My Heart Belongs to Daddy.

If you are new to my blog, you can start here or go to The Full Tale page, where the chapters of my memoir are posted in sequence.

Chapter 31 / 2010 – 2011

My Heart Belongs to Daddy.

I hit fifty-eight when I entered the third year of the New Depression, arising each morning to a life I had never lived before, never imagined living. 

I have survived by listening to my father’s notes.

I pay my rent with Unemployment Insurance and the settlement I received from Worker’s Comp.

I haven’t been to a movie in years.

I don’t eat much, but I have moved on from tofu to spaghetti.

There are new rules, but I cannot say I lost the past year and a half.  I cannot say it slipped through my lucky fingers when the flu clinics went south.  I finished the tale my bud Steven encouraged me to tell, pounding out a hard-boiled memoir I titled “I Didn’t Sign Up For This,” its staccato notes playing out our lucky man’s free fall into the belly of the New Depression.  I am well into my novel about a wannabe be comic, whose day job is working as an AIDS nurse in the days when nursing jobs were not only plentiful, but paid a living wage.

In the quiet of the still afternoons on Beachwood Drive, I have read through the piles of books, magazines and newspapers on my dining room table.

I was in two plays, I performed a few monologues. 

I spend my mornings applying for work online, my afternoons writing the tales.  Like the nauseating dread that comes of waking up to a room spinning hangover, every morning I stagger through the application process, each one taking anywhere from a half-hour to well over an hour to complete, all having to be individualized to fit the specifics of the particular position.  At least once a day, either my computer or the job site crashes when I click “Submit.”  I apply all over again.  I hear nothing.  From anyone.  To let me know they had received my memoir submission, literary agents have the innate courtesy to instruct their assistants to e-mail me or drop my self-addressed stamped postcards into their out-boxes.  Health care professionals?  Nada.  Rien.  Nothing.  I make follow-up calls to the places I have applied to.  I am polite.  I got beaucoup laughs in the plays, pensive stillness followed by applause at the end of my monologues.  I know how to hide any traces of the anger I am feeling.

I relearned the looking for work mantra faster than my Malibu guzzles through a $3.10 gallon of gas:  “Our protocol is for applicants to apply online.”

“I have,”  I say.

My voice is humble and boyish.  No one would think I am almost sixty.

“We’ll contact you if you’re a match for the position.”

I have reapplied to every hospital, nursing home and medical facility in the Los Angeles basin to which I can drive, walk or crawl to.  I have reapplied to the VA Hospital in Westwood and its satellite clinic in downtown LA.  I have reapplied to the Los Angeles Department of Corrections for a job in the jails.  All online.  I never hear a thing.  I call.  I get the mantra.

Yet again, I cold call agencies in the “Yellow Pages,” the majority of which still have difficulty stringing together a coherent sentence in English.  The remaining ones continue to spit out a hybrid form of English which drips like hot wax onto my eardrums.

“What is your area of expertise?” they ask.

I pull out my experience calling card, telling them I worked on the AIDS/Oncology Unit at San Francisco General Hospital for seven years. 

“Why did you do that?”  they ask. 

In the New World, expertise means you’re old.  

The fruit eating paraplegic gentleman on Wilshire emerges as the only constant in my job search, his pleas for a new nurse, on whose mothering lap he can lay his head, appearing monthly on Craigslist.

♦♦

The New World is not all bad.

A few months into my hunt for a gig, I received a call ten minutes after I faxed my resume to a home health agency on Wilshire.

“You’re a perfect fit for us,” the agency’s owner says.  “We have home health visits in Hollywood and a couple of hospice cases throughout LA.  Come on in and apply.”

I do.

“The woman you spoke to on the phone just stepped away from her desk,” the puffy red lips of the young woman before me say.  “Can we have a Nursing Supervisor interview you?”

“Sure.”

I am escorted into a tiny office, whose windows are dressed with Venetian blinds, through which the light of the City casts thin stabbing shadows onto the stained yellow carpet.

I sit on a metal folding chair across from a woman in her mid-thirties.

“I envision you doing home health visits for us,” she barks.  “What are your salary expectations per visit?”

“You know, I never thought about that,” I answer.  

The woman stares at me, my fingertips pulse, the slightest tinge of yellow haunts her eyes.

“Whenever I did visits before, I was paid by the hour.”

“How much do you want?”

My opponent is approaching obesity, her double chin wiggles as she speaks, her body encased in a dull brown pants suit, its inseams straining against the weight she has taken on.

“Twenty-five dollars a visit.”

“In a few weeks, we’ll have an opening for a case manager here in the office,” she hisses.  “I can offer that to you.  What are your salary expectations?”

Unlike the young woman in the front office, the woman across from me wears no makeup, her skin is pale, the Marilyn Monroe mole on her left cheek appears suspiciously raised and dark.

“Thirty thousand a year.”

“Thank you for coming in.  I’ve enjoyed meeting you.  We’ll be in touch.”

I look at my reflection in the elevator’s silver door as I descend to Wilshire.

I am clean shaven, my gold pinstriped Rat Pack styled suit and matching slacks fresh from the cleaners, my white shirt ironed that AM.

My pants are not pee stained, my zipper is up, my shirt tucked in, my hair is slicked back Don Draper style.

I sniff my pits.

I cup my right hand and inhale my breath.  

I’m cool.

I walk down Wilshire.  No one can see me.

My skinny black tie tightens itself around my neck with the mean fingers of the money I owe and the money I need to survive.

The fingers have been on me for years now.

This is the only interview I was called in for during the next year, a year in which I received not one response to the over five hundred applications I fed into the internet.

No matter who refuses to see behind my eyes in these New Depression days, I will never stop telling the tales. 

♦♦

The light of the City of the Angels has taken so much out of me since the year of the fires that the jabs and left hooks of the New World barely touch me these days, my hands waving them away with the absentmindedness of a William Inge leading lady shooing an insistent fly away from her disappointed face on a hot summer afternoon. 

I left the Friday morning circle when the furtive senior bro informed us that, in addition to having sex with his nephew when the man was a teenager, my bro was seduced by not one, but two thirteen-year-old boys when he was in his early thirties.

It will go like that.  Two young boys will up and work their sexual magic on a defenseless adult.

“I can’t sit in a room with a child molester,” I say.  “That’s something I will not do.”

The circle’s silence stiffens my spine.

“I’m not in the world you guys live in,” I tell the bros.  “I have to make a living.  I’m writing a novel.”

“You swim in a different pond than we do,” is the one response my anomie earns.

The line is a keeper, I immediately write it down, it will fit nicely into one of my tales.

I have gone out on the occasional insurance assessment, asking the fifteen pages of qualifying questions, while sitting at antique dining room tables covered with hand stitched lace or at granite kitchen countertops, the emptiness of their shining surfaces reminding me that I get my nutrients from bananas, spaghetti and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches washed down by cool tap water.

As if they were swatting at the insistent fly, the applicants list their leisure activities as taking a vacation at least once a year, going weekly to a movie or a play, hiking in Joshua Tree and, what with the traffic and all, reluctantly honoring their season tickets at the Hollywood Bowl.

I smile.  I nod my head.

I remember that world.

Each punch curated in alphabetical order, I have neatly filed, in a blue accordion folder I found in the recycling bin next to my building’s laundry room, the eighty rejection letters I received for my memoir.

Several agents liked my tale, in fact they loved it, but in the end the notes I played were too depressing, too real, too dark.  

And where, they all asked, was the happy ending?

“It only takes one agent to say yes,”  Matt said from his garage in Sacramento.

The smoothness of his voice has vanished, in its place is a scratchy whisper, his words choking against the rawness of a throat kept awake by the clouds of his crystal pipe.

“I know…I know.  I never wrote anything like this before baby, it felt so real, it’s me…how I really am.”

“No one is interested in what happens to people like us, guy.”

I don’t hear much from Matt anymore.  

With the stillness I gain in lighting Yartzeit candles for the friends who grew me into a man, I find myself lighting a candle at bedtime, which sits in the blue glass holder Matt placed on my dresser when he said he couldn’t sleep in a dark room.

Where is that happy ending?

♦♦

When I accepted that the New World did not want me, I opened the dull black case my father had left for me on the cool brown tiles of his last summer, my fingers loosening the leather straps securing his flying machine to the case’s thick purple velvet lining.

Like my father, I have gotten into the ring, my fists hitting out onto the keyboard every afternoon, after having spent the morning searching for a gig.  I can see where people are weak, but, already knowing what taking a sucker punch feels like, in my ring I do not hit anyone, leaving that to the senior bros and the undermining friends to move in for the crowd pleasing kill.  I observe the slick and not so savvy moves made on the sound stages I live on, I listen to the false stories, I fly with the understanding that the most insignificant detail holds the key to the souls of the actors I gaze at.  In the tiny Marble Memo notebooks I buy at three for 99¢, I take notes on how the light hits the sidewalk at high noon, I write down the words I hear, I study the way the palm trees sway above the action, I watch as the anger beneath the actors’ skin punches into the air of the City I live in.  

This is what artists do, this is my gift to the world I have woken up in.

Within an hour or two at the keyboard, I am under the influence, the cries and whispers I have witnessed, the names I have been called, the resentment that tingles beneath my fingertips, the hands of my dead friends on my shoulders, the stories I have seen while sitting in dark living rooms, the first touch of Matt’s tongue on my skin, all of it pulses through my bare feet, up into my bones and muscles as I type into the keyboard until I am lifted off the earth, until I live in the sky.

♦♦

After over a year of cold calling, I was asked to apply for what appeared to be an upright gig, a downright ongoing job at a home health agency.

Despite having to pump a half-tank of gas at $3.40 a gallon, I hightail the thirty miles out to Tarzana.  I am placed in a six foot by ten foot windowless room, out of whose ceiling cold air blasts onto the table I sit at.  

For three hours, my fingers fill in answers to questions on the same nursing tests I have taken for years, both online and in light deprived offices like this one, my captivity interrupted by a Filipino caretaker sitting across from me, the monotony of his voice asking me the answer to the classic Old World question: “Where do you see yourself in the next five years?”

“This is the New World, bub,” I answer.   

Leaving the Old World gent in the dust, I bring my paperwork to the front desk. 

“We don’t hire people who are unemployed.”

The receptionist has blonde hair, long and and a bit wavy, her nails are bright pink, her white linen blouse cut low, what with the air blasting out of the ceiling.

“Couldn’t you have told me that before I spent three hours taking tests and filling out forms?”

“I was called away from my desk.  I didn’t have time to go over your resume.”

The snarkiness of her answer and the deadpan gaze of her green eyes, coupled with the stomach quivering tuna fish sandwich sitting on butcher paper next to her cell, bring me to ask:  “Are you a Christian?”

“I accept Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior.”

“Wouldn’t the Christian thing to do in this situation be to hire a guy who’s out of work?”

“I don’t understand what you’re saying.”

“I’m asking you to be a Christian and help a person who’s out of work.”

Her fingers make a grab for her sandwich’s sliced in half pickle.

“I bet you live with your parents, what are you twenty-three?”

“Twenty-five, but why…how do you know I live with my parents?”

“There’s no way you can make it on your own working this job.”

Her too white to be real teeth clamp down on her defenseless pickle.

“When I was your age, I was already a nurse.  I’d been supporting myself for years.”

“What do you want?”

“I want a job.  I have thirty years experience…”

Her eyes look away from me, her fingers pick up her sandwich, put it down, then pick it up again.

Like watching Bette Davis agonizing over whether or not to chomp down a bonbon in “All About Eve,” the receptionist at last takes a healthy bite, washing it down with a Diet Coke.

“Your experience is not relevant.  You don’t have a job.  We don’t hire…”

“I’m asking you to be a Christian and see me, I’m right in front of you…all I’m asking is for you to see who I am.”

“You’re scaring me.”

“You need to be scared.  People who tell people they can’t work need to be scared.”

Her fingers, slippery from pickle juice, tap onto the screen of her cell phone.

“Don’t worry, I’m not coming back.  I can’t afford the gas.”

I have heard “No” for so many years now, in so many rings.

Sometimes, you have to hit back.

 

The End!

Many, many, many thanks for all the kind words and encouragement I have received over the past year and a half.  You will never know how much it has meant to me.

Its been a blast!

Over and out for now from the City of the Angels.

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Filed under Memoir, Personal Essay

Unexpected Clinical Outcomes.

 

Chapter 30 / 2009

Unexpected Clinical Outcomes.

After the Nurse Recruiter at St. Vincent Medical Center took responsibility for offering me a job which did not exist, I drew the curtains, muted the phone and got under the white clouds of my featherbed. 

I slept for many days.  It is possible I slept for a week or two.  I do not know.

Sunset stayed off the shelf in the kitchen, her green eyes staring at me, asking me to brush her hair, to throw her favorite crinkle ball around, to feed her and empty her litter box.  

If the breath of the City of the Angels got too hot, I put on my boxers and wife beater and lay on my bathroom tiles.

The jaws of my apartment pushed me out early one evening, my cowboy boots walking me to Trader Joe’s for tofu and rice.

Despite this exertion, my body ached terribly from the lack of exercise, my eyes were dry, the absence of the perfect light causing me to squint as I looked around for guidance.  My skin craved the sound of voices.  On a Friday morning, my Malibu drove me to the circle of my senior bros, where my throat spit out words, for the first time in I don’t know how long, as I told the tale of how my fifty-seventh year began. 

Lucky me, I forgot there were no safety nets in the gay community.

Never having been the gay man who is fastidiously clean, I was surprised to find myself washing the wood floors of my apartment with Murphy Oil Soap upon my return from the circle.  I cleaned the tiles in the bathroom and kitchen with lavender scented dish soap, scrubbing the bathtub and sinks with generic Ajax, vacuuming my Sears carpet with the upholstery nozzle I had affixed to the attachment hose of my disabled vacuum cleaner a year earlier.  

I arranged the magazines, newspapers and books I had not read in neat piles on the shining brown formica surface of my dining room table.

The senior bros must have infected me with some type of housekeeping virus because, in a few hours, my crib was organized and gleaming.

I sat on the couch and drank cool tap water from a green glass as I read the newspapers and magazines.  All of this made me hungry and I was able to eat without my stomach protesting.  

Late one night, lying on freshly washed white cotton sheets, I heard the wail of a fire truck.  Most likely, the fires were still burning in the City of the Angels.

This was when I realized things were moving slowly.  Very Slowly.

This was when I realized that Sunset had stopped watching my every move.

Perhaps, like me, Sunset did not understand how the rooms we lived in had begun to shimmer so brightly.

♦♦

As I do every morning before I head out to work, I had set out on my kitchen countertop eight green glasses, lined up in two horizontal rows of four each.

Lucky man needs to keep his twisted gut hydrated.

I find myself parking in front of a CVS drug store in Eagle Rock, my belly knowing I do not have the scratch to buy the bargain lunch from the neighboring Thai restaurant.

Too bad, I’d like a real meal today.

For the past two weeks, I have been injecting influenza vaccine into the arms of any Joe or Jane who can cough up thirty bucks.  At these New Depression prices, I do not get many takers, outside of the lucky senior citizens whose Medicare covers the fee in toto.

While the fire trucks tore up Beachwood at 3 AM, I had booked myself for five weeks of full-time work administering flu shots at chain drug stores throughout the Los Angeles basin.  I have never met anyone at the outfit I work for, never been interviewed, never been asked for a reference, never submitted a physical or TB clearance.  I followed the mantra of the New Depression, applying online like a good little out of work lucky man, faxing my nursing license to the home office in Kansas City when, after two years of feeding the internet my resume and carefully thought out cover letters, I at last received an e-mail from an employer, telling me I had made the flu shot cut.  

On the night before I am to begin my first shift, I receive my second job related e-mail.  My hours at the flu clinics are cut from eight a day to four.  No explanation as to why.  The 800 call anytime for information or support number works its hold button more fiercely than the space cadet staffing co-ordinator did when I asked for a schedule change to take my birthday off.

New World, new rules.

Passing through the out of sync self-opening glass doors, I enter this particular CVS slowly.  I smile at the security guard, his muscular youth forbidding his dark face to return my shy overture at connection.  His CVS indoctrination forces his deep black eyes to see me as either a potential thief or, if I stood under a harsher light, a thieving drug addict.

Strolling past a towering display of Pepsi One bottles, held aloft in blue plastic crates, I continue on to the clinic, located, like all the others I have worked, next to the public bathrooms.

The RN I am working with circles me cautiously.

The smell of being unlucky can be that strong.

We set up without talking, neither of us listening to the overhead speakers as they abruptly interrupt the static infused soft rock music they spew to announce sale prices of Tylenol and Snapple.  We cover our limping brown metal table with crisp white bunting and set out informational fliers, consent forms and a price list, our languor born not only from the toxic air surrounding the cars and buildings we find ourselves in, but from the knowledge all Angelenos have acquired as the fire days burn themselves out.  The sky’s suddenly acquired opaque heaviness threatens each of us, its weight leaning in on our skin, while our noses and mouths fight against breathing its poison in.  What we imagined our eyes had seen clearly in the early days of the fires is today painted with the brush of ash and destruction.  

“How long have you been a nurse,” the RN asks me.

“Thirty years.”

“This is the first real nursing job I’ve ever had.”

Like the lucky man, she has been on the gig for two weeks. 

The harsh CVS light allows me to see her.  Heavyset, late twenties, baby blues more sparkling than Matt’s, her face round and pretty, her light brown hair cut in a recherché shag, she moves with the come-hither 50s masculinity of Kim Stanley. 

“I’ve had my license for two years.  I figured I’d get a job straight out of school…that’s what they tell you when you take out these monster loans to pay for school.  But nothing…I never got a job.  When my husband got into the A.S. program at The Los Angeles Film School, we moved to Hollywood.  Everyone back in Virginia said I’d get a job out here.  You wouldn’t believe where we live…I can’t even tell you.  The only work I have now is part-time with this…this gentleman on Wilshire Boulevard.  He’s a paraplegic…his mother hired me because I like Diana Krall.”

“The guy in Westwood?  From Craigslist?  He was going to be a cinematographer?”

“You know him?”

I give her the highlights of the tale of the New Depression and me, a once lucky man.

“It’s not a nursing job,” she says.  “I’m a babysitter, a maid, he’s so…it’s awful.”

Our sole customer for the day approaches.

He is seven-years-old, crying at the thought of the tiny needle going into his arm.

How is the lost boy?  Does Mother still keep him tethered to the vent so she can chill in her jammies?

I talk to our customer, his brown eyes wide open as I roll up my sleeve and shoot a half cc of saline into my arm.

“Nothing to it,” I tell the boy.  “If your mom lets you, I’ll give you the syringe to take home with you.”

“They make great water pistols,” the RN says.

“Can I, mom?  Can I?”

“All done,” the RN says.

“When are you going to give me the shot?” the boy asks.

“We already did.  I gave it to you while Jake was talking.”

My colleague’s voice is soft and dreamy, her notes drowning out Fleetwood Mac’s “Gypsy” escaping through the speakers above us with Kim Stanley’s opening monologue from “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

“That’s the closest I’ve come to being a nurse since I left school,” the RN says.  “That gentleman on Wilshire…”

“Gentleman?”

We laugh, a big, deep, cleverest, best joke we have ever heard laugh.

“That guy, that man, whatever, he has the other nurses…all women…he has them get in the shower with him in their bikinis…to bathe him.  He makes them get in bed with him at night…he lays his head in their laps until he falls asleep.  I won’t do it.”

“This must be the New World,” I say.

“The other night, I was cutting up cantaloupe and watermelon for his breakfast and I started crying.  I haven’t eaten fruit…had the money to buy it….”

“You’re coming over for Thanksgiving, you and your husband.  You’re a fifteen minute walk from me.”

The RN leaves at noon to take the bus to her second clinic of the day in Long Beach.

“That’s quite a haul, you want to stay here?  I’ll drive down to Long Beach.”

“No, it’s fine, I’m used to it.  I’ve got a good book to read.”

Not only is she everything you would want your nurse to be, this unlucky lady reads books.

“Have a good trip.  We’ll exchange numbers here tomorrow for Thanksgiving.”

I return home to my third e-mail in two years from an employer.

“Dear Valued Associates:  Due to the unanticipated lack of client response to our clinics nationwide, we are suspending all clinics as of tonight at 11:59 PM.  We thank you for the outstanding contribution you have made to our team and look forward to working with you next flu season.”

Unexpected clinical outcome in the New World, bro.

♦♦

“Don’t take it personally, losing the clinic assignments,” my friend Ann says.  “You were a line item which had to be eliminated.”

Gee, thanks.

If one believes the inciting incident of this tale of the New Depression began two years ago, when the muffler fell out from under my 69 Chevy Malibu on the 101, then surely the shank of this pathetic melodrama has played out, the part where the protagonist holds his breath until life turns the corner and goes the other way.  All I have accomplished in the past two years is to, in the last few slow weeks, take a crack at the unread newspapers and magazines weighing down my dining room table.  

“What are you going to do next?” Ann asks.

Outside of rethinking my friendships, I can sleep under the white clouds of my featherbed from eight at night until ten or eleven in the morning.  I can mute the phone, I can draw the curtains across the windows I look out of.

For months, the light of the City of the Angels has held me in its arms and caressed me, smiling as it took out of me everything I no longer needed.  Today, the sky is clear, the light of the New World reigns.  

I inform Ann I have an errand to run and give her dial tone.  

The breath of the Santa Anas has blown the Los Angeles basin clean.  I can see the Griffith Park Observatory, where, a half-century earlier, James Dean cried over Sal Mineo as he lay dead on the wet concrete steps at dawn.  My friends, the ones who grew me into a man, if not lying underground in heavy wooden boxes, have been flung into the ocean or thrown off of mountain tops by the lonely hands which had clung to their bodies for one last hug, their lips saying a final “I love you.”  The man I clung to has fallen in love with long distance, he sleeps without me in his parents’ garage on the days and nights he has not gone AWOL, after the walls have closed in on him and the air refused to touch his soft skin.  

I look down from the sky to my kitchen counter, its dark plum tiles bordering the light green ones, on which I have placed my green water glasses, their emptiness sitting on a rectangular white linen placemat, its edges embroidered with thick red thread.  

I stare at the deep green glass, its bumpy surface more at home in a Googie styled diner than in my boho chic digs, this new light lets my eyes see each green groove, the light touching the rectangle stitched within the placemat by the thick red thread, this echo showing me where to position my glasses.  I fill the glass with tap water and take long gulps, as if I was Dad attacking a can of brewski.  My eyes look up at the turquoise Fiestaware plates on a shelf lined with once white paper.  I look at the yellow daisy decals on the tall glass which I filled with ice water for Matt’s skinny fiancee, her knocking at my door the inciting incident of her story, the light in our eyes when we discussed our man showing us who we were, the same way the light of the City once showed me the notes my father played years after he died, the light having allowed me to see what was behind the eyes of the Angels, its clarity illuminated the depth of the sound stage this City is for me.

I stare at the intricacy of the green glass until I am still inside, until I can see who I am.

I am the one who is not seen.

It has been odd to be clocked at every first glance, at every handshake, at every opening encounter, as gay, strange to be born as a girlie boy, then move on to faygaleh, on to the gay nurse, the gay comic, odd to be fifty-seven and taken out to lunch by a friend, a senior bro, a man who threw rocks at the cops at Stonewall no less, who casually says:  “You’re such a silly queen,” the sting of his tongue hitting me harder than Absolut ever did.

I am the one who is not chosen.

I have known this since I was forty-one, when I first moved to Beachwood Drive, when I understood that I did not have what any man wanted, when I understood that no man would pick me, no man would stop his search and say: “Jake, you’re the one.”

Those were my cards, I played them for as long as I could before I left the game.

I made my home on Beachwood, I did stand-up, I was funny, I stopped waiting for a man to see me. 

I hold the green glass in my hand, the klieg light of the New World pours in on me, its insistent rays showing me what is necessary, showing me every detail of what life is in these New Depression days.  

Even a two-bit casting director in the Valley can sniff out the two men I am today.

The lucky man who can tell the tales of those the world does not see.

The unlucky nurse who cannot get a gig.

Whatever I have done, whoever I have hurt, as mean a drunk as I have been, I have always dropped my comic’s mask when I was a nurse, performing my art with both hands and heart, tapping out notes the way my father did on his trumpet.  I have gotten right in there with my patients, where I wanted to be to do my work. Me, with my New York City big mouth, I shut up and listened.  By listening, by being present in the room with my patients, by breathing the same air they did, I took them into me.  I could feel them.  None of us was alone. 

It was all I could do. 

That is who I am, this is what I can give.

Chosen by the Angels or not, I have believed for thirty years that I was a good nurse.  I thought myself to be a professional person, a bit rough around the edges, in need of a shave and some fancy threads perhaps, but nonetheless, I believed myself to be an upright Joe, a man who could take care of himself.

I am none of those things.  

No one wants what I have.

These are the cards the New Depression has dealt me and all the others blanched invisible by its mean light.

♦♦

I head out to the Los Feliz Post Office to mail in my unemployment paperwork.

Check it, the two weeks I worked the flu clinics qualifies me for another year on the dole.  

Lucky.

I have the stage tonight, whose bright lights will try to shoot me down when I stare defiantly into them.  For the last seventy-two hours, all day and night, the coarseness in the air has attacked my throat, clawing at it, my mucous membranes begging for relief, the way my muscles, aching from  fear and desire, demanded the fix of pills and alcohol to soothe them in my days and nights in the Frolic Room.  

I drive down Franklin Avenue and go over the evening’s monologue, a tale about encountering a facially altered Joan Van Ark on a walk around the Hollywood Reservoir, the sky pulls me up Beachwood Drive, the way it once led me to Matt’s office or condo.  The clouds, no longer heavy with ashes, move slowly past the Hollywood sign, their softness covers my City like a quilt, stitched in the year of my birth by the day players who lived in the bungalows behind the Craftsman homes lining Beachwood.  Each meticulously cut piece of material, every labored over stitch tells me that the City is not going to burn down or rumble beneath my feet any time soon.  Safe under my blanket, the sky drives my car home, where I live alone with the only thing I have of any value, my voice.  

I want the bright light to come knocking for me onstage tonight.  

Eye to eye.  

In my face.  

I am ready to talk.

I have waited two years to once again be a lucky man.

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Filed under Memoir, Personal Essay

This is Supposed to be the New World?

Chapter 29 / 2009

This is Supposed to be the New World?


Blood pressure low, balls sliced open to remove the ever growing hydrocele, the gut getting an antispasmodic reprieve, fingers flying without fear, has our lucky man gotten lucky?

Nope.

“Something’s happening to the industry, the economy’s changed everything,”  JoAnne says into my GoPhone.

I sit in the parking lot of the Silver Lake Trader Joe’s. 

Worker’s Comp has allowed me to buy groceries again.  Nothing fancy, but it sure beats the rusted cans, the bags of rice, the outdated Thai Delight boxes, beats hiding a dollar donut from Stretch Pants. 

“I chatted you up to several agents,”  JoAnne says.  “Five years ago, they would have snapped you up, given you an advance to finish your novel.  With the internet and the economy, they won’t take a chance on a new writer.”

My fingers pulse with a numbness only the keyboard can cure.

“You’re a good writer.  I wish I could do more.”

“Thank you…saying that means a lot to me.”

I am a writer after all.  I have a story to tell.

The only thing left to do is to lift myself off the earth, to live in the sky.

Waiting for my companionship, the sky gazes down at me, the light I remembered from my first days in the City of the Angels has returned, born of the debris from the fires burning throughout the City, the ashes moving quickly up into air, after which the Santa Anas pushed this unnamed soup not over the Pacific, but instead east, hitting the inner beach cities and the San Fernando Valley first, before resting over Hollywood and parts eastward.  

Once infected, the sky became a dull grey, bordered at its edges with a faint orange, its solidity not a threatening mix of ash, carbon dioxide, burnt cars and melted tires, but instead the backdrop of the movie, the place where my fingers make the words fly, the sky’s diffused light filtering out what is not necessary, showing me the life I see in my dreams, where the empty spaces are filled in, the lines of separation which have kept me alone and apart erased, where I can find answers to all the “Whys” I bug the people on earth with.

I stare at the parking lot’s soft and yielding black asphalt, the ashes launched into the air a hovering mist, driven miles from home, searching for a place to land, to dissolve into.  

The heat of the asphalt eating up the mist at my feet in a New York Minute, I walk into Trader Joe’s, the breath of the Angels unfreezing my shoulder a bit more every day.

I can lift a bottle of apple juice off of the top shelf.

The Worker’s Comp checks will stop dropping any day now.

X, my fave 80s band, chants “This is supposed to be the new world” out of my speakers as I head home, the smoke and ash coming at me with the intensity of Exene and John Doe’s vocals, making me think for a moment that my engine has cracked wide open.  My Raybans cannot stop the squinting of my eyes, nor my tears as the grit, which made its way from a sitcom star’s burning house of love on the Pacific Coast Highway, lands on my reddened irises.

Time to get a gig, the light tells me.

♦♦

I reacquaint myself with the looking for a gig mantra:  “Our protocol is for applicants to apply online.”

“I have,”  I whisper.

My voice is humble and boyish.  No one would think I am in my late fifties.

“We’ll contact you if you’re a match for the position.”

As I did two years ago, I apply to every hospital, nursing home and medical facility in the Los Angeles basin to which I can drive, walk or crawl to.  I apply to the VA Hospital in Westwood and its satellite clinic in downtown LA.  I apply to the Los Angeles Department of Corrections for a job in the jails.  All online.  I never hear a thing.  I call.  I get the mantra.

I cold call agencies in the “Yellow Pages,” the majority of which have difficulty stringing together a coherent sentence in English.  The remaining ones spit out a hybrid form of English which drips like hot wax onto my eardrums.

A child of the 60s, I storm the barricades.

“An application?”

I stand before a young woman in the basement of St. Vincent Medical Center, my feet on the shining white tiles of the Human Resources Department.

“I saw a job listing on Monster.com for a Med/Surg position.  I’d like to fill out an application.”

Her brown eyes stare at me from beneath eyelids weighted down by heavy black mascara.

I am clean shaven, my gold pinstriped Rat Pack styled suit and matching slacks fresh from the cleaners, my white shirt ironed that AM, my skinny black tie tightening itself around my neck with the mean fingers of the money I owe and the money I need to survive.

The fingers have been on me for two years now.

Let it go, lucky man.  The light is back.

“Do you have a computer?” she asks.

“Yes.”

Her hair is teased high, not in homage to the Ronettes, but to Snooki Polizzi, hanging from her earlobes are a cheap version of the gold hoop earrings Angie Dickinson featured when she went undercover as a go-go dancer at a “Gentleman’s club” in the Valley.

“The protocol is for jobseekers to apply online.”

The young woman’s lips are red and engorged to the point I fear they will spew the wrath of her collagen filler onto my vintage threads.

“Any way I can fill out an application here?”

“An application?”

“Yes, a paper application.”

“Go down the hall and use our computer in the library.  Life would have been a lot easier if you told me you don’t have a computer.”

Next thing you know, she’ll be popping her gum.

She pops.  I bail.

Even though I know this young woman will have forgotten an unlucky old man after a few rounds of playing solitaire on her cell, I wait two days before I surrender three hours of my morning to apply online.

For the next eight weeks, I call the Nurse Recruiter every Monday through Friday, leaving a very professional message stating my interest in the job and politely asking for a callback.

Nada.  Rien.  Nothing.

On week nine, the Nurse Recruiter’s voicemail informs me she has gone on vacation.  Lucky her.  I am forwarded to the Nursing Office.  The Nursing Supervisor sounds impressed by my thirty years of nursing experience. 

Odd.  

Ten minutes later, my landline breaks the silence of my apartment at noon.

“This is the Nurse Recruiter from St. Vincent.  I’ve been told, I mean I understand you’ve been trying to reach me.  I’m sorry, I’ve been so busy, I couldn’t find time to get back to you.  I’m on vacation, but the Nursing Sup wanted me to touch base with you and set up an interview.”

My shoulder is rapidly unfreezing, this better fly.

♦♦

I roar down Beachwood toward Franklin Avenue, X screaming “Los Angeles” as I push away from the Hollywood Sign to my first interview in years for an upright gig, a downright ongoing job.  I do not have to press hard on the gas peddle, do not have to lean my head and upper body forward to move down Beachwood.  The sky is holding its hand out to me and I cannot stop, not the car, not my fingers pounding the keyboard, not my daily writer’s mantra of asking of “Why?”  I gaze out through the windshield, its curved glass dusted with the ash and grit which has made my breathing slow and heavy, my eyes eating up the revelations the light is showing me.

This job is mine.  All I have to do is let my inquisitors see behind my eyes.

The Nurse Recruiter extends her hand, her French cut nails rest softly inside my palm.  Her eyes blink with the mania of Tourette’s, her tall body hesitant as she leads me to her cubicle for our interview.

Obviously, she has been told to behave. 

“It’s one thing after another here, Jake, I just have to tell you, I’m doing the job of, I can’t remember anymore, so many people, so many.”

My eyes watch as the light from the overhead fluorescents sinks into the flat yellow stones of her necklace and bracelet. 

“And then, of course, last night, my car wouldn’t start.  Try getting Triple A here during rush hour, I was so hungry, I’m on a diet, I so wanted to eat.”

“No worries,” I say.  “In all honesty, I’ve waited so long, if you want to take a break, I can come back in an hour.”

“I had to get the kids off to school, I was in at eight and here until after seven, you mean it?”

This must be the New World.

“Really, it’s OK, we can meet at a more convenient time for you.”

“Let’s go ahead, guy, let’s do this.”

One down, one more to go.

The Nurse Manager of the unit I am applying on moves like an constipated pit bull, her makeup unable to conceal the winding trails of the acne scars running across her face, her hair a Farrah Fawcett do, possibly a remembrance of the Angel who died at the end of June or a touchstone to happier days when patients were people with names, people you could see and touch.

“Why are you a nurse Jake?  Give it to me in a sentence.” 

This is a job I can do.  Med/Surg.  Twelve-hour day shifts.  It’s mine if I play my cards right.

“It’s about making the connection with my patients, listening to them and being of service…watching over them.”

“How do you keep yourself awake when you work nights?” Farrah asks.

“I’m sorry, I thought this position was for days.”

“No.  No, it’s most definitely a night position.”

“I must have misunderstood when I met with the Nurse Recruiter.  I was looking for a day position.  I like your style, I’d enjoy working for you.  If a day position opens up, please call me.”

Lucky man is up and hitting the elevator’s down button when Farrah’s bloated  body catches up with him.

“You’re good,” Farrah says.  “Very sharp.”

“The Nurse Recruiter really impressed me.  I have to be honest, I never realized what an opportunity it would be to work here.”

“You are good.  I have a day position, let’s discuss it.”

For the next two hours, I sit on a padded folding chair jammed into the corner of Farrah’s tiny peach colored office.  I answer questions about the new big thing in this New World, unexpected clinical outcomes, a term which comes out of nowhere to accost me.  I was a stand-up.  I kill it.  I talk about difficult patients I have tamed and bullshit my way out of any number of hypothetical conflicts which seem to inevitably arise between nurses.  

I watch as the chewed to the quick nails of Farrah’s right hand brush the feathered layers of hair off of her face, there is nothing behind her green eyes, the only life I can see is that of the smoke floating over the City of the Angels, the light coming in through the window telling me this will be one of those gigs at which I sit beneath a loudly ticking clock at a table surrounded by nurses who cannot see what the sound stages of our City has to offer them, who cannot see beyond the boundaries of their outdated hairdos, who call their patients clients, who believe that the practice of their art is providing good customer service.

My body, frozen against the orange vinyl skin of the chair I have sat on for two hours, wakes up as I shoot Farrah my closer:  “The way I advocate for myself is the way I’ll advocate for your patients.”

Hands are shaken, backs are patted.

This is indeed the New World.

♦♦

I am up early the next morning, my fingers sending the words across the white screen at my new hangout, the Bourgeois Pig Cafe on Franklin Avenue, where I sit daily at a wobbly table, its dull brown wooden surface freeing me of boundaries, clocks and outcomes.  I drink coffee and large glasses of water as I pound out my tale, sitting on a mismatched chair next to my true bros, the unemployed screenwriters of Beachwood Canyon and Los Feliz, all of us trying to take flight, to be chosen, to be smiled upon by the Angels as we look into the light of our computer screens.

My GoPhone vibrates, I hit out to the corner of Franklin and Tamarind Avenue, breathless with flight as Farrah yaps: “Jake, I’d like you to join our team here at St. Vincent.”

The fingers of debt squeezing down on my carotids let up.

The smoke swirls in the hills behind me, the sidewalk concrete beneath my feet stands me six inches above the asphalt’s heat, the light showing me how my life will go.  

Despite the strong joe I drink to keep my fingers limber, my gut will stop punching me.

The jaws of my apartment will spit me out into rooms whose wood floors keep me safe, my body falling into the embrace of the white walls on whose emptiness I have hung pictures of palm trees and kitsch 40s vases, out of which sprays of flowers explode.

Tomorrow is my fifty-seventh birthday, the Angels have chosen me.

Out-of-town calls come in from the friends who have seen behind my eyes, who have kept me standing when my ass wanted to hit the ground and crawl as far away from the sky as I could, their caressing voices cautiously wishing me a happy birthday, followed by slight sighs and a big, deep, cleverest, best joke they have ever heard laugh at my good news. 

The light of the City streaming into my living room, I lie on the black velvet of my couch, Sunset is stretched out on the carpet where Matt’s feet once lay, my questioning writer’s eyes desiring not the clear bottles of Absolut, but the clarity the light brings.

“Happy, happy,” Matt says.  “What you gonna do today, guy?”

“You know me….Gena Rowlands movies…all day, all night.”

We laugh into our phones, our skin remembering last Thanksgiving, Matt’s leg over mine as we sat on the couch, his arm around my shoulders.

“Gena Rowlands…she’s the butch actress who was in that weird Kate Hudson movie?” he asked me.

Our bellies full from our holiday meal, Matt watched as I slipped the shiny silver discs out of their brown jackets.

“People aren’t always what they seem,”  I told him.  “Kind of like you and me.  You have to look behind their eyes to see what’s there.”  

Matt got Gena ten minutes into “Opening Night,” his eyes watched her the way my ears absorbed the wonder of Satchmo, my father smiling from his seat on our worn rattan couch in East Meadow, his boxer’s eyes sizing up the only boyfriend who has seen behind my eyes.

“So, what’s up with the disappearing act?” I ask Matt.

“Don’t question me.  Don’t you ever question me.  I’m forty-years-old, guy, I live in my parent’s garage.  I get to check out when I want.”

I lie alone on my couch.

Like the notes which gave my father another chance at flight, the words of Gena and John Cassavetes blow out of my television screen, sinking into my fingers, the tremors of life flickering through their bodies showing me the tales can be told.

♦♦

Before walking home from the Pig the next afternoon for a well deserved writing break, I check my messages.

I stand at the corner of Franklin and Tamarind when the voice licks its rough tongue over my face. 

“Mr. Epstine, I have some bad news.”

It is the Nurse Recruiter.

My eyes cannot see the light of day, only the yellow stones wrapped around her neck.

“I just this morning realized, it was pointed out to me that the position we offered you isn’t budgeted.  I thought it was, I believed it was, it was when I posted it.  I take full responsibility for this, for this misunderstanding.  I’m sorry, there’s no position on that unit.”

The money I owe and the money I need tighten their fingers around my neck.

“I’m thinking we can offer you a position on the unit as a fill-in, you know, when someone calls in sick.  The night position was filled without my knowledge by a nurse from another unit.  It could open up again, but I’d need to clear your paperwork, without a budgeted position, I don’t know if that’s possible.  I don’t want you to think this is how St. Vincent operates.  I take full responsibility for this, for this…”

My back sweats against the worn cushions of my couch, my eyes stare at the frayed piping, I notice my fingertips are moving in and out of its torn open brown velvet.

My belly wakes up.  Gives me a good one-two punch. 

Sunset bathes herself with languid moves, her paws ready to take her to refuge on the upper shelf of the kitchen cabinet.  

My couch cannot catch me as my body tumbles backward, out of the sky onto the burning asphalt of the New World, down past the scarily nonexistent safety net of the gay community. 

I will stay in my apartment until the sheriffs evict me.  

When I stop paying rent, I’ll have three months before I’m out.

Sell the Malibu?  The raspy voice of my friend Mark convinced me to buy it three years before I held his hand as he lay dying in a Culver City nursing home.  Seventeen years ago, a car I feared would be too expensive to maintain is all I have left of the friends who grew me into a man.

Those friends are dead, but, when it is quiet, their voices move over my skin.

I will sell it.

I will sell my clothes, sell my furniture and assorted boho tchotchkes, sell the paintings on the white walls who no longer wrap their arms around me. 

When I can speak, when I can turn the phone’s ringer back on, I will call Graham and ask him to take Sunset. 

No address, no bills, no job, no tales to tell, I will buy a van and drive the same highways I did when I moved West from Long Island thirty-four years ago, I will sleep on side streets and eat tofu where I can find it.

Things are going be slow from now on.  Very slow.  

I am not a writer after all.

I am certainly not a nurse. 

I am a once lucky man, a man who will be driving the burning asphalt of the New World. 

After an hour, or is it two or three, I move off the heat of the couch.  I lie on the cool pink and salmon tiles of my bathroom, my hands open and ready for what’s next, my eyes staring up a the shining white ceiling.

This is not a story anyone wants to hear.

The jaws of my apartment open wide and eat me up.

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Filed under Memoir, Personal Essay

Cries and Whispers.

Chapter 28 / 2009

Cries and Whispers.

“You’ll need to get a drug test before we can send you to a doctor,” the space cadet staffing co-ordinator tells me.

It is 8 AM, my head is bowed in reverence, not by the cadet’s newly minted authoritarian tone, but to the pain twisting around my left arm, my eyes see only floors, the wires and dirty throw rugs in the lost boy’s cubbyhole, the green fields populated by blue elephants, the thick blue veins on the top of Matt’s bare wet feet stretched out on the faded grey of my 30s Sears carpet. 

“We’ve got to make sure you weren’t impaired when you fell,” a voice way too familiar with cigarettes growls into my ear.

I look up from the peanut shells, swizzle sticks, empty cigarette packs and candy bar wrappers, Tallulah’s lips, pouting downwards from years of throwing quips around the Frolic Room, smile at me.

Where in the months past, the rambling cadet could never let up on the hold button he kept my under, suddenly an array of cunning voices pour out of my phone’s earpiece.  Apparently, the agency has a second floor, in whose rooms exist a cabal of nasty supervisors and manipulating managers, all ready to give the once over twice to anyone who takes the fall.

“If you’re not well enough to go back to the case…”

“We have a great job opportunity for you.”

“It’s a Worker’s Comp thing…modified duty.”

“If the doctor says you’re anything less than totally disabled, we’re here for you.”

“It doesn’t sound like he’s completely disabled.”

“If you pass the drug test.”

“We’ll arrange for you to work in the office answering the phones.”

“Starting tomorrow.”

“Nine to five.  Monday through Friday.”

“We’ll pay you eight dollars an hour.”

“Worker’s Comp will make up the difference with what you were making on the case.” 

“If he qualifies for Worker’s Comp.”

“We’d love to have you here in the office.”

“You’ll be part of our team.”

“We’ll make any accommodations for your doctor visits.”

“If you’re authorized for doctor’s visits.”

“Who are you people?” I ask.  “Have you ever seen the child I’m taking care?  Do you know how filthy that house is?”

“You’d better go downtown to get drug tested,” a voice spits into my eye.

“The test’s got to be done within eight hours of the alleged incident.”

“Anything less than temporary disability, our expectation is that you will be here at  9 AM tomorrow.”

Now I know where the worms slithered to when the roughness of their tongues stopped licking the insides of my skull.

The voices scrape against my face like sandpaper, my left arm throbs at their every word, my fingers iced into submission before I put the whining receiver down. 

The only thing left to do is to lift myself off the earth, to live in the sky.

I am a writer after all.  I have a story to tell.

♦♦

“How can I write if my fingers are numb?” I ask my ortho doc.

His grey hair is thick and unkempt, swirling around his head like the mist floating up Beachwood Drive to the Hollywood Sign at 6 AM.

“I’ll give you one of these shots every three months,” he says.

Syringe in hand, the ortho doc shuffles towards me, his gait as halting as the lost boy’s will be if Mother does not perform his leg exercises.

“Rheumatoid arthritis,” the ortho doc says.

His gnarled fingers inject milky white Cortisone into my left shoulder.  Before he can dump the syringe into the sharps container, the ice buried deep in my bones and muscles has melted away, the numbness drips out of my fingers onto the pale brown tiles I stand on, my eyes staring at the opened Velcro straps of my savior’s scuffed black orthopedic shoes. 

“It’s easier to walk this way,” the ortho doc says.

The tanned muscular arms of his assistant hand me my Worker’s Comp Patient Status Form, the words she has written on it spelling out my freedom:  “The patient is on total disability until further notice.”

“Go to physical therapy, do your range of motion exercises,” the ortho doc says.  “A frozen shoulder can hang around for months.”

“Be patient,” the assistant says.

“Would it be OK for me to write on my computer?”

“I don’t see why not,” the ortho doc answers.

The tightness which has held my body upright for the last two years floods out of the worn-down heels of my cowboy boots, my butt hitting the room’s round examining stool the way the dental student’s did when his spinning eyes saw the jig was up. 

“From what you’ve told me about your job and the characters you’re working for, you need some time off.  Go home, take it easy.  Relax, Jake.  I’ve got your back.”

“It’s like I’m Policewoman…on the roof on a building in Century City…you saved me right before the pimps threw me over.”

“Miss Dickinson, she’s the woman,” the ortho doc says.  

The worms holed up in the agency on Magnolia Boulevard do not take my diagnosis well, their voices nibbling voraciously at my ear, trying to finagle me into slapping on a headset and pushing down their flashing hold buttons.

“I get it…I get why you’ve got a sink in every room,” I purr into the phone.  “You guys need a place to sleep.”

♦♦

“Forget the co-pays, I’ll tell the front desk not to charge you,” the doctor says.

I forgot they grew them like this.

My new doctor stands before me.  Tall, brown hair brushing her shoulders with a Patty Duke 60s flip, grey pencil skirt, crisp blue cotton blouse, white pearls pulled snug around her long neck, her trimmed unpainted fingernails lie hidden in the pockets of her white lab coat. 

“Your poverty diet cured your elevated blood pressure,” the doctor tells me.  “If you think about it, you’re eating real healthy stuff.”

Wisps of smoke float past the thick glass of the narrow rectangular window behind the doctor.  It is July, the summer fires of the City of the Angels are beginning, the dead quiet of my nights without Matt interrupted by the wail of fire trucks floating in though my open windows at 3 AM.

My blood pressure had clocked in at 100/60, its threat of stroking me out evaporating faster than the heartless facility with which I dumped my PPO insurance during this year’s open enrollment.  Days before my new Kaiser membership card dropped out of my mailbox, the demands of my twisted gut, out of whack blood pressure and the continued swelling of my balls took my cowboy boots on a stroll through Hollywood to Kaiser Hospital, whose HMO tentacles continuously drop new buildings up and down Sunset Boulevard. 

The doctor pulls her hands out of her pockets, the fingers of her right hand twisting her engagement ring into place.

“We’ll take care of you,” she says, shaking my hand and patting me on the back. 

I head out into the smoke with the map she has given me, its blue Xs leading me to the GI doc on Edgemont Street and the surgeon a block down Sunset.

♦♦

My trio of infirmities addressed by the healers on Sunset in two hours, the worn-out soles of my cowboy boots walk me home, my eyes staring at the hills to the north, their brown faces not yet burnt black, a Pepsi One drowning the grit in my throat, born of the tiny ashes swirling in the air, my fingers yearn for the keyboard, the heat of the Angels sending beads of sweat down my back, tickling me the way Matt did whenever he tried to wake me up at 7 AM to hike with him in the Bronson Caves. 

“Did Matt…did Matt disappear for days on end when you two were friends in Los Angeles?”  Matt’s mother asked me a few nights ago.

Her voice has a soft twang, a perfect compliment to her son’s baby blues and square jaw.  She pronounces Los Angeles the old-fashioned way, Los Angle-Ease.  I like her on the spot, the way I did her son, missing that evening from both of our lives.

“Well, sometimes I couldn’t find him for a day or two…maybe a week.  And there was that time he visited you for a month when you had surgery.”

“I’ve never had surgery, except for birthing him.”

“Really?  I watched his dog when he went up to Sacramento to take care of you.”

My fingers tap the yellow daisy decals on my tall glass of Pepsi One, the same glass into which I poured ice water to soothe the sudden tickle in the throat of Matt’s fiancee when she knocked on my door two years ago.

“You’re happy up there,” Matt had told me after watching me perform a monologue.  “You’re comfortable, so at ease.”

“I tried to be his bud,” I say to Matt’s mother.  “To make him comfortable in his skin.”

“The boy has spoken about you.  He seems to like you, to trust you.  If he comes back, will you talk to him?”

How could I not?  Matt is my friend and I love him.

The silver tips of my cowboy boots lead me into the 99¢ Only Store on Sunset near Western Avenue for low blood pressure celebration treats, a can of stainless steel pot and pan cleanser and two bottles of Fast-Acting Antacid Supreme

“You’ve got to keep your gut coated,” my new GI doc told me a few hours ago.

I sat before him in his small office, his thick fingers pulling the intestines out of the anatomical model standing brazenly on his cluttered desk, the smoke moving like clouds past the window above the doctor’s bald head, his slow deliberate voice explaining to me how the brown plaster of paris colon I held in my hands absorbs nutrients.  

“Relax, exercise,” he says.  “Have you thought about taking a vacation to relieve your stress?”

I laugh.  A big, deep, cleverest, best joke I have ever heard laugh.

“The gut is a hard thing to predict, what works for one person is poison to another.”

I forgot they grew them like this.

“Next, I suppose you’ll tell me it’s a Jewish thing.”

“Remember, no chocolate, no coffee,” the doctor’s medical assistant says.

“Very hard on our tummies,” the doctor says.

I am a writer, Doc, as long as the joe pulses through my blood, I have a tale tell.

The doctor’s medical assistant hands me a thick stack of printouts addressing diet and stress, the pharmacy supplementing this trove of useless information with yet more paper detailing the workings of the antispasmodic medications I have been prescribed.

Hands are shaken, backs are patted.

Down the street, Kaiser’s Outpatient Surgery Clinic schedules my ball surgery for six weeks out, their twenty dollar co-pay sucker punching the five grand Cedar-Sinai’s Outpatient Surgery Center demanded in an upfront, pre-surgery payment in full, their shameless demand for Benjamins leading me to believe that my own people are a tad, just a tad, money obsessed.

My balls are to be drained by a twenty-nine-year-old doctor from Pakistan.

At last, I have something of interest to talk about in tomorrow’s Gay Senior support group.

Last week, I spent my first hour in their circle trying not to cry, wanting to tell my older bros the tale of my medical tsuris, my eyes seeing the cool brown tiles my father lay on during a broiling Long Island summer, the cancer eating out past his intestines, latching onto more organs than the malignancy of Kaiser’s tentacles, who have greedily devoured the east end of Hollywood.  My father was fifty-six when he lay on the tiles on his last Saturday afternoon in the ring, what remained of his body seeking cool comfort in our un-air-conditioned house.  I am fifty-six, my insides eaten up with the fear pounding and twisting in my gut that my body has given up on me, that I am an old man, like the men who surround me every Friday morning to vent their spleens.

“I don’t understand why my house hasn’t sold yet,” a bro says. 

As are many of these men, he was married in his younger days, the wives long discarded or recently dead, my bros, with fingers as arthritic as mine, logging on to SilverDaddies.com in the hope of making the connection.  

“It’s been on the market for weeks, not one offer.”

I tell him about the New Depression.

Nothing, not a smile, not the blink of an eye, instead a long explanation about how his PSA reading remains low.  

Odd, in that his prostate has been removed.  Not a lucky man.

“I finally made out my will,” the next bro says.  

A retired schoolteacher, as are many in the circle, he has taken out a second, or is it a  third mortgage, to remodel his kitchen, buy a few flat screens and a leather couch, on which he plans to wait out what is left of his life.

“I left my house to my son.”

Odd, in that he has a reverse mortgage.  Not a lucky man.  Not a lucky son.

“I’m letting my nephew stay with me, he has no place else to go,” my rotund and  furtive bro says.

Before we circled our chairs this morning, he stood in front of the brown wall of this tiny meeting room, an iPhone snapping wistful pics for his online profile. 

“The boy is kind of a fuckup, but family is family.”

Odd, the boy is in his mid-thirties.  Odder yet, the pursing of my bro’s lips, the sudden dullness of his eyes whenever he mentions said nephew.

“My husband is jealous of my lover,” the tattooed love bro says.  “I was going to bring him to a party with us, but the hubby says he won’t go if I do.”

He and the hub stopped having sex years ago, right around the time the love bro started taking Klonopin to calm his Frances Farmer afflicted nerves.

Gotta watch the Klonies, the numbness they send through your blood is not anyone’s friend.

I have done stand-up in rooms more hostile than this one, I can speak to these men, they’re my bros after all.

“I was up all night thinking about my uncle Jack…he had a stroke when I was a little boy…I’m gonna end up like him…”

The twisting of my gut tells me not to mention my father, not to speak his name in this circle.

“I’m afraid…with my shoulder…all these things are wrong with me, I don’t know…”  

Like the night I stood on the stage of the Comedy Store on Sunset, the room is quiet, the disinterested stare of the eight sets of eyes licking my face with the rough tongues of the worms slithering about in the sinks of my former employer.

“I don’t know how I’m going to make it when I start looking for work,” I say.  “Going through all that crap to find a job again…I don’t know.”

The lead facilitator breaks the silence:  “You’ve held up really well for your age.  Why don’t you get a sugar daddy?”

“Are you for real?” I ask.

The coyness of his seventy-five-year-old smirk tells me he thinks I can earn some scratch off of what is left of my once pretty face and slender build. 

“You’re an odd one for our group,” the co-facilitator says. 

Odd, gay men always think I am odd.  

The slight quiver of the co-facilitator’s brown eyes betrays his truth, that he will be planted in my seat in thirty years, the flutter of his fingers at his throat tells him that the sharp features of his handsome face will dull, the sweet smile of his thin lips will be history once life punches him in the gut a few times.

Best for the boy to sock me in the jaw before what has happened to the unlucky man infects him, infects all of the bros in the circle.

“You’re still viable, still out there,” his tense lips say.  “I’ve seen it happen before.  A guy your age loses a job or gets sick and the bottom drops out.  I don’t know where guys like you go.  There are no safety nets to catch you in the gay community.”

No shit.

I smile.  I nod my head.  

I stay.

I am a lonely writer, alive when my fingers tap out the tales, nothing touching my skin but the wail of the fire trucks in the dead quiet of 3 AM.

And the cries and whispers of the men who encircle me in this room, their Nikes and Gucci loafers firmly planted on earth, never once to fly above the red carpet below our feet, never once to get into the ring. 

Lucky man, wherever my maladies take me, I will never get that old.

♦♦

I might not be able to lift my left arm above my shoulder, but I know how to hit the keys to make the words fly.  

I just know. 

I have not been on earth for months.  I sleep from 3 AM until noon, waking up to do my range of motion exercises before my fingers, no longer beating with the threat of icy numbness, blast out the notes Satchmo taught my father deep into the Hollywood night from the ring I have stepped into, sitting in front of the white screen of my computer at the Cafe Solar de Cahuenga, down the block from William Holden’s “Sunset Boulevard” crib, the Alto-Nido Apartments. 

I hold my hands outwards, positioned over the keys at less than ninety degree angles, never for a second leaning my arms on the dark shiny wood of the table.  I sit straight up in my seat, my feet on the red concrete floor, my soles touching the earth beneath me, my body feeling the heat baked into it from the City of the Angel’s cloudless summer sky, the dirt still warm from the days when it was walked on by the heavy boots of real cowboys, who made extra dough taking the fall for actors and actresses unable to tumble convincingly down a staircase or out of a gangster’s speeding getaway car. 

My fingers tremble before the words come, before they run across the blank pages staring at me, their emptiness waiting impatiently for me to fill them up, the way I once sat at the Frolic Room’s bar, everything in me empty until the Absolut flew me to the sky.

I lean against my seat, it wooden slats welcoming my back, caressing this child of the New Depression, my eyes discreetly checking out the Highway Patrol cruiser on Cahuenga Boulevard, where it waits in the dark to hustle up some bucks for the City, the dark eyes of its movie star handsome Latino officers watching cars exit the 101, the unlucky Joes who miss the barely visible stop sign welcomed to Hollywood by the booming notes of money hungry sirens and the blinding flash of amber and blue lights.  

The dry brown dirt below my feet was paved over by a restaurant in the 20s, the children of the Great Depression smoothing out the linen covering the tables, at which studio stars ate early dinners, before sleep and waking up at 5 AM to make their 6 AM calls, a waiter with an empty belly scraping the uneaten food off the bone white plates for a late night meal with the missus in their courtyard apartment off of La Brea.  In the 30s, the flicker of neon painted the restaurant’s facade blue and yellow, the room’s long wooden bar once again allowed to serve drinks to the chosen ones, on who the City of the Angels smiled, allowing them to tell the tales once their hung over bodies were safely hidden from the bright morning light in huge stucco sound stages on Gower Street, under whose flattering light a hardscrabble dame from Brooklyn would be transformed with rouge, eyeliner and a lace dress into a Southern belle.  A genuine mid-Western monosyllabic cowboy became, through the perfectly tailored fit of his tuxedo, a Master of the Universe, decades before any background artiste could suss out that the damage these Masters cause is more lethal than any black and white heart they ever broke.  Audiences all over the globe waited in the dark to fly above the earth as our hero’s secretary melted the steel of her Master’s remote smirk down to his shy core.  To tower over his woman, the cowboy stood on offscreen phone books, his eyes gazing at a secretary who had worked for him for years, a real peach he had, for some contrived reason, never noticed before.  She was played with a sense of sass by a tall and elegant actress from Mexico, her name changed as she moved out of the shadows to supporting and starring roles, her dream inducing accent snatched from her vocal cords by a sad and nervous elocution teacher, who had escaped the Nazis a few months earlier. 

If you are lucky, you can tell your stories.  

With a few adjustments, anyone can.

I know my city, the City of the Angels, it is the place where the stories are told, where the pounding of fingers tells the tales, where an effeminate boy from East Meadow grows into a man who flies above Hollywood on the notes of his words.  Since the night I took the fall, I have floated on the warmth of my City’s breath, my gut stilled by the swaying of the palm trees above me, my words making the connection, the caffeine flowing though my blood pushing me onward to tell my tale, a tale of the New Depression and a once lucky man. 


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Filed under Memoir, Personal Essay

I Take the Fall.


Chapter 27 / 2009

I Take the Fall.

My jaw stops throbbing on a Friday afternoon in late April.

Once again, I lounge like a Chekhov heroine on a hard and oddly contoured examining chair in the Orofacial Pain Clinic at UCLA.

“He had my mouth pried open for four hours, my jaw has never been the same,” I say to the three sets of goggle covered eyes looking down on me.

“That’s not true,” the dental student whispers.  “That never happened.”

I open my “Frans Lanting Taschen Diary” to Thursday 9 October 2008.  

“Four hour appointment at UCLA,” I read to the eyes.

The dental student tightens the straps of his goggles, where they meet at the back of his head.

“Why would I write this if it wasn’t true?” I ask the doctor.

Doc is tan, not the spray on routine, his is the real deal, his skin darkened from playing early morning tennis on the dew covered courts of Brentwood, his middle-aged muscles toned from laps swum in shimmering blue pools, his close cropped silver hair receding a bit at his temples. 

“Why do you write all these details down?” Doc asks.

“I’m a writer, it’s about the details…they tell the tale.”

A literary fellow, Doc and I proceed to discuss “Shantaram.”

The dental student’s eyelids flutter like a silent movie heroine tied to the railroad tracks.  Unlucky man, his deep blue eyes could not possibly read Gregory David Roberts’ words with this action going on.

“We’ve repeatedly told you not to keep your patients in the chair that long,” Doc says to the quivering dental student.

“I’ve been telling him all along how bad it is,” I say.  “He left me hanging like this for the last six weeks.”

“I scheduled an appointment as soon as I heard,” the deep voice of the student’s supervising doctor says.

“That is a lie,”  I say.

The three flourescent bulbs in the fixture above me wink their approval.

“I talked to you about this weeks ago,” I tell the supervising doctor.  “You told me that no one could work on me until the pain stopped.  And you expect me to pay for this appointment?  It’s over three hundred dollars.”

The heaviness in the supervising doctor’s Eastern European shoulders pulls her down the way the concrete does when I drive home from work.

“Two hours in the chair tops,” Doc says to the dental student.  “But four…four hours?  What were you thinking?”

Odd, the dental student cannot open his mouth and flash his pearly whites.

Doc shoots lidocaine beneath both sides of my jaw, his strong hands milking my neck and massaging the masseter muscles on the sides of my face as the cold anesthetic eats through the pain.

Doc walks slowly around the examining chair, stopping to stare down at the dental student where he has planted his ass on the green vinyl of a round examining stool.

The dental student stands up, the yellow legal pad, on whose pages he has written down every word I spoke, falling to the floor.  For a second, his carotids throb against his pale white skin, he moves to the other side of the cubicle, the unsteadiness of his body making me think he is about to crash head first onto the shining blue tiles of the floor. 

At last.  The dental student knows what pain is. 

Doc hands me a can of Gebauer’s Ethyl Chloride, his clipped voice saying:  “Do the mouth exercises I showed you.  Use this spray at the slightest twinge of pain.”

“You the man,” I respond.

“You’ll be sure to take care of Mr. Epstine’s bill?”  Doc asks his colleague.

♦♦

My jaw never hurts after that spring afternoon.

I had forgotten about mandibular pain in a day, until three weeks later, when I find myself sitting in the circle of Gay Seniors at our weekly Friday support group meeting at the Gay & Lesbian Center.

That’s right, I am a senior now, my seen it all brown eyes looking unblinkingly at hitting fifty-seven with a wealth of senior maladies, twisted gut, swollen balls, roller coaster blood pressure and a twenty-three-year-old fuck buddy who smiles deviously when he calls me his “Go-to mouth.”

Lovely.

Don’t knock it lucky man, these are the only liquid assets you’ve got.

The fuck bud is gay, which limits our dialogue to his endless interrogations about why I have not dyed my greying temples, interrupted occasionally by his Blanche DuBois like reveries about the enormity of my balls.

“How’s your week been?” our group facilitator asks me.

I pull out my can of Ethyl Chloride and massage its cold comfort into my neck.

My pain free jaw wants to move, I want to talk about the pain running through my balls, the rebellion of my gut, about the fear eating into my skin whenever the sun of the City of the Angels hits it, about the terror pinching my fingertips as they long to curl around a drink for the first time in nineteen years. 

I had told these old men my tale the day I entered their circle.  

They smiled.  They nodded their heads.

“Things will turn around,” their mouths said.  “It will get better.”

They then launched into monologues about reverse mortgages, trips to Machu Picchu and the hot waiters at the new restaurant on Vermont Avenue in Los Feliz.

Who can I tell my troubles to?

My man is gone, my friends are dead.

The odor of Ethyl Chloride hovers over the red carpeted room.

“I was late this morning because I was having sex with my buddy,” I tell the group.

The seniors lap it up the way Sunset’s pink tongue devours her hairball medication when I sprinkle catnip on it.

♦♦

That evening, my masseters no longer fearful of the tsuris chewing a salted peanut can visit upon my jaw, I sit ten feet from a stage on which Alan Turing stutters and stammers through his life in “Breaking the Code,” the spastic jerking of Turing’s body hitting me like the notes my father blew out of his trumpet on Saturday afternoons in the den of our Long Island tract house. 

I am as lost as my patient is when his tiny body stands in front of his sixty inch television screen, his black eyes mesmerized by the over saturated blues and reds swirling before them.  The stage which holds my gaze is situated in the back of a narrow store converted into a theater, located in the dead center of, of all places, a strip mall in North Hollywood.  The lucky plus one of my play reviewing bud Steven, my senior and his middle-aged eyes cannot break free of the web actor Sam R. Ross has spun, his lungs gobbling up the air of English refinement, his blood beating with the intricacies of Turning’s heart, Ross’s awkward moves pulling us into this tormented soul.

“That’s what artists do,” my father whispers into my ear.

Ross’s fingers curl into the palms of the man he has become, a English mathematician who cracked the Nazi’s Enigma Machine before life turned a 180 and shattered him to the bone.  Ross’s feet leave earth the moment he hits the stage, his cracking voice expounding on mathematical theories, his skin feeling forever the loss of his teenage love, his throat unable to understand the impact his words have as he spits his truth out of a body so consumed by science and mathematics that only the presence of a lover can steady him, can allow him to be happy when his feet stand on earth.

I breathe in and out with the audience in the tiny room giving witness to this tale, my hands move to my mouth with the audience’s fear when Turing holds up an apple laced with cyanide, tears fall from our eyes as we applaud the cast, everyone in the room knowing that, even in a Valley strip mall, whose tenants are a Karate school and a donut shop, saying the wrong thing to the wrong person can bring any one of us to the moment when we must gladly take the poison. 

For the first time since I sat in the Frolic Room weeks ago, my fingertips do not want to embrace a drink, instead they curl in toward my palms, patiently waiting for 1 AM, when the lost boy sleeps and I can pound my tale into the keyboard.

I am a writer after all, a lucky man whose father taught him about flying.

Every Saturday afternoon, Father practiced his trumpet, first polishing its golden body for ten minutes before his thick fingers dropped the needle on a Louis Armstrong record, Father’s lips breathing into the horn, he and Armstrong pushing the same notes into the air.  Father could play every one of his idol’s songs, his face puffed up and as red as my 69 Chevy Malibu, the notes bouncing against the brown wood paneling of our den, wailing up along the stairs, floating into the tiny attic above the living room, as the record spun at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute.

“That’s what artists do,” Father said.  “They make you feel like you’re flying.  That’s their gift.” 

“This Armstrong guy, he’s like singing ‘Hello Dolly’ with Barbra Streisand…that’s your hero?”

Father laughed, his brown eyes watching as I carefully slipped the shiny black discs into their white paper sleeves, Satchmo’s eyes looked up to the sky from the discs’ cardboard covers, his trumpet pointing its yellow metal fingers at me.

“People aren’t always what they seem,” Father said.  “You have to look behind their eyes to see what’s there.  Your real friends are going to do that with you.”

“Did you ever fly?” I asked.

Father sat next to me, tapping my head with his fist, touching me so softly I could barely feel the strength of his hands on me.  

“You know I can never hit you,” Father said.  “I was a boxer, my fists are lethal weapons.”

“Yeah…that’s when you were Little Izzy…when you boxed so you and Grandma could have a place to live.”

“Sometimes you have to, you have to hit back.  I flew every time I was in the ring.  I knew it was wrong to beat on men, but I could see where they were weak.  I got to them, I knew where to hit them.  I just knew.  The crowd screamed for me to go after them, that’s how I flew.  My feet weren’t in the ring.  Not ever.  Listening to Satchmo is like flying, but it’s not the same.  I’ve been lifted off the earth, I know what it is to live in the sky.”  

Father laid his trumpet on the thick purple velvet lining of its dull black case, his fingers gently securing the case’s leather straps around his flying machine.

“You’ll find what makes you fly.  But your time in the sky never lasts long.  No one’s does.”

The lost boy sleeps a few feet from me, his Grandma Zsa Zsa snores on a mattress on the floor.  Mother and Dad stagger into the kitchen every hour or so for a belt of Coke or a handful of Doritos.  The vent rhythmically pushes air in and out of its guts, the G tube belches when it feels the need to let off steam.

Everyone sleeps but me.

The notes Ross blew out over my skin a few hours earlier fall off of my fingertips onto the blue elephants running across the green carpet which has miraculously reappeared  beneath my feet.

It is time to pick up the horn and blow my way out of this cage.

♦♦

I take the fall ten days later.

I arrive at work to discover Mother has taken a powder and hit the sheets early.  

I wipe down the Ikea folding table and, after placing a Target plastic bag in the wastepaper basket with the world-weary expertise of the German caretaker, I move it as far away from my nose as possible.  I clean off the crust clinging to the top of the stove, wash the dishes abandoned in the sink, cover the rectangular basin on the floor and stack the tabloids on the kitchen table in neat piles.  Like Dad’s head after a few brewskis, the picture on the television screen bounces spastically.  Having checked to make sure Mother is asleep, I exercise the lost boy’s legs as he smiles and stares into the emptiness of his palms.  He watches two episodes of “Policewoman” before his thick eyelashes pull his upper lids down for the night. 

As I have for my last eight shifts, I breathe in Ross’s notes and watch my words run across the white pages in the center of my computer screen, my fingers punching my tale into the keyboard.

“I’m going to the airport to pick up a friend,” Dad says at 4 AM.

The lost boy’s eyes move beneath his closed eyelids.  The infusion machine whines as it pushes the thick brown feed into the G tube, the red LED lights of the vent flash a thumbs-up.

“Who changed that string?” Dad asks.

“I did two weeks ago…it was coming apart.”

“And the oxygen tank?  You moved it by his crib?”

“You know how I am…I like to rearrange.”

“You should clear it with the missus before you do that kind of shit.”

Gotcha, Big Boy.

This explains Mother’s recent pained silences, her going to bed early, before the evening’s reality shows break the silence of their tawdry tales.

Dad’s eyes glance at the table next to the inhospitable chair I sit on, my nursing notes, complete except for my last entry, stare back at him, wanting only Mother’s John Hancock before I head out through the morning mist to Beachwood Canyon.  My supplies for the last respiratory treatment of the shift laid are out on a white paper towel, five alcohol wipes wait for my fingers to clean the G tube after it has forced the last of the gooey nutrients into the boy’s belly.

Mika babbles silently on the ever moving screen a few feet away, the elephants, who watch over the boy and I, never once daring to get within spitting distance of her wrath, which this morning opened the show with a full-out wail about the nuclear tests North Korea has allegedly carried out.  My flying fingers silenced Mika, leaving my eyes to alternate between the words tearing across the screen and the lost boy’s chest as the breathing of the vent moves it up and down.

“Quite the setup you have here,” Dad says.  “You write all night, rehearse your plays, you…”

“What time will you be back?” I ask Dad.

“I’m going down to LAX, who knows?”

Indeed.

The lost boy sleeps.

I change the boy’s diaper, straighten his sheets, put a soft pillow under his head, my ears ignoring the false alarm of the vent as I clean his trach.  I sit yoga still on one of the filthy round throw rugs, not wanting to stand up and feel the walls of the lost boy’s cubbyhole closing in on me, imagining every morning at 4:30 AM that if there is an earthquake, the chest of drawers next to me will explode out onto his crib.

My eyes look out through the iron mesh door, as they have done every early morning for the past eight months, searching for the shadows who throw the broken furniture into the street.  A chair, sliced straight in half, lies beside the blue handicapped painted curb, which Dad has peeled away from a mere fifteen minutes ago. 

How does this happen?

Same way I sat for years in my spot at the Frolic Room, on a wobbly barstool toward the back, where my eyes watched the comings and goings of the only people in the City of the Angels I have ever been truly comfortable with, my throat hungering for the sting of an Absolut Cranberry to soak into me.  

And then another to lift me up off the bar stool.  

Another to take me to the sky. 

I am flying, but down, down fast towards the eyes of the elephants, to the snicker on Joe Scarborough’s lips.

My body cannot find its center, my left foot is wedged beneath the base of the vent, the LED lights smile at me to grab hold, but if I do the vent will crash to the floor, yanking the trach out of the lost boy’s throat, the vent breaking in half and shattering, the G tube crashing down on me, ripping out the tube sewn into the boy’s gut.  

There is no backup vent.  I will hurt the boy if I grab on to the smile an inch from my left hand. 

I take the fall. 

My arms spread out, my opened palms hit the floor with a dull crack, shards of ice cold pain pulse through my body, I shiver against it, my gut heaving to vomit out the bowl of rice I ate for dinner, banging inside me with the tingle of misshapen ice cubes.

I am damp with sweat.  My back lies on the carpet.  My eyes look up to the ceiling, it is surprisingly clean, but then again the only light in the room is that of “Morning Joe’s” nastiness.  The cold stabs into my shoulders, hustling its way down to my fingertips, so cold with the ice beating beneath my fingernails I cannot breathe, my left calf throbbing with blasts of razor edged pain so intense, my kneecap will pop out if I try to stand.  

The vent rhythmically pushes air in and out of its guts, the G tube belches angrily, the lost boy sleeps beneath the string pulled to a tight straight line above him, Mika and Joe jerk against the television  screen.  I look out through the iron mesh door, the dirt in front of the house is wet and grey.

A white plastic toilet seat is in the middle of the street.

“Have you been sitting in that chair the whole time?”  Dad asks.

In his right hand is a small brown paper bag, sans the grease stains all of the other bags he carries into this cage have.  

“I fell and hurt my leg.  I tripped over the wires under the rug.”

“How did that happen?”

“There’s no backup vent, that was all I had to break my fall.”

“Maybe He Who Must Be Obeyed will give us one when he forces his healthcare plan down our throats.”

Dad opens the fridge and pops a lager.

Back and forth to LAX in under an hour?

Indeed.

As per jammies clad Mother, her sleeping son is left tethered to the vent as I limp out the door, my Docs snake around the bathroom accoutrements scattered about on the pock mocked street. 

The icy numbness in my fingers telling my body this gig is finito, I have left my “Policewoman” DVDs on the nightstand next to the crib.

I hightail it back to Hollywood, knowing that with Angie to guide him, the lost boy is bound to get lucky.

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There are Thirty Apartments for Rent on Beachwood Drive.

Chapter 26 / 2009 

There are Thirty Apartments for Rent on Beachwood Drive. 

The lost boy makes it home from the hospital before sundown.  

My fingers, itchy to tell my tale while the boy sleeps, tap the steering wheel of my shamefully unwashed red 69 Chevy Malibu as I drive to North Hollywood at 9:30 PM.

Mother has removed the rug from her living room floor.  

“It was full of germs,” she hisses.  “It’s what gave him pneumonia.”  

The piles of video cassettes, DVDs, neon colored toys, tabloids and dirty clothes are in their usual places.  

Mother has bought a shiny black bookshelf at Ikea, in front of which she sits cross-legged on the dull hardwood floor, her chubby fingers placing video cassettes on the shelves, which look like they will crumble apart in a week or two.  

I check the vent, its plastic face as grimy and sticky as it has always been.  I wash it down with alcohol, using Q-tips to clean around the ports on its sides.  Piled onto the base of the vent stand are opened boxes of tissues and alcohol wipes, which are jammed between small dirty pillows, their plumpness overwhelming the dented black metal base.  I should wash the pillows tonight.  

The G tube’s infusion machine is dirtier than I have ever seen it.  I wash it with half strength bleach.  A string hangs between the dirty pole the machine is attached to and a thumbtack pushed into the wall, a pistol syringe, waiting to be jammed into the bigger of the G tube’s two ports, weighs the string down at its center, forming a floating V above the lost boy’s crib.  The string is beginning to unravel, which is not surprising as it has not been changed in the six months I have been caged in this room.  I have string in my trunk, I will bring it in later and make a tightly pulled line in the sky for the lost boy to stare at.  

For reasons never explained to me, the oxygen tank is in the hallway leading to Mother and Dad’s bedroom, its dirty green tubing running a good fifty feet to the vent.  Poor Lost Boy, his oxygen will never travel that far.  I should have told his parents this on day one, but I did not want to rock their boat.  Someone, another nurse, the rep from the oxygen company, should have pointed this out during the past five years. The agency’s Nursing Supervisor, perhaps.  That’s right, the agency has had the case for over a year and no Supervisor has yet to enter this cage.  

I remind myself to watch my step when attending to the lost boy.  

Wires, partially covered by soiled round throw rugs, run over the floor in the two foot space between the lost boy’s crib and the blemished chest of drawers pushed up against the opposing wall of the tiny cubbyhole off of the living room the lost boy is held hostage in.  If the place does not burn down, the lost boy is sure to trip and fall. I plan to take the supplies off of the shelves next to his crib, wash them down with bleach, followed by water, check for expiration dates and utilize my Virgo skills to organize the various medical paraphernalia on the shelving, which the bleach reveals at 3 AM that morning to be a light grey. 

The lost boy is awake on the mattress by the door, the one Grandma Zsa Zsa sleeps on when she has had a fight with her rotten to the core boyfriend.  I sit next to the lost boy, first making sure there is no draft blowing in from the window above his head or from the open sliver of space at the bottom of the door.  This is the first time the lost boy has been awake for more than a few minutes since I’ve been on the case.  His deep black eyes and big smile recognize me as the tired old man who, as luck would have it, suctions his trach, unclogs his G tube, listens to his lungs and changes his diaper three times a shift.  

I put my “Policewoman” disc into the miniature DVD player the lost boy balances on his tiny chest, the bright screen a few inches from his eyes.  The lost boy likes Angie Dickinson from the moment he sees her, she awakens something in him, her moves making the boy throw his head back, raising his right hand to the ceiling, bringing his fingers down to eye level, where he gazes at them as if his pink fingernails possessed the truth of all he sees and hears in the middle-aged blonde Police Sergeant, who, unless her three male colleagues burst in on the scene to save her, is seconds away from being thrown off the roof of a building in Century City.  The lost boy moves his hand back and forth, his eyes boring into the pores of his smooth skin before his gaze drifts back to Angie, his body becoming still, his lips smiling.  

I like the lost boy.

Mother covers the outside of her Ikea bookshelf with a dirty batik print and shuffles into the kitchen searching for Coke and chips.

  ♦♦

A half-eaten chicken from Whole Foods is on the stove, potato salad and coleslaw its lonely companions.  I check out the price tags on the goodies’ plastic containers, they total out to thirty-five bucks.  I place my dinner, courtesy of the food banks, in the fridge.  A roll, a red tomato and a small jar of Grey Poupon Dijon mustard.

“You can tell he’s been sick,” I tell Mother.  “Poor boy, he looks sad.  Now that’s he’s home with you guys, he’ll be his old self in no time.”

Mother stuffs a handful of Pringles into her mouth.

“He’s developed foot drop,” I tell her.  “I’ll start working on his feet tonight.  I’ll show you the exercises so we can get them back in shape.”

“You don’t have to do that.”

“If we don’t correct foot drop right away, it’s kind of irreversible.”

“It’s OK.  Don’t worry about it.”

“It’s easy to remedy.  It’ll give me something to do at night.  It’s no big deal.”

“He’s going to the ortho doctor in a few months.  Let the doctor deal with it.  He’s supposed to wear these braces on his legs during the day.  I always forget to put them on.”

Mother’s voice is soft tonight.   She is heavier than usual, must be the candy bars and potato chips.  The light from the bulb in the uncovered ceiling fixture beams down on Mother, making her face appear as if it is going to crack apart and crash onto the floor.  Mother does not resemble her brother in any way.

Like her son, who sits transfixed by Angie’s every move, my eyes switch to high beam, I cannot stop looking at Mother.

“My bad,” Mother says.

Mother looks at the floor, she pushes her big toe into a groove in the linoleum. 

“I’ll show you his exercises before he goes to sleep,” I say.

“No.  I DON’T want you to do anything.”

I force Mother’s eyes to look into mine.  Her big toe stops grooving, the G tube is quiet, the vent devours the dead air Mother and I breathe out.  

I do not smile.

I do not nod my head.

Mother’s eyes are locked into mine, the razors shooting out of my pupils cutting the last remaining strand of the unraveling string between us.  I want the lost boy to stand up straight, walk without a limp, stare up at the clouds flying above him, breathe without a vent, use the toilet, tell me what he sees in the ceiling tiles and in the pores on the skin of his small hands, I want him to sing to me the sounds his tiny caramel ears hear.  

I get it.

Mother does not want anything for her son.  Nothing.  Rien.  Nada.  Not even to walk barefoot on the grass in the park down the street.  

“Leave him on the vent so I can get an extra hour or two of sleep,” Mother says in the mornings when I leave.  “He doesn’t move around so much when he’s attached to it.”

Mother will keep the string pulled tight between her son and the vent for as long as she can.  

Let’s get real, Dad’s not shipping out to Iraq any time soon.  Major disability bucks are needed to keep this cage stocked in Whole Paycheck food. 

I walk into the living room. I wipe down the folding table and move the wastepaper basket.  Mother washes downs a Milky Way with a long belt of Coke before trudging sideways down the hall to her bedroom.  I put the lost boy in his crib, leaving Angie on the DVD screen until his smiling face falls asleep.

  ♦♦

I sit in the chair, its hostility digging into my back.  I do not want to hear people talking tonight, not even Angie.  I look at the silent television screen, a woman is hanging new curtains, whose bright yellow color would throw the lost boy into a head rocking swoon, the woman smiles as she straightens the thin material, her delicate hands arranging them until their hems gently tap the floor.  This woman would exercise her kid’s feet, put his braces on, clean his room, keep him away from drafty windows.  She would adjust the horizontal control on her television so the picture would stop bouncing around the way it has been for the six months I have sat in this chair, whose bony arms push into me every night.

I have finally seen behind Mother’s curtain.  

I want to go home.

  ♦♦

My night is spent listening to air being pushed in and out of the vent.  My skin cannot feel the air blowing in through the missing pane in the bathroom.  Every hour, I listen with my stethoscope to lungs breathing without obstruction or distress and to an abdomen alive with active bowels sounds.  I touch veins pounding over bony prominences, feeling the regular rhythm of an eight-year-old pulse.  I press lightly on nail beds observing rapid blood return, look at lips for the slightest hint of blue, check for irritation around the G tube and trach sites.  

I close my eyes, my ears alert for the over-amped whirling that comes on when the vent cycles madly, as it tries to override any offending water in its tubing, tries to rectify any manner of disconnection, be it of the tube from the trach, of the tubing from the vent or of the tubing from a rebellious section of itself.  

These are the only connections I can make anymore. 

At 3 AM, Joe and Mika send their dim light into the dark room I sit in.  Their silent lips mouth their outrage.  Is it Joe and Mika who throw debris into the street in the middle of the night?  I look out through the iron mesh door, the street is empty. 

At 6 AM, Mother signs my time sheet, as she wearily does every morning.  She asks me how the night went, but does not listen to my answer.  She washes her hands, eyeballs the dishes I washed at 2 AM, looks down at the sealed bags of garbage I have left by the backdoor, glances over to the lid on the rectangular basin on the floor by her feet.  I remove my leftovers from the fridge, button up my coat and open the front door to leave, my ears hearing the usual thanks for taking care of her son. 

I smile.  Nod my head.

This morning Mother adds a new tag:  “It’s cold outside, cold.  I’m gonna’ spend the day in my jammies.”

Lucky lady.

  ♦♦

I cannot sleep when I get home, there are calls to be made.  I watch three episodes of “Policewoman” until the City of the Angels opens her doors at 9 AM.  I call Supervisor Yaroslavsky’s office, his intern is back at work and, feeing rested and chipper after having taken three days off, she connects us to a conference call with the civil servant in charge of jury duty.  

“You’ve failed to prove that jury duty would be a financial hardship,” the civil servant babbles to us in a hoarse whisper.  “I can’t excuse you.”

“He’s taking care of a disabled child,” the intern tells him.

“The kid’s got parents if Epstine can’t come in,” the civil servant answers. 

“Where’s the hardship?” he asks me.  “You’re working.”

“If I miss work, even for a day, it really cuts into my finances.  One day is food money.  Two days cut into the rent.  I can’t afford to be on a jury.”

“You have an income, Epstine.  Have you tried saving some money for the proverbial rainy day?”

“SAVING MONEY? SAVING MONEY? WHAT WORLD ARE YOU LIVING IN?”

The civil servant is silent, the intern breathes deeply.

“I want to be on a jury.  It’s not that I don’t want to do it.  I can’t take a week off without pay.  Can’t you understand that?”

“I’ll postpone you until February of next year,” the civil servant says, clearing his throat to reveal a nice baritone.   “I’ll postpone it again if your circumstances are the same. Hopefully, things will improve for you by then.”

“Thank you.  I appreciate it.”

“I know where you are,” the intern tells me after the civil servant hangs up.  “I was so broke a few years ago…when I walked past restaurants and saw the people inside eating, I couldn’t imagine how they could afford it.”

I thank her, tell her she is a good woman.  She repeats over and over that things will get better, they have to.  Right.  I watch another “Policewoman” episode, then hit the mail box, where an envelope from LAUSD tumbles out, its thick black letters informing me I have been “Separated for continued non-availability.”  I could call LAUSD or go into their office on South Beaudry Avenue, tell them I would still like to sub, explain how they did not offer me work for five months. 

I could do a lot of things, but the concrete blocks knock me down, as does the Ativan, which promises a few hours respite from the phone calls, the mail box, the whining vent and the burping G tube.  

I sing my lullaby until I fall asleep on the worn-out cushions of my couch, given to me by my friend Mark’s family when he died, Mark’s voice whispering through les arbres into my ear: “There are no second acts.”

  ♦♦

I wake up in the late afternoon.  I am not in my jammies.  I take the Thai Delight Stretch Pants gave me off the shelf.  I read the instructions on the side of the box, my eyes spotting that it expired two years ago.  I throw it into the thrash.  Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for dinner tonight.

I turn the television on.  Rachel Maddow is getting snarky.  Again.  

I change the channel, Michelle Obama is in Europe.  She tears up as she tells a group of young women that if you work hard, believe in yourself and push with all you’ve got against the forces opposing you, your dreams will come true. 

Time for a walk.  

Balls throb, gut churns, jaw screams.  Putting one foot in front of the other will quiet my infirmities.  Better still, walking is free.  Like the lost boy watching his beloved Policewoman, I gaze rapturously through open curtains into windows I have walked past for years.  Do the people I see in their living rooms and kitchens feel the air on their skin?  

In my one mile walk along Beachwood Drive, I clock thirty for rent signs.  

Lucky folks, they must have left to follow their dreams.

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Filed under Memoir, Personal Essay

I Need Food.

Chapter 25 / 2009

I Need Food.

At 9:30 PM, I stand before the freshly painted iron mesh door of Mother’s brother, who lives in the house attached to his scary sister’s.

Brother hears me knocking.  

“Didn’t the agency tell you not to come in tonight?” he asks.  

The brother and his sister share the same face.  His is thinner, covered with a light beard.  His eyes do not dart from the floor to the ceiling when he talks, his hands have never twisted imaginary dials.  No way would this guy launch into an hour long diatribe about Obama’s fake birth certificate.  

Brother invites me into his pad, my nose readies itself for the stench of wilted flowers or rotting food.

I enter.

My feet do not stick to the shining hardwood floors.

Brother’s floor plan is a mirror image of his sister’s, his walls painted light brown and trimmed with ink black moldings, framed charcoal drawings, hung at eye level, are arranged with perfect symmetry above the couch.  The light from the starburst 60s ceiling fixture bounces off the bare polished marble countertops in the kitchen.

Brother is not gay.  He is Marine clean.

Brother tells me the lost boy has developed pneumonia.  It comes on him like that, the lost boy is fine in the morning and by late afternoon he has spiked a temp, by dinnertime he is delirious with fever.  Mother and Dad think he caught it from the day nurse, who, during the few hours she is on duty, has been coughing nonstop for the past two weeks. 

“Little sister never sends him to school, she’s afraid of germs,” Brother says.    “With the swine flu and all, I don’t think she’ll ever let him go back.”

“If he played with kids his own age, he’d be exposed to all sorts of stuff,” I tell him.  “It would build up his immune system, make it much stronger.  He’d certainly be a lot more socialized.”

I look at the horseshoe shaped turquoise ceramic ashtray, sitting a tad off center on the glass top of the wrought iron table in front of the couch.  Neat piles of books and magazines lie beneath the crystal clear tabletop, not a tabloid in sight.  

“What do you think about all this?”  Brother asks me.

My eyes move from the deep sheen of the hardwood floor to a ceiling as immaculately white at the one I will be soon be sitting under at the UCLA School of Dentistry.  

“He hasn’t been awake since I started working.  I can’t say much.”

Brother smiles at me.  He wants the real answer.  I want a job.

“I think he’s a strong kid,” I say.  “I think he’ll get through this.” 

Brother laughs and walks me to the door.

“That’s the standard answer.  Every nurse who’s been through here says it.”

I smile.  Nod my head.

  ♦♦

I send the lost boy a get well card:  “I miss hearing your G tube explode at 3 AM.” 

Can the lost boy read?  I have not asked Mother or Dad about their son’s cognitive skills.  I stopped asking medical questions on day one, when neither could answer what the game plan for their son was.  

Scary. 

   ♦♦

“We’ll get back to you with a temporary assignment,” the space cadet staffing co-ordinator tells me.

Those are the last words I ever hear from him.  Whenever I call the agency, the dissembling cadet is either at lunch or has stepped away from his desk, his hunger and the ease with which he can satisfy it, along with the demands of his weak bladder, preventing him from finding me replacement shifts during the two weeks the lost boy is hospitalized.  I pull together the rent money, but that is all I have for the month.  I hold on tight to my emergency ten dollars, consoling myself with the extra scratch I will receive when I get back to work, Obama’s tax relief deal netting me a whole thirty-six bucks more a month.  

Lucky man, this windfall will buy me three bottles of apple juice a week.

With all that juice flowing, the economy is sure to turn around any day now. 

  ♦♦

I need food.

I call a social worker at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, the steadiness in his sweet voice sending me to the food bank at the First Presbyterian Church on Yucca Street in Hollywood.  The Church’s volunteer worker is red faced, no doubt from jamming her massively overweight body into the ratty green stretch pants she parades around in.  Contemplating the nutritional value of the food she has given me makes my jaw hurt, the roots of my rear molars throbbing rhythmically as my eyes take in the dull labels on the cans of green beans, black eyed peas and orange juice I place on my empty kitchen shelves.  I had planned to write when I returned home with the food bank’s goodies.  My gut throbs with a hunger the cans on my shelf will never satisfy.  I eat a Vicodin to numb out the jabs my body has taken and sleep for thirteen hours, waking up to sing my lullaby at 3 AM as Joe and Mika snicker at the morning’s comings and goings.

  ♦♦

“I feel for you, bro.  I’m on break starting tomorrow.  I’ll be back in a few weeks,” the dental student whispers.

Figures.

I stare at the endless heaven of pristine white tiles above me and continue to recite my tale to the dental student:  “The pain is so bad…it’s hard for me to concentrate…especially at night when I’m on duty with my patient…forget about trying to write or rehearse.”

The dental student pulls my jaw to the left, to the right, up, down, his hairless hands pushing my the bottom of my chin up towards the top of my head.

“You’ll be like this for at least a year,” he says.  “It’ll work itself out, think of it as a muscle strain.”

The novocaine melts into my gums, its cold fingers giving me a momentary high as the dental student pushes my jaw to the left again, my buzzed blood thinking that before I beat it back to Hollywood, I should visit the house on 5th Helena Drive where Marilyn Monroe died.

“We’re missing Marilyn…where are the Marilyn references?” a Joe in my writing group asked at our last session.

He asks this whenever I read from my memoir of the New Depression, whenever he hears the words I am forced to pound into the keyboard, my fingers flying at work as I sit next to the lost boy, flying before I go into work, even in the mornings after the concrete has wrapped itself around my hands.  

I look around at the writers’ faces after I finish reading each new episode, every one a no-go, my tale too depressing, too bleak, too sad.

“It’s not writing really, it’s reportage, there’s just no let up,” another Joe says.  “Give your audience a break.”

“I have a story to tell..,” I say.  “…and this is the way I’m going to tell it…this is how it happened.”

“Oops,” the dental student’s blue eyes say as his double gloved fingers remove my defective crown. 

Looking at this ceiling only brings me bad news. 

“Mr. Epstine, your bridge is in trouble,” the deep voiced doctor says.

My eyes concentrate on the craters pock mocking the tiles, their faces as clean as they have been for the past few years, not even a spec of dust on their cheeks.

“You have options,” the doctor’s voice whispers.

“Options, it’s about the options,” the dental student chants.

I am so screwed.

“We must replace the bridge, which means three new crowns.  We could place three implants, which is another way to go, the way I’d go.”

“Implants are the way to go,” the dental student repeats, sounding like a second grader reciting a multiplication table.

“Or we can place one implant and hang a bridge on it.  That is, of course, after we deep clean all four quadrants.”

Proceeding to checkout, the options in my cart total out to co-pays of $720, 6K and $2480 respectively, plus $400 for the cleanings.

“I started getting food at a food bank two days ago…what you’re talking about…that amount of money is way out of my league.”

I look at the billowy yellow isolation gowns, then up to the eyes beneath the goggles, which, as always, refuse to meet my gaze.

Oops, I forgot.  Too depressing, too bleak, too sad. 

The dental student babbles something about the recession and then proceeds to open my mouth and push my jaw to the left for three hours. 

I try to go over plot problems in my novel, the one with the killer Marilyn Monroe references.

Lucky Man that I have always been, the novocaine kills the pain of the money I owe and the money I need until I get off the bus for home at the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Gower Street.  My cowboy boots’ silver tips having seen me through better days, their worn down soles take over, pulling me to the Frolic Room on Hollywood Boulevard, where I foolishly spend half of my ten dollar emergency money on carbonated water.

  ♦♦

Three days after receiving the pain inducing bag of food from Stretch Pants, I stand in a line at the SOVA food pantry on Beverly Boulevard, where I find myself surrounded by round Russian women and their short creamy skinned men, our ranks interspersed with tired Latinas and downcast young black women.  I smiled and nodded my head when the social worker at Jewish Family Services referred me here, her raspy voice telling me I sounded much younger than fifty-six.  Whatever.  I am hungry.  A half hour after I joined this sagging line of empty bellies, the SOVA security guard tells all approaching newcomers there is only enough food for the people already in line.  The man with the urine stained pants I met at the First Presbyterian Church stands ten people ahead of me.  We smile.  We nod our heads.  He has five, maybe six teeth, his lips are chapped and scabbed over, his smile is one of the friendliest I have ever encountered in the City of the Angels.

He walks over to me and says through his grey teeth:  “They’re much nicer here.  They give you what you need.  You have a cat?  A dog?”

I show him Sunset’s pensive face on the screen of my cell.

“They’ll give you cat food.  Don’t forget to ask for it.”

He returns to his place in line.  His pants are two sizes too big, spotted with stains and drenched in urine which, despite the crisp air blowing through Beverly Boulevard, I can not smell.  I look across the street to Pan Pacific Park, which I first discovered in 1981 when I drove my orange GTO to work at Cedars-Sinai Hospital, all jazzed because I remembered Barbra Streisand running out of its green and white deco Auditorium doors in “Funny Lady.”  My first LA boyfriend, more devil than angel, lived around the block on Stanley.  On New Year’s Day of 1982, we crawled through an opening in the Auditorium’s boarded up windows, walking our hangovers off, talking and laughing, running nausea inducing laps on the moldy rotting floor.  

“Are you a Holocaust survivor?” the SOVA intake worker asks me. 

I laugh, the big, deep, cleverest, best joke I have ever heard laugh.

“Sorry, it’s just a question we have to ask all the applicants.”

Unprotected by thick plastic goggles, the intake worker’s light green eyes look straight at me, the way the lost boy gazes at the television screen.

My tears come, staining my pants until my crotch is nearly as damp as that of the man with the friendly smile.  My nose smells the salty tears mixed with a trace of snot before they swim up to my eyes, the tears beat out of me, my body shakes like I am having a petite mal seizure, words are punching out of my mouth, my vocal cords afraid to stop and let my ears hear the silence of this room, the silence of my apartment at noon.

“Do you know the Pan Pacific Auditorium used to be across the street, where the park is?  There was a movie theater in front of it.  It was falling apart, but I always went there.  I think it was a brick building…it was, it was brick, with a big plate glass window in the front…ugh, the dirtiest curtain covering it.  They showed double bills…for two dollars.  It must have been ripped down years ago.  I don’t know what happened to my boyfriend on Stanley.  We drank a lot…a lot…mass amounts…he was a mean drunk…not that I was that nice myself.  I had quite the rep in those days.  I hung out at all the underground clubs.  I saw Lily Tomlin do her punk rock character for the first time at some club on Melrose.  I got up and went to work the next day…I never missed a shift…never.  Every hospital the agencies sent me to tried to recruit me to work for them. That’s how I got my job at Cedars.  They wanted me to work for them exclusively, they thought I was a good nurse.  That’s what they told me…it must have been true.  I could take care of myself…I could pay my own way…I could…I could…”

The intake worker gets up and closes the door.

“Tell me what happened,” she says.

I tell her about the lucky man.

  ♦♦

The man with the amazing smile was right, a dozen cans of cat food sit on my kitchen table.  

I lie on the black velvet of my couch, the sun streaming in, Sunset spread out on the rug soaking up the smiling rays of the City of the Angels.  Having spent the morning crying out my tale to the intake worker appears to have drained the pain out of my jaw, balls and gut, to have cooled the humiliating sting of being near the end of today’s line and wondering if there would be enough bread left for me to take home.  The emptiness in my belly has been sated by the cheese danish given to me with the cat food and other staples I need to keep myself fueled for the days ahead, all of which I have carefully placed on the faded white paper lining my kitchen shelves.

Tuna fish, bread, pasta, rice, dried beans, peanut butter, jelly, canned fruit, powdered milk and cereal, none of which will expire any time soon.

The lost boy is returning home this afternoon, I have a job again. 

The phone rings.  My landline, I only use the GoPhone for emergencies.

The bad luck of UCLA’s tiles has somehow wormed its way into my apartment, this must be the space cadet calling to tell me the case is not back on track.

“You’re a wonderful writer,” JoAnne tells me.

I move off the couch, in an instant, the sweat on my back has dampened my tee shirt.

“I had to make sure you were for real before I start asking agents to rep you.”

I am a writer after all.  

I have a story to tell.


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