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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Helping Catherine

By JC Leahy

If catalogued with the microscopic diligence of Leeuwenhoek, the daily details of my life might be dismissed as a poor, implausible fiction.  Alternatively, one might embrace such a catalogue as a masterpiece of entertainment because the intricate pivots and turns of the plot might amuse or amaze any mind.   The problem is, my life is not fiction.
A case in point:  I work at a certain Medical Center in Washington, DC.  I manage the ENT Clinic, albeit without the title or pay of “manager.”  Catherine works at our front desk.  She is a volunteer.  Catherine is punctual, personable, and conscientious, which I find especially impressive for a person who comes to work for no paycheck.  A month and a half ago, Catherine left me a voicemail saying that she had some personal things to take care of and would not be coming to work for a month or two.  She said she really enjoyed working for me and didn’t want me to think she was quitting.  She said she wanted to come back to work as soon as she could.  The rumor was that Catherine had found gainful employment elsewhere.
Two weeks ago, I received a phone call from a woman looking for information about Catherine.  I took it for an employment reference inquiry.  I told the inquirer that I had always found Catherine to be punctual, personable, and attentive to her duties.  That was the end of that.
Then last week I got a text message from a certain Lutricia Bagley.  Lutricia was a functionary from our Medical Center Human Resources Office.   She was not part of my normal circle of contacts at work, but I had helped her once to prepare her personal income tax returns.  I believed she had left her HR job at the Medical Center but I wasn’t sure about that.   Her text message said that Catherine wanted to speak to me and could the three of us please meet for lunch.  I replied "sure."  She texted back, “where?”  I suggested the hospital cafeteria, or the nearby cafeteria at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.  She texted back that she would prefer Colonel Brooks Tavern because the food is better.   Colonel Brooks Tavern is a landmark pub near the Brookland Metro Station, a mile and a half from the hospital.  I replied "okay."  She texted back, how about Wednesday the following week?  I replied "okay".  She texted how about one o’clock.    I replied that I had Clinic a 1 o’clock but I could meet them at 12 o’clock.  She texted back okay.  I marked my calendar: Wednesday, September 28, lunch with Lutricia and Catherine. 
I assumed that Catherine wanted to know about coming back to work, or how to seek work, or employment contacts. In preparation for the meeting, I went online to and searched for Federal jobs suitable for Catherine.  I discovered that searching for the key words “program assistant” and “management assistant” produced a wealth of job opportunities.  I phoned my engineer friend Randy who has been out of work for two years and would take any job with benefits.  I tipped him off to this wealth of job openings.  After all, we ought to look out for our friends.
Wednesday arrived yesterday.  In the morning I received a phone call from a half-way house.  The man said that Catherine wanted to return to work at the ENT Clinic and he needed to confirm that I would authorize her return.  I explained to him that I had found Catherine punctual, personable, and always attentive to her duties – but that her return would have to go through the proper channels.  First he should contact the Volunteer Office for authorization, and then the supervisor of the outpatient specialty clinics.  Once those approvals were in place, I would welcome Catherine’s return.  I gave him the phone numbers.  He said he would place the calls and try to make the arrangements.
A few minutes later, Lutricia texted me asking if we were still “on” for lunch.  I said sure, see you at noon.
At noon, sharp, I arrived at Colonel Brooks Tavern dressed in my scrubs and lab coat.  I have noticed that if you go to Colonel Brooks Tavern dressed in hospital garb, they always endeavor to seat you out of sight, either upstairs or in the room on the far side of the entrance. 
The maître d’ met me at the door and asked, “Would the room on the far side be okay?”
“No.  I am expecting to be joined by one or two others, and I want to be visible in the main dining room.”
She seated me at a table for two on the far side of the main dining room, saying that if a third came she would move us to a larger table.  The waiter introduced himself as Sean, and I ordered a cup of coffee.
At 12:07, I texted Lutricia and advised her that I was at Colonel Brooks Tavern.  She texted back that she was ten minutes away.  She suggested that I go ahead and order my food.  She asked that I order her a salmon salad.  Her text said nothing about ordering food for Catherine.  Based on that, I surmised that Catherine might not be attending.  I summoned Sean and ordered a mushroom-brie burger for me and a salmon Caesar salad for Lutricia. 

When Sean brought the food, I elicited a little small-talk about Sean and Colonel Brooks Tavern.  Sean works not only at Colonel Brooks but also at a famous restaurant down on the Maine Avenue riverfront called the Flagship.  Colonel Brooks Tavern is planning to close forever after Christmas to make way for upscale condo development.  They didn’t tell Sean until after he had started working there.  The Flagship will also be closing soon for upscale development of the Maine Avenue riverfront. 
With the food sitting in front of me and the coffee cup emptying, I  began nibbling on my side dish.  I had ordered macaroni salad instead of fries, so I nibbled away the macaroni salad. I planned my small-talk with Lutricia.  I would ask about her son.  I would talk about the brave guys repairing the upper reaches of the Washington Monument after the recent earthquake.  I would see what Lutricia was up to nowadays.  I looked at my watch.  My watch isn’t flashy, but it is solar powered, so it never stops, and it synchronizes itself up to 6 times daily over the airwaves with an atomic clock in Denver or somewhere like that, so it always tells me the right time.  It was 12:20.  I took a bite of the burger.  Yikes, what a good burger!!  I texted Lutricia that the salmon salad had arrived.  She texted back that she was on her way.  She wanted know where I was sitting.  I said first floor, main dining room. 
By the time I finished my burger, it was past 12:40.  I needed to be back at the hospital and in Clinic at 1:00.  I began to consider how careless Lutricia seemed for my time and consideration.  I began to wonder what I should do with the Caesar salad. I could eat it for lunch at the Clinic the next day.  I was on the verge of having Sean pack it up when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Lutricia enter the restaurant.  I pretended not to notice, and focused on my coffee cup.
“Yes, the gentleman has been waiting,” said the maître d’.
“Over there.”
“I don’t see him.”
“He’s right there.  He’s been waiting. I’ll take you around there.”
Lutricia had a haggard, old woman in tow, whom I did not recognize.  They came up beside my table.  I looked Lutricia square in the eye.  She looked back with an unrecognizing, blank expression. Then she turned her head and stared for a moment at the salmon salad, and her brow wrinkled.  She looked back at me and said in loud astonishment, “You’re the wrong john!!” 
That’s all Lutricia ever said to me. Nothing else!!  Zip!!  Nada!!!  She turned to the haggard old woman and exclaimed, “Catherine!  This is wrong john for you!!”
The old woman never said anything, but just shook her head back and forth continuously.   Half of the patrons in the main dining room were now staring at me, and the other half were conspicuously pretending that they weren’t noticing.
“Oooh!!  My phone book is going to get me into trouble!!!”  exclaimed Lutricia loudly, still standing beside my table.  “Catherine, he’s the wrong john!!!”
At this point, without any explanation,  Lutricia scooped up the salmon Caesar salad from my table and scurried off to a nearby empty booth, with the old woman in tow.   They sat themselves down there.  “He’s the wrong john!”  Lutricia was still exclaiming.  The old woman was still silently shaking her head.
I hoped that all the other diners realized that my name was John!  I raised my hand and asked Sean for a bill.  “Will you be paying for both meals, sir?” asked Sean.  This elicited some snickering at nearby tables.
“No, Sean.  The lady has taken her food to another table and she will be paying for it.”  I paid my bill and made a beeline for the exit.   I saw no need to speak to Lutricia.  She had revealed herself to be an inconsiderate, socially deficient dunce. Here's my quadry, though:  Deep inside, I already suspected that Lutricia was a self centered fool;  yet I expended my attention and consideration for her.  What does that say about me?