One of the greater gifts of being a candidate for higher office is the chance to step out of your own life and take a look at how othes live, if only briefly. Call it a gimmick, call it opportunity, but the Service Employees International Union has built on this idea and asked presidential and senate candidates to do just that. But not just observe. Do.
Yesterday, that meant DFL U.S. Senate candidate Al Franken rolled out of bed at 4 a.m. and hustled over to Robbinsdale Rehabilitation and Care Center for a 5:15 breakfast with Ulysses Bridges, a Minneapolis caregiver who has spent the last 25 years of his life doing with grace and compassion the jobs few others want.
But before breakfast, there were a few details to attend to: Franken helped awaken the residents, many of whom are in advanced stages of multiple sclerorsis. Together, he and Bridges cleaned out urine bags, changed adult diapers, made beds, helped with clothing and toothbrushing and wheeled folks out for food _ which they spoon fed them.
Early next month, Franken’s rival, Mike Ciresi, will spend a similar day as a custodian for a Sauk Rapids middle school. Stevens said that other candidates, such as Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer and Jim Cohen, may be asked as soon as they appear viable for endorsement.
Now, cynical political hands may roll their eyes and say _ big deal, another photo op. But I spent the day there (well, not at 5:15. I’m not running, after all.) But from 8:30 on I watched it all. And you cannot help but be changed by the experience. Ulysses, a lanky fit man with the muscled arms that come from lifting grown men, seldom sits and when he does, he’s always watching his charges. His name badge bristles with tiny purple pins _ each given by patients who nominate him for “good deeds.” When he wheels Richard and Rick outside for their smokes (they get two a day on his watch) he’s alert for the moment when the cigarette might drop from their curled fingers and catches it. When he passes by Joyce, a 60ish woman whose mobility is almost completely gone, he pats her hand, strokes her hair, asks if she needs anything. “Thank you,” Joyce says softly. “Thank you very much.”
There are few votes to be found in an M.S. ward. No fundraising to be done. Instead, Franken found himself spending a half hour just spooning sauerkraut and cut-up ring bologna into Joyce’s waiting mouth, alternating with John, nearby, who wants to hold his own juice cup, but needs help because his hands shake so badly.
It is an activity, Franken said later, that requires you to “really be in the moment. You realize that at the moment, nothing is more important than making sure Joyce gets her sauerkraut. That makes her happy.”
The sheer tedium of the job becomes apparent as the day rolls on. More bag changes. More wipings, feedings, cleanings. Roll the boys out for another smoke. But more moments, too. Carol wants to get from her wheelchair to her bed but first tenderly asks Bridges, “How’s your back? I don’t want you to hurt your back.” She apologizes for a leaking bag that makes it impossible to measure her urine output. Bridges and Franken change the bag, measure what’s left, ease her into bed, chat with her for a time before moving on.
Makes you wonder, if every politician in America, from the president on down, spent a day in Ulysses’ shoes, how different would things look?