My name is Virgil Julius Shaw. I was raised in the 9th Ward of New Orleans, Holy Cross neighborhood; I’m now 84 years old. Spending the rest of my life in a nursing facility (which is my current situation) gives me plenty of time to think. I don’t do my own laundry, cook meals, or go out in public without a chaperone—a far cry from the life that I led and had. To all intents and purposes, I am now invalid (not an invalid; invalid, as in not valid anymore). I have a room, eight feet by 20 feet, that I share with another invalid. We rarely speak; he watches television with the sound off and listens to classical music on a portable radio. I sit and think while I wait for my next meal or for someone to wheel me out to sit in the sun. I’m waiting to die.
You might say that I had a full life. The usual growing pains to reach adulthood: playground fistfights, teenage love crushes, hormone riots of confusion, and a broken arm from a bike accident. After graduating school, I joined the military and participated in the perpetual war that our country is forever involved in. I learned how to use weapons and was lucky enough to muster out unscathed.
Too young, I married the wrong woman who came with a pretty face, angry pointless arguments, hot make-up sex, and her inability to find and keep gainful employment. I spent the majority of that union struggling to make ends meet and keep a roof over our heads. Nightclubs and carousing were part of our lifestyle; we lived in a cold-water flat at the edge of the French Quarter, and when I wasn’t working, we were out spending anything that I made like we were swells. Eventually, I got tired of coming home late and tired to dirty laundry and sinks full of dishes. There were endless employment interviews in ironed shirts and shined shoes; I took a succession of jobs that I hated until I found better ones, just to keep bread on the table. She left me for a fast talker, became a stripper on Bourbon Street, and later married the drummer in the band.
There were years of drifting; night hawking. Sad rooming houses, back-alley brawls, and crap games; three-card Monte and cheap whiskey; getting busted so many times that I knew the desk sergeant at the precinct by name. Fast women and slow horses, unreliable sources, being too smart for my own good. Drinking bouts and tobacco, lung-wrenching coughs, and moving back to New Orleans and living with my kid sister and her boyfriend until I could lick my wounds and get on my feet.
I took a job in the library and found a career to last a lifetime. I fell in love and married above my station, took a bunch of evening classes, and bought a house on the G.I. bill; I managed to raise a family and took part in the well-being of my brood. The normal, everyday, American dreamer. My wife was a piano teacher, and why she loved me, I’ll never know.
We both retired about the same time; we traveled some. The kids were grown and had gone off to be whatever they became. I lost one to a drunk driver; the other two either don’t know where I am or couldn’t care less. My wife died 10 years ago, and my life went downhill from there.
I “downsized” and moved to a retirement apartment complex. I took a spill down a flight of steps and the medical costs took a lot of money. They shipped me here to recover, and after six months, Medicare took over my living expenses. Then—surprise, surprise—the nursing home took all of my assets and told me that they had to use them for my expenses, so now I have no apartment, car, or any of my possessions or finances. I talked to the patient counselor here, and he told me that he agreed that it was a f**king shame, but that it was a legal technicality that they could exercise; so, tough patooties. He also warned that if I put up a fuss about it, they could send me to the loony facility up the road and claim that I needed medication for “nervousness.” All of us here just keep our opinions to ourselves like good inmates do; it’s best to avoid making waves.
That’s the extent of my life here, of all of the lives here: rich man, poor man, beggar man; thief, doctor, lawyer, Indian chief. Butcher, baker, candlestick maker; paupers, pirates, poets, and the many women here who sacrificed their lives for love and family. Did I tell you that there are separate wings of this institution for men and women? We only get to mingle during meal times, not that it matters to any of us anymore.
Oh, they take care of us here; we’re able to draw $38 a month to do pretty much anything we want to with it. The staff performs their duties with an air of semi-professionalism; I can tell that they’re overworked, underpaid, and not especially qualified. Some bring religion to us. Some, I can tell, didn’t realize that, with all their schooling, they would be changing diapers and giving out medications to a group of “old and in-the-way” elders that wake up, spend the day, and go back to sleep feeling impotent and invalid. I’ve tried to point out that they too will be in here someday; they don’t seem to be impressed by that. They’ll see.
So here I am—we are—waiting to die, because what we have is hardly worth being called living. I’m Virgil Julius Shaw and this is my thousand words about my life.