Chapter 18/ 2008
The Beat Goes On.
December’s rent is covered, I need to come up with January’s. Having abandoned my out of downing a bottle of Extra Strength Vicodins for the time being, the beat obviously goes on. I allow myself ten minutes a day to think about pending money matters. When the eleventh minute hits, the tips of my fingers go numb for the remainder of the day.
I wake up in the silence of my Beachwood digs with the unsettling idea that I need to be around people my own age. Maybe they can teach me how to once again feel the air on my skin. The Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center is hosting an evening for seniors at Cafe Solar De Cahuenga in Hollywood. I am a senior now? Is the grey at my temples stopping the lucky old man from getting a job? The Solar is fifteen minutes from my house. Why not? No money for gas, I hoof it down Franklin Avenue, passing the Alto-Nido Apartments, in whose noir rooms “Sunset Boulevard’s” William Holden hid from the bill collectors, his windows looking out to Parva Sed Apartments, where Nathanael West pounded out “The Day of the Locust.”
The Solar is empty, save for the seniors sitting at a long wooden table. Realizing I am the youngest at this unevenly shellacked brown table, I find myself throwing serious attitude. Mostly, I am afraid someone will ask me how I’m doing. Like the abandoned building across the street, in which a down at his heels Ed Wood once lived, no one is the least bit interested in how what is left of my body and soul is holding up in these tough times. The man next to me has a face even more immobile than that of the Holocaust patient’s daughter. He claims he was an actor, which I translate into meaning he was a background artiste, an extra straight out of West’s Central Casting. The man proceeds to tell me in breathless squeals that he recently had back surgery at Cedars, his upper lip an unbroken straight line as he tells me he sucked off his nurse every night. Great, on top of the nightly head, that nurse has a steady gig. The guy across from us tells me he has been on SSI for fifteen years. As he walks, talks and most certainly eats without the slightest hint of any observable difficulty, I ask why. He giggles and babbles something about his doctor doing him a favor back in the day. Wonder if it involved a blow job. A quiet man on my left talks about taking a friend to his first AA meeting over the weekend.
“My friend didn’t like it, he said he’s not an alcoholic.”
“I wasn’t either, until I was,” I answer.
The Solar slowly fills up with people who seem to have lives outside of the one I find myself crawling through, their fingers tap into computers, they smile while chatting with Facebook friends, their backs sway to the music chanting into their headphones. I listen to the woosh of traffic floating in through the backdoor, its reassuring hum generated by people who can fill up their tanks.
My eyes are hypnotized by the fingers flying over keyboards.
When did I stop punching at the keys?
The lone woman in our group talks about her children: “They’re both so ungrateful and selfish. What’s a mom to do?”
Another man tells me he lives a few blocks away on Ivar Avenue, in the Knickerbocker Hotel, from whose rooms not only was Frances Farmer dragged kicking and screaming in the 40s, but from whose eleventh story window the costume designer Irene took her out, jumping to the pavement in 1962. I would love to see the inside of this place, stand beneath the lobby’s chandelier, under which D.W. Griffith died of a stroke. The man says he likes to walk. I do too. He is up for being a walking buddy. I tell him I will walk with him next week. I remember now, I used to plan things for next week, I used to be able to think about next week, used to do silly things like check out faded Hollywood landmarks. My ears refuse to listen to one more minute of the noise bouncing off the table’s shiny surface, I lie and tell my fellow seniors I have to leave early, that I am going home to write.
The Knickerbocker man’s e-mail waits for me the next morning: “I have few vido tap to look at and we can get off Next you call let me no. I have puss one all the other are gay I do wnat to fine a person to walk with I do not have one now love to h ave sex to”
I draw the curtains. I mute the phone. I get under the white clouds of my featherbed. I reread “The Day of the Locust.”
I am up early and out the door for an insurance assessment, meeting an applicant before he leaves for work. He lives alone in a huge house hanging off the side of a hill in Laurel Canyon. Three bedrooms, Chagall prints, comfy grey linen couches, a pool shimmering with a blue light which meanders serenely through the polished glass of antique French doors. The applicant pours us tea, his deep voice asking if I like it. I do. He asks me if I would like a croissant. I would. The peppermint drops I splash on my tongue throughout the day can no longer kill my hunger. He asks if I am comfortable. Very.
“Do you need anything before we get started?” he asks.
The back of head sinks into the soft linen, my breakfast deprived stomach quiet as it devours the croissant.
“I need a lot,” I answer.
I laugh, the big, deep, cleverest, best joke I have ever heard laugh.
The applicant moves from his place next to me on the couch to a chair on the other side of the room, putting his cup of tea down and unlocking the French doors before I begin my questions.
A healthy guy in his early forties, the interview is over in a half-hour, his pale white fingers tapping the keypad on the home security system as I walk out the door.
Must be nice to have a cup of tea, a croissant and a pool to offer someone.
Crashing hospitals in the hope of getting an interview did not work.
The beat went like this: “Our protocol is for applicants to apply online.”
Got it. After the insurance assessment, I hit an agency on Magnolia Boulevard in Valley Village, whose Craigslist post proclaimed: “We hire for all shifts.”
Their beat went like this: “We’d love for you to come in and apply.”
Got it. The agency’s office is freezing, my skin at last feeling something, gales of air pour out of the ceiling, causing the ends of the staff’s hair to move slowly back and forth while their dull eyes stare at computer screens. The administrative assistant walks me to an ice locker in the back of their first floor suite. Every room we pass has a sink in it. I have no idea what this is about, nor do I ask. I finish the required nursing tests in a half-hour, receiving dirty looks when I return to the front office with my paperwork.
“Every agency gives pretty much the same test,” I say, my head bowed down by the cold. “I could take them blindfolded. I could…”
The receptionist is not listening. Got it. I stop talking.
“People think it’s gonna’ change now that he got it,” the administrative assistant says as she walks another applicant down the hall.
“Nothing’s going to change,” my fellow jobseeker answers. “This is just the beginning.”
Sitting in the wind tunnel of the waiting area, I read the agency’s brochure. Their mission statement is interesting: “To maintain good health in their home.” How do they accomplish this? “Give us the opportunity to provide you” followed by a blank space. My jaw pounds against the cold hitting me from all directions, but that is my fault, what with my mandibular oversensitivity. My stomach punches away, balls thankfully quiet, they like the cold air. Goose bumps come and go on my hands, the air moves the receptionist’s long hair, the sink in the corner drips, a homeless man looks in the window, pivots on his bare heels and runs down Magnolia Boulevard.
“He got ninety percent on his test,” the receptionist says to the staffing co-ordinator.
She pushes my paperwork to him, he stares at the solitaire game on his computer screen. The phones ring, no one answers them.
These jokers have five more minutes before I bail.
The agency director grabs me on my way out. I follow her tight pencil skirt into her office, its corner housing a double sink. Her eyes looking at the framed Anderson Cooper poster behind me, she quotes me a laughable salary. I get up to leave, she ups it a dollar. I sit down. The director’s beat goes like this: she pays five dollars an hour less than the assisted living facility, two dollars an hour less than the agency on Sunset. Totals out to be between sixty-four and a hundred and sixty dollars less a week. All the agencies are quoting this rate. I keep forgetting, we are all in this together. I stare at the director’s diamond necklace and earrings as she glances at my paperwork. Nice jade rings, her diamond tennis bracelet rocks. Wonder if she took a pay cut to work here.
The staffing co-ordinator talks about work. He sounds real, his bone white face claims to have several open cases. A kid rooming at Cedars, building his strength up before cancer surgery. A few open shifts with a woman with Lou Gehrig’s. 3 PM to 11 PM in Eagle Rock.
“I’ll take it.”
“We’d like you to do a meet and greet first,” the co-ordinator says.
“No problem. When?”
“I’ll call her and get back to you.”
He does not call. I call him. I can meet with the patient any day, any time.
“Tomorrow is her bath day. She’ll be tired after that. She doesn’t want to meet with anyone on the weekends. On Monday, she goes shopping with the day nurse. She’ll be tired after that. On Tuesdays, her brother visits.”
“Let me guess. She’ll be tired after that.”
I was kind of hoping the staffing co-ordinator would put the rubber on before he fucked me.
The dental student at UCLA is on week three of trying to make an impression for my crown. I was kind of hoping that he too would put the rubber on before he fucked me. I have given him my Tuesday afternoons for over a year now, leaving Tuesdays lost to me after the three to four hour appointment time and the two to three hour travel time. He tells me UCLA will need money before he cements the crown in.
“Think you’ll get it done anytime this year?” I ask.
His baby blues stare at the floor. He wants me to pay today.
“I left my cell at home,” I tell him. “I’m going to use the phone at the desk.”
I call the Magnolia Boulevard agency. Do they have anything? Does the woman in Eagle Rock have any time this week to do the meet and greet? She has moved on to another agency, but it just so happens a night nurse on another case died this morning in the patient’s home when his shift ended at 6 AM. The staffing co-ordinator says he feels very strongly about me, has what he calls “A positive vibe” about me. A vibe? The dead nurse’s patient is an eight year old boy on a vent, trached, with G tube feedings throughout the night. I have never done Peds. Eight is not an infant. At least he can write out what he is thinking, most likely he sleeps through the night. Both parents are in the house, in case it goes south.
“I’ll take it.”
“Tomorrow, he’ll be in school,”the staffing co-ordinator tells me.
He is very Russell Brand, a dissembling space cadet without the accent.
“After school, he’ll be at the doctor’s. The day after, the family is taking him to Hawaiian Gardens. Then he’ll be back in school, after that he’s getting his hair cut. Fridays are never good. He has physical therapy after school and then he’s really tired. Going into next week…”
“ENOUGH! Do you want me to do this or not?”
Poor little staffing co-ordinator, I have stopped him in mid monologue. He needs to learn to how to deal with hecklers.
“Tell them I’ll be there Saturday at 1 PM. Capiche?’
He tries to talk. Nothing.
“E-mail me the address. Try to include his diagnosis and a care plan. Can you tell me why he’s on a vent?”
“Call the family. Tell them I’ll be there Saturday. Can you do that?”
“Yeah…sure. I get a really good feeling about this. I think they’ll like you.”
It is a fifteen minute drive to the case. Not the best part of North Hollywood, abandoned bookcases, chairs and tables are scattered on the grass strip between the sidewalk and the street. All of the buildings have bars on their first floor windows, some lawns are green and freshly cut, others are dry dirt, there is no perceivable reason for this discrepancy. Debris is piled up on the sides of all the buildings.
My engine off, I sit outside of the patient’s house. I do not want to be too early. No surprises from me. When I do a show, I savor the minutes before I walk onstage, going into myself one last time, touching all the heaviness in my body, pushing it out, dropping everything that hurts, everything that gets in my way. I walk into the blinding light and fly free, making the connection, always making the connection.
“You’re happy up there,” Matt says when he watches me perform. “You’re comfortable, so at ease.”
On earth, I hold the cards close to my vest. If I show people who I am, I lose. To get this job, I can not show the darkness, the anger, the weight of the last few months, the last year and a half. I roll up my car window. I walk around the lonely furniture. Shaking the fear out of my hands, I step on to the cracked concrete sidewalk. I am a good nurse, that is the only thing I have to be for the next two hours. At twelve fifty-five, I stand on the steps of the house and knock on the iron mesh door. The day nurse does not recognize the name of the mother whom I have been asked to meet and greet. Interesting. I ignore my first red flag. The nurse smirks, then clears her throat and begins to push the door closed.
“I’m here for an interview. To work with the little boy on the vent.”
The nurse lets me in. She looks like she has spent most of her life drinking, probably a lesbian. She has, she’s not. Like the morning I found my friend hunched over dead in his windowless room, my eyes spot the child on a mattress on the floor. The second red flag waves at me. I would never leave anyone so close to a dirty floor or a drafty front door. The vent I can do, I have worked this model before. The G tube is not a problem, I have been doing them thirty years. My fear is suctioning a child. He is way tinier than I thought he would be, still, he is big enough.
I can do it. I know I can.
The child is sleeping. I do not know anything about kids, but he seems awfully small. Not fragile, nor petite. His head is not proportionate to his body, a body he has not grown into. His skin is caramel brown, thick straight shining black hair, long black lashes which twitch as his eyes move under their lids. His pink mouth mimics silent words which the trach prevents him from speaking. He laughs, his eyes suddenly still. What is this lost boy dreaming about?
I am a dreamer too, a dreamer whose body has turned against him, like the body of the lost boy. I am a dreamer who will keep him safe.
Enough, I have a job.
“He looks great. You’ve done such a good job with him,” I tell the nurse. “It must be such a comfort for him to have you here with him, you know, after what happened with the night nurse.”
She has not a clue what to say. I do.
I speak with the parents, émigrés from Hawaii, stranded on the mainland since the premature birth of their son while vacationing in Southern California. The mother is obese, possibly Latina. If you melt away the fat on her face, I bet she was a pretty woman a decade ago. On second thought, maybe fifteen years ago. She talks a lot, very disconnected, like Sarah Palin, but no where near as mean. The dad is barefoot on a pretty cold afternoon, the blue bow and arrow tattoo, on the pale white skin of his left calf, appears to be aiming straight at me when he walks. He wears a baseball cap turned backwards, a goatee with no grey in it. He is a quiet man, but fire is definitely burning in his overweight belly.
The parents need to talk about the dead nurse. I let them. After all, I was a hospice nurse for years, back when I made enough money to pay rent and buy groceries. They talk about the nurse as if he was a piece of furniture whose leg broke off, which they then placed on the strip of grass in front of their house. Red flags wave at me, but I say to myself they have not absorbed his death yet. The nurse had been with them for eight years, practically part of the family. The dad talked to his piece of furniture late at night when it was not working on its computer or watching movies until dawn with the patient’s grandmother. I do not say much. I am playing it as the mature even-tempered nurse, seen it all, tons of experience. You can sleep through the night without worry as I watch over your son.
The parent’s child wakes up, stands in front of the television and reaches up with his right hand, hitting a button on the VCR. The color smashing through the streaks on the screen is jarringly over saturated, the reds brighter than the flags trying to hustle me out the door. I want to dive into the blues, sink into the greens, to be anyplace but in this filthy living room. Does the lost boy in front of the television want the same thing? The cartoon on the screen stops for a few seconds, then whizzes in reverse in front of his eyes. Smiling, the lost boy is yoga still for a moment, his fingers holding the rewind button down. The television’s sound is off, but he hears something, sounds no one else in the room can hear. Without fear or the slightest hesitation, he moves his head back and forth, so fast at first that all I see is a blur of black hair. His forehead comes within a centimeter of hitting the screen, then his head flies back, his eyes looking up at the ceiling in ecstasy, his smile floating above the adults in the room. The day nurse pulls out a cigarette as the blur of the head slows down, still a centimeter away from slamming into the screen. The head speeds up to a blur when the nurse goes out for a smoke. Dad straightens up the twenty or so video cassettes on the floor as the head slows down, its lost eyes staring down the reds, blues and greens.
The mother can not stop the river of words flowing out of her mouth. She begins her sentences with “We’re very chill here,” ends them with “It’s chill.” I am a captive audience, I will listen to whatever she, her husband or the nurse have to say. The mother tells me her mother sleeps over sometimes, calls her the Filipino Zsa Zsa Gabor. There you are, most likely Zsa Zsa is a caretaker when she is not here, probably at the assisted living facility or with the Holocaust patient.
I find my in. The patient’s original agency went bust a year ago, leaving them to hook up with the agency on Sunset, which lasted all of two months before the chill émigrés switched to the Magnolia agency. We share war stories. Mother tells me the dead nurse never complained to Sunset when they cut his salary by four dollars an hour. He was “chill with it,” she says. Most likely he was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, I think. I use all my stand up skills to lacerate the Sunset pimps, the incompetent staffing co-ordinators, their lying to the unemployment office, the pay checks which were never in the mail, their habit of changing my pay rate every other week. Mother and father laugh, the nurse finally cracks a smile. On top of the fridge, I spot an elaborately chintzy clock covered in dust, its hands frozen at ten after six.
“No way, I’ve got the same clock in my house,” I say.
No lie, I do. I bought it at the Goodwill on Hollywood Boulevard, when I had money, money meaning I had twenty bucks a week for myself, when I thought shopping at the Goodwill was a boho chic thing to do.
I have reeled them in, they squirm helplessly in my net. I will leave before I say something to mess it up.
“Say good-bye to your new nurse,” mother says to her son.
The lost boy is moving fast now, listening to the sounds only he can hear. I tell the parents he will get to know me once I start working. I get out fast, before the boy’s head crashes into the screen and all that blue moving in reverse swallows us up.
I drive home on the 101, the staffing co-ordinator whispering into my cell that I have been assigned to work with the lost boy Fridays through Monday nights.
That night, I walk past the Alto-Nido on my way to the Solar, my numb fingers hoping to punch my life back into the writing ring.
Lucky man cracks a smile, he will not be downing his bottle of Extra Strength Vicodins quite yet.