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← A quarter-million forgotten conversations | David Greenberger | TEDxAlbany

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Showing Revision 11 created 03/23/2020 by Tanya Cushman.

  1. The first funeral
    I ever went to was in 1979.
  2. I was 25,
  3. and I was working
    as an activities director
  4. at a nursing home in Boston.
  5. There was a man at the home
    by the name of Arthur Brown.
  6. One day, he took sick,
    was taken to the hospital,
  7. and he died shortly after that -
    all in a short span of time.
  8. But he was 96, had lived
    a long and healthy life up till then.
  9. I asked around to see if anybody
    wanted to go to his funeral,
  10. and there was another man
    at the home who wanted to go;
  11. he was the one who wanted to go.
  12. His name was Arthur Wallace.
  13. So the two of us set off
    to go to this graveside service.
  14. I borrowed a car.
  15. On the way there, it took
    a little longer than I thought -
  16. I got a little bit lost -
  17. and the entire way there,
  18. Arthur was giving
    a sort of running commentary
  19. on skirt lengths and billboards
    and bad directions,
  20. and all the while,
  21. he was monkeying around
    with his hearing aid
  22. that would fall
    out of his ear onto the seat,
  23. and he would jab it with a pen
    in some kind of a repair ritual
  24. and put it back in.
  25. It would fall out again.
  26. And the entire time he had a cigar
    that was not lit but was wet on both ends.
  27. (Laughter)
  28. So this is who I was
    in this small container with
  29. for the time it took to find the cemetery.
  30. Finally found it, pulled in.
  31. There were a couple people
    standing by one grave site.
  32. I parked the car and helped Arthur out.
  33. There were a lot of leaves
    on the ground - it was November -
  34. and I walked him across the leaves
    over to where these people were standing.
  35. There were a couple of elderly women
  36. who were distant relatives
    of the deceased,
  37. and then there was a minister.
  38. And when we were through
    with these brief introductions,
  39. the minister then said
    a very short service.
  40. At the end of that, he asked
    if anybody else wanted to say anything.
  41. And Arthur Wallace, who I brought along,
    wanted to say something.
  42. So he stepped forward
    from where he was next to me,
  43. and he said something like this:
  44. "Arthur Brown was a good man,
  45. but funny thing was
    he didn't like bananas.
  46. Now when his lunch
    would come up on the tray,
  47. if there was a banana on it,
  48. he'd give it to me.
  49. I like a banana.
  50. I like a banana okay.
  51. A banana's my number two fruit.
  52. My number one fruit's a big, mild pear."
  53. And then he stepped back next to me.
  54. That was the first funeral I ever went to.
  55. (Laughter)
  56. So I should now tell you
  57. how I came to be working
    in a nursing home in the first place.
  58. About a year before,
    I was on a cross-country trip
  59. and stopped in Palm Springs
  60. where my grandmother
    was spending the winter.
  61. I met a couple who were
    lifelong friends of hers, the Feitlers.
  62. And Herb Feitler and I
    spent the better part of a day
  63. sort of palling around.
  64. We went in his car
  65. to flea markets in surrounding
    desert communities out there.
  66. And I just had a fantastic time.
  67. When I got back home to Boston,
  68. in considering this fantastic time I had,
  69. I realized that what made it unique
  70. was that it was the first time
    I sort of had made friends with somebody
  71. who was significantly older than me
    but wasn't in my family.
  72. And I liked that, and I thought
    I would like to do that again.
  73. I had just graduated from art school
    with a degree in painting,
  74. and I thought there was something
    I could do that would be better for me
  75. than scooping ice cream
    and delivering flowers.
  76. So I heard about a job at a nursing home
    as an activities director
  77. that somebody I'd gone
    to school with was doing
  78. and was going to be leaving the job.
  79. So I went there and applied,
    and I got the job -
  80. for 50 cents an hour less
    because I had no prior experience.
  81. But I started then, right away.
  82. It was in a residential,
    tree-lined neighborhood
  83. in Jamaica Plain, in Boston,
  84. and it was an old, converted duplex house,
  85. hence its name, the Duplex Nursing Home.
  86. And as soon as I set foot
  87. into this environment,
  88. I was just captivated with it.
  89. It was just filled with riveting bits
    of conversation that I had to write down,
  90. here being some examples:
  91. "I keep smoking,
  92. but what I really want to do
    is drive around in a stick-shift car."
  93. "If a crow would see my picture,
    the crow would fly away."
  94. "Mars will probably be a state someday."
  95. (Laughter)
  96. "I'm going to get me a fly,
    and I'm going to keep it in my room."
  97. (Laughter)
  98. "The most important thing
    of human behavior
  99. is don't be terrorizing anybody."
  100. "I heard a knock at the door,
    and I hung up on it."
  101. (Laughter)
  102. "When you rake the yard,
    you rake the yard with a rake."
  103. I love that one.
  104. (Laughter)
  105. "I can speak five languages,
    and I can also blabber."
  106. (Laughter)
  107. "The weatherman says
    it's going to be cold tonight,
  108. so around midnight, I'm going to cook up
    a pork chop in the moonlight.
  109. Doesn't cost too much
    to cook in the moonlight."
  110. "My shoveling days are over, Davy baby."
  111. "I'll smoke another cigar, by and by."
  112. So these quotes
    and conversations that I had
  113. became the basis
    for a publication I started
  114. called "The Duplex Planet."
  115. I didn't know exactly where it was going,
  116. but I felt like it was something
    that I needed to communicate as an artist,
  117. and in fact, I set aside painting.
  118. I felt like if this was to be something
    that I was to find my way in,
  119. I shouldn't have any other outlet
    that would allow that.
  120. I got the first issue together
  121. and gathered all the residents
    together one afternoon
  122. and handed out a copy to each one of them.
  123. Within about two minutes, they figured out
  124. that I wasn't also passing out cake
    or refreshments or something
  125. and most of them wandered away,
    discarding these.
  126. However, that night,
  127. copies that made it home with me
    roommates and friends saw,
  128. and I instantly got
    that this was for everybody
  129. but the people in it.
  130. Had it been more traditional oral history,
  131. it would have been a keepsake of sorts
  132. for the residents,
  133. but this was something else:
  134. this was characters
    springing to life on the page.
  135. So I got to know
    all 45 of these residents;
  136. it was an all-male
    nursing home, this place.
  137. Some were talkative; some were not.
  138. Some were agitated; some were calm.
  139. Some were very articulate
    about all manner of things,
  140. and some didn't really make
    a lot of sense in expected ways.
  141. And it was those latter ones
    who I was most interested in.
  142. I felt fortunate to be in close contact
    with people who were going through that,
  143. and I came to see
  144. that they ended up not making sense
  145. having made the same sense
    that we all make when we make sense.
  146. If that makes sense.
  147. (Laughter)
  148. There was one man at the home
    by the name of William Gunn Ferguson,
  149. affectionately known as Fergie
    to everybody there.
  150. And he needed a sentence or so
  151. as a runway,
  152. and he'd be off, darting around.
  153. And it might come back
    to where it started,
  154. or maybe it didn't,
  155. but it was also an incredible trip.
  156. So this is one thing that he said:
  157. "The best place to hide
    is in the top of a tree.
  158. I used to tell those children,
  159. 'If you want to hide from your mother,
    you climb up in that tree and hide.'
  160. I'll tell ya, they'd hide
    so I couldn't even find them.
  161. And I don't mean any small trees.
  162. I mean trees that were 50, 60 feet high.
  163. And they'd fall out of those trees too.
  164. (Laughter)
  165. They'd fall out of those trees
    just like you'd smoke a pipe.
  166. (Laughter)
  167. And I used to have a lot of pipes.
  168. Until the children got into them,
    and they hid them.
  169. And you know where they hid them?
  170. In the trees."
  171. (Laughter)
  172. One day at work -
  173. and I say work, but it really
    just seemed like my life at the time.
  174. It didn't really seem like work.
  175. Though there came a time
    about two years later
  176. when I felt like I made a better friend
    to the residents there
  177. than I did as an employee for the owners,
  178. and so I left the job.
  179. But anyway, this one day,
  180. a resident by the name of Larry Greene
  181. came to me,
  182. and with all the urgency he could muster,
  183. he said, "Dave, nobody's come
    to get my dad's tray."
  184. Now, the tray part I understood -
    their noontime meal came up on a tray -
  185. but the dad part didn't make any sense,
    because his father was long dead.
  186. But I followed him out
    of this activities and dining room
  187. around another part of the home,
  188. and he led me to this room
    that was shared by two men,
  189. one of whom was sitting there,
  190. Walter McGeorge.
  191. There he sat with his tray
    in front of him on a little table,
  192. and Larry went over and stood next to him
  193. and said, "Hi, Dad."
  194. And Walter was smiling.
  195. He seemed to be smiling for Larry
    as if to acknowledge the "Hi, Dad,"
  196. and he seemed to be smiling at me
  197. as a way to say, "It's all right.
    It's no big deal.
  198. We'll let him think I'm his father."
  199. Larry was in this remarkable state
  200. where he thought
    that anybody who smiled at him
  201. was an old friend of his,
  202. and he had sort of remembered his life
  203. into something much easier
    than it had ever been.
  204. He had had a fairly difficult life.
  205. He had worked on a coal wharf,
  206. never had enough money,
  207. had six children.
  208. He would now say that he had two children.
  209. You could name any of the six,
    and he would acknowledge them as his,
  210. but he would always have
    the math come out to be two.
  211. It just seemed like an easier life
    that way or something.
  212. But what I learned from Larry
    and from Walter and from Fergie
  213. and from many other people there
  214. was that anything was as real
    as anybody said it was.
  215. The days of their big
    adventures were over,
  216. and they were now
    sort of recombining things,
  217. and they were coming out differently,
  218. and the most direct way
    for me to get to know somebody
  219. was to just accept
    whatever they said as real
  220. because it was real for them
  221. and that was how
    I was going to get to know them.
  222. (Music with ticking sound)
  223. (Recording) David Greenberger:
    Funny how time marches on.
  224. But they're all in the same boat a year.
  225. Happy-go-lucky.
  226. How time marches on.
  227. They must realize
    they are a kid no longer.
  228. They're always looking
    for that first snowstorm
  229. that we had the other day.
  230. I don't suppose
    you'd call that a snowstorm.
  231. Just about everybody likes to see
    the old-fashioned Christmas.
  232. Yeah, but time marches on.
  233. [Time Marches On]
  234. (Church bells ringing)
  235. (Music ends)
  236. (On stage) DG: "The Duplex Planet"
  237. continued as a little, self-published,
    chapbook-sized periodical
  238. that I started back then in 1979,
  239. but in the '90s, it became better known,
    the work that I was doing,
  240. through several books that came out.
  241. The material was adapted
    into a comic book,
  242. and there were a couple of documentaries.
  243. And for the past 15 years or so,
  244. I've been most interested
    in creating monologues with music.
  245. I've done a series of CDs and performances
  246. for museums and arts presenters
    and universities and NPR.
  247. And these have been done with a variety
    of different musical ensembles,
  248. different styles.
  249. But in all cases,
  250. I strive to have the music
  251. be a fully active element
    in the final piece,
  252. not background music.
  253. I'd likened it to a band
    with a guy talking - me.
  254. So these audio pieces that I record,
  255. they're not recreations
    of time that I spent with somebody;
  256. they're abstracted from it.
  257. The words and the music
    come together for me and fall into place
  258. when it seems like how it feels
    to remember that person.
  259. So that it's a gauge that I use to know,
  260. and hopefully it resonates
    in some way for somebody else.
  261. These aren't documentary snapshots
  262. of elderly people that I met.
  263. But I try to have it be
  264. something that will resonate
    separate from that.
  265. I'm not using their voices,
    the actual voices of them,
  266. or projecting their pictures behind me.
  267. Because I want these to resonate
    with listeners individually.
  268. Last year, I was in Milwaukee,
    finishing up an artist residency
  269. that I did there for the Center on Age
    and Community at the university there.
  270. I had spent three months
  271. talking and conversing, meeting
    with elderly who have memory loss,
  272. varying degrees of it -
  273. from barely noticeable
    to profoundly fragmented.
  274. The one thing that everybody
    had in common that I spoke with, though,
  275. was that everybody liked
    the idea of talking with me.
  276. They agreed to talk with me.
  277. Maybe they thought they already knew me,
    but it didn't really matter.
  278. What was amazing for me to see
  279. was that the people
  280. who were the least able to have a -
    carry on a narrative conversation
  281. still had the blueprint,
    the shape of a conversation
  282. that they utilized.
  283. I would say something,
    and then they would say something,
  284. and then I would say something:
    we'd go back and forth.
  285. And they still adhered
    to that sort of social convention.
  286. That it didn't always link up -
  287. I might say something, I often would,
  288. and then they would say something
    completely separate from that,
  289. and I would go with that,
  290. and then they would go somewhere else.
  291. It didn't link up, but I realized
    that it didn't matter.
  292. (Strumming guitar)
  293. (Recording) DG: I had to behave.
  294. I had two sisters,
    and I had a - let's see -
  295. I had a - let's see - six brothers,
    a lot of brothers.
  296. My mother, all she had to do was work.
  297. My father worked every day.
  298. He worked in a - let's see -
  299. he worked in a - let's see -
  300. he worked in a - oh, where did he work?
  301. He worked every day.
  302. It took a lot of money
    to support his kids.
  303. I wasn't real happy.
  304. I did it because I had to.
  305. When my mother comes after me,
    then I didn't feel so good.
  306. She came after me.
  307. She came after me.
  308. She came after me
  309. to see that I was doing okay.
  310. [Mother Comes After]
  311. (Music ends)
  312. (On stage) DG: Arthur Wallace, the man
    who had a mild pear as his favorite fruit,
  313. ended up dying about a year
    about the man whom he eulogized,
  314. and his demise was not so sudden.
  315. And it was remarkable to see
    what happened with him.
  316. He'd always been very precise
    in all of his recollections,
  317. was very interested
    in world events and politics.
  318. And what was happening then, at the end,
  319. was that the facts
    were becoming dislodged.
  320. (Feedback sound)
  321. (Recording) DG: I remember a sign
    on Brimmer Street to go to the South Pole.
  322. [The Last Words of Arthur Wallace]
  323. I don't understand,
    but I do dream about it at nighttime.
  324. Brimmer is where the State House is.
  325. I signed on to go with Byrd.
  326. I made a mistake, and I asked him
  327. "Why do I dream at night
    that I go to the South Pole?"
  328. I remember a sign on Brimmer Street,
    near the State House.
  329. His name was Byrd.
  330. I occasionally dreamed
    that I went with Byrd to the South Pole,
  331. but he quit when we got to Scott's grave,
  332. where the Englishman Scott was,
  333. who perished.
  334. I dreamt that Byrd
    got in a violent argument with us,
  335. and he quit.
  336. But the Americans went on
    until they discovered it.
  337. That's my dream. I dream it.
  338. Why is my side all numb?
  339. I must have gotten frozen.
  340. I must have gone there,
    and that's why my side is all numb now.
  341. (Feedback sound ends)
  342. (On stage) DG: I did
    some rough math and figured
  343. I've had about a quarter-million
    conversations in my life,
  344. and I've forgotten almost all of them.
  345. Conversations are a way for two people
  346. to be in the same time
    and place as one another.
  347. And we extract the data from it,
  348. and we're left, then,
    with an emotional memory of somebody.
  349. I'm an artist,
  350. and I'm also somebody
    in the second half of my life,
  351. well into it,
  352. and I think I've learned as a human being
    and grown as an artist
  353. from continuing to meet people
  354. who are living
    the last years of their lives.
  355. The differences between us are obvious,
  356. but it's the things that we have in common
    that are the most fulfilling to me.
  357. That's where you find the surprise
    and the mystery and the truth.
  358. (Music starts)
  359. (Recording) DG: I felt like I was really
    getting towards Alzheimer's.
  360. I was hoping it wasn't Alzheimer's,
  361. but I was finding myself
    repeating myself very often,
  362. just in a normal conversation.
  363. And I felt that I better do something
    to help with my memory.
  364. My daughter's the one
    that came up with this program here.
  365. One of my sons drove me over
    for the first time
  366. to find out what it was about
  367. because he wanted to see it too,
    what all was involved in it.
  368. This was actually not too long ago,
  369. and I thought it was quite interesting
  370. and decided to register
  371. and keep on coming back
    on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
  372. And you know what?
  373. It has helped me.
  374. Since I've been coming here,
  375. I've not noticed any further
    deterioration of my memory.
  376. Nothing I can detect anyway.
  377. I'm satisfied.
  378. [Satisfied]
  379. (Music continues)
  380. (On stage) DG: Thank you.
  381. (Applause)