My first full time job in Canada, when I moved there in 1969, was at Sunnybrook Hospital north of Toronto, as an orderly. It was easy for me to get work there as I had already worked at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, and McLean mental hospital, in Belmont, MA.

Mostly I worked on the evening shift. It was a long bus ride from my digs in the city, and often I was late. This meant I was assigned to E-Block. E-Block was where veterans of Canada’s foreign wars were cared for. It was considered a punishment to deal with these old men, but I developed a fondness for them.

In the evening I undressed them and put them to bed. During the night I guided them to the bathroom in their nocturnal wanderings. In the morning I roused them and helped them to put on their starched white shirts and blue corduroy pants. Some patients were unruly and had to be tied into bed with restraints. One old battler wandered the halls looking for a fight. Part of the job entailed emptying colostomy bags. I also inserted catheters in patients who needed them under supervision of the night nurse, which was awkward for both of us.

During the day I gave the men sitz baths and oatmeal baths for their skin. Para- and quadra-pelagics required special attention. They rested on sheepskins, which had to be changed now and then. I bought gum and cigarettes for them from the commissary and listened to their stories. One stout white haired veteran had fought in a Scottish regiment in the First World War. All the men in his unit were six feet tall, he told me. They were mowed down by German machine gun fire, which he recalled more than a half century later with pain and regret. The older orderlies were also veterans. I got along well with them. All they cared about was that I did the job. Politics and the Vietnam War were of little interest to them. They considered me to be a good shit mate.

The old man in the poem is a composite character. The poem was originally titled “—- and the Orderly.” The editor at Poetry Toronto asked me to come up with a better title, and I obliged her.

Age And The Orderly

“Good morning, sir.” You greet me with a lung,
And shake your speckled hands and sneeze a stool,
And let in sun and air on tooth and tongue,
Assemble thought, and tell me sonic drool.

Man-to-man, old man, just what do you see?
You follow motion, turn to light and eyes.
Your wispy dome must hide a memory.
The beard inside your ears at least looks wise.

I measure you until the afternoon.
I bathe your body and a mystery.
You eat alone. You turn to face the spoon,
And turn aside from eggs to fantasy?

Some old men dribble secrets, but not you,
Prone cerebration looking up and through.

Later I worked as an orderly at The Wellesley Hospital, in downtown Toronto. Ernest Hemingway’s first son was born there. For awhile, I worked on the wards during the day. I was transferred to “Emerg,” as they called it, usually on the evening shift, the busiest time of day. I saw plenty of action there: rolled drunks, losers in bar fights, gunshot wounds, suicides, criminals brought in by the police, mental patients on the loose, heart attacks, a robber who cut his foot kicking in a gas station window, druggies who needed their stomach pumped, you name it. No one pulled a gun or knife on me or managed to land a punch.

I earned a reputation for calming bad situations. The nurses would say to me, “Talk to him, Hudson.” When it was quiet, I sat in a corner and read a book. Sometimes a bum came in from the cold for the night. The hospital provided such persons with a bed and a sandwich. These were older men and generally good-natured. Some carried lice, and the cubicle was fumigated after they left. I smoked cigarettes at the time, and they would hit on me for a smoke, which I provided for them. I tired of doing this and stopped smoking for the second and last time. Years later I took up a pipe.

After nine months of watching misery come in through the swinging orange door, I had had enough and punched out for the last time. I had saved up money for travel abroad. I punched out, tore my card in half, and stuck it in the Out slot under the night supervisor’s nose. The Wellesley was my fourth and last hospital.

Emergency Bum

Okay, I am a bum come through your door,
Not one bit sober, clean or young, and beat
Up slightly—one small cut. I know the score.
Please give me a bed and a bite to eat.

Turning over and over like a leaf,
I got up once and changed my underwear
And nothing happened. What the hell. “Hey, Chief,
Could you lend me a smoke?” Then you won’t care.

I’m ailing, so give me the brightest pills,
Something to dim my awareness of lice.
I fight for my pride and flop for your skills:
Orderly muscle, stitches, good advice.

Lean down close though I have odor to say;
Up there in health you’re much too far away.

These poems are included in Selected Poems 1967 –2007 by Hudson Owen.
All Rights Reserved.

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