I call him Santa Claus – for obvious reasons. And I can’t tell you his real name anyway, because he’s in our ER nearly every day.
I can imagine Santa Claus was a normal human once; maybe he rented an apartment or even owned a house in the suburbs. Maybe he worked as cheap muscle for a local contractor, or maybe he pulled shifts at the factory that closed into a pile of scrap metal a few years ago. Who knows, Santa may have even spawned some progeny – most likely estranged.
Now, Santa Claus stands in front of the hospital at dusk. He lurks in an odd protective nook carved into the hospital building outside of the pediatric ER, staring blankly in through the window, staring at me while I type my note on the asthmatic 8-year-old I just gave a nebulizer to, staring and taking a swig of his Mickey’s 40 oz. beer wrapped in a brown paper bag.
It’s so creepy when he does this. It’s the only time I would ever consider putting down the blinds on the one window to the Emergency Department – the one chance you have to look outside during a 9-hour shift.
Santa Claus looks more like a ghoul than a living human being – his face red from the cold but gaunt, his matted beard more off than white, his balding scalp scabbed and flaky. Even from this side of the window, I know from experience that he reeks of urine and the deep need for soap and water. He opens and closes his mouth like a fish in between swigs, making incoherent noises through the pane of glass at me. I can’t remember ever hearing him speak – Santa grunts, moans, and roars.
Last fall, as I was getting to work I saw him on the sidewalk with his arms out moaning in the street like a bewildered animal, discharge papers advising him to drink less alcohol and check into a detox center strewn around him. The wind had already carried a few sheets halfway down the block. I walked right past him with my croissant with bacon, egg, and cheese.
Now he’s not even drinking. He’s JUST staring at me. Not even watching me, just dead-eyed stare through the window, so that I can’t make synapses fire even in my adequately caffeinated brain. Oh, demented alcoholic Santa, why can’t you hang out somewhere else tonight?
He Chewbacca moans at me one more time as I close the blinds. I can feel his face still glued to the window, but at least now I can’t see his ale-sodden eyes.
Regulars like Santa may be out of sight sometimes, occasionally even for months at a time, but that doesn’t mean they’re not often on my mind. At what point did the man become Santa? At what point did the ER become home for him? At what point did that 40 stop being a choice?
My doors are always open, Santa, even though I’m not what you need.