You need to see him pushing that wheelchair through the hospital like he's at the Daytona International Speedway, a frail-looking, elderly man with Mr. Magoo glasses who's happily singing under his breath in Italian and wanting nothing more at this moment than to give a discharged heart patient a ride in the chair, out of the hospital.
"We gotta hurry," he says. "Patient wants to get going."
Alberto Evangelisti pants a little, turning crimson with the effort of shoving this chair down another hospital corridor, his lined face suddenly showing all of his 84 years. The song he's been humming breaks off. He's panting harder, his face rosier than ever.
Red Man Walking. "Doing this isn't too hard--I just wait for the patients to climb in and then I wheel them out," he says, winking. "Most are kids. You know, like 65 years old, maybe 70. Kids."
He's a volunteer at Inova Fairfax Hospital, an Italian immigrant who decided, 16 years ago, that he wanted to meet people by helping at this hospital in his new land. He's been pushing the discharged in chairs ever since.
"Per regulations," Evangelisti says thickly, in what he calls his "Baby English," part of a vocabulary built, word by word, after he came to the United States with his Czech-born wife, Milada, in 1981.
Fairfax has a regulation common to hospitals: Every discharged patient gets rolled out, like it or not. The rule is there to protect the outgoing from accidental falls and the hospital from liability.
But Evangelisti, entering a hospital room in the volunteer's trademark blue jacket, finds resistance now. The departing patient, a well-dressed 60-ish man with a gray beard and dignified mien, has taken one look at the whittled, wizened Evangelisti and shaken his head, as if incredulous that the octogenarian should play caregiver to him, that anyone would believe that he is the one supposedly in need of assistance here.
"No, I will walk," the patient says, bounding off the bed and out into the hallway.
"Dad!" the man's son calls after him. "Come back! They've gotta push you. Please sit down. Dad, they gotta."
The man turns and, muttering "all right," settles into the chair, looking up at Evangelisti, who has detected something in the man's accent. "Ze have a friend from India today," Evangelisti says, grinning hugely.
"Ze" means "we," and the sound of it from the Italian native makes heads swivel, like they would if President Clinton started talking like Helmut Kohl. It is an accent part-Austrian, part-German, the mark of an Italian citizen who was born in Budapest, grew up in Vienna, lived in shadows through Hitler, built post-World War II businesses in Germany, became an American citizen in 1985--an amalgam of his many addresses and influences.
He does his shower-singing in Italian, communicates with his wife in German, reads in English. "I have different pieces in me from all the world," he says, nationalism being the only concept foreign to him.
Throughout his life, he has made other people's ways his own, wanting to fit in, to be regarded by the locals as an accommodating man worthy of acceptance. It is, he thinks, the way of any foreigner, any chameleon, any survivor. "When you are foreigner, you must do more to be liked, and, even then, still you are always foreigner," he says.
Inveterately polite, he looks down at the man in his chair and repeats: "India?"
"Well, yes," the man says.
"We have wonderful patients from India," Evangelisti enthuses. "I am Albert. My family's from Italy."
The chair rolls, through the antiseptic smells, past rooms filled with the sick and scared, the recovering and the restless, the Indian man in the chair hearing chimes and somber PA announcements about a change from Code Yellow to Code Blue, his eyes darting, head swirling as if on sensory overload.
"You have to do this every day?" he asks over his shoulder.
"Used to be three days a week. Just one day now," Evangelisti answers. "I'm older now."
"Ahh, yes, I know."
"No, no, you don't." Big smile from Evangelisti. "You're a young man. Young."
"You think so?" The Indian man laughs, brushing off this flattery even as he's relishing it. A pause. "Really think so?"
This is the allure of Alberto Evangelisti: He finds a way, sometimes just by his presence, to remind the ailing and anxious they're still here, with time left to get old just like him. "I like to help," he said earlier. "Sometimes a hospital is a--how would you say?--a nervous place. I like to help people see it's not all so . . . dark."
So he's a joke-telling, ditty-singing, sweet-talking spiritualist.
Says Rick Lopez, a Fairfax administrator: "I used to tell people that volunteers were the legs of the hospital. But they're really the heart of the place. What Albert and the others do for people, you can't put a dollar figure on that."
Fairfax has 850 active volunteers who do everything from running urine specimens down to the basement lab to delivering flowers to patients. "It used to be a lot of bored housewives," says Carolyn Frazee, secretary for the hospital's volunteer services. "But we have more retirees now. The hospital would be hurting seriously if we ever lost the volunteers. They're indispensable."
In 1998 alone, the volunteers put in more than 165,000 hours, at a labor savings to the hospital of well over a million dollars. In his 16 years there, Evangelisti has contributed more than 3,500 hours--the equivalent of about a year and half of free work. His wife has put in 3,000 hours of her own.
Evangelisti says it's never been a sacrifice. "We're the lucky ones," he says. "I had to do something. I've been helping people my whole life, especially the bad times."
His earliest memory is as a 3-year-old in Budapest, looking up at a dead man hanging from the lamppost, executed by revolutionaries. It was the signal to his mother that the Evangelistis had better flee Hungary.
Within days, they found themselves in Austria, separated for lengthy periods from Evangelisti's father, who worked as an itinerant waiter and hospital orderly in other countries. Alberto kept a watchful eye over his four younger siblings and later toiled in his mother's laundry business. "You learned to help out everywhere just so everyone could survive," he says. "It was a time when people depended on people."
His life was a paradox, shaped by Austrians but ultimately commanded by Italians, who drafted him into their Navy in the 1930s. But Italy did not have a hold on him and, at the end of his naval stint in 1937, he returned to Austria. He married there and, a decade later, in the wake of the horrific wasteland that was post-war Vienna, built an Italian ice cream business that ultimately found its greatest success in northern Germany.
In 1981, he and Millie moved to America to be close to their sons, Max and Walter, who'd left Germany and resettled with their families in Fairfax County. Two years later, Evangelisti walked into Fairfax Hospital. "I love meeting somebody different from me because I think, 'How sad if I don't know a part of the world,' " he says, trying to explain a life that has brought him to this chance meeting with an Indian man rolling in his wheelchair. "I don't want to miss anyone--especially at my age."
The chair has reached the curb. "Goodbye, young man," says Evangelisti, extending his hand. "Ciao."
Ciao is what he usually says in parting, his own cosmopolitan flourish, because he knows the riders like it. "Thank you, Albert," says his passenger, Evangelisti already heading for the lobby and another ride, another connection.
CAPTION: Albert Evangelisti, 84, has volunteered at Inova Fairfax Hospital for 16 years. His wife, Milada, is also a volunteer there.
CAPTION: Albert Evangelisti calls the elevator for Daniel B. McElwain III, a patient discharged from Inova Fairfax Hospital.