“Blanche walked down the ramp laughing and shrieking, scattering gleeful hellos upon the silent, puzzled group, like a buxom hostess descending her marble staircase, bantering hysterically.”
Blanche was a woman of entrances, so any early morning doctor’s appointment that allowed her to burst onto the workfloor late, before a captive audience of seated, settled clients, was a grand opportunity for spectacle. After flinging open the ramp door, she’d walk down the last section of the ramp laughing and shrieking, scattering gleeful hellos upon the silent, puzzled group, like a buxom hostess descending her marble staircase, bantering hysterically.
Such visits to the doctor were not unusual since Blanche, besides having epilepsy and being overweight, was also accident-prone. In the two years I knew her, she broke one finger and twisted her ankles numerous times. Injuries, however, have their rewards: thus Blanche, tittering, hungrily sought the double takes from clients and staff when they noticed her new ankle cast or new wheelchair. Grinning with self-importance, she exulted in being pushed about the Center by a supervisor/manservant like me.
Seizures were another source of theatrical material. People with epilepsy sometimes experience warning signs of a seizure just before it occurs. In the Glass Department, twice in one week, Blanche dramatically announced an impending seizure by throwing her glass on the floor. After the second episode I asked if, in the future, she could set her glass on the table first, then have her seizure; she said she would. Another time, after seeing Roger standing behind her in the lunch line, she moaned, fanned her limp arms out to the sides, and fell back into him. Roger caught this damsel in distress, gently lowered her to the floor, and was calling for help when Hannah, having watched this sequence of events, hollered, “Knock it off, Blanche!” Startled, Blanche scrambled to her feet while Roger, uncharacteristically speechless, gawked at her.
Blanche weighed around two hundred pounds and had a fleshy face and heavy jowls. Normal at birth, she was three years old when she contracted measles, which led to encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) and a three-day coma. She was left permanently impaired, with an IQ of thirty-four. Growing up, Blanche attended Special Education, living with her family until 1980, when she was twenty-five. Her father, feeling that their overprotectiveness kept her from maturing, then suggested placing her in a group home. Her mother, still thinking of Blanche as a child, resisted at first but eventually acquiesced.
Following her morning entrance, Blanche had to subdue her joie de vivre and resign herself to a decidedly mundane activity: steelwooling dirty glasses. Work, however, was only a sideline, since her principal concern was the people around her:
- When I first walked past her seat: “G’morning, Gren.” “Morning, Blanche.”
- A few minutes later: “Brenda Sue, get to work.”
- Whispering to Wanda, “Gren’s a good sup’visor.”
- Calling across the workfloor, “Wally, sit down. Not spozed to stand up.”
- As I passed by again: “G’morning, Gren.”
- Breaking the quiet, focused mood on the workfloor, cackling, “I had two pops last night!”
- Making eyes at the impassive Richard.
- “Stan be quiet. Spozed to work.”
- “G’morning, Gren.”
After a while Blanche would go upstairs to class. Often she returned to the workfloor yahooing and yippeeing, tagging along behind classmates who didn’t find the conversation as uproarious as she did. Other times, if she’d been reprimanded in class for being bossy or disruptive, Blanche would dramatize her piteous condition by performing what looked like a death march. Casting aside the role of the gay dowager, she’d lumber down the ramp, step-by-deliberate-step, her arms and legs stiff and her mouth dropped open, while her eyes searched furtively for reactions.
Once she was seated, her continued intrusiveness might elicit another rebuke, prompting her to fling her steel wool on the table. She’d sit there glowering, while her jowls grew ever more imposing.
Lunchtime always revived her spirits. Sometimes she bought Cokes for Richard, Wanda, Roger, and herself. Giggling and shaking with excitement, she’d open them so fast that they’d fizz over onto the floor, where the puddle would remain unless a supervisor made her wipe it up. To keep her from falling over during a seizure, Blanche, like Holly, was allowed to sit in one of the two lunchroom armchairs. But unlike Holly, Blanche would set her chair at the head of a table, like a throne. After stuffing her cheeks with food, she’d begin to flirt, assaulting the lunchroom with her high-pitched, obtrusive laughter. Occasionally this led to coughing or choking. I became a hero in her eyes the day I performed a Heimlich maneuver to dislodge some pizza from her throat. After that, any time she keeled over, for whatever reason, and I helped her up, she always snapped out of her dazed stupor and looked up at me adoringly.
After lunch, on her way back to the basement, Blanche sometimes stopped to sit in the lobby. If I happened by a little later, I’d ask her what she was doing.
“Got CPM,” she’d respond. Twice a year each client attended a Client Progress Meeting, at which family members and the representatives of various agencies would discuss how the person was doing at home and at work.
“Blanche, if you have to be some place, they’ll call us downstairs and we’ll send you up, just like always. You know you’re not supposed to stay here unless a supervisor tells you to.”
Feebly she’d persist, “But CPM…”
“Blanche, your CPM is months away. You should be working now, not sitting here doing nothing.”
“Yes, sir,” she’d groan, then reluctantly head downstairs.
She was an endless fount of misinformation. If one supervisor asked another the whereabouts of a client, Blanche would pop up, concocting an answer on the spot, declaring that the person was on vacation or at an appointment or in class—an unsolicited opinion that invariably proved incorrect. Any time a well-dressed lady toured the Center, Blanche would say, “Tha’s my mom.” When Stan came onto the workfloor one morning telling everybody, “I went, I went McDonald’s last night,” Blanche chimed in, “Me too.” And one afternoon when I congratulated Brenda Sue on steelwooling three glasses in one day, Blanche interjected, “I done five grasses today, Gren,” though in fact she had worked on only two, finishing neither.
Blanche’s shining moment was the morning she breezed into the building with a big grin and instantly commanded everyone’s attention, generating looks of incredulity and bewilderment. She was wearing tennis shoes, a floor-length, flowing white gown, and a blue fez with an orange tassel and the emblem of a fraternal order—an entrance worthy of this woman who loved to bask in the limelight. We sent her back to her group home to change into something more practical.