Helen Chappell - January 2011


Except for Thee and Me
Helen Chappell


Not so very long ago, a retired sea captain from Oxford was called as an expert witness in a Baltimore maritime trial. Trying to discredit a man he clearly believed to be a seagoing bumpkin, the plaintiff’s attorney approached the captain. “Now, sir, you’re from the Eastern Shore, and we understand there are a lot of characters over there, am I correct?” You can practically hear the smirk in the lawyer’s voice every time this story is told.
“Characters? Characters?” the old captain snorted. “We’ve got characters we haven’t even used yet!”
And so we do. Or so we did at one time.
These days, if you get the least bit out of line, they’re liable to ship you off to the psych ward at Dorchester General. There was a time when, if you weren’t hurting anyone or hurting yourself, you could go about your crazy business without anyone looking at you twice.
I can remember an heiress of late memory who lived out of people’s trash cans in back alleys. Her immediate family was all gone, and a lawyer administered a trust for her. She lived in a handsome house near the hospital and entertained herself by feeding stray cats and wearing outmoded clothes so worn out, people had tossed them.
From time to time, someone, usually one of her embarrassed cousins, would drag her into the bath and scrub her down. You wouldn’t smell her coming for a couple of weeks, then she’d go back to what was normal for her.
My aunt used to find her out back rummaging through the trash. She’d give her a good meal, call a cousin, get her bathed, give her the kind of lectures she gave us kids when we misbehaved and sent her on her kitty-feeding way.
They say she was such a hoarder that they had to knock her old house down with a bulldozer. There was nothing else to be done. I’m sure all the stray cats mourned her passing.
She was harmless, everyone knew who and what she was and no one would think of calling the police on her. Not even in winter, when she took to sleeping in the unlocked waiting room of my father’s office. I was pretty young then, but I remember the smell in there was horrendous in the morning when they opened for office hours.
Then there was a guy in Easton who went around eating cigarette butts. I have no idea why, but everyone was nice to him and some people even saved their cigarette butts for him.
There was, and may still be, Easton’s Newspaper Guy. When I worked from a branch office of a Cambridge newspaper, back in the day when the saber tooth tiger and the wooly mammoth roamed Federal Street, Newspaper Guy would come around about twice a week looking for newspapers. Didn’t matter how old they were, where they were from or anything else. He just wanted those newspapers. I got in the habit of saving all of them for him.
I don’t know what happened to him, but I have a feeling when newspapers went from dead tree editions to online, he probably went into a serious decline.
Once again, none of these people hurt themselves or anyone else. I could write a whole book about some of the Shore’s more, uh, colorful characters, like Annie who worked in the office next to me. She wore a towering blonde bouffant wig, huge dark glasses, skintight tops and pants and used to teeter up and down Federal Street on these amazingly high stiletto heels.
She was the sweetest woman you would ever want to meet, and I loved her pin that outlined the word JESUS in rhinestones. I got one that says ELVIS in tribute to her when she passed away. Actually, I don’t think Annie was crazy; she was just ahead of her time fashion-wise, and would probably be a celebrity runway queen these days.
The great thing is, sometimes you don’t know someone’s maybe a slice of cheese short of a reality sandwich until you get to know them really well. I had an employee once who seemed perfectly normal. Smart, intelligent, literate and attractive. Alas, she casually told me that David Letterman was talking to her from speakers in the trees outside, and that he had proposed to her via mind waves.
This was not the unfortunate woman who stalked Dave and committed suicide. This was someone entirely different. I like Letterman and his edgy humor, but I can’t understand why anyone would want to stalk him. He doesn’t seem all that warm and friendly, for one thing.
As I say, sometimes you don’t know what’s coming until the lights are flashing and the gates are down. Craziness used to be kind of a hobby of mine back in the day, but I’m still playing amateur night fire halls and church basements compared to a lot of people around here.
She’s 95 and still has the energy of a 30-year-old. Miss Phyllis was widowed about thirty years ago and has lived alone ever since. She doesn’t drive and she doesn’t have a phone. She depends on the ladies from her church to look in on her, take her grocery shopping and on outings. She regularly takes bus trips with her friends to musical events and other forms of entertainment. She loves going to Longwood Gardens, especially at Christmas.
Her wardrobe is thirty years old, last replenished before she retired from her job as an elementary school principal. But her clothes are immaculate, and she has all the best labels: Macy’s, Bloomingdales, Jones New York, Liz Claiborne. Crisp business attire that was in style in the ’80s. Her hair is always done and her lipstick is always in place, neatly blotted, the way a lady’s lips should be. Miss Phyllis is a lady to her fingertips. You know her pearls and the tasteful diamond engagement and wedding rings she wears on her manicured fingers are the real deal.
Miss Phyllis is sharp. She reads newspapers and takes an active interest in current events. But she doesn’t have a radio or a television.
When Miss Phyllis gets on the senior bus that takes her to the health care center, she dresses in her best Bergdorf Goodman navy blue suit with the pink piping. She carries a navy blue alligator bag that matches her low-heeled navy alligator pumps.
Miss Phyllis also drags a small, wheeled suitcase behind her. She takes this suitcase wherever she goes. It contains her money, her stocks and bonds, her silver and her jewelry.
You see, Miss Phyllis has a tiny little quirk. She knows it is as bad as she thinks, and they are out to get her.
For instance, that suitcase. She’s convinced that when she goes out, “They” come in and search her house. “They” want to steal her family silver and jewelry and papers. “They” want to keep an eye on her.
Because of “them” she doesn’t have a phone. “They” send secret waves and radiation through the phone lines that affect her thinking. And “they” eavesdrop on her conversations, collecting information about her.
She also doesn’t have a radio or a television because ‘they’ use these devices to send out secret messages to the subconscious brain.
When asked why “they” would single her out for special attention, her tone gets dark and her brown eyes cloud over.
“They” deliberately killed her husband. Thirty years ago, when he was sick in the hospital, “they” neglected him and let him die. Her problems with “them” started when her husband died. “They’ve” been after her ever since.
But why? Why pick on her husband, a retired education professional? Why pick on her? What do “they” want?
Ask her that and her smooth face tightens. Her eyes narrow behind her cat’s eye glasses and her lips thin into a tight line. You’d almost expect her to say that she could tell you, but then she’d have to kill you. Except it really isn’t funny, this tic in an otherwise sweet, intelligent and active lady’s personality. “They,” whoever “they” are, are running the life of this otherwise charming, kind and sane lady.
When unexpected visitors come to the door, she answers wearing a construction worker’s helmet, carrying a baseball bat. She may be a sweet old lady, but “they” are not taking her down without a fight.
There’s something to make you stop and think about the sight of an immaculately dressed elderly lady in a suit and pearls wearing a construction worker’s hard hat and wielding a Louisville Slugger.
I’m just not sure what to think. Other than that one tiny quirk about “them,” Miss Phyllis couldn’t be more sensible or sane or sweet.
Maybe she had a mini-stroke that knocked out one tiny part of her brain. Maybe losing her beloved husband drove her over that edge. Maybe, just maybe, there is a “they” who are out to get us and some people are just better about sensing this than others.
“Them” being out to get us would explain so much. I could surrender to that idea. Some all-powerful, glutinous blob-like “them” who could be blamed for everything that went wrong, has gone wrong or will go wrong. Like The Truman Show – someone to watch over me, but not in a good way.
And speaking of ways – that way lies madness. Which we are seeing quite a lot of these days.
The Shore has always had more than its fair share of eccentrics, and in the days when everyone pretty much knew everyone else, everyone knew what to expect and when to expect it.
If your neighbor used to get drunk and forget where she was and wander into your yard naked, as a neighbor of ours sometimes did in Oxford, you’d just guide them back across the alley, open the back door of their house and gently put them inside, where you hoped they’d pass out and stay.
“Everybody’s crazy except thee and me,” my dear stepmother recited to me one day after we escorted Mrs. X back home for the second time that week ... “and I’m not too sure about thee.”
After that, the little couplet became our byword whenever someone did something completely off the wall.
Old timers will remember the local character Jupiter John, who wore an aluminum foil beanie on his head to keep the rays from Jupiter from entering his brain as he hitchhiked back and forth between his home in Easton and his home away from home at the Towers in Cambridge.
For those of you who came in late, the Towers was the local name for the state mental hospital located where the Hyatt now sits. So, you do see, we had more than our fair share of people who needed a little reset every now and then. We still do, of course. For a lot of us, you’ll pry our cold, dead hands off our Lexapro.
But even with a second margarita and a handful of cheesy crackers, some of us still wonder if it is as bad as we think it is and “they” are out to get us.
What if Miss Phyllis and Jupiter John were right?
Well, I can always order one of these beauties: http://www.stopabductions.com/ It would make a lovely gift for the, uh, eccentric in your life. (Note: if you’re poor, you’re crazy. If you’re rich, you’re eccentric). I think we ought to get together and buy a wholesale lot of these to give our elected officials. Can’t hurt and it might help!