Gretchen’s mood, as well as her judgment, wasn’t helped any by a letter she received at the clinic. The letter congratulated them on being selected as one of the test sites for the Dignity Initiative’s Adult Diaper Dispensation (ADD) program over the next year. At first she thought it was a mistake, but an embarrassing phone call to the program’s administrator revealed that one of her very own board members had applied on the clinic’s behalf. It was Patrick, an old-timer who had fought term limits the hardest. She didn’t bother calling him. She called the board chair, Frank, who was a muckety-muck partner in a law firm. She was disgusted to learn he knew about it. She wrote a letter to the executive committee explaining they had to withdraw and why, and couriered it to each. That got a response. They were polite but said the money was needed. Reading their letter, Gretchen fought the urge to reply by saying, “So, the staff can turn a few tricks if need be?”
But clearly action was needed. The next meeting was nigh. When Gretchen sent out the agenda she added “Dignity Initiative inservice” as the first item after Review Minutes. She made sure “Refreshments will be served” was on there because she wanted good attendance. Carefully, she selected Buffalo wings, salted cashews, wasabi peanuts, iced tea and, as a special surprise, cold beer, and set them out on the reception desk. As they trooped in, exclaiming as they saw the snacks, she urged them to put their things down in the waiting room, grab something to eat – have a beer! – and soon the meeting would start.
The beer was gone in a flash, once the cayenne-spiced chips were opened. Talk became animated. There were eleven loud, happy board members in a tight space. Gretchen moved in. She urged them to come see the outreach office; a neighbor had thrown out a couch and, inspired, the outreach workers had redone the office. Gretchen led them, a Pied Piper of professionals who exclaimed at the inspiring frugality of the staff. Frank, the board chair, was describing his firm’s annual retreat for the partners. In Tahoe. She opened the door to the office, the largest in the clinic. The three street-outreach workers had filled it with boxes of toiletry supplies, socks, and energy bars. The couch had a purple throw over it now.
One supply was not stacked against the wall. A box of Extra-Large, Extra-Absorbent Dignity Adult Diapers stood open on Tisha’s extra-tidy, extra-empty desk.
Strangely, one thing was missing from this office. There were no phones. Gretchen had received a number of phone bills in the past with long-distance calls made by clients who had managed to find time alone in there.
When the group was stuffed in there, she backed out of the room and swiftly closed the door. It was an odd, added-on office whose door opened into the hallway. It had once been an exterior door and, as such, it could be locked from where Gretchen was now standing. With her keys hanging from a cord around her neck.
And the door was locked.
She stood there, watching the gray-blue paint and listening to what was happening from within. At first, nothing. Then a murmuring confusion, then a rapid rise in decibel levels, quickly becoming Frank’s singular baritone summoning Gretchen. It didn’t occur to anyone that it was anything but an accident.
She waited and then knocked to get their attention.
“Hi!” she called. She had to knock harder because, as usual, they were still talking. “Hi, everybody! Are you ready to start the meeting?”
Several voices told her the door had accidentally become locked.
“Yeah, I know,” she said cheerfully to the door. “But it’s funny you said ‘accident.’ We’re going to get started with our inservice on the Dignity Initiative. Rather than have you just sit and listen, I’ve set up something a little more interactive.”
Martha interrupted her. “Dear. If I may. The door is still locked.”
This sentiment caused a swell of sound.
Gretchen felt a twinge of guilt. Martha was a nice lady, a retired nurse. And she had finished that beer awfully fast.
She cleared her throat. “Look. Your letter to me said we have to take this funding. I don’t agree. All right then. Diapers are good enough for homeless people, try them yourself.”
Now they were shouting at her to open the door, and it got fiercer when they realized she’d gotten them in there without any of their stuff, including their cell phones. Two women pleaded they needed to call their children. Frank ordered her to open the door.
Something heavy sank to the bottom of Gretchen’s spine and it anchored her to her spot in front of the door. They had committed the clinic without even discussing it with her.
“Gretchen, is this really the way to make your point?” It was Ruby. Ruby had the voice of a seductive hostage negotiator. She was a social worker.
“Do you go along with this, Ruby?” Gretchen countered.
“With what, Gretchen?” Keep her talking, obviously the plan. There was a scratching on the other side.
“Expecting poor people to use diapers instead of bathrooms. And calling it dignity.”
Ruby’s voice was even. “I may not have thought it through sufficiently.”
“Do you want to hear me tell you to grab a diaper right now? Is that something that would work for you?”
“No, it would not,” she sighed. “You’ve made your point. Now please open the door.”
“I would like you to express that thought to your peers first. I would like you to take leadership on this issue.”
There was a hurried exchange and an even faster promise that the clinic would not be part of the Dignity Initiative. Gretchen opened the door and they streamed out. Only three people actually needed to use the bathroom. No one seemed angry once they were released, but though she tried to hide it, Gretchen was nervous now. She wasn’t much worried they would go back on their promise, she just guessed this wouldn’t be the end of it.
She approached each of them though and apologized for such drastic action. Most laughed it off and said it took them back to sit-ins and rallies. The meeting agenda was forgotten as they finished the snacks and talked about the good old days. Gretchen found Martha sitting apart from the others in the waiting room.
“Well, aren’t you the rabble-rouser today, getting us off our collective behinds,” Martha laughed.
“Yeah,” Gretchen said. “See –“
“The thing is,” Martha interrupted. “You don’t know that I know about these things.” She leaned in. “I’ve been using them for years.”
“Oh.” Gretchen felt awkward. “I didn’t mean they were bad…”
“I know that,” she said. “The trouble is, we can’t really talk about it. I can tell you but I never tell other people. It’s just so, it’s just so demeaning. It shouldn’t be but it is.”
“If you could just explain how it’s just not right to make people use them because we’re too cheap to have bathrooms,” Gretchen said. “How it’s segregation with a stay-dry liner.”
Martha whooped. “Oh, that’s very good. But this is very private and I have to ask you to keep it a secret. Really, you won’t tell anyone?”
“Of course not,” she said. She knew how to make that promise. She’d made it to — how many? Too many to count. The same people she could therefore never mention when arguing for better access and getting the same old response – “But it’s a lot of money to benefit so few people.” A few? If Gretchen’s experience was any indication, there were far more than a few people quietly passing as nondisabled. Quietly asking her to please not reveal what they had in common with her.
But she couldn’t argue that all would be well, that they wouldn’t lose their jobs, if people knew the specifics of their imperfection. She couldn’t argue. And as she did when people said things to her like “of course” you end a pregnancy because of a genetic abnormality, she tried not to take it personally. And failed.
excerpted from The Cure for Gretchen Lowe