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.
“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…”
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.”
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.
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.