Fairness Is The Devil’s Promise

I was at the library yesterday, writing and generally minding my own business, when I overheard a grown man at the checkout desk say, “But it’s not fair!”  

I did not hear what the librarian said back to him. I really wanted to but alas, her words were lost in the noise of the crowd. I can’t be the only one who’s noticed that libraries have become boisterous social halls these days. Talk about not fair.  

Scene inside the library at lunchtime. No one can shut up.

You know what else isn’t fair? Life. Or, at least it seems not-fair to us mere humans, with our lack of understanding of so much of our existence. Disease isn’t fair. The distribution of wealth isn’t fair. Bad people winning and good people losing, not fair not fair not fair.  

I eventually left the library and went back to work, but I couldn’t stop thinking about this guy and his complaint. Uttered to a librarian, no less. What could possibly be not fair in a library? You take what you want, for free. You bring it back when you’re done. Sure, they fine you if you’re a day late, but what’s so unfair about that? You knew the due date. It’s perfectly reasonable. Dammit, I wish I’d heard the rest of that conversation. 

Here’s a conversation I did hear: later that afternoon, my phone rang. Dad’s nursing home. “Hi, Melissa, no reason to panic, it’s nothing bad,” said one of my favorite nurses. 

Me, when they tell me not to panic.

“Okay,” I said. “What is it?” 

“Well, your dad fell out of his wheelchair,” she told me. “But he’s fine. He was trying to pick up potato chip crumbs. You know how he gets.” 

I do know how he gets. If there is a crumb or a scrap of paper or straw wrapper anywhere on the floor, he must clean it up, stat. I pictured him, leaning out of the wheelchair with no sense of his own tipping point, then tumbling to the floor, an old man, fallen.  

For whatever reason, at that very moment I thought of one of my favorite scenes from Frasier. Frasier, trying to prove that Michael Keaton’s wheelchair-bound character is a phony, pushes him out of said chair just before a phone call proves him wrong. Later, Frasier talks to his father about it.

Frasier: Now there was a lesson learned. 

Martin: Yeah, don’t throw a guy out of a wheelchair. Who knew? 

And so I laughed. I’m sure the nurse was a little confused. What kind of person laughs when told that her elderly father has collapsed to the nursing home floor? 

Well, me, I guess. I laughed just as if she’d called me up to tell me a really good joke.  

“He’s not hurt at all,” said the nurse, possibly panicking herself. Perhaps she thought now it was I who had fallen. Into hysteria. “Him and his cleaning though, huh?” 

I laughed more. God, someone stop me.  

We eventually hung up, and of course I stopped laughing right away now that I didn’t have a horrified, misunderstanding audience. I wished very much that I could tell my mother about this. I knew she’d think it was funny. We might have laughed about the time Daddy fell down the stairs trying to save my sister and me from a burned out light bulb, or the time he fell through a warehouse roof after being told very specifically to not walk there. We’d have laughed about these things because we didn’t know what else to do. Some things are too sad to cry about.

While I was at it, I wished my dad weren’t in a nursing home wheelchair at all. I wished I could tell him and my mother both about this crazy dream I had, in which she was dead and he was too feeble to pick up a potato chip crumb.

I wished for a librarian to whom I could say, “But it’s not fair!” 

I wondered what the librarian would say back to me. Maybe, “If you don’t have the 75 cents today, you can just pay the fine next time.” That is, if I was able to hear her over the loudmouthed jackasses at the table behind me.

So. I could pay the fine and move on, or I could stand there all day whining. My choice.  

Fair enough.