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When your vacation goes sour, call Eric Cheeversfilmmaker, rescuer, diaper-carrier.
One day this past July, Eric Cheevers found himself on his knees in a first-class lounge at Boston’s Logan Airport, tying an adhesive condom-catheter onto the ancient, shrivelled penis of a client.
“I’m going to put this tube in your penis. You urinate here,” Cheevers explained.
“Thank you, thank you. Ha, ha, ha,” his client replied.
That was how the trip began. From there, Cheevers’ assignment for the D.C. office of Worldwide Assistance Services Inc.an international travel-rescue companyturned into an exhausting three-day marathon of smells and sounds spanning the distance from New England to Taiwan.
Forget lush multicourse meals and first-class reclining seats. This client wasn’t sleeping on the overnight flight. He was too busy moaning deliriously, calling out, and defecating into a plastic hazmat bag.
A nurse escortpart of the Worldwide teamgave the client Ativan, a tranquilizer similar to Valium. And Cheevers, the client’s nonmedical escort, began to feel just as disoriented as the person he was supposed to be helping. By the time they left American airspace, the journey had started to blend together into one long stream of images in Cheevers’ mind. Maybe, he thought, he could use some of them in his next 16-mm film.
But first there was the little matter of accompanying the 85-year-old, 170-pound Taiwanese stroke victimparalyzed on one sideon a United Airlines flight across the Pacific. The client’s insurance policy guaranteed him help getting home if he fell ill abroadhe had been visiting relatives in New Hampshireand Cheevers was delegated to do the heavy lifting and wiping.
The client moaned in a language Cheevers took to be Mandarin. (Cheevers himself speaks three languages; Chinese, alas, is not among them.) He ran back to coach class to consult with the client’s son, a gentle fellow in his 50s, a technical director for a chemical company in the U.S.
Cheevers’ mind was drifting. “Are you comfortable?” Cheevers remembers having asked the client back in Boston.
“Ha, ha, ha,” had come the reply.
When they got to Taiwan, Cheevers learned that laughter is not necessarily indicative of hilarity there, but rather of humiliation and embarrassment. “Live and learn,” Cheevers says.
Cheevers is working the overnight shift at the Worldwide Assistance office on 15th Street NW, facing a bank of desks and phones in the middle of a nondescript room. A row of windows looks out onto a brick wall. You can’t tell what time of day it is. But with clients and potential clients passing simultaneously through every time zone in the world, it really doesn’t make any difference for the home office.
A new client can ring at any time, seeking a professional escort to ferry someoneor someone’s remainsfrom vacation spot to home or burial plot. Cheevers and 15 others staff Worldwide’s Washington office, one of 500 or so around the world. The France-based firm, the world’s largest, competes with only a handful of other travel-rescue companies. It also sponsors a 24-hour hot line that offers medical, legal, financial, cultural, and other emergency aid abroad to travelers who sign up for the program in advance.
Cheevers, for what it’s worth, thinks most of his countrymen could use the help: He says Americans are the world’s most culturally inept travelers. And if ignorance of foreign cultures makes converting dollars into rupees an arduous exercise, just imagine what it’ll do when you have appendicitis abroad.
Tonight, Cheevers has just finished his evening arranging for the safe return of a mentally ill California man with kidney failure. The man had gone to Atlanta, then promptly forgotten who he was. But no sooner does Cheevers arrange a travel nurse for the hospitalized man than he suffers a stroke and dies. Only a shift change saves Cheevers from having to arrange the transport of a corpse.
Insured or not, you don’t ever want to draw a guy like Cheevers out of the shadows of his office. Because if you do, it’s probably a sign that you have not had a bon voyage. Then again, once your trip has gone sour, he can be your best frienda helping hand dealing with language, money, or insurance hassles. Or muscle to help you get home, even if you’re in a box in the cargo hold of a Boeing 747.
A government brat who followed his parents to West Africa as a youngster, Cheevers waxes philosophical about his job because it is, at bottom, philosophical. Sort of like an insurance underwriter and an undertaker wrapped into one. “People only call me when someone is suffering,” he says, sipping coffee at a bar underneath his apartment near 14th and U Streets NW.
But while he feels his clients’ pain, he’s also studying them. For Cheevers, Worldwide is also a day job in the service of a more impractical habit: making films. Die or get sick on Cheevers’ watch and you may become fodder for his art.
For five years, Cheevers has been making short, low-budget, underground films. They’ve been seen at dozens of film festivals around the nation, including the Moxie/Santa Monica Film Festival and D.C.’s own Rosebud Film Festival. Connie Sellecca’s Recipe and The Jenny James Story have been finalists and won prizes. But they’ve also been money-losing enterprises. To makes ends meet, Cheevers says, he has worked “the most inane and spirit-crushing jobs imaginable, ranging from retail to stripping in some of D.C.’s seediest male strip joints.” Against that backdrop, schlepping ailing Taiwanese gentlemen back home is downright fun.
But even the most grinding post can have a purpose, and Cheevers views his dead-end work as grist for his films. Cheevers says he views employment strictly as a means of experiential research. He transformed a recent telemarketing job into The Jenny James Story, the tale of a young woman who gets pregnant and takes a demeaning and somewhat unethical telemarketing job to ensure health benefits for herself and her unborn child. Call it dark inspiration.
And the dark travel tales from Worldwide rescue missions provide enough material for many movies to come.
Perhaps coming someday to a theater near you: An elderly Polish-American man travels to Krakow against medical advice. The exertion somehow reactivates a brain tumor that was in remission. It pinches his optic nerves, and suddenly he is blind. He presumably needs help eating, going to the bathroom, moving around, getting back home.
Enter Cheevers, who has flown out from Dulles with the usual supplies: rubber gloves, Handi Wipes, adult diapers, and an array of over-the-counter meds. He makes his way to one of the airport hotels, where he notices that free-market economics has opened up the cocktail lounge to a new world of businessmenand their female consorts in stiletto heels and hot pants. Having been awake for 24 hours, Cheevers checks into his room and passes out.
The concierge summons Cheevers five hours later. Cheevers showers, shaves, and goes downstairs to find the client in the dining room being spoon-fed borscht by a 20-something woman in the stiletto-heels/hot-pants/tube-top uniform of the cocktail lounge.
“This is Malgorzata. I call her Margo,” the client announces. “Margo likes to go to discos. She works in a tanning salon. You owe her 156 zlotys for her trouble getting me here….”CP