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The Duplex Planet

$12/6 issues from P.O. Box 1230, Saratoga Springs, NY 12866

When my fellow twentysomethings complain that we’ll have to pay for older generations’ senescence, they’re forgetting something. Younger generations in many cultures, including this one, have traditionally taken the burden of caring for their elders. Twentieth-century Americans just happen to be the first people in history to fulfill this responsibility through payroll deductions.

In the not-too-distant past, families looked after their progenitors. The load was admittedly lighter when life spans were shorter; as a doctor tells his aged patient inTracy Kidder’s Old Friends, “You can’t die young anymore.” Now responsibility for the old has been assumed (appropriated?) by expen sive, complex government pro grams—and by nursing homes, which depend on Medicaid just as much as their patients do.

The result is that one can’t die at home anymore, either. I had a relative who decided that 85 years was long enough for him to live. On the appointed birthday, he crawled into bed and was dead within two months. Today he’d be packed off to a nursing home, where shuffleboard and bingo keep death at bay and crawling into bed and expiring is strictly forbidden.

This bureaucratization of aging has made the old a race of outcasts. Nursing homes are alien and dreaded places to the rest of us, visited rarely (and even then out of a sense of duty). Kidder was curious, perhaps because his generation (he served in Vietnam) is now ushering its parents to the nursing-home door, so he ventured behind the gray curtain, spending a year at a Berkshires facility called Linda Manor. Old Friends is his portrait of life on this final frontier.

He did not go looking for Dickensian horror; the denizens of Linda Manor are well treated, on the whole, although once in a while an incontinent resident is left lying in his or her own excrement. Kidder’s subject is dislocation. “They were like immigrants arriving in a new land with long lives behind them, obliged to inhabit a place that was bound to seem less real than the places they recalled,” he writes of the tenants.

Marooned in brick dormitories, they live their final years in the company of total strangers. They are fed, dressed, bathed, and sometimes even diapered by paid nurses and aides; their timeworn stories fall on unfamiliar, but not necessarily unsympathetic, ears. Unless they can afford the luxury of a single room, the residents of Linda Manor must live with a roommate—who, if they’re lucky, will be neither demented nor deaf.

Kidder shadows roommates Louis Freed and Joe Torchio, who are of relatively intact mind and ear in spite of Joe’s stroke and Lou’s glaucoma. “You’re blind and I have half a brain,” Joe tells his roomie. Kidder is there when they awake in the morning and when they go to sleep—and when, hours later, Joe rises for one of his several nightly trips to the bathroom—watching them deal with the infirmities of age, and listening in on their stories, their arguments, and their successful efforts to forge a friendship.

This is Beckett country. The uprooted souls who populate Linda Manor—a place of waiting—carry on their jerry-built relationships in defiance of the Great Inevitable. And it is populated by a cast of outlandish characters: the man who roams the halls constantly in search of an exit or, failing that, his long-dead wife; the enormously fat woman who cannot be moved without the assistance of a crane-like device called the Hoyer Lift; or the woman who begins her diary entry with the words “beautiful morning here,” whether or not the sun shines upon the nothing new.

Kidder approaches this milieu as a dispassionate, invisible observer. Concealing himself in the penumbra between the institution and the residents, with whom the greater part of his sympathy rests, he records conversations, medical procedures, and private rituals as if they took place in his absence. He betrays his own presence only occasionally, as when he gently reproves Linda Manor’s interior decorators. “In a place of damaged minds,” he notes, “a carpet full of complex shapes was a mistake.”

This narratorial technique has served Kidder well in such previous nonfiction works as The Soul of a New Machine. Here, his muted tones seem to constrain his subjects—much as the nursing home constricts their lives. No character is especially memorable, no problem difficult to solve. Lou and Joe, in Kidder’s rendering, come across as a sort of superannuated Odd Couple, two opposite personalities who reach a friendly accommodation with each other.

What’s missing is a sense of the terror each must feel at the thought of spending their remaining time in a place where nothing happens. Kidder’s Linda Manor seems a pleasant place—but no old person of my acquaintance would willingly enter a nursing home.

“Ideal aging—these days also known as “successful aging,’ often depicted in photographs of old folks wearing tennis clothes—leaves out a lot of people,” Kidder writes in the two pages of analysis among 349 of reportage. The myth of successful aging leaves out Lou and Joe and the million or so other Americans who now live in nursing homes. For them, the nursing home represents failure: failure to care for oneself, failure to cleave to some Modern Maturity standard.

Yet Kidder himself accepts the successful/unsuccessful dichotomy, and he sides, decisively, with the successful. In the context of Linda Manor, Lou and Joe are as healthy as aristocrats. At 90 and 72 years of age respectively, both men retain lucidity and full command of most major bodily functions.

“When the demented roamed the halls,” Kidder writes, Linda Manor “could seem like the underworld of myth.”

Myth it remains. Linda Manor’s less sane (and more angry) residents are conveniently relegated to background roles: the legless man who constantly bellows, for instance, or the crazed woman who attempts to pick flowers from the carpet, or the numerous patients suffering from the mysterious dementias that afflict some old people. They’re left out of the story, which is rather like omitting the King from The Tragedy of Lear.

We’re left with a touching, fuzzy story of two friendly old fellows named Joe and Lou, who show us that old folks are people, too…blah, blah, blah.

Ican’t help wondering what Kidder might have observed had he spent the year in the room of someone suffering from early Alzheimer’s or some other form of age-related neurological mayhem. Some hint of what he missed can be found in the pages of an odd little magazine called the Duplex Planet, published by one David Greenberger.

Where Kidder is squeamish about old folks’ weirdness, Greenberger cultivates it and consumes it raw. Since he began working in nursing homes in the ’70s, he has interviewed countless of his charges, both senile and competent—plying them with open-ended questions like, “What can you get for free?” The more illuminating responses are printed in the Duplex Planet, which he founded in 1979 (it’s named for the Boston nursing home that then employed Greenberger).

“What can you tell me about the behavior of fish?” goes one typical Greenberger ice-breaker. “They’re always spawnin’, always making whoopee!” responds Andy Legrice, a Duplex regular. “That’s why there’s so many of them. That’s all they do.”

“I eat fish,” deadpans another Duplexer. “I don’t want to know about their behavior.”

“Who are the Beatles?” he asks, in another issue. “Oh them,” says one man. “They’re a nice animal.”

It’s pretty clear what Greenberger is after in these exchanges. An art major, he mines his charges for surrealistic folk wisdom. He hit the jackpot when he “discovered” poet Ernest Noyes Brookings, whose improvisatory rhymes twist the English language into an almost Chaucerian tangle. Brookings, who died in 1987, used everyday objects as launching points for his poetical meditations. “Cameras,” for example:

Camera closed object with film lens shutter

Negative before exposure to catch all action

Frequently the operator would mutter

After development to show all traction….

Rake used for gathering loose items

Or cut grass, dead branches, rubbish

Are wide bamboo, steel or large wooden,

All of which have long to hold handle

Bamboo strips wide base essentially for clearing yard leaves

Steel for the same except light rubbish covering area

Wooden to gather cut dried hay to bale in sleeves

Generally for an all gathering process the more the merrier

Planet wisdom, Duplex Planet: Everyone’s Asking Who I Was (to be published in January 1994). Walk around uttering Greenberger’s nuggets of senilia, Penn and Teller assure, “and you’ll be way too cool for school.”

On the one hand, the Duplexers’ utterances are often downright zany: hence their hipness. But their garbled cultural references and free-associations are the products of miswired minds. Reading the Planet, then, one is never quite sure whether to laugh aloud or to wish upon its editor a miserable, demented, diapered old age.

Greenberger isn’t the sort who would befuddle old people just for fun. He’s plumbing not just a generation gap but a cultural one between people who grew up before television and those who were bombarded by it. The oldsters’ elliptical responses to his questions convey something that Kidder’s gentle old TV-watching souls do not: the vast distance separating the old from the not-yet-old—and from each other.

Their syntactically mangled speech, full of inscrutable private associations, isolates them further—language come loose from its moorings. Very rarely do Duplexers address each other. Read this way, the Duplex Planet is neither funny nor hip, but bleak as a Beckett monologue.

Nevertheless, since the Duplex Planet appeared in 1979, Greenberger has capitalized on its hip cachet. He marketed an Ernest Noyes Brookings T-shirt, with Brookings’ poem “Shirt” on the back. He has read the old folks’ stories on the radio and released recordings of them; their words don’t sound right in his clear, youthful voice. What’s next, a public-access cable show?

At times, Greenberger is so condescending that one prays for one of the oldsters to challenge him. When he asks Frank Kanslasky what a compact disc is, Kanslasky tells him off: “Who the hell knows!? Write this down: Where do you get all these questions? What’s a compact disc?! Where do you think we went to school anyway? That’s like asking, “Why doesn’t snow fall up instead of down?’ ”

“If you look at it long enough it does fall up,” the old man then muses, thus losing the argument.