Thinking about physical therapy and cheerful, chatty older gents…

I feel like I’m living in a sitcom.

A cheerful, chatty older gent was using the physical therapy table next to me this morning, delivering a constant stream of pleasant banter on the order of “Are you workin’ hard, or hardly working?”

I’m attending PT twice a week because I noticed a decreased range of motion in my right shoulder.

From the conversation I overheard at the next table, I got the idea the older gent was a beloved coach who has trained a couple generations of local athletes.

At one point when two women were talking to him, he said “It’s not just one dumb blonde, it’s two! Twice as dumb!”

I heard laughter from around his table. I think one of the women with him may have driven him there, so it’s possible she was a relative, and it’s possible this was just teasing banter, but if a student had said those words in my class, I would have treated it as a teachable moment.

At one point I let my therapist know that I had a dry throat and I felt a cough coming on. Even though I feel healthy and don’t expect I’ll be expelling coronavirus particles, one never knows, so I excused myself.

I was thinking back to 2003, when I had just moved to Pennsylvania, and went to the local branch of a service group I had joined in my previous home. Before the people at my table had finished introducing themselves, a cheerful, chatty older gent who was working the room stopped by, shook hands, and asked, “How do you wink at a [n-word]?” In answer, he raised an imaginary rifle, sighted with one eye closed, and mimed pulling the trigger.

The people at my table (we were all white males) looked a little uncomfortable, but nobody spoke up, and the cheerful racist gent moved on. As calmly as I could, I asked my tablemates if I could expect this sort of thing on a regular basis. Someone mumbled, “Well, that’s just the way [Name] is.”  I then found the event organizer and shared my story. Again, some evident discomfort, but enabling words.

“Well, that’s [Name],” said the organizer. “You’ve just gotta get to know him.”

“No,” I said, “I don’t.”

It’s not fair to blame an entire organization for the racist speech of one volunteer and the enabling attitude of one organizer, so I’m not naming the group. But I left immediately and have not been back.

I was thinking about all this as I left the PT office in search of a place to have a good cough. I came back quickly, telling my therapist it turns out all I needed was a drink of water. I didn’t even cough once.

I was starting my next set of reps when a newcomer dropped by the cheerful older gent’s therapy session and said something like, “I’ve heard a lot about you!”

“All lies!” said the cheerful older gent. “I didn’t know she was fourteen!”

He laughed heartily. I waited to see how the people around him would react, but the conversation just seemed to flow naturally.

I took a deep breath.

“It’s none of my business,” I said, “But I was really offended by your joke about the fourteen-year-old.”

The room got very quiet.

For the rest of my session, my therapist seemed to pay more attention to me, talking to me as I was doing my reps rather than just telling me how many to do and coming back when I was finished.

More than once he looked me right in the eye and asked, “Is there anything on your mind?”

I told him I was fine.

The older gent, on his way out, not quite as chatty but still cheerful, leaned in close to me and in a friendly, “up-an’-at-’em tone” said, “Keep drinking that water.”

And in a coda that really sold the scene, he thumped me right on my injured shoulder.