his medical appointment completed. He went out the main door and seconds later came back inside. “It’s pouring like crazy out there,” he said. I took a few strides to position myself at a better vantage point and had to agree with his statement. The waters were descending in incredibly thick sheets.

“Do you have an umbrella I can borrow?” he asked. Right, like I’d ever see my umbrella again if I handed it over. And that’s when I remembered the trash can. “Hold on, ” I said. I walked down the lobby to the receptacle and stuck my right hand inside. It was a tight fit. Wouldn’t it make more sense for a trash can to have a wide opening rather than a narrow one? Its manufacturer forgot to consult with me before starting production. Undaunted, I fished around, trying to disengage the umbrella’s spokes from the confines and eventually had success.

“Here you go,” I said to the guy, extending the prize catch towards him. “It’s yours.” He took it and away he went, seemingly unimpressed by what had just occurred. Me, I thought it pretty uproarious that the buried and left-for-dead umbrella, as quick as that, had been resurrected. What were the odds?

The morning progressed. Plenty of people came up to me with one question or problem or another. Around 11:15 a guy ambled down the hall. When he reached my area he asked me if there was anywhere in the building he could get a cup of coffee. I got the impression that he had time to kill. He probably was waiting to drive a patient, probably his wife, home from a procedure, which probably was a colonoscopy.

“There’s vending machines one floor above us,” I told him. “Sodas, chips, candies and stuff like that. But nothing hot. If you want coffee you’ll have to go across the street to the hospital cafeteria.” While I was telling him this, a cardiologist walked by and went into her office. Dr. **, who never wears a white coat or any other garment that would identify her as a doctor, smiled and waved at me, as she always does when she passes the info desk. She’s a really nice person.

The guy shrugged and was about to amble back to wherever it was he came from. That’s when a loud and clear “Sir, are you desperate for a cup of coffee?” filled the lobby. A second later Dr. ** appeared. The guy didn’t know who she was, but he wasn’t about to turn down a gift. “Follow me,” she said, and led him into her office suite. “I’ll get some coffee for you.”

A few minutes later the recipient passed my way, cup in hand. “It’s your lucky day,” I said to him, adding that his benefactor is a physician. What were the odds that the only doc within a 50-mile radius who would do such a thing would overhear my conversation with him?  I mean, when was the last time a doctor gave you anything, unless it was a sample of hemorrhoid cream or something like that?

But, like the guy upon whom I’d bestowed a hidden and seemingly doomed umbrella, Mister Coffee didn’t appear to be overly amazed. “She is?” he answered blandly, and disappeared down the hall.

But I was amazed. Tuesday the 23rd, a day in which I was reminded that expecting the unexpected isn’t a farfetched stance at all, struck me as being very right. Right as rain, so to speak.

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I Need To Sit Down! (Tales Of A Dazed And Confused Volunteer)

On Tuesdays I man my post in a medical office building in the suburbs of the City Of Brotherly Love. The hours I put in there are of the volunteer variety, and I’ve been putting them in for the last seven years. Hey, a guy has to do something meaty when he hangs up his spikes from paid employment, or he very well might find himself hopelessly engulfed by his living room sofa. And volunteering is one of the good options for the post-career stage of life — giving back, as millions of people like to say. Yeah, that’s true — I get satisfaction from helping others at this and at my other volunteer gigs. But keeping busy is really more to the point. You’ve got to watch out for that f**king sofa, believe me. Its grip can be ferocious.

The infamous information desk

In the medical office building, which is one small part of an enormous regional health system, I stand behind the information desk from 8:00 AM until noon, doing my best to respond in an accurate and semi-intelligent manner to visitors’ questions and concerns. Though there is a chair behind the desk, I rarely sit in it. I do enough sitting at home.

“What room is Doctor Watson in?” is an example of the questions commonly asked of me. Hey, I know the answer! Do I win a prize? “Take the elevator over there,” I say, pointing my admirably-toned right index finger in the elevator’s direction, “and go up to the second floor. He’s in room 222.”

Or, “Is there a bathroom on this floor?” I’m queried frequently.

“Yes, luckily for you there is,” I answer, pointing to the niche that leads to the female or male loo, depending.

Or, “I don’t have any cash to pay to get out of the parking garage,” many people say to me, regarding the cash-only policy of the multi-level structure behind the medical office building. “What should I do?”

“Well,” I’d like to say, “how about wising up and carrying some money with you at all times? You never know when you’ll need it, genius.”

But instead I tell them that the cashier will ask them to fill out a form so that a bill can be sent their way, and then will raise the gate to let them out.

Another fascinating view of the desk.

None of this sounds too exciting, right? But I like the job, you know. Lots of people come up to me during my shifts, and that volume of situations keeps me on my toes and agrees with me just fine. Still, I get a bigger charge when the unexpected, in addition to the usual, occurs, and once in a while that happens. Now, keep in mind that I medicate myself with LSD on a daily basis, the better to stay in touch with my innermost self, so possibly neither of the following incidents took place two Tuesdays ago. But I’m more than certain that they did.

I was behind the info desk, absentmindedly stroking the three remaining strands of hair on the crown of my head, when a suspicious-looking, middle-aged guy burst in through the main entrance. I say suspicious because a sizeable firearm was poking out of the waistband of his jeans.

“Where’s the Wells Fargo bank branch around here, cuz?” he breathlessly shouted. “I’m lost, and I’m supposed to meet my three partners there in 10 minutes.”

“We’re going to hold up the place. Don’t tell nobody, okay?” he added, nodding at his waistband.

“I won’t, sir,” I said politely, somehow able to mask the panic that was threatening to turn my knees into jelly. “Your secret is safe with me. The bank you’re looking for is three blocks north of here on this same side of the street.”

“Appreciated, amigo,” the guy said as he bolted out the door to the car he’d parked in front of the building.

I took several deep breaths, regrouped and did a pretty good job of putting the incident out of my mind. Next day I read — that is, I’m quite sure I read — about the robbery. It was big news. The newspaper reported that all four participants had been captured by the police, 15 minutes after making their escape, in a nearby McDonald’s where they paid for their Happy Meals with a crisp $100 bill. Their server was in the midst of giving them change when the cops arrived. Apparently one of the bank employees had heard the robbers talking among themselves as they were exiting the bank. “I’m hungry,” one of the bad guys had said. “There’s a Mickey D’s a minute from here. Let’s go, boys. We’ll divvy up the loot after chowing down.”

That’ll teach ‘em. They should have gone to a Burger King instead. The food’s better there.

Anyway, the day’s electric jolts hadn’t ended. That’s because a real looker, somewhere in the second half of her 40s I’d say, came up to me about two hours after the pistol-packer departed. I’m a sucker for real lookers.

“Young man,” she said, eyeing me from head to toe and apparently not noticing that I am 20 or more years her senior, “I dropped my husband off an hour ago for his cardiologist appointment. Then I went shopping at the mall, and now I’m back. He was supposed to meet me here in the lobby after he was through. But he’s gone. Gone, I tell you. I think he skipped off with Susie, the physician’s assistant he’s never been able to keep his eyes off of. The girls at the front desk in the cardiology office looked high and low for him. There was no sign of my Kevin, who never checked in with them, and they couldn’t find that floozy Susie either.”

She took a few steps toward me, coming very close, and then, unbelievably, began to twirl playfully the aforementioned three remaining strands of hair on the crown of my head. “Pretty boy,” she said, “how about you and I go back to my place right now for a coffee and maybe something more? I’ve seen you here before and I’ve always liked your style. I know that you and I would find much in common, if you get my drift. I’m Lola, by the way.”

What? Nothing like this had ever happened to me. Once again I began to feel weak in the knees, not to mention in the head. “Hang on a sec, Lola,” I said. “I need to think. But first I need to sit down, which is something I almost never do here.”

I plopped into the chair behind the information desk and closed my eyes. Almost immediately I found myself in dreamland. When I woke up 10 minutes later, Lola was nowhere in sight. Maybe she’d located Kevin. Or maybe she’d found companionship with the FedEx deliveryman who makes his rounds in the building at about 11:30 on Tuesday mornings. Probably I’ll never know. Whatever, I headed for the parking garage, got into my car and made my way home. I’d had enough excitement for one day.

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