Waiting Room Blues

Hospital waiting rooms are one of life’s little endurance trials. No one looks forward to sitting for hours in uncomfortable chairs surrounded by sick and worried people and old mangled magazines, but one sometimes has no choice.

The other day I knew I’d be spending a few hours in a waiting room, so tried to make the best of it. My salvation of late for times of wait has been my Kindle – a world of reading material of my choice in an easy to carry format. That and a travel mug of mocha and I figured I’d be good for the duration.

At least it was a day surgery waiting room. (Emergency Room wait areas are certainly the worst type to end up in, and I have a few experiences perhaps I’ll convey in a future blog.) The only real down side to the day surgery waiting room was that since it was in the middle of the hospital, there were no windows to gaze out of. That made it a bit claustrophobic, and skewed one’s sense of passing time. Is it still dark out? Is it raining? Will I emerge from this isolation chamber to find I’m in a Twilight Zone episode, the one where the world around me has been destroyed and I’m the last human and then I break my glasses? Well, it could happen.

At 6:45 in the morning there were only a few people present, clustered near the television. I headed to the other side of the room. Just a little peace and quiet and leave me alone, please, no conversations with strangers, heck, I’m barely awake. I lit up the Kindle and pondered my many choices, then selected some funny essays.

After few minutes, I became uncomfortably aware of the annoying cartoon voices and sound effects coming from the television. Despite everyone in the room being over 50, and some well past that, SpongeBob SquarePants was the program of choice.  As far as I could tell, no one was watching. I tried to ignore the soundtrack, but once irritating noises are noticed, it’s hard to pretend they’re not there.

This was ridiculous – no one was watching the TV. Should I go over and turn it down? Would my fellow waiters applaud or would someone tell me to leave it alone? Would I be judged as the cranky old man? The TV was high up on the wall, could I even reach it? Maybe the nurse’s station held the remote, should I ask them to turn it off/down/change the channel? Can’t they see this is a room full of adults and no one is interested in noisy cartoons? Why am I letting this annoy me so much?

After fuming to myself for ten minutes, the TV suddenly changed channels – I didn’t notice how it was done – and CNN replaced old yellow pants. Serious stories of mayhem and death and destruction instead of silly stories of sentient sponges. I guess that was an improvement, though silence would have been my first choice.

My mocha was lukewarm, but I sipped and read on. Funny essays weren’t cutting it, so I switched to a bio of John Lennon. Ah, the luxury of a portable library!

So engrossed was I that I didn’t notice the room filling up. Nature called, and I left my coat on my chair and wandered to the bathroom. When I came back, a woman had planted herself next to MY chair.

The chairs were arranged in sets of three along the wall, and I had, of course, chosen an outside seat. She had plomped down in the middle seat. There were now no other choices but on either side of her, or next to someone else closer to the noisy TV.  How stupid of her, I fumed. Who sits down in the middle seat of a three seat section, especially when you see someone has left their coat on an end seat?

So now I had no choice but to reclaim my seat beside her. She visibly stiffened. Well, I was here first, I left my coat, so if she didn’t want a close neighbor she should have sat on the other end seat.

Thankfully, like me, she wasn’t the type who felt the need to make banal conversation with strangers. We’re in day surgery waiting room; it’s not the maternity ward, so whatever we’re here for is probably not a joyous occasion or something we really need to share. But not everyone felt that way. Apparently there were a lot of colonoscopy patients and their kin present. Nothing like overhearing stories about strangers’ medical history and polyps before breakfast.

I delved back into my Kindle, but noticed my new neighbor seemed a bit on edge. Literally. She had moved from relaxing deep in the chair to perching on the edge, where she fidgeted.  Although she may have been nervous about the reason she was here, I also think she didn’t like a strange and mute man sitting down right next to her. Well, she should have thought about that before claiming the middle seat!

I imagined the dilemma in her mind. It might seem weird for her to just get up and move one seat down, right after I had sat down. Would that imply she found something distasteful about sitting next to me? Believe me, lady, I won’t take offence. We’ll both be more comfortable with a little elbow room. Just get up, pretend you had something to do, then come back and oh-so-nonchalantly sit down in the OTHER chair. Which she eventually did, thank God.  And half an hour later she was gone for good.

Time passed. I lost myself in the early life of John Lennon.  I pushed the Next page button on the Kindle, as I’d done a hundred times that morning, and… nothing. I tried the Back button. Nothing. The Home button. Nada.  Every button on the blasted plastic thing. No change at all. The same page stared back at me, mocking.

Okay, so here’s the downside to a portable electronic library. Unlike a real book, an unforeseen, unpreventable glitch can reduce your library to one frozen page. I couldn’t even turn it off. Great. Out of desperation I held the off button down a lonnng time. Finally it turned off. I turned it back on, and it went through some weird start up sequences I’d never seen before, telling me that this was Tom’s Kindle and I had 0 books. Arrrghhh! But then it thought some more about it, and brought back my library, and reset to the last read page. I gingerly selected Next Page.  Phew. I am saved.

Then a large family, in both senses, came in. They were also the type of family who don’t have public voices – no toning it down, they carried on like this was their living room and we were all just odd furniture. Of course they sat down next to me.

Whatever.  The place was packed, so I could no longer be Mr. Persnickety about where people sat. I tried to ignore their endless loud chatter about kids and relatives and doctors and insurance and television and dinner and colonoscopies.

I silently vowed again that an audio player and noise cancelling headphones would be added to my waiting room supply kit. I tried to ignore their chatter, but what I couldn’t ignore, unfortunately, and there is no delicate way to put it, was the woman’s B.O. Unpleasant is too mild a term, and I won’t attempt a more vivid description.

So now what? I could try the ploy of pretending to go to the bathroom and then go to a different seat when I came back, but the place was now packed, and I might find myself standing or seated next to an even worse seatmate. I did my best to breathe as little as possible.

Salvation arrived shortly, when it was discovered that the only available electrical outlet was behind this woman’s chair, and she wanted to plug in her kid’s game, so she switched seats with him. I braced myself for an electronic symphony of beeps and boops, but praise the Lord, the kid played the game in silent mode. What a great kid!

However, the cord was short, and he struggled with the game, so the woman turned the boy’s chair. That meant he now sat facing my side. Why she didn’t turn him to face towards her, who knows. But the air was breathable, his game was quiet, and life was bearable again.

Until he started kicking my chair.

Not on purpose, of course, just in the way a ten-year-old playing a handheld video game will mindlessly swing his feet back and forth.

My confirming glance and scowl was of course unnoticed, engrossed as he was in his game. Maybe he’ll stop soon. And maybe a coffee cart with lattes and fresh croissants wheeled in by Miss America will suddenly appear, too.

So I had to speak up, but I didn’t want to be the cranky old guy telling off someone else’s kid. I knew I was a bit irrationally irritated, but I’d been here now for hours. So in my best “I’m not a cranky/creepy old guy” voice I said, “Excuse me, please don’t kick my chair.” The kid looked up from his game horrified. I tried to give him a reassuring it’s not that big a deal smile, but I’m sure I looked like the demented evil stranger his parents had warned him about.

He did stop kicking, but obviously I had scared him. The woman who’d placed him there had by now rearranged a few other chairs in her living room –  er, the waiting room – and was sitting with the posse she’d come in with.  The boy went to her, whispered something, and she got up and pulled his chair to their circle.  Apparently he preferred the company of known adults and no game to Nintendo sitting next to some weird scary man who didn’t like seat kickers.

Anyway, the morning wore on, and on, and on, and on. My mocha was cold, my eyes were bleary and my butt was sore.  I won’t even go into how there was all this confusion at the end which extended my stay even longer than needed. Let’s just say if all good things come to he who waits, I am really overdue.

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