Sidewalk Discoveries

One of the joys of walking to work is making discoveries along the way. People, nature, art, and inanimate objects capture my attention as I stride toward downtown Syracuse.

This morning, I saw a pile of clothes and some plastic trash bags strewn on the sidewalk near the intersection of South Crouse Avenue and East Genesee Street. I walked past the pile, then backed up and snapped a picture. I was filled with pity as I surveyed the situation, and I wondered what happened to the owner of the clothes—likely a female. Obviously, I don’t know the reason why the clothes were dumped on the sidewalk, but there must be a sad story behind it.

Clothes on the sidewalk. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Later in my foot-powered commute, I found some medical notes and records on the sidewalk near Upstate Health Care Center, close to the intersection of Harrison and Townsend streets.

Being a medical records junkie, I grabbed the papers and stuffed them in my bookbag. Later when I reviewed them, I was intrigued by the doctor’s handwriting and the medical terminology listed. I hope and pray the notes refer to more than one patient, because if one patient has all of these issues, that person is in serious trouble (or could be dead by now). Words that stood out for me: hypokalemia (low potassium), neurosurgery, pancreatic cancer, cerebral aneurysms, craniotomy (opening the skull), renal cause, liver and palliative consult.

Handwritten medical notes.

Along with the handwritten notes, there were a few computer printout pages. They detailed the hospital admission of a 56-year-old man with COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and a history of hypoxic hypercarbic respiratory failure “who continues to smoke few cigarettes a day.” The records state “the patient has been losing weight despite good appetite” and has “severe protein calorie malnutrition.”

The patient’s BMI (body mass index) was calculated at 14.4, which would make him very underweight. But the good news—he was discharged with prescriptions for oral steroids and other medications and “will continue on his routine respiratory neb (nebulizer?) treatment regimen w/ Budesonide and DuoNeb (inhaler).”

Medical records.

Both the clothes on the sidewalk and the patient’s records reminded me just how harsh, fleeting and fragile life can be. It doesn’t take much for us to have our shit tossed on the street or end up in the hospital.

I remember my sodium and potassium levels crashing in the past, sending me to the ER, so I can relate to the male patient’s distress. He was probably scared as he underwent a battery of tests and was examined by multiple doctors. I wonder if he’s resting comfortably at home, eating enough food and breathing without difficulty.


Man At Work

Here’s a reminder that grace and honor can be found in just about any setting where working men and women toil. This point was illuminated recently while I waited for a Buffalo-bound bus at the Regional Transportation Center in Syracuse.

I was scheduled to take Amtrak’s westbound Lake Shore Limited, as I was heading to Toledo, Ohio, to spend a week with my sister and her family. But a freight train derailment in Montgomery County, N.Y., forced a service disruption between Albany and Buffalo, so Amtrak passengers had to be bused between the locations.

While I sat inside the station I noticed a custodian working his shift. His diligence caught my attention. He was likely in his mid to late 30s with short brownish-blond hair and a goatee. He wore a light blue golf shirt, white sweatpants with navy blue trim on the side, white sneakers and latex gloves.

His face was red and moist from his labor. He was pushing a yellow cart loaded with supplies and kept moving between the garbage cans inside the station, emptying the trash and replacing the plastic bags. He wasted no movement and made no delay in going between the cans; it was clear he wasn’t clock-watching, trying to stall while waiting for his shift to end. He was there to do work and he followed through with alacrity on every task.

Then I saw him again in the men’s room. He was emptying the trash and wiping down the urinals, stalls and sinks.

After the majority of passengers boarded the Greyhound bus that would take us to Buffalo, the driver, a blond-haired man in his 50s with a mustache, stood in front of the terminal talking to some Amtrak employees and a Border Patrol agent. The driver and Amtrak workers checked the tickets of latecomers and loaded the oversized luggage into the baggage compartment in the bottom of the bus.

As I looked out my window, facing the terminal, I saw the janitor working outside. And while the driver and Amtrak workers stood chatting, the custodian emptied the exterior trash cans and recycle bins. He pulled up the full garbage bags, tied them tightly and stacked them on top of his cart; then he would take clean plastic bags, snap them open and insert them into the cans.

He did this a number of times, going from can to can and never saying a word to anyone. He blended into the background of people smoking outside and the employees talking at the curb.

I thought about the janitor’s life. He has a thankless job that requires tedious physical effort and the touching of dirty paper towels and leftover food. I can’t imagine he makes more than 10 or 12 dollars an hour, and I wonder if he has a family to support. I bet he wants a higher-paying job, maybe something that doesn’t require manual labor.

And on this Saturday night it was late, around 9:30 p.m. He looked tired, but that did not slow him down.

Once all of the trash was piled high on his cart, he pushed it inside the station, going through the automatic doors at the front entrance, and most likely wheeled the cart to a Dumpster outside, at the back of the station.

Soon he would punch out and head home. Maybe he would have a late meal and catch some sports highlights on ESPN.

I admired this man for his effort when no one was paying attention to him. I believe our nation’s productivity could increase substantially if we all worked as hard as the janitor.

I’m sure he does not love his job. But it’s clear he takes pride in it. And honest labor in any capacity deserves recognition.