I've been having an awful time with my right hand and wrist: quite a bit of pain and numbness, which started in March and just hasn't gotten better. A sports doctor put me in a wrist splint, but that hasn't helped. After a while they started whispering "Carpal Tunnel" and on the heels of that, "Diabetic Neuropathy?"
The only way to find out more was to get an EMG (electromyograph) done, and since the people who do them in Kitchener suddenly quit their jobs, and since our hospitals in this region are horribly overbooked, I found myself scheduled for an EMG at Stratford hospital on October 20th.
Stratford Ontario is a 45-minute drive from Kitchener, and it's a pretty little town, the kind of place that would have stayed small if not for a shrewd move by a Stratford native back in the 1950s. He started the "Stratford Festival," a yearly theatrical blowout that has only increased in popularity since. The town of Stratford now has a thriving artistic community. It also has the ubiquitous "rustic knick-knack" shops that small towns get clogged with, presumably because the only people who visit small towns are people who like rustic knick-knacks.
I left all my planning for this excursion until the last minute (yesterday, shame). I have no car so I knew I'd have to take the Greyhound bus...but I figured, heck, Stratford's a popular place -- and what's more it's halfway to the metropolis of London -- so there must be at LEAST six busses a day.
But no. There are two busses. I realized that mine would arrive in Stratford just half an hour before my appointment at the hospital. What's more, Mapquest informed me that the bus station was at one end of the town, and the hospital at the other. And I started to wonder: what if they don't even have CABS? What if my bus is LATE? What if I get lost in the HOSPITAL?
I knew I'd enjoy the actual bus trip, as it goes directly through the towns I grew up in -- Petersburg, Baden, New Hamburg -- and the landscape out there is almost unbearably pretty, all rolling fields, patchy forests, weed-clogged ditches, old curches, farms and grain silos. On the way down I contemplated the girl in the wheelchair who had to go through the ten-minute procedure of being strapped onto an external elevator and hoisted into the bus, and I wondered if it embarassed her.
Stratford DOES have a bus station...barely. It's in a small room in a warehouse, next to a hallway with six chairs in it. It's also in a typically Southern Ontario edge of town: petrochemical company, run-down steel storage buildings from the '70s, railroad tracks, no sidewalks, and a feeling that you could walk forever without getting anywhere.
The women at the station told me that there was no way I could walk to the hospital, so they called me a taxi. The man in the taxi also told me there was no way I could walk to the hospital. It was inconceivable to these people that anybody would want to walk from the bus station to the hospital, but I kept my eyes on the route and started thinking, hey, I could do this. As a side note: all taxis in Stratford charge a flat $7 rate for calls within town. I don't even think the cab had a meter in it. Quaint!
I love hospitals, and the Stratford General Hospital is a nice mix of '40s relic and parasitic steel-and-glass addition. I DID get lost, entirely due to my own stupidity -- I asked for an MRI instead of an EMG -- but finally found myself with electrodes taped to my arm, and a nice lady telling me that bikers and armed-services personnel often can't stand the pain of an EMG.
Let me clarify: in my case, the EMG consisted of the woman placing groups of four electrodes on various parts of my arm, then giving me sets of three progressively more powerful shocks on various nerves. This made me jump and it was all very unpleasant, especially after you've had about fifty of them. According to the woman (who does this all the time and confesses that she's very unpopular) some people just can't stand electric shocks, and they tend to be burly guys, perhaps because they've had awful shocks before. Other people, however, barely notice it at all. I fell somewhere in the middle.
But it was all worthwhile and they made an almost magically occult diagnosis: I have TWO problems. One is tendonitis and is aggravated by typing, and the other is a nerve in my right elbow that I'm messing up by resting it on hard surfaces with my elbow flexed, which I definitely do. The pain is caused by the first problem and the numbness is caused by the second. So it all comes down to ergonomics, no nerve degeneration, nothing that cortisone injections and a change in work furniture won't fix.
But then the real adventure: I had to decide if I wanted to try walking back to the bus station, or if I should hang around the hospital for two hours and then call a cab, or if I wanted to go downtown, sit in a coffee shop for two hours, and THEN call a cab.
As always there are pros and cons. I can certainly afford a $7 cab ride...but I like nothing more than seeing new sights. I LOVE walking through strange neighbourhoods, seeing the houses, getting a taste for the people who live there. I decided to risk it (and it was a bit of a risk, because if I missed my bus...well, there wouldn't be any more busses).
So I started walking. It was chilly and overcast: just grey clouds and dark blue clouds, all pressed together and completely hiding the sun. An autumn day when the light doesn't seem to come from anywhere and you have to keep telling yourself that the sun isn't going down yet. Whirlpools of crackling leaves in the wind, occasional spitting rain.
Most of the houses were pretty '50s red- or yellow-brick middle-class dwellings, with big yards and Hallowe'en decorations. I walked and walked, using the Stratford Visitor's Guide as a map. I saw the biggest, most gorgeous, most easily-accessible abandoned building I've ever seen, an enormous burnt-out warehouse by the railroad tracks with no fences or guardposts.
I passed the huge Via Rail station which looked overdone for the two passenger trains they get every day. Then I found myself alongside the wide, flat switching yards, so many overgrown tracks that nobody uses anymore, so many rotting boxcars covered with graffiti, and nothing on the other side but fields. Unused and abandoned desolation, but beautiful until somebody builds a suburb.
I took a brief detour around the old Krug factory. There's something majestic about an eighty-year-old factory covered with gables and flourishes, dusty windows you can barely see through, redundant rooms and huge ventilation ducts that were probably added when somebody realized that ventilation was important. I also patted a shaggy dog.
After that, the industrial section at the edge of town, pre-fabricated metal buildings thumped down around small, delapidated houses from the 1800s. I passed the Petrochemical plant (and "The Greatest Little Warehouse in Stratford")...and then I was back at the bus station. I felt like Livingstone: everybody told me it was an impossible walk, and I'd done it in 45 minutes.
I think most people just don't walk much anymore.
I sat on one of the six chairs in the hallway and waited for the bus. Soon a woman brought her two daughters into the station; all three had the goat-like look of the born-stupid, people who look at you and stare at you and you can tell that the gears just aren't turning. The mother was enormously fat -- probably the biggest person I've ever seen -- and there was a four-inch gap between where her blouse left off and her track pants started. She could barely breathe. They all had the same unflattering shade of red hair that looks like dying weeds.
Later, outside, the mother lit up a cigarette, and then lit up another for her pre-teen daughter. They coughed horribly. The other daughter, about 10 years old, was taking the bus to stay with her aunt in Kitchener. Part of me wanted to listen to their conversation and another part didn't, but in any case the mother panted and coughed so much in the wind that she was barely audible except when furious, which was much of the time.
Things came to a head when the younger daughter realized she'd forgotten a stuffed animal at home. She wanted the mother to go back and get it. The mother objected to the expense, and instead dug out her wallet and gave something to the daughter, saying "here, sleep with mommy's picture." The daughter started crying, so the mother started yelling "Don't fuckin' do this now! End it now! Why're you doin' this now? Shut the fuck up! END THIS NOW!" in her hoarse, breathless, chain-smoker's voice, complete with that peculiar accent that people recognize as "Canadian Trash." Through it all there was a strange love and respect between the three of them, but they were horrible to be around, and we were all very glad when the bus finally came.