Chapter 7/ 2007
After Eighteen Years, the Dread Comes Back into my Life.
I lost the next year. It vanished. Slipped through my lucky fingers. I did not write. I could not read. I stopped auditioning. Seventeen years sober, my lost year was like a daily blackout, where instead of waking up in my own puke, I arose to a life I had not lived since I first became a nurse. There were new rules. I was fifty-five, too old and too wise to learn any of them. All I wanted was a job, to pay my own way and to write on my days off.
The week after the Bel Air gig ended, a woman knocked on my door at 9 AM on a Saturday morning. Thin, flawless skin, bobbed hair, huge diamond engagement ring slipping down her tan finger. Tank top and skinny jeans dipping down well past her pierced navel.
“Is your sister home?” she asks.
“Who is it you think lives here?”
She tells me she is looking for the woman her boyfriend is cheating with. For weeks, her brother has been following her boyfriend to my apartment.
Ah, lucky man the straight boyfriend has always been, he has a fiancee.
The fiancee becomes a bit wobbly when she realizes I am that woman. Pushing aside a pile of books, I sit her down at my dining room table. We drink ice water, which I serve in tall glasses with yellow daisy decals running up their sides.
Seems the boyfriend forgot to mention this pleasant young woman on the nights he fed me Viagra and rolled over on his stomach, afterward holding me tight until we fell asleep, whispering into my ear: “You’re the one.”
The fiancee and I plan to accompany each other to our HIV tests. If the boyfriend has been lying to us, what else is he lying about?
The boyfriend becomes the ex, for both of us.
I have more pressing problems. No way to pay the rent, purchase groceries or buy tires, even retreads, to replace the bald ones on my the car. I have not had a drink in seventeen years. I want one, an ice cold Vodka Cranberry. I can taste its sting on my tongue, its oblivion pulsing through my blood. I want two. I have the Vicodins, Absolut Vodka in elongated pill form. I do not take them. I should be proud of myself for touching these sorry feelings and not trying to numb them out.
The agency on Sunset has no work. Monster.com is no longer my friend. As if they knew my father was a tough Chicago bred union organizer, I am disowned by both CareerBuilder.com and MedGigs.net. The health/medical section of Craigslist hates me. The feeling is mutual.
I spend my mornings and afternoons applying online. An application takes anywhere from a half-hour to well over an hour to complete, each one having to be individualized for that 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 short story submissions, the literary agents had the courtesy to have their assistants 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 had the lead in a play. I did stand up at the Comedy Store. I know how to hide any traces of the desperation I am feeling.
I quickly learn the mantra: “Our protocol is for applicants to apply online.”
“I have,” I say.
My voice is humble and boyish. No one would think I am in my mid-fifties.
“We’ll contact you if you’re a match for the position.”
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 on to 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.
I wonder if they know what expertise means. I explain that if you can work at the General for as long as I did, you can work any place.
I get one job offer, taking care of a five year-old boy who, as the Nurse Manager says: “Wiggles like the snake until you sedate it with the drugs.”
I decline the job.
The only time my landline rings, it is the ex. Not being able to afford a phone which flashes caller ID, I hang up several times a day. When not sitting next to the phone like a lonely spinster in a William Inge play as I wait for a job callback, I look lovingly at the bottle of Vicodins. It would be easy to take one and sleep all day. I know where that leads. To stop the bottle eyeballing me from the glass shelf of my medicine cabinet, I put it in the top drawer of my writing desk. My balls ache and swell intermittently. I am used to it. It is part of my routine now. I laugh exactly once a day, thinking of how the ex smiled every time he saw the enormity of my balls heading in his direction. He has stopped calling and moved on to e-mailing me mournful emo lyrics and Sylvia Plath poems. Sylvia Plath? The balls will get fixed when I get money coming in for the co-pay. My gut hits me daily until well after noon. I try not to drive my car. Something is sure to go wrong with it.
A week has passed. Or so I think. I have been job hunting from August through November, having started when the air was warm and I slept with my windows open at night. Like coming out of a weeklong drunk, my apartment is suddenly cold and damp. I do not use the heater. Gas costs beaucoup bucks.
After four months, I land a total of four agency interviews. Before they consider hiring me, each demands I be fingerprinted, drug tested, TB tested, background investigated, credit checked and examined by a doctor.
The fingerprint clearances from the Department of Justice and the FBI take, on average, two months to be processed. To speed up getting “rolled,” as it is called in fingerprinting world, I am offered the option of traveling to facilities in sketchy parts of the Valley, but I would have to shell out the dough for that myself.
To make food money, I work flu clinics for the agency on Sunset. All my other expenses are charged to credit cards. Word is the agency gets paid seventy dollars for each injection I administer. I do a minimum of one hundred a clinic, for which I get paid eighty bucks. In addition to the various Rite Aids and Walgreens, I am assigned to clinics at Nordstrom at the Grove, the Director’s Guild on Sunset and CNN in Hollywood. The agency tells me it is a reward for working so many clinics by my lonesome. As the Obama multicultural love fest has not yet hit, their assigning me to these upscale venues reminds me that I am the only white nurse working for the agency. I tell everyone at CNN that Anderson Cooper’s shot is on me. They laugh and talk about the death of Kanye West’s mother. Anderson pokes his silver head into the room I have set up my clinic in. He gives me the same dirty look he gives me whenever I see him at Gold’s Gym in Hollywood. He does not want a shot. Hope Lou Dobbs or Larry King can refrain themselves from sneezing on him. Driving home down Sunset, I attempt a left turn on to Ivar, the street Nathanael West lived on when he wrote “The Day of the Locust.” The traffic light is green when I enter the intersection, yellow when I complete the turn. The photo surveillance cameras flash. I do not get to spend that week’s clinic money. I need it for the traffic ticket.
I receive a phone call from one of the health clinics where I was drug tested: “You are the drug user. You test positive for narcotics. You are the not right.”
“It’s got to be the Donnatal I take for my stomach,” I say.
“I will send your test results to the licensing board of nurses…you take the drugs.”
I fax this smooth talker my prescription.
“You say you take this one, this Donnatal, but maybe you possess it to cover up your addiction.”
“Busted,” I tell him.
“Busted? What is the busted? Another drug you take?”
I successfully jump through all the screening hoops. All four agencies hire me. I am offered the grand total of one shift, a two-hour case in Anaheim. Lucky man.
I ask a simple question: “Explain to me why I would drive for two hours to Anaheim and then two hours back to work for two hours.”
“You can get to Anaheim in twenty minutes.”
“You can’t get out of Hollywood in twenty minutes.”
“You have to prove to us that you’re worthy.”
“I’ve been a nurse for thirty years. I don’t have to prove anything.”
Rules. New rules.
Everything is charged to credit cards. I forget that the shortcuts on my computer screen are for my novel, one-man show and MySpace blog. The piles of unread magazines and newspapers on my dining room table have become towers, their loneliness threatening to explode in a “Day of the Locust” like denouement.
In September, the lone literary agent who liked my work asked me to submit additional stories, which she loved “…the most of anything I’ve read this season!” and went on to recommend to the head of her agency. For weeks, I think this is the paying your dues part. The day after Thanksgiving, I receive a form letter thanking me for sending in my work. No signature. No date. There is nothing left to say or do. I have no money if there were. Without even a good movie on TCM to sink into, I soak up the noir humiliation of it all by spending a pity partying hour looking out my living room window at the steady drizzle leaking from the overcast Los Angeles sky. I have no job. I am hungry. I open my writing desk drawer. I sleep for three days.
I wake up and go to the UCLA School of Dentistry for my annual check up. To avoid the high fees my dentist charges, I have crawled on my knees through UCLA’s byzantine labyrinth to care, which drags a righteous consumer through even more hoops and hurdles than an unlicensed nursing agency on the sleazy end of Santa Monica Boulevard. I think I am a lucky man when the fee for the work deemed necessary by my bug-eyed dental student amounts to only a thousand dollar co-pay, as compared to the three thousand dollars my dentist on swanky Wilshire Boulevard wants.
My gut starts to hurt worse than anything I have ever known, more painful than when my lower right leg was snapped in half in a motorcycle accident at the corner of Sunset and LaBrea. I speculate it is from the Vicodins I have been eating since receiving the literary verdict. I stop taking them. It is not. The dull twisting and throbbing of my intestines is more relentless than the take me back notes the ex is now slipping under my front door. I sleep on my couch under a heavy red blanket I bought in Mexico when I had money to go on vacation. When I am awake, I lie on the couch and watch John Cassavetes movies. The gut pain hits whenever it wants, stopping my day before it starts. I cry and wonder who I fucked with in a past life to have brought this fate upon myself.
“You’ll need a colonoscopy,” the gastroenterologist tells me to the tune of a one hundred and twenty-five dollar co-pay.
My father died of intestinal cancer at fifty-six. I am fifty-five. I thought I had dodged the bullet with the hydrocele. Every night when I try to sleep, I see what was left of my father’s body, panting with pain as he lay on the black and white op-art print of our living room couch.
For a week, with no reason, the balls return to their normal size. They do not hurt, but the rage in my gut will not let up.
The colonoscopy is negative.
“The gut is a hard thing to read or predict,” the gastroenterologist says. “We’re Jews, tummy problems are part of our heritage.”
My co-pay for the colonoscopy is a grand. In the next month, another five hundred in co-pays trickle in. Everyone who touched me during the fifteen minute procedure wants a cut. I charge the doctor’s bills. What the hell, the lucky man is alive and cancer free.
Two jobless months after being offered the Anaheim gig, the most reputable of the agencies–a religious outfit whose Nurse Manager tells me and the other lone nurse in orientation that our mission is to spread the loving ideals of Jesus–locates work for me. Which is good, because apparently Jesus does not pay for the agency’s three day orientation. I think this violates labor law. The agency thinks otherwise. I am sure the Nurse Manager regards me as a grubby Jew from New York. Still, she seems to want me to spread the ideals of Jesus.
The fist job is twelve-hour shifts on weekends with a young man who hit his head diving into a pool at age six. He lives in a room whose floor is lined wall-to-wall with mattresses. He needs help walking, eating and dressing. Occasionally, he experiences what his mother calls “outbursts.” Like when he is in a Sizzler and pisses into the salad bar.
I take the job.
Anticipating a weekly paycheck, I buy groceries the day before I am to start work. I spend hours cleaning the tiles in my bathroom. As I sit down to dinner, I get a call. Patient’s mother has decided she does not want weekend coverage. She will not say why. Maybe she can not envision a grubby Jew doing the bidding for Jesus.
The next job is three twelve-hour shifts a week with a teenager born prematurely. He is on a vent, never leaves his bed and is home schooled by a nun from the order of the Sisters of Charity. His mother works two full time jobs, his father having walked years ago. In place of wall-to-wall mattresses, this teenager’s room is covered from floor to ceiling with “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” posters.
I hate science fiction.
I take the job.
Medi-Cal cuts the funding for my hours the day before I am to start. This time, I was smart. I bought groceries, but did not clean.
The next job is twelve-hour shifts on weekends with a gentleman who hit his head diving into a pool. I decide to stop swimming in pools. Paralyzed from the neck down, my would-be patient is on a vent. He is switching from his agency, which refuses to pay its nurses overtime for twelve-hour shifts, to the spreading the ideals of Jesus agency. In place of mattresses or sci-fi posters, he has framed pictures of Marilyn Monroe everywhere. He has written poems about Marilyn, which he impulsively recites for me. They are not half bad. As lover of Marilyn, who spends the anniversary of her death re-reading Norman Mailer’s “Marilyn,” I have extensive lists of the places where Marilyn worked and lived. I tell him of these places. We are immediate buds. He becomes my MySpace friend before I return home from the interview.
I take the job.
The agency messes up the negotiations. Every week the start day is postponed, but still, the job is mine and mine only. This is the story fed to me by the staffing co-ordinator, who always calls me Mr. Jake. No matter how many times I tell her, the only thing she employs is the use of Jake as my last name, Epstine as my first. No wonder they can not negotiate. The week before the promised to me final irrevocable start date, they lose the case to a competing non-Jesus affiliated agency.
I lie on my couch and read a preventative medicine brochure sent to me by my PPO. Obviously, they are tired of paying for my gut medications. I got the hint when they began e-mailing me coupons for over the counter Prilosec. The PPO needs me to get better. Like I am enjoying this. How can I prevent what I already have? For some odd reason I deem to be fate, a listing for a home health hospice agency at Olympic and Fairfax appears below the names of the PPO’s in network Gastroenterologists.
I call. The agency is hiring.
I am interviewed by an overweight middle-aged woman, who does not seem to realize how loud the gospel music chanting from her radio is.
“Where do you see yourself professionally five years from now?” she asks me over the din of prayers offered up to Jesus.
I am hoping to be a lucky man. Get published and never again meet people who ask me this question. The gospel music sounds louder, like the hot wax dripping on to my ear drums. I smile. Nod my head.
“You worked with AIDS patients in LA at the beginning of the epidemic?” she asks me. “I have a surprise for you.”
She calls in one of the Nurse Managers, a woman I worked a few shifts with at an AIDS hospice in the early nineties. A funny lady on our first encounters, she actually talked to the patients when not making numerous medication errors, all of which seemed to involve heavy-duty narcotics. Some of her slip-ups resulted in patients sleeping for several days. Other patients claimed they received no relief from their pain meds. After a few shifts, she was given the heave-ho.
“You’re so old! You’ve gotten so old!” she screams when she sees me.
Eighteen years ago she was a zaftig punker babe with flaming red hair. Now, she has a double chin, her tattoos have elongated and stretched out on her Type 2 diabetic sized body, their faded ink corrupted into configurations not even ecstasy enhanced eyes could identify. Her hair is frizzy, the roots brown, the ends of her dreadlocks copper. She smells like she sleeps in kitty litter. I stare at her as she continues to roll around on the floor, yapping about how old I am.
“This job rocks, dude,” she says.
She has stopped moving. She is lying on the floor, looking up at the ceiling, humming along to the gospel music.
“You can do your nursing notes at Starbucks,” she says.
The fingers of her left hand become inextricably embedded in her stiff dreads.
I have never been to a Starbucks. Scruffy artiste that I am, I do my writing in Hollywood, at the Bourgeois Pig or Cafe Solar de Cahuenga. The gospel loving nurse apologizes for her colleague’s behavior.
The job pays well. I can chose the days I work. A steady paycheck might kill the ache in my gut, the pain in my balls. I will be working on my own, doing home health visits.
Believing myself to be a lucky man, I take the job.