There’s a 102-year-old man who lives in a nursing home several miles outside of Newark. He sits in a wheelchair because he’s no longer able to walk on his own. He doesn’t speak much and he mostly keeps to himself. If you come to visit, you can usually find him out on the patio with the sunshine filtering through the trees onto his aging, white skin. He wheels himself out there every day so he can sit in peace, check out the nurses, and smoke an entire cigar. This is because he is from New Jersey and he doesn’t give a $!#@.
A colleague and I visited this man and his resident friends as part of a community service effort to plant flowers at the nursing home with one of our sites in the area. The employees at the local site did all of the work while my colleague and I took pictures and video. Graduating with a degree in Communications was one of the smartest things I’ve ever done in life because it means other people have to endure hard labor and all I have to do is find creative ways to yell about it.
In any other part of the country, this day would have been a peaceful, relaxing exercise in putting a smile on an elderly person’s face. But this was northern New Jersey where the inhabitants are loud, direct and always in the mood for ball-busting. So naturally it felt like a construction site.
“What the hell are you doin’? That’s where the Lilac’s are goin’!”
“Haven’t you ever hung a birdhouse before??”
“Who the @#!# took my hoe?”
That last one was actually overheard while driving through Newark last year, but it applies to gardening situations as well.
In most nursing homes, this kind of yelling would have offended, annoyed or even scared the residents. In this case it seemed attract them. Even in the chill of the morning, they came out to watch. This included our cigar-smoking friend, a relatively younger looking gentleman who inappropriately winked at every female who walked by, and an older woman on a cell phone who didn’t think it was noisy enough and decided to contribute. The latter individual couldn’t get past the locked door leading to the patio and had to knock repeatedly to get my attention. I struggled to open the door until I was pointed to the green release button on the side. Even after I helped her escape, she was not appreciative.
“Sorry about that, Gretchen.” She yelled at the phone. “Some dumb ass couldn’t figure out the door.”
She continued to chat away as the team worked, but she admired the new decor. In fact, everybody seemed to appreciate the work that was being done, even those doing it. It was a cold morning for April standards. There was frost on the tables and the soil was tough to dig through. When the wind picked up, everyone stopped what they were doing to huddle up inside their coats. Yet, even though I was only wearing a sweater, there was a part of me that was warm with joy. It was my heart, by the way.
I’ve taped a lot of company events in the past, but have never witnessed camaraderie quite like this. It was real. It wasn’t something put on for the camera. The employees were enjoying themselves and every emotion was worn right on their sleeves for all to see. They were loud and so very Jersey, but they were all these things in the greatest way possible.
I stopped to interview a couple people who were in the middle of hanging a birdhouse.
“How do you feel?” I asked.
“It’s cold as hell and my back is sore.” One man responded “But it feels good to put a smile on somebody’s face.”
I believed every word.