Ricky was a fly-by-night tour operator, a real cutter of corners. I worked for him in the late 1960’s, he hired me as a Tour Guide. I took a gaggle of high-school girls to Washington, I took another class to Williamsburg, Virginia. All by bus. Then West Point, had to improvise about the Gatling Gun and Hannibal’s elephants. Ricky didn’t care. He was paying me seventy five dollars per trip.
My most harrowing job for Ricky was to chaperone sixty-two widows to the Expo in Montreal (1967). These were the widows of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the VFW, and the average age here was seventy-two. What a bunch of yentas! The trouble began as they were boarding the bus.
“I’m sorry, I had the window seat. I put my purse down, I reserved it.”
“There’s no reserving here, you can’t save seats.”
“Ladies, please,” I interposed, “let’s not start off on the wrong foot—“
“She took my seat! I put my purse down!”
“Okay, here’s how we’re solving this: Mrs. Schnierson, you take the seat first, and when we get to Plattsburgh, Mrs. Levy, we’ll switch and you can have the window.”
We got to Montreal, and cheap-skate Ricky hadn’t even booked them into a hotel: they were staying in a jerry-built barracks that had been erected outside the fairgrounds. Two rows of beds, one against each wall. Like an army bunk, or summer camp. A communal bathroom, they had to stand in line. There was an aroma of freshly-cut wood and sawdust. The place must’ve been put up twenty minutes ago.
“But vhere’s de TV?” Mrs. Rappaport asked me. She was rotund, with thick, black, orthopedic shoes.
“Mrs. Rappaport, you didn’t come to Montreal to watch TV, did you?”
“I kehn’t fall asleep vidout de TV is on.”
The next day, I led them through the fair. I must say, this fair was exceptional, and almost worth the agony of dealing with this battalion of complaining yentas.
The Czech Pavilion, for example, featured a sculptured wall of living, breathing woodwork –by which I mean the parts actually moved. It was a panoramic view of a turn-of-the-century village, in miniature, to scale, with a farmer’s wife milking a cow (her little hands went up and down beneath the cow’s belly), a boy drawing water from a well (the bucket came out of the well dripping actual water), a priest giving a church sermon (his head turned from side to side as he scanned his prayerbook) –all carved in shiny, blond pinewood. You could stand there for twenty minutes, enraptured by the craftsmanship and imagination. It was absolutely stunning.
The Canadian Pavilion had a circular hall, with a curved movie screen around the entire interior. It was Surround-a-Vision, there were no seats, you stood, as film was projected three hundred and sixty degrees around you in a flying trip across a mountain range. An amazing sensation, far surpassing Cinerama, and better even than IMAX, which is merely a tall screen.
The Argentine Pavilion featured a restaurant that served beef straight from the Pampas. Oh, there was lots to experience, and I was as eager as any tourist to take it all in.
It was hard not to become impatient with my slow moving charges, who needed to be shepherded cautiously through the crowds. But this was my job. I was there for them. On the second morning (we were here for three days), we had an accident. Mrs. Schnierson twisted her ankle getting up from her cot. So when the group gathered, at eight in the morning, I had to tell them the following: “All right, people, stay here at the Pavilion of the Future. I’m taking Selma to the Infirmary to have her ankle looked at. We’ll meet you here in forty-five minutes.”
Moving slowly, I supported Selma Schnierson on my arm as we inched through the surging crowds to the infirmary. It would almost have been easier to carry her –but that far above the line of duty I wasn’t prepared to go. Fortunately, Selma was among the first patients to be seen this morning, and as she was ushered into the examining room to see the doctor, I called after her: “Chins up, Selma.”
I looked around the ante-room, which was hung with framed posters of Canadian scenes. Skiing in the Laurentians; the Old City in Quebec. I was alone with a white-uniformed nurse, a pleasant looking girl in her twenties.
“You guys been busy?” I asked her. “Any heart attacks?” I’ve always been morbidly curious about heart attacks; Marjorie’s legacy, probably.
“Not really,” said this young lady.
“Any seizures, attacks of appendicitis?”
“Not really,” she repeated. “It’s mostly minor stuff, like the sprain your lady has. We have had quite a few fainting spells.”
“Yes, the women see the exhibits in the Medical Pavilion and it’s hard for them to take it. Some of them pass out. We have to break the ammonia capsule under their nose.”
“What’s so disturbing in the Medical Pavilion?”
“Well, it’s really quite fascinating if you have a strong stomach: they show you the latest procedures for doing a kidney transplant, that’s one exhibit, and open-heart surgery, that’s another. They show it up close. It’s extremely graphic, watching the incisions, tying off the veins. Not everyone can take it.”
Selma came out of the examining room with an Ace bandage around her ankle. We thanked the staff and started back to re-join the group, our walk proceeding at the same pace.
“Nice young man, this doctor,” Selma began. “Dr. Neal. He’s attached to Montreal General. But oy, did he have a case of b.o!”
“Positively. The moment I walked in.” She made a face, wrinkling her nose.
“But he did a nice job on your foot.”
“We’ll see,” said Selma, darkly. She wasn’t going to give out any approval till the results were in. To forestall any further complaints, I began telling her what I’d just learned. How quite a few people had been fainting.
“You don’t say?” was Selma’s response. “From the Medical Pavilion? What do they have in there that’s so disturbing?”
“It’s not the conditions, it’s that you see them so up close, with all the blood and everything. They do a kidney transplant and open-heart surgery.”
“Kidney transplant!” said Selma, suddenly becoming animated, “That’s what my Morris had! We had to wait six months till they found a donor, someone who matched? You got to get someone who matches your blood type. Lucky for us we had the best specialist in Forest Hills, maybe you know him? Dr. Paul Buttenweiser? He’s attached to Columbia-Presbyterian? He’s very famous, he was in the Hundred Best Doctors.”
“Don’t think so,” I said.
“Oh, yes, quite renowned in his field, the Renal field they call it.”She paused, thinking about it. “Ooh, I’ll tell Sadie, she’ll be interested, her son has the same condition, damaged kidney. Yes, I’d like to see that.” And then she came up with the line that made the trip for me. She was nodding her head in anticipation of how she was going to tell her friend Sadie about the show in the Medical Pavilion…and she had a little after-thought: “Open -heart is nice, too.” she said.