On the old men I’ve met

2020.06.21, by Ansel
Filed under Journal, Silhouettes

Sketches of a retired physician assistant at the VA, a Cuban car dealer, and a high-ranking member of the brass and his wife.

The retired VA PA

Seventy-seven. Looked sixty, at most. Near-sighted as all hell but bright, sharp eyes, you’d never have been able to tell that he couldn’t see you. Got a paunchy belly—maybe he liked his drink a little too much. He didn’t know what to make of us at first, when we entered the room. Formal formalities, maybe I walked in a bit too stiff. He warmed up real quick, though. Soon we got to talking. Asked how long I’d worked there (I lied: “About… two years, I think?”) and what my shifts were (“When do you get off?” “Seven, seven-thirty.” “Ah, I see. You work three days a week straight, or?” “Three or four days, usually.” “Oh! You get overtime?” “…They don’t like to give us overtime, heh.” “…Heh. I see.”). Soon it came out he used to worked over thirty years as a physician assistant in various places—always having to prove himself, PAs were kind of a novel thing at that time. His favorite place to work at was the Veterans Affairs medical center.

He always made the point to clean the exam room, make it spick and span between each patient.

“Nobody wants to work in a dirty environment, y’know. And these guys—as soon as they see the white coat, they get nervous. Nobody wants to come in to the VA, or see the doctor. So we talk a bit. Ask about wife, kids, hobbies… Things like that. Get them to calm down, relax a bit. And then we’d get down to business.”

As you’d expect, the guy had gotten along with the Joes, most of them. Except for the hard-assed ones who would get you fired for cursing too much, y’know. That’s why he made sure to size ‘em up first, before lettin’ loose the swears like a sailor. His boss was intimidated by him—they were friends, had a good working relationship—but he was nervous seeing how chummy his PA was with these rough ex-soldiers. Sometimes they’d be cursing and laughing together in the hallway—“Oh Lord!” the man would think, bringing his palm to his forehead.

They weren’t supposed to accept any gifts. Didn’t want to get into hot water for bribery, kick-back, that kinda thing. ‘Don’t accept any Christmas presents, all right?’ ‘All right.’

“So my boss comes into my office, sees all these bottles of booze next to my desk… He goes, ‘What is this?’

‘These are Christmas presents.’

‘You know we’re not allowed to accept Christmas presents.’

‘I ain’t gonna insult a guy. I didn’t ask for these—and I tried turning them down. But I ain’t gonna insult a guy by rejecting his gift—this is a token of appreciation, gesture of respect. And I’m gonna respect that.’

He would’ve slapped his knee, had he not been in a hospital gurney:

“I had so much booze I could’ve started a bar!”

His wife worked as an MRI tech at a local Seventh-day Adventist facility. Rapture people, go to church on Saturdays. Plain dress and no dancing.

“At that time they couldn’t drink anything. No liquor, no coffee—nothin’ but water. And the VP of that place—he would always come in drunk! The poor girls working at that center would always go, ‘Oh, hell no!’ ‘He’s so much trouble!’ He would raise so much hell… He definitely wasn’t a Catholic, heh.”

He was at work at the VA when his wife went into labor with his first son. Their friend was a nurse who’d just gotten off her shift when his wife’s water broke, drove her down to the hospital.

“They called my pager at that time—we had pagers, you know. It was the ‘70s. I took care of my last patient—then I just flew down to the hospital. And after giving birth, y’know… They gave us a dinner.”


“Yeah, a real dinner! Steak and lobster, asked us how we wanted it done, it was… It was delicious. The best dinner I’d ever had. I turned to my wife and said: ‘D’you wanna have another kid?’”

Every other sentence he’d punctuate with “Honey”—not in a flirty way, though we were young, and cute. He was a friend. We were cursing up a storm in his room for the entire nurse’s station (and any neighbouring patients) to hear, at 4 in the AM. Guy was—had been, that is—poor and you could immediately tell. Not from the stock of respectable families that sent their sons and daughters to law, med, and art school. No, he was too rough for that. I think, actually, it had relieved him… Talking to someone like him. Everyone else working at this facility, you know—clinical at least—they’re sanitized, distant, “respectable”, formal, cold.

“Never forget your roots. Y’know, I’ve been in the hospital before, as a patient—I don’t like to be, but it happens. But I never pull rank with the letters in front’a my name. An’ it goes the other way: I don’t care what comes after your name. You’re either right or you aren’t. You gotta advocate for yourself… I was lucky. I knew what I was talking about, the two times I had to argue with a doctor. I feel so sorry for the poor bastards who say, ‘OK, Doc!’ and go home their merry way doing whatever they were told to. Had someone else been in my shoes like that? They woulda been dead.”

The Cuban car dealer

Don’t remember his age. White as Snow White. When I walked into the room he was flirting with the nurse, in the way that old working guys used to be able to without causing a scandal, outside of the wife hitting him with a newspaper and his mates teasing him about how many girlfriends he had to get Valentine’s gifts for. To her credit, she was an older woman, taking it in good stride. Younger than him, obviously, but of that generation that understood that he was just blowing hot air out of his ass and that he didn’ mean nothin’ by it. He saw that I was younger, didn’t try pulling anything on me, but but he saw that I got that he was an old guy fucking around. He took an immediate shine to me.

“I like you. I can tell, you know what’s real.”

It was around the time Trump was threatening to repeal DACA—that’s how we got into it, that discussion about heritage, cultural identity. “You gotta be proud of where you come from. I feel sorry for all these Mexican kids. Gotta hide where you were born—even though you got no choice in that. And I see it in the citizens too,” he said in a Texan accent. (Don’t ask me which part of Texas—I don’t know anything about America’s greatest state aside from Juneteenth and Tex-Mex food.)

“I’m Cubano, got a Spanish last name. I don’t hide it. I speak Spanish every chance I get. Whether you’re brown or not—” gesturing to his arm hooked up to an IV—“home is home, language is language, names are names. There’s nothin’ to be ashamed about. But they make it so hard to make a livin’ here,” he grumbled.

Aside from the skin color, he was like any other poor Cuban who’d migrated to the US for better prospects of work and a future, after the economy went bad. If he had any aristocratic blood in him, he was far removed—was nothing like the poor émigrés or descendants thereof who tearfully recounted how their mothers aunts and grandmothers “had to leave their mansions behind, and all there jewellery—we had so many boxes!” He was just a poor kid on a boat to Miami.

He worked his way up from washing cars for another man’s carwashl, wiping windows. He’d made connections, became naturalized, saved money, and eventually landed a job at a car dealership in Texas.

“And I was the best damn dealer there! The Mexican immigrants, y’know”—he leaned in—“if you’re undocumented you can’t get a credit score, or credit. So no one sells you a car. But I was telling people, in the neighborhoods—and these were hard-working people, just like me—if you ever need a car, come to me. ‘What color you want? What make?’ And they would look at me surprised, gimme a few shy answers like, ‘Well… Maybe a blue one…’ And I’d show them and give them a test drive and said, ‘All right. D’you wanna go make this deal right now? Let’s go to my office—it’s air-conditioned.’ And we’d set up a payment plan and I told them I would get them a loan, just have a cash deposit ready. They always did. These were very careful families.

“I went to my business partner, the personal banker I always worked with—Wells Fargo. And he was like, ‘Ivan, are you nuts! These are ille—undocumented immigrants, I can’t give them a car loan!’

‘Now, Sal. Every guy I’ve sent your way—how they’ve been?’

‘…They’ve been great.’

‘Any problems?’

‘No they always make their payments on time—’

‘So what’s the problem, Sal? …You’re this bank’s golden boy, aren’t you? Every person I’ve sent you—you’re where you are now because of me, right? Give them the loan.’

“And he didn’t want to, but he did. We hammered out a deal. And every single one of those families paid their loans on time—in cash. Now they could go places. Get to work easier, pick up and drop off the kids, take them to games, things like that. And if their kids were old enough they learned how to drive, too. It let them build a future for their families. I told them: ‘Hey, if you know anyone else who could use a car? Send them my way. You don’t need a credit score.’ And my banker was rollin’ in the cash, too.

“Now, I made the money—but I wasn’t the smart one. That was my wife, she took care of everything. Worked her butt off as a secretary an’ on top of that managed finances for the whole house. We always saved. I didn’t play any part in that, I just handed her my cheque and said, ‘Here ya go!’ Always listened to her. I was just the dumb lucky guy, the blond who ended up with the brains, hah!

“…We did good, real good. We got ourselves a nice house. Raised our daughter with everything we didn’t have—piano lessons, violin, culture, books, ballet, private school. Everything. Sent her to law school. Got her a shiny silver new car on her 16th birthday. Good food… We had a big kitchen… She never lacked for nothin’.”

Here, his face gloomed over. “Now… we never hit our kid. Didn’t believe in that. But, this one time… She was a surly sixteen-year-old, sure, but she said somethin’ an’ I’ve never seen my wife so mad before, ever in my life. I don’t even remember exactly what our kid said—but she was ashamed of my job, ashamed of my work. Even though I worked in an office it wasn’t exactly the ‘respectable’ kinda white-collar work she wished I had. She said somethin’ pretty nasty to me I’m sure, but at that time I just let it pass through one ear an’ out the next.

“My wife didn’t. She slapped her so hard, I went like this!” He jumped back in his bed. “I couldn’t say a word, and didn’t. I didn’t want any part o’ this an’ I just let her handle it. ‘NEVER say that again!’ she said. ‘Never, don’t you dare look down on your father! Look around you! Everything that we have—that’s because of him, he worked for that! With his own two hands! Don’t you ever call him that!’ I don’t even remember that she called me… I kept silent, my daughter was sobbin’, my wife was fumin’. That was the only an’ last time I ever saw her like that.”

Family relations never improved from then on. The kid went to law school, turned more and more “bourgie”. She just used her father for his cash—I guess in that way she learned her lesson—, barely kept in touch with her mother and never her father. She only ever came to them to ask for money. When she married and had a son, her parents’ house was big enough to house them all—mom and dad had planned for that—and “it was like strangers living under the same roof. She was raising my grandkid to be just like herself…” Eventually, her mother had had enough, and kicked the whole family out. Then she passed… And he’d been living as a widow all alone in that house ever since. Occasionally his daughter comes to him, asking him for financial “help” here and there—for her son—and he gives a little, to be nice, it is his grandson after all.

“But I ain’t leavin’ nothing for her or her kid in the inheritance. I’m donating all of that.

“I go golfing every now and then. I have a buddy there—all I know is his name. I don’t ask him about his job, or the rest of his life. And you know what? That’s fine. I don’t want to know, because… that doesn’t matter to me. I don’t care what position you occupy in this life or the net. You see the moochers’ kind, they want to know everything, suss out how much money and presents they can get outta you. I don’t care. I’m just happy to have a golfing buddy, that’s fine with me.

The brass and his wife

I have to admit that this guy is less interesting than the others. And that’s kind of why I’m including him here—because he was less interesting. I don’t think he was as old as either of them—if he was he looked great. Fit, slender waisted. Good hair that wasn’t too thin, wasn’t paunchy or saggy-skinned like either of the previous old guys. He had a pretty wife, in the same age group as him. Floral dress, pearl necklace, white diamond earrings, a gold bangle that wasn’t too elaborate. Coiffed hair. She sat upright in her seat by his bedside, while he easily reclined, slouched over in bed. He was in a civilian space, acting as any other civilian—he was relaxed, untense, despite the pain—a demonstration of the high level of military training he had—, looked like any other average Joe.

Honestly, the man was plainer than US elementary school cardboard-cartoned milk, except you could tell he was better off than the rest by how good a shape he was in (hospital visit notwithstanding). As for his wife, being a civilian carried its own set of burdens, responsibilities, and obligations that her husband couldn’t understand. The lady of the house.

She was the smart one, clearly. He just went to work and brought home the bacon.

Tolly made an immediate impression on him—the both of them, really, but more obviously on him, he was surprised and she was pleased—because he pronounced his place of employment correctly. He was high up in the brass there… Of course, they didn’t talk work. They talked about his drive. The drive to work.

“The drive isn’t too long. I love seeing the strawberry fields along the way. I take the dirt roads to see them.”

He was a simple man with simple tastes. I could tell he wasn’t itching to talk about work. Not because of OpSec—though I’m sure he would immediately defer to that—but because this was just the kind of guy he was. He liked strawberry fields. Enjoyed his wife’s apple pie. When they had visitors (his friends from work) they probably talked about golf and sports, and their wives’ magical cooking, and maybe their daughters, and sons, if they were on good terms with the kid. All-American good boy. In charge of naval warfare centers across the country and about a quarter of the Navy’s entire budget.

There’s something about the breeding of this class that produces this kind of man. A rounded guy with no particular passions but reliable and competent at his job, no question. They always end up with good wives, the wives with “good men”. There are the old officers’ families that hold very high standards for their kids, and they almost always stay in the military—the sons, at least, or at least become very respected lawyers and doctors and other professionals, like engineers. Occasionally the military tradition breaks when the kids turns out to be too gentle—they fail out of SERE school and become field medics then civilian physicians instead.

His wife was the entertainer. And, to my surprise, she was close to many of the older and retired workers at the hospital. Actually, she had hosted a Swarovski touchstone party recently… Basically a licensed dealer of exclusive jewellery. The girls come in their best outfits and drink sparkling wines and try on jewellery, and buy them. The host of the party gets a big discount on jewellery, and the guests do too if they spend over a certain amount at the party.

She had a blast recounting the fun to Tolly. Something about fortune-telling too, were there crystal balls involved…? I wasn’t really paying attention. But she gave all her attention to Tolly, with his bright, young eyes. I think her husband was fond of him, too. A good, polite, kid who seemed to know how to keep a conversation at his wife’s level. (She did all the talking, honestly. I think he was used to that.)

When they gave him painkillers he looked at Tolly with big, loving eyes full of wonder. “That… That is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” Reached out and started fondling Tolly’s locket—“What… What is this made of? It’s so beautiful.”

“It’s brass, sir.”

His wife was mortified. They hauled him off to radiology.