In general, I’d like to think I’m a pretty helpful person. I volunteer. I give money to BAM. I’m happy to help you move a few boxes.
But due to my occasionally contrarian personality, when I hear the word help, I instantly recall a time when I was anything but. In fact, I think about the time when was a downright jerk.
TueNight contributor and Reuters Money editor Lauren sent a request out on Twitter: “Calling all humanitarians! Tell us about your first volunteer gig using #firstjob hashtag” Tossed back in time, I immediately conjured a red and white-striped 1940s looking smock, the overwhelming stench of salty soup, a long, white corridor of doors and the occasional moan.
Yes, I was a candy striper. And while that sounds like a benevolent “helpful” job, my motivations for doing it are hazy and suspicious: My cousin was a candy striper? A girl at my new school did it and she was super popular? My mom made me? I wanted to give back?
Ehhh… Lets be honest. At 14, I was more interested in passing notes with my friends and listening to Rick Springfield than spending time at a bleak hospital.
But I think it was reason number two — peer influence. At the time, I’d just entered ninth grade at a brand new all-girls Catholic school. I was trying to find my way in a new world of nuns. (I wasn’t Catholic, then or now.) The aforementioned popular girl, Sally, she of gleaming teeth and voluptuously feathered hair, volunteered at the local hospital. So I followed suit, literally, and donned the archetypal red- and white-striped apron.
Just about every Saturday or Sunday I’d walk several blocks to the hospital and sign in to do whatever job needed to be done: wheel around a book cart filled with flowers, newspapers, books; answer phones, greet visitors, deliver meals to patients…
It was this last job that I had a hard time with. Because more often than not, when we were asked to deliver food, we were also asked to feed the patients.
Barely teenagers, we probably shouldn’t have been feeding the gravely ill — but since they were low on nursing staff we were called on to dish the pudding. The first time this happened, an elderly man lost his sheet and I spilled his mashed something all over the floor. I have no recollection of whether I helped him, ran away, or buzzed a nurse. Sally then explained to me, “Yeah, I avoid that job,” and from then on, I joined her at the snack machine, down in the basement, where we hid.
Sally also hipped me to the fact that the change machine would take a thinly cut piece of paper as readily as it would a dollar bill — score! — so we spent most of our time eating Three Musketeers and Toast Chee crackers instead of helping the truly needy.
But it gets worse.
Flora, my fast becoming-best friend from that new school, joined me in my candy striping career. Flora was a more dutiful partner and we did, in fact, do our jobs together — delivering flowers and yes, deigning to feed the patients. But Flora had a bit of a laughing problem. She and I could make each other laugh until we cried, and in Flora’s case, until she peed. We’d crack each other up with stories about silly boys and Shakespeare-reading nuns until Flora had to dash off to the ladies room.
One weekend afternoon, Flora and I were assigned the cush job of delivering magazines and the Philadelphia Inquirers to various rooms. Flora walked into a room and promptly walked out. She looked at me in horror and dropped to a squat. The bathroom was miles away.
“What’s so funny?”
“I can’t….I can’t…I can’t…” She was laughing so hard the words just sputtered from her lips.
“You can’t what? You can’t go in there?” I asked.
She nodded furiously, grasping her doubled-over stomach and clearly squeezing off a disaster.
I peeked in the room, wondering what on earth I was about to witness.
A man who was about four feet tall, a little person, was sitting at a table, quietly eating his peas and drinking milk, feet dangling. An entirely normal situation, but just like church when you’re not supposed to laugh….
The horror. We tried in vain to do our job but neither one of us could muster the courage. I remember pressing my tear-streamed face into the hallway wall; Flora writhing on the floor in hysterics for about 10 full minutes.
Thankfully, I don’t think he heard us.
But I always regretted my inability to actually deliver that man his daily newspaper. As for Flora, well, she had a major accident so her embarrassment was tenfold.
From that day forward, Flora and I tried to be a bit more charitable.. We avoided all dangerous in-patient scenarios. I’d like to think we also did plenty of good in that time as well; you just don’t remember those boring bits of benevolence.
Our reputation as philanthropic hospital heroes did improve slightly; I was awarded a badge for 250 hours of service (in the basement), and Flora and I became longtime friends.
Both of us look back on that time with both shame and hilarity. To this day, can make each other crack up with just the words: Remember the time we were candystripers…