Monday, February 13, 2012

Meet the Secretary

This morning I went back to the Clinica Alemana to have my tetanus booster shot.  (because we silly people who stab ourselves with scissors while wrapping Christmas presents have to do things like that.)
            The Vacunatorio lives deep in the bowels of the hospital's underground parking garage.  One takes the main elevator down to level number Sub 2, exits the hospital proper out of the door past the pathology labs, then trips merrily down a little black and white zebra crossing that wends its charming way through a dark concrete catacomb filled with angry Chilean drivers in SUVs, all squealing their tires ferociously on the concrete floor because after doing seven circles of the garage they haven't found a place to park, and they're learning that the little red and green lights indicator lights on the ceiling above each parking space bear no resemblance to the filled- or otherwise- state of the parking spaces, but merely (morely?) in their small angry incandescences, contribute to the sense of a noisy, subterranean, petrol-and-rubber roaring hell.
            If you can make it successfully across the unmarked and unlit entry ramp down from the street, you are home and hosed, standing happy on the doorstep of the Vacunatorio. In the dark of the garage, it is an oasis of filtered air-conditioning, soft lights, and rows of waiting room chairs upholstered in a peculiarly medical shade of not-quite-pepto-bismol-pink.
            The place was empty, but for me and four female receptionists. Two were giggling, one was filing her nails, and one was doing a crossword out of a newspaper. (This is important later.)
            The place was empty, but I looked for a number machine anyway. I was operating on instinct. 
            Chileans don't do queues - they take numbers instead.  They take numbers for everything - numbers in the pharmacy, numbers in the dry-cleaner, numbers in the shoe repair shop and in the supermarket for the deli counter and for the butcher and to buy their cheese and their bread.  The only place Chileans don't take a number is in the supermarket  when they're waiting for their turn for the man who weighs their vegetables.  Nobody is entirely sure why.
           Without numbers, Chileans will explain, the result is anarchy and a scrum.  But there is never a scrum in front of the fruit and vegetable man.  And the ticket waiting area in front of the butcher's counter is always a zoo of people steaming through their nostrils and counting numbers out of the corners of their eyes, or trying to roll their trolleys over other people's feet and frighten them into dropping their numbers and running away.
            It doesn't quite work out.
            And it proved irrelevant in this case: the number machine in the Vacunatorio, was out of order. A sheet of printer paper was taped across its fancy electronic front.  The paper said "Not Working. Apply to Receptionist for Assistance."
            So I did. I walked up to the row of receptionists in their pink booths and stood in front of them and cleared my throat- delicately, as one does, in this sort of circumstance.
            The gigglers momentarily stopped giggling, and the girl doing the crossword looked up at me, and then they all looked away again and picked up where they'd left off.
            Almost exactly 120 seconds later, the girl filing her nails looked up and smiled, and  in a voice that was warm with pleasant, everyday cordiality, she said "Hello. May I Help You?"
            "Yes. " I said, and smiled back. "I'm here for a tetanus shot."
            Her eyes, and her voice, glazed over. "Oh."  She said dully.  "A vaccination.  You need a number."  And she looked away and began to file her nails again.
            "But the number machine is broken. It said to - "
            "Over there."  She said - waving an arm vaguely in the direction of the far corner of the room.
            "But -"
            I sighed and I walked across the room and in a corner that wasn't quite reached by the lights, I found an old-fashioned, common-or-garden mechanical ticker-tape number dispenser.
            But I didn't quite trust myself to take a number just yet.  First I looked up at the wall above the row of receptionists, where an electronic number board shone out in bright red letters:  36.
            Then I took the ticket, and very carefully, I read the number on it: 37.  I knew, I just knew what was going to happen next and I knew that when it did, I was going to crack.
            I didn't want to crack, but the crack was on its way.  It was rising fast.
            Ticket in hand, I padded back across the floor and planted myself right in front of the young woman filing her nails. She raised her head, she looked me in both eyes for a long slow count of thirty, and then she reached out a hand and pressed a button.
            "Thirty-seven!"  She called out, in a loud, chirpy, waiting-room-covering voice.
"Thirty-seven! Who's next?"
            And I cracked.  I started to giggle, and then  I started to laugh.  I couldn't help it - it was theater of the absurd, served up by a quartet of petty bureaucrats in pepto-bismol pink.  I laughed and I laughed, and to her credit, the woman blushed and looked slightly shamefaced.  A more hardened Chilean secretary-type would have stared me down and sent me to the back of a non-existent queue.
            This young woman, who still had far to go in the hardening of her arteries, blushed fiercer and went to find a nurse to talk to me because she found that all things considered, she really didn't think she could, herself.

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