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?
“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 Nothing fancy, but it sure beats the rusted cans, the bags of rice, the outdated Thai Delight boxes, beats hiding a dollar donut from Stretch Pants.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.
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.
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?”
“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.
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.