I Sympathize, but Can’t Empathize.

by Willem Lange

EAST MONTPELIER – I have an old friend in Texas, a former classmate, who reports that her years, her eyesight, and her decreasing ability to handle complicated matters are leaving her more dependent upon her family – a few of whom, luckily live within miles of her home. One of her sons recently tackled the COVID telephone site and got her signed up for her first shot.

“Well, that’s the first appointment available, I’m afraid. But if you should happen to expire before that date, be sure to let us know so we can give that spot to someone else.”

I frequently sympathize with her, but can’t empathize. After all, I live in a relative garden spot for old-timers: the State of Vermont, where everything we need is easier for us – Department of Motor Vehicles, Medicare and Medicaid sign-up, heating oil assistance, help of all kinds from our local senior centers. What can possibly go wrong?

With this attitude instilled in my bosom, I waited patiently for the morning of January 25, the first day that, the state announced, we over-75s could sign up for our shots. Then I pounced: “Vermont Dept. Health COVID 19 signup.” A cheerful-looking, simple site popped up, asking my name, address, date of birth, phone number, and e-mail address, and promising to get right back to me.

That was Monday. Tuesday, nothing. Someone told me to give them 48 hours. So I did. Still nothing. All of a sudden the process of vaccination, which had been of abstract interest, was pertinent and personal. So I called the number on the web site. It began, suspiciously, with “855.”

Time was, I got cramps in my left arm holding the phone up to my ear while on hold. Now I just put the phone on “Speaker” and set it down on the desk, where it plays elevator music and from time to time reminds me how important my call is to the callee.

After about twenty minutes a young girl came on, asked me the questions, but seemed confused about the answers. She asked three times for my birth date, twice how to spell Montpelier (Hah! I thought. That’s what the 855 was about), gave me an appointment for the very next day, but then said she’d have to call her supervisor, who’d be there soon. “Look,” I said. “I’ve been on the phone an hour, and, frankly, we’re getting nowhere. I’ll try again another time. Thank you.”

True to my word, I tried again. This time I got a young man, but with a je ne sais quoi that told me I was dealing with a worthy adversary. We sailed along swimmingly. He asked my county, and then my home town, and then how to spell Montpelier.

“Wait a minute!” I cried. “You’re not here in Vermont!” No, he wasn’t, he allowed; he was in Cincinnati. “Hey!” – I was getting excited – “I can spell Cincinnati, and it’s not even your capital. Didn’t you learn state capitals in high school?” He hadn’t, and expressed thanks for the information.

Then he asked my date of birth. “Five, twenty-four, thirty-five,” I responded. Was that 1935, he asked. “No, you imbecile! Eighteen, thirty-five!” I could tell he was jerking my chain, but we were getting on famously. I liked this kid.

He scrolled through the openings around Montpelier and gave me an appointment in Barre on February 16. “February sixteenth!” I shouted. “Criminy! ‘ll probably be dead by then!”

“Well, that’s the first appointment available, I’m afraid. But if you should happen to expire before that date, be sure to let us know so we can give that spot to someone else.”

I was enjoying this conversation more every second -– especially now that it’d proved fruitful. “It must be hard,” I sympathized, “to deal all day with confused, crabby old farts like me.”

“Well, they’re not all crabby,” he said. “Like you, I mean. Can you really spell ‘Cincinnati’?”

“Damn straight,” I assured him. “And even the Roman guy it’s named after. But thank you for not only the shot date, but for making my day a lot brighter. I hope yours is equally blessed.”