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Sunday, March 20, 2011

From Hotel to Intermediate Care Facility

I live a couple of blocks from an old hotel. It used to be called the Ridgeview, because it was within sight of Ridge Avenue in Evanston. The old Ridgeview is pictured above - this comes from an old postcard, postmarked April 4, 1962. The Ridgeview Hotel was built in1924, one of several "apartment hotels" that popped up in Evanston in the 1920's. These facilities were competing for the semi-transient resident that planned on staying in town for a few weeks to a few months. The units in these hotels had kitchenettes. The Ridgeview was sold in 1965 and received some extensive re-modeling. In 1971, it was sold again and converted from a hotel to a 430-bed long-term care facility for disabled adults receiving state assistance. It is still in use as a intermediate-term care facility and it serves mentally ill adults. Most of these folks are Medicaid patients.

There is a large park right across from the entrance of the Albany Care facility - Grey Park. When the weather is decent, the park is full of Albany Care residents, most of them enjoying tobacco products. This has generated a bit of controversy in the neighborhood (see this article for background). The residents also spend quite a lot of time in the neighborhood, walking around and hanging out. Since most of them are quite poor, they will sometimes ask pedestrians for some money. Their maladies can lead to some unusual public displays - shouting, nudity, public elimination of wastes, etc. The Albany Care building is a few blocks away from the main public transportation hub in the neighborhood, so there is an interesting dance that occurs between the commuters and the Albany Care residents. As one would expect, the interactions are not always positive.

Here is what I admire about the Albany Care folks - they are fearless! I see one fellow several times a week - he always wants to shake hands and he smiles at everyone. He also wants everyone to give him a dollar - hey, it never hurts to ask, I guess. Some people cross the street to avoid this guy. Others steam by and ignore him. Others engage with him and seem comfortable.

There are many other examples - there is the guy with the long gray hair that stands outside the Sher-Main Grill, chain smoking cigarillos and muttering "Have a good day, have a good day" to everyone he sees. Many others are trying hard not to be conspicuous; their eyes bulge out, like someone is choking them.

These people are my neighbors. I struggle with my gut instinct, which is to look away from them and march through their turf without acknowledging their existence, let alone our shared humanity. I have had times when I didn't feel 100% mentally stable, so I should have more empathy for the Albany Care folks. But I don't.

This is something I need to work on. Religious folks often say, "There but for the grace of God, goes me." This is a noble thought, but I can't embrace it. Belief in God's grace is similar to believing in a shaman's ability to beseech the spirits to send rain during a drought. These "faith" statements don't convince me - sorry about that.

What does engage me are unanswered questions - what is afflicting each resident of Albany Care? How did they end up there? How likely is it that they will get well and leave to join society? What sort of treatment do they receive from the staff? And so on.

It is always a challenge to stay mentally strong. Some folks are ill and can't tackle that challenge. I will work on developing empathy for my Albany Care neighbors...

Thursday, March 17, 2011

St. Patrick's Day, New York, 2011

Night has fallen in Manhattan as St. Patrick's Day winds down. Weirdness is in the air. I saw a very tall man, wearing just a thong, his body painted green. Two guys in kilts were kissing at the corner of 46th Street and 8th Ave. I saw cackling harpies sitting on the curb drinking green beer out of plastic cups. There were black people dressed like leprechuans. Little old ladies in lime green trench coats. Homeless people sporting "Kiss Me - I'm Irish" buttons on their tattered jackets. I saw a shirtless woman with strategically-placed shamrocks. I listened to an ancient Chinese man croaking "When Irish Eyes are Smiling." I followed a drunk girl wearing a green plastic derby as she stumbled down 8th Avenue, stopping to hug the cops. I saw a wicked thin socialite, striding purposefully down the street at 10:45 PM, wearing cheap green beads, her six-year-old daughter in tow. In this world of uncertainty and heartache, New Yorkers and touristas are misbehaving and blowing off steam. Many of these people will be nursing 4-star hangovers in the morning.

God bless us all, and good night.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Michael Yeo Yew Heong

From 1984 through 1987, I lived and worked in Singapore. It was a challenging time - the island nation was going through its first economic downturn since WWII and the business I was leading was experiencing difficulties. I was pretty young, and the job in Singapore was my first management gig. In many ways, I was clueless, and that cluelessness on the job migrated into my personal life as well. I needed backup in the worst way.

Michael Yeo Yew Heong applied for an opening in our Singapore office and I had the backup I desparately needed.

When you first saw Michael, you are immediately taken by his physical presence. His height, for one thing, set him apart in Singapore. There are not a great many tall Singaporeans, folks over six feet in height tend to be expatriates on a work assignment. Michael was 6 ft 5 in and his shoulders were very broad. He moved like a tall man in a short world, perhaps overly conscious of his unusual status. Michael's schoolmates teased him - called him a "Northern Barbarian" in reference to the physically imposing inhabitants of China's northern regions which prompted the Qin Dynasty to finish construction of the Great Wall . Michael embraced the "Northern Barbarian" tag, and laughed at himself frequently.

Michael was a highly competent executive. He had great intuition and strong cognitive skills. He was dependable and dedicated. His ability to solve problems impressed me. But all of those traits, though admirable, were not the aspects of Michael's personality that made him special.

Michael was kind.

He had a raucous sense of humor.

He had a talent for sharing wisdom in a casual, off-hand way that can impact the recipient for a long time. I still ruminate over some of the things that Michael said to me in the mid-eighties in Singapore.

Michael fully inhabitied his life. He enjoyed socializing with friends; we enjoyed many Tiger Beers together after work. He was an enthusiastic scuba diver. He was a deeply committed husband and father.

I left Singapore in 1987; Michael moved up into the leadership slot that I vacated. We didn't talk much after that - Chicago is a long way from Singapore - but I kept up with him via email, sporadically. He took a new job in 2001 and was handling business activites in China for his new employer.

Last week, I realized that it had been well over a year since I had connected with Michael, so I dropped him an email on Thursday. Due to the 14 hour time difference between Chicago and Singapore, I didn't expect to hear back from him immediately. My dog barked at 1 AM on Friday morning and I woke up. After dealing with the mutt, I saw that the email light was blinking on my Blackberry. I checked it - there was an email from Singapore, but not from Michael. One of his colleagues from work had intercepted my message and answered it. He told me that Michael died on December 5, 2010, while snorkeling in the Philippines.

I am trying to wrap my head around this. Michael would have celebrated his 58th birthday on March 15. He had stayed fit. He was a regualar scuba diver and therefore was a strong swimmer. This is a very improbable way for Michael to leave.

Michael Yeo wasn't a famous person, just an outstanding person. He stood by me during a difficult time. I let the relationship atrophy. Now I am feeling the deep regret that comes when you realize that you have no time to repair a friendship that has been neglected.

I went to a local joint, the Hop Haus, yesterday to take a look at their beer list. Sure enough, they had Tiger Beer from Singapore on the list. I ordered one and drank it, remembering my big-hearted friend, Michael Yeo.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Strangers on a Train

I am a regular Metra rider, ususally on inbound train #320 leaving my local stop at straight-up 8:00 AM, arriving Ogilvie Transportation Center in Chicago's Loop at 8:26AM. I was on it this morning, heading to the office for a Friday full of conference calls and persuasion. I usually read my paper or listen to the iPod, but today I decided to sit quietly and look around me. I concluded something - commuting is a very odd activity.

Across the aisle from me is a man that I have noticed many times in the past. He is a tall, substantial guy, not overweight or anything, but solid. He could be 40 years old, or he could be 50. His face is unlined and his hair is thick and dark blonde. He always wears jeans and boots. In the winter, he wears a pullover sweater. In his hands, an iPhone or an iPad. The expression on his face never changes - he seems implacably calm.

To my right on the long bench is a clenched fist of a man, short and paunchy, in a pin-striped suit. His thinning hair glistens with some sort of styling gel. He has turned his back to me and pulled away to the far edge of the seat so he won't accidently catch my eye or brush his body against mine. His eyes are focused on the novel scrolling across his e-reader.

To my left is a mid-thirties blonde woman who pays close attention to her appearance. She is staring into a compact mirror, adjusting her lipstick. This process takes a surprisingly long time. She finally snaps the compact shut, slips it into a big-ass purse, sighs, leans back and closes her eyes.

Down the aisle comes the aging conductor, bellowing "Tickets!! Display all tickets!! Main Street, Rogers Park, Ravenswood tickets!!!" He is short and round. He has a gray beard quite similar to my own. His voice shatters the peace; his timbre is nasal and unpleasant; it makes my ears ring. It is incredibly irritating.

Every seat is filled and people are standing in the aisle by the time we reach our destination. The passengers generally don't converse with each other. They don't even acknowlege each other, although they have been riding in the same train car together for quite a while (sometimes for years). We can't greet each other by name, we don't introduce ourselves, we are physically close but emotionally distant.

The train stops with a jerk, the doors hiss open; we file out and rush to our high-rise offices. In eight or nine hours, we will reverse the direction of our travels and head back to our suburban bedrooms. Then we get up the next day and repeat the process. And the day after that, and the day after that, and so on until we lose our jobs or retire or die.

Doesn't this seem odd? What if someone broke into song? What if someone told the loud conductor to shut up? Would chaos ensue? Would the facade crumble?

Anyway, I should start winding down my day so I can train.