Let’s clear something up at the outset. You’re probably wondering: how can I, a bus stop in Benrath, Düsseldorf, claim to be telling this story? But there’s nothing so extraordinary about it: like many Germans, I have an excellent grasp of English.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, I’d like you to imagine the following scene. A woman named Gisela is trying to get home, but she can’t recall where she parked the car. Has it been stolen? Meanwhile, Astrid will be back from school, and she’s certain to worry when she finds the house locked and empty. Our anxious Gisela starts to walk, as fast as she can; there’s a long journey ahead. Isn’t it odd, though, how the terrain seems so unfamiliar: this street, those churches, that marketplace? And now, believe it or not, Gisela is lost. In fact, she’s somehow forgotten where she was heading in the first place. Nor does she remember that Astrid hasn’t lived at home since 1975. In fact, Astrid no longer even resides in Germany, but in faraway Brisbane, Australia. As for the house itself – well, there is no house anymore.
Until recently, the scene I’ve just described was pretty much a daily occurrence here at the Seniorenzentrum. You see, no matter how vigilant the nurses were, if Gisela felt the need to get home, she’d find a way. True, she never actually made it, but she sometimes managed to cover a lot of ground before anyone noticed her absence. And Gisela was just one of many residents with a tendency to wander.
But the good people here at the Centre have found a solution. This is where I come in.
You probably wouldn’t even notice me if you were walking by. I’m stationed just outside and I look like the real deal: metal post; white, green, and yellow sign displaying an ‘H’ inside a circle – Hallestalle is what we Germans call a bus stop – and underneath, Seniorenzentrum Benrath. But if you look carefully, you’ll notice that there’s no road in front of me, just a square of brick paving. How, you may ask, can any vehicle, let alone a bus, pull up here? The answer is simple: there is no bus. I’m a replica – a pretend bus stop. I’m an experiment gone right.
You see, as things stand, the doctors can do nothing to make Gisela’s brain accommodate what most of us like to call reality. But we lateral-thinking Germans have arranged for reality to meet Gisela halfway. Her daughter may have grown up and moved far from Düsseldorf, her house may be gone, she may be destined to live out her days at the Seniorenzentrum, but at least she has me: a deceptive link to the past to soothe her troubled soul, and the troubled souls of her fellow wanderers. It makes them feel better, waiting here for the bus that will take them where they need to go, even if that bus never comes.
Speak of the Devil: here’s Gisela now, shuffling in my direction. Good afternoon, Gisela. Take a load off; my wooden bench isn’t exactly soft, but it’s sturdy, and only a mere ten feet from the Centre’s entrance. That’s right: no more need to wander; the bus will be here soon. Meanwhile, have a chat with Ilse, who’s also waiting; well, her husband’s hardly going to cook dinner himself, is he? And here comes Horst, Zimmer-framing his way towards us. Better get a move on, Horst, or you’ll be late for your shift at the chemical plant. And Reinhold’s been sitting here for the past hour, compulsively checking his watch. What business do you have, Reinhold, that’s so urgent? Oh, I see: you just want to go home. Patience, my friend, patience.
To pass the time, Gisela tells us all about how, just yesterday, Astrid’s teacher made another silly mistake during the history lesson, and clever Astrid corrected him (once again). What did that dummy get wrong this time, Gisela? Are you serious? No, I can’t believe it; what a clanger! And did he appreciate Astrid’s astuteness? Was she rewarded for setting him straight? She wasn’t? He sent her out of the class? Honestly, what kind of topsy-turvy world are we living in?
I pretend that I’m hearing all this for the first time, while Ilse, Horst, and Reinhold think that they are hearing this for the first time. Before you know it everyone’s forgotten all about the bus, and as if on cue, Gerda, one of the nurses, emerges to shepherd them back in. ‘Looks like it’s been delayed.’ How easily she inhabits her role in this charade. ‘Why not come inside and have a cup of coffee?’ They follow her without protest, and all is well, until tomorrow, when they’ll be out here once again as if yesterday never existed, and who can say for certain that it did?
A heartwarming scene, yes? Nice for Gisela and the other wanderers – I still call them that even though their wandering days are pretty much over. Nice for the nurses. Nice for the Director, who’s thrilled that such a simple – not to mention cheap – innovation has proved so effective. Also nice, I daresay, for the wanderers’ families – some of whom, I might add, show up here about as often as the bus.
But does anyone give a thought to my feelings? Did anyone ever think to consult me?
Admittedly, when I took up my position here at the Seniorenzentrum, I felt no conflict whatsoever. Emotions? What emotions? I played my part as required, a professional through and through. But after a month or so I became conscious of an internal – how can I put it? – unrest, which before long escalated into turmoil. What in God’s name was happening to me?
It dawned on me only recently. How can I be possibly be at peace? Here I am in a country with one of the finest public-transport networks in the world, and I’m no longer part of it! Or perhaps (I honestly can’t recall) I was never part of it in the first place. Either way, I am tormented. Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not asking for Munich or Berlin; I just want to be plugged into the network, any network. Instead, I am literally nowhere. I remind myself of those once-proud bus stops of the former Soviet Union (how I admire their striking, architect-designed shelters!), which now sit around with nothing to do but pose for Canadian photographers. I don’t even have the consolation of being a tourist attraction! My German colleagues no doubt have a good laugh whenever my name comes up. Or perhaps (and this is far worse) my name never comes up.
To add insult to injury, I’ve been made complicit in a project that is, to say the least, ethically questionable. Deluding the deluded – is this the way for health professionals to conduct themselves? You might argue that the only other means of preventing the wanderers from wandering is to lock the ward, or drug them into compliance; surely the fake bus-stop solution is more humane? But that counter-argument does little to ease my conscience. Don’t we all, when you get right down to it, deserve the truth?
Sometimes I try to alert Gisela and the others. Wake up! Can’t you see what’s going on here? There is no bus, and there never will be, no matter how long you wait. I am not the beginning of the journey; I am the end. But they’re taken in every time. That’s the problem with the wanderers: no short-term memory.
So successful is this trick, homes for the elderly all over Germany – all over Europe, in fact – are jumping on the bandwagon, erecting increasingly ‘realistic’ bus stops. I know of one outside a Seniorenzentrum in Remscheid with an exact replica of a timetable from 1973. You’d think we Germans could apply our well-known attention to detail to worthier enterprises.
Where will it end? Does our government intend – systematically, but so gradually they think no-one will notice – to replace real bus stops with fakes: unsuspecting commuters in every corner of the Federal Republic sitting waiting for buses that never arrive? No. We Germans – those of us still capable of remembering our own names – might be prepared to overlook a late bus, but we will always insist on, at the very least, a bus.
Any day now, in a moment of blinding clarity, the wanderers will see behind the Seniorenzentrum’s ruse. On that day, the powers that be will have no choice but to reassign me, and I will take my rightful place among the real stops, with actual buses, with genuine timetables, with authentic passengers travelling hither and yon. No longer an imposter; no longer an extra in the wanderers’ grainy memories.
But for now, come along Gisela, take a seat. No need to fret: you’ll be home before you know it. Just in time, too: little Astrid will be wondering where on earth you’ve gotten to. Meanwhile, tell us all that story about how she corrected the teacher; it’s a real classic. Quickly now, before the bus comes.
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