S.M. Park’s column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “Cooties,” Park considers these COVID times a boon for OCD folks, and shares his aversion to vacuums.
These are the glory days for the obsessive-compulsives among us, this is their Impossible Dream. Suddenly they’re supposed to be washing their hands all day, or cleaning and scrubbing every reachable surface, or keeping other people and their nasty germs at a distance or, perhaps best of all … walking around in gloves and masks.
My parents are gone now but they would have loved the COVID-19 protocols. As a boy I thought my mother’s favorite thing in the world was her vacuum cleaner. She used it daily, even as she knew I considered it the most obnoxious sound in the world.
Not to mention the most unnecessary. I remember when I was recuperating at home after my bouts with meningitis and encephalitis in fifth grade. I’d survived (but barely), and my parents and doctors were monitoring my progress closely, wondering what four months of comas had done to me physically and/or cognitively.
In the meantime I was weak and bedridden, too dazed to walk further than the bathroom. Trapped, in other words, when sometime during the day (mom liked to change up the times, keep me guessing), I’d hear the vacuum roar to life in another part of the house.
It was 1957 and rock ’n’ roll was newly born. I’d roll over, switch on the radio next to my bed, try to drown out the drone of that machine with the likes of “Purple People Eater” or “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”
It wasn’t happening: the combination just made it worse. Finally (after giving the hallway hardwood a good scouring) mom would bang into my room. I’d beg her to skip me just this once, leave her skeletal son alone with his fate.
“My God,” I’d plead, “I’m dyin’ here!”
“Exactly, germ boy!” she’d say. “That’s why I have to get your room extra clean!”
I wonder now, in fact, if those brain fevers, like my mother’s vacuum, weren’t what prepped me for the d.t.’s later, if I wasn’t an old hand with madness before I ever experienced withdrawal.
My parents are gone now but they would have loved the COVID-19 protocols. As a boy I thought my mother’s favorite thing in the world was her vacuum cleaner.
In the meanwhile I had an appointment for a teeth cleaning yesterday. I normally go three times year, but with the COVID it’s been six months.
The hygienist is named Nancy, or (as I nicknamed her later) the “Nazi Butcher.” Like many boomers I ignored my teeth in my teens and twenties and have been paying the price since. In the interim I’ve moved around the country a lot, so I have been to dozens of different hygienists over the years.
But I’d never encountered anyone like Nancy before. She was stocky and gruff and went after my gums like a butcher to meat, digging and probing and scraping until my mouth was awash in blood.
Suddenly she paused, rolled backwards in her chair, began sharpening her tools on a grindstone behind my head. (I didn’t see sparks or hear a cackle, but I might as well have.) When our hour was up I went home and called my dentist buddy.
“It was fuckin’ medieval!” I moaned. “She had a stone and sharpened her weapons right next to my ear. I’ve never had a hygienist do that before.”
“Oh, yeah?” he said. “And how do your teeth and gums feel now?”
“Minus a pint of blood, you mean?” I ran my tongue over my teeth, realized they were so clean they squeaked. “Well,” I said, “now that you mention it …”
For my visit yesterday she’d added a face shield to her outfit. For the splatter, I thought, as she reached up, pulled down a stiff white tube, positioned it next to my mouth.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“A vacuum tube,” she said. “It sucks particulates from the air.”
“You mean,” I gasped, “a vacuum cleaner for my mouth!?”
“Is it noisy?”
She flipped the switch. (I couldn’t see her grin beneath that getup, but her eyes were twinkling.)
It made me wonder if dentists and hygienists think they’ve chosen their careers, as opposed to having a little knob in their hippocampus do it for them. I know my parents’ obsession with tidiness backfired on their sons. We learned early on that it was pointless to pick up our rooms or make our beds or fold our clothes because whatever we did … they’d redo it, anyway.
Plus we had holes where their OCD knobs were. Every morning mom would line up my brothers and I, tallest to shortest, and comb our hair with Sta-Bac. This was a thick, gelatinous green goop that hardened into cement in seconds. If we’d gone to school looking like that, much less in the matching plaid shirts and ironed jeans she dressed us in, we’d have been shunned as “homos.”
So we’d stroll innocently down the driveway (the school was only a block away) and, as soon as we turned the corner, rub the flaky goop from our hair (instant dandruff), strip to our undershirts and roll on neighbors’ lawns to mark up those jeans. (Even now, if you ask one of my brothers why they’re bald, they’ll tell you Sta-Bac.)
When we moved out later their places were messy but I was a public menace. It wasn’t that I consciously ignored clutter, I simply didn’t notice it.
I thought of this (when it came to mind at all) as some kind of harmless, absent-minded alkie deal. Then a new friend or potential mate would visit one of my rooms or apartments and, after a single step inside, throw up their hands in horror.
“Oh my God!” they’d gasp. “Oh my God!”
It happened countless times, particularly in my twenties and thirties. And there’d always be a flash of recognition afterwards, a moment when—just for an instant—I’d glance behind me, be shocked by the shoulder high mound of cans and bottles and garbage even though I’d crawled across it to reach the door! (I would have bumped my head on the ceiling otherwise.)
There’s something very wrong (or right?) about a guy like that. I tell myself I’m more civilized now, then remember I’ve eaten off paper plates for decades and own a single fork. (I lifted it from the rental house where my Boregonian buddies and I stayed a few years ago. Very nice: doesn’t bend when I use it.)
And while I’m at it … what about this desk I write at? I haven’t seen its surface in years: it’s covered from one end to the other with books, drawings, journals, notes, pens, papers, postcards, Post-Its and photos, with only my desktop and printer jutting above the fray.
So I can’t blame being a slob on booze and drugs, I must have come by it naturally.
I was putting out the garbage can yesterday when my neighbor Leslie walked by. I asked her how she was doing.
“Oh wonderful!” she exclaimed. “You know that feeling when you wake in the morning, take a look around and think: I’m going to clean this house from top to bottom today!?”
“Not a clue,” I said.