PEOPLE ARE INTERESTING


As I finished checking the registration forms from the three people in the vehicle at the vaccination clinic at Autzen Stadium and took two vaccination records, an elderly woman in the back seat showed me a scrap of paper that had once been her vaccination record.  I told her I would make a new one.

“My dog ate it!” She said, obviously embarrassed. 

I couldn’t resist. “Sort of like your homework?”  The two in front broke out laughing, and so did the woman. Yes, people are interesting. 

I learned that simple fact from my mother, a sociologist, who earned her Master’s degree in 1955, when I was 7 and women were supposed to be at home, not getting degrees or even teaching college level classes, which she would do.

They were supposed to be taking care of their children, disciplining them if necessary (which it often was in my home), shopping, taking them to doctor’s appointments, cleaning the house, and making the meals, although in my case, as the youngest, I learned early to make my own lunch, and I have done so for nearly 7 decades.

My mother would often point out interesting-looking or interesting-acting people when I was out with her, clothes, relationships, commenting, “People are interesting.”  If a couple were a tall man and a short woman, she was interested. They weren’t of different colors back then, which today she would find fascinating; same gender couples were not on our radar then, and I’m not sure what she would think of the biological fact that gender is not a simple dichotomy. 

When an airline ticket agent told my mother he had a lot of problems to deal with and couldn’t help her, my mother asked him to tell her his problems. He did.  Then she said she had listened to him, and now it was his turn to listen to her. She was interesting. And got her problem fixed.

I never forgot that.  When I practiced neurology, I observed people for a living, but I was less concerned with the unusual aspects my mother pointed out in favor of the specific physical attributes I needed to know.  A good neurologist doesn’t have patients put into the examination room but prefers to call them personally from the waiting room, where he or she notices their ability to hear, watches them get up, walk, and talk—all complex neurological functions—without their realizing they are being observed. I had many a patient diagnosed before I shook their hand, which was another part of the exam. I learned that three times as many women accompanying their patient-husband came into the exam room without asking as did men accompanying their patient-wives.  I knew that because I counted them. That’s real sociology.  When I still had time to go to the Tucson Symphony, I would watch people walk, diagnosing Parkinson’s Disease, steppage gaits of a foot drop, hemiparesis, and cerebellar disorders; I would listen to speech of one with a tremor, all sorts of neuropathology to notice. People are interesting.   

When my wife and I started volunteering full weekends at Autzen, we checked paperwork for legibility and completion, filled out vaccination cards or made new ones (if the dog ate it), and explained the remaining process of getting a vaccine and waiting around afterwards. We had more human contact the first day we were out there than we had had in the prior year, and that is no exaggeration.  

We saw the whole gamut of people who lived in western Oregon—mostly white, but Black, Hispanic, men, women, and non-binary, because I could read the checked box or see under medical conditions “transitioning.” There were all sorts of accents. I guessed right that two women were Iranian from their names, and I surprised a woman who was Turkish by telling her I thought she was by her name. Fathers brought daughters, mothers brought sons.  Three generations of people were occasionally in the vehicle, a teenager in the front, the middle-aged driver, and the grandparent in the back, with a date of birth that was close to mine.

Five men were crowded into a Prius wagon, the only “fiver” I have had to date. They alone moved the needle that was Oregon’s vaccination percentage.

I also noted handwriting consistent with familial tremor and the micrographic writing of Parkinson’s Disease.

I like numbers, so I was interested in birthdays, how quickly I saw a second person with the same birthday I had already encountered. By the 23rd person, the probability is more than half that one birthday will repeat.  I saw people born on 9/3/93, 9/9/99, 6/6/66, the last the week before I graduated from high school.  There was an 6/8/68 woman whose daughter just missed being a 9/4/94. I’ve seen five with my birthday and scores of people born in December, where I say, “good month to have been born in,” just like 1948 was “a good year to have been born.” My wife counted lefties. It’s more difficult writing in the driver’s seat if one is left-handed.  Ever think of that?  

I saw a couple drive up in a contractor truck, man white, woman Asian, partners in the company as well as life. I saw one pair pulling their trailer, planning probably to be on the coast or up in the mountains that night, my wondering which it would be.  Some vehicles were barely running and had a a lot of miles on them, as did the driver.  One car overheated and had to be pushed out of line.  Others were late model Lexuses or Mercedes’ driven by teenagers or young adults.  I wore knee pads, because I often filled out the vaccine card on my leg, and I knelt on the rocky surface of the parking lot, where I often made eye contact with drivers of vehicles close to the ground.  Or, I had to reach way up to the driver to give him back his vaccination card, chugging sound of the diesel in my ear.

How people age was always interesting. I saw an Asian woman 4 days older than I who looked much younger. I have seen people ten years younger than I who look much older.  One Black man told me, “I don’t like these numbers,” pointing to his date of birth. I told him I had a good six years on him, but he looked good. 

Many were in a celebratory mood, a few grumpy.  That’s fair. It’s been a long 14 months, people are tired of the pandemic, the wait for vaccines has been long, and the wait in line that day no fun.  One lady shooed me away from her vehicle for being too close, despite my being double masked and outdoors, and when she would soon have a vaccinator touch her.  

Some drove down the wrong lane, for Lane 1 had two parts, the edge being for walkers and cyclists but just wide enough for an ATV service vehicle to pass.  I’ve had to have the drivers back up, and one lady was superb, backing up faster without a camera than I can with one.  She was embarrassed; I told her that she wasn’t the first, and her back up skills were great. The prior day, an 81 year-old missed the directions I had given her when I worked the initial check in and drove off down the same wrong lane with several of us chasing after her van.  I had a sense she didn’t understand my directions and should have repeated them.

One group of young people streamed music to get vaccinated by.  We have had Teslas and a truck that was vibrating so badly I couldn’t write on the driver’s side.  Another truck drove through with a loud screech every time the driver braked. I had a brief conversation with one man who saw my “Gates of the Arctic” hat and wanted to go there. He had “The Look”*: someone who wanted to see the open spaces, free flowing rivers, caribou, bears, the circular path of the summer sun, and the tundra’s coming alive. I told him it was worth doing and hoped he would.  

We tell people to take a picture of their vaccination card. My wife adds “put it in a safe place, and then take a picture of the safe place so you can find it when you want it.” There is a pause, and then the people in the car just laugh. People are interesting, but in that way, of putting things away and not remembering where they are, we are much the same. 

Fourteen lanes getting ready for the onslaught.

*They had that look in their eyes—maybe I should call it The Look—which others have seen from me. It’s a far away gaze of longing, of thinking about wild country, of rivers that run free and few people in the Lower have ever heard of, like Aichilik, Nigu, Itchilik, Alatna, Hulahula, or Kobuk.  It’s mountains and remote valleys, wild country, open horizons, where the Sun in summer travels in a circle above the treeless tundra.  It’s slogging through tussocks, rivers, swamps, and in bear, caribou, Dall sheep, wolverine, and moose country.  It’s hiking on residual ice, or aufeis, and bugs in June, blueberries and crowberries in July, rain, autumn colors and the return of night in August.  It’s the most difficult country to hike that I have encountered, also the most beautiful.  It is a country that kicks one’s butt, until finally one accepts it with the simple words, “It’s Alaska.” Everybody up here who has worn The Scent understands that.

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