we spent a good part of our day in line, waiting. before each meal you had to sign out and line up. line up in the cafeteria to leave, line up for vitals, line up for meds. out of habit and routine, we’d even line up for smoke break. every time we left the immediate unit, we signed out and formed a loose single file. herded from area to another.
when the doors unlock, we twist our way down a corridor, passing the hospital pharmacy and some offices. we arrive at the cafeteria. i follow the people in front of me, as we lineup against the floor to ceiling windows. windows that look “outside”, over the parking area and highway that runs parallel to the hospital. the seating area for patients is three rows of 6 tables, 6 chairs to a table. the closest row to the door contains the adolescents. there are about 20 to 25 kids present. they move from table to table in their row, laughing, blowing off some energy while they cram cookies into their mouths. washing them down with soda.
on our way to the windows, we pass a wall’s length of vending machines: ice cream, cappuccino, salty snacks, candy, bottled soda, juice. i am amazed at the selection, and even more so that they are reasonably priced. but what catches me funny: it is strictly forbidden to remove any items from the cafeteria. if i buy a bag of Frito’s, i have to eat them immediately. items are periodically swiped, however. because i have cargo pants, i am the Tea Mule, bringing back bags of Lipton for Karl, the navy guy. Karl is only calmed when he has tea as he’s kicking heroin.
in line, about dead in the middle, i wonder how the social situation of “cafeteria dining” will play out. we slowly move forward, passing through a doorless entry into the food area. there is a hand sanitizer dispenser on the right, which is almost always empty. damp trays are stacked up on the left. you grab your silverware and move to the food line. typically cafeteria-like, you slide your way down the line, starting with cookies, fruit, yogurt, cake, brownies and cereal into salads, into cold cut sandwiches made to order and then to the hot meal. Miss Bernice would be there in the mornings, and sometimes for lunch. her silver hairnet resembling a hazy halo. several institutional chafing dishes held meatloaf, bacon, rock hard pancakes, hot turkey, sad pizza, ziti, roast pork, waffles, the vague “greens”, rotating throughout the days & meals. the coffee dispensers, the soda fountain, the juice machine. unsure of the quality of the food, i grab “safe things” – yogurt, an apple, what Miss Bernice calls “roast chicken”, rice and a styrofoam cup of soda.
now comes the tricky part of where to sit. having only been there for one full day, and my first time to the cafeteria, i’m unsure of the social landscape. but i roll my eyes and think “jesus christ, it not like its freakin’ high school”. i pick the fourth table in our “row”, where one woman is seated.
“mind if i sit?” i ask as i set my tray down.
the overly made up, brassy-haired woman looks at me, “oh, these seats are all taken”
i chuckle, “jesus god, the IS like high school”, and wind my way over to the third table, where three or four fellow patients are just sitting down. we make small talk, chattering about nothing in particular. I realize that i’ve eaten everything. quickly. like a starving man. it occurs to me that i haven’t really eaten more than a bagel or some crackers in about 4 or 5 days. i return to the line for another yogurt. as i breeze through the now-short line, with most us seated and eating, the Adult Unit lined up at the cafeteria door, preparing to get in the Food Line.
maybe 20 to 25 people. all ages, races, genders. they are lifeless. the Adults shuffle in, stand in line quietly, take their seats peacefully, eat morosely, stare into space vacantly. i realize how happy and relieved i am with the drunks & junkies, because they have personality, spunk. sure there is drama, but at least it was life. these poor broken people appear devoid of energy, depleted of spark.
after about 1/2 hr, we line up again to exit and return to the unit for vitals, meds, smoke break, afternoon group. i start to feel pretty normal, maybe little of myself is returning. in the post-lunch med line that i meet Matt, who is clutching his copy of Atlas Shrugged, standing calmly. i am surprised that they allow us to read “outside” material. last time i was in treatment, they confiscated all “outside” material, to be returned to you upon discharge, so that you could focus on your recovery. i giggle internally at the choice of reading material.