I met Herbie Caldwell at the beginning of 1979. He was 84 and I was 24. He was one of 45 men living in a nursing home on a tree-lined street in Jamaica Plain, part of Boston. With his full head of hair, nicely trimmed goatee and a penchant for wearing sunglasses, he seemed more like a retired celebrity than the gently befuddled man he’d become.
Herbie’s past had become a series of broken vignettes. Either he didn’t remember incidents in their entirety, or they were so vivid to him that he didn’t realize his fractured thoughts lacked focus to anyone else. He’d make reference to kitchen work, unmade beds and assorted other chores. Apparently he had been institutionalized for some part of his life; living in the nursing home a part of that continuity. Records would have revealed some of the facts, but they’re long gone. He’d worked in a leather factory in Lynn, Massachusetts. He told me he’d grown up and gone to school in neighboring Danvers. Those assorted details faded away next to the man who’d call me Davy and would quietly utter his accidental poetic observations and aphorisms.
“Get me a cup of coffee before I faint.”
“I’m far from Lynn and I ain’t showered yet, no foolin’.”
“I’ll be fallin’ down like a tree.”
“You got me caught here like a pair of pants.”
“I’ll smoke another cigar by and by.”
Much of what he said was an amalgam of minor complaints and recent memories. They never came off as whining, rather, they had a sort of hobo dignity to them. In his soft, even-metered tone they sounded like prayers. His speaking didn’t depend on someone else being present. Herbie enjoyed company, but it wasn’t essential. He lived alongside other elderly men, but he didn’t seem to look at them as friends, just neighbors. The staff of nurses and other employees, including me, were those he counted as his friends.
“I ain’t no firebug. I was a fireman once, but I ain’t no firebug. The fella’s here tryin’ to fix the fire alarm. See how that girl put pajamas on me? They’ll have me knocked out by Christmas. that’s crazy. I used to go down to Brigham’s. I had a topcoat and two sunglasses, and I laid ‘em down in a box and – pffft! – they was gone. Why should they do that? You’ll have me dead. I can’t even go sportin.’ They’ll have me down to the undertaker and I won’t go. They’re painting the place and I can’t get any coffee, and pretty soon they’ll have me on my back. Everybody else goes sportin’ and leaves me here. You never see me go sportin,’ do ya? The only way I’ll go sportin’ is with the undertaker. Those fellas are walkin’ around havin’ a good time and I’ll fall on my back, and then down comes the undertaker. That’s a dirty trick, huh? Why should they put small pants on me in a chair? I think I’m licked. I can’t go home, it looks like it, I can’t go home.”
Herbie Caldwell was my friend for two-and-a-half years, until he died in the summer of 1981.
“The big truck’s gone and so am I.”
- David Greenberger