With his full head of hair, nicely trimmed goatee and a penchant for wearing sunglasses, Herbie Caldwell seemed more like a retired celebrity than the gently befuddled man he’d become. I met Herbie at the beginning of 1979, when he was 84 and I was 24. He was one of 45 men living in a nursing home on a tree-lined street in the Jamaica Plain part of Boston.
Herbie would recount his past in a series of broken vignettes. He’d worked in a leather factory in Lynn, Massachusetts. He’d grown up and gone to school in neighboring Danvers. Either he didn’t remember incidents in their entirety, or they were so vivid to him that he didn’t realize his fractured thoughts lacked focus to anyone else. He’d make reference to kitchen work, unmade beds and assorted other chores. Apparently he had been institutionalized for some part of his life. Records would have revealed some of the facts, but they’re long gone.
Herbie enjoyed company, but it wasn’t essential. He didn’t even depend on someone else being present as he quietly uttered his accidentally poetic observations and aphorisms.
“I’m far from Lynn and I ain’t showered yet, no foolin’.”
“Geez Davy, he’s a good fellow, but he wobbles like a duck.”
“I’ll be fallin’ down like a tree.”
“Get me a cup of coffee before I faint.”
“You got me caught here like a pair of pants.”
“I’m alright Davy, but my kidney’s on the bum.”
“I’ll smoke another cigar by and by.”
Much of what he said was an amalgam of minor complaints and memories, which never came off as whining, rather, they had a sort of hobo dignity to them. In his soft, even-metered tone they sounded like prayers.
“I ain’t no firebug. I was a fireman once, but I ain’t no firebug. The fella’s here tryin’ to fix the fire alarm. See how that girl put pajamas on me? They’ll have me knocked out by Christmas. That’s crazy. I used to go down to Brigham’s. I had a topcoat and two sunglasses, and I laid ‘em down in a box and – pffft! – they was gone. Why should they do that? You’ll have me dead. I can’t even go sportin.’ They’ll have me down to the undertaker and I won’t go. They’re painting the place and I can’t get any coffee, and pretty soon they’ll have me on my back. Everybody else goes sportin’ and leaves me here. You never see me go sportin,’ do ya? The only way I’ll go sportin’ is with the undertaker. Those fellas are walkin’ around havin’ a good time and I’ll fall on my back, and then down comes the undertaker. That’s a dirty trick, huh? Why should they put small pants on me in a chair? I think I’m licked. I can’t go home, it looks like it, I can’t go home.”
Herbie Caldwell, the man who called me Davy, was my friend for two-and-a-half years. He died in the summer of 1981.
“The big truck’s gone and so am I.”
Artist David Greenberger lives in Greenwich, NY. His latest CD of monologues & music is My Thoughts Approximately which includes the piece “Knocked Out,” based on conversations with Herbie Caldwell. www.davidgreenberger.com @davidbg