Tag Archives: Unemployment

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

“It’s happening to a lot of people.”


                     Chapter 16/ 2008                       

“It’s happening to a lot of people.”

 The straight boyfriend closes his business.  Having sold his black BMW to an Armenian arriviste from Glendale and auctioning off his Prada and Dolce & Gabbana business threads on eBay, all he has left is a few Benjamins.  

“It was all show, guy…all show,” the boyfriend’s tight throat spits out.

The passive innocence of the Hollywood Sign looks down on the boyfriend’s newly acquired clunker pushing its way up Beachwood Drive, his right wrist weightless and free with the sale of his Rolex, my boyfriend’s hand shakes as he parallel parks in front of my building. 

It is high noon in Hollywood.  We are going to sleep.

I do not tell the boyfriend about the out I have come up with.  He knows.  When he wakes up in the afternoons and shuffles to the bathroom, never once having entertained the thought of spending his morning running the hills of Bronson Canyon, I know he is thinking the same thing.  We talk around the outs.  They sleep with us at night.  In the few hours we are awake, he asks me to read him my stories. 

“Your voice hypnotizes me,” he whispers.  “You’re the hardest worker I’ve ever met.”

“Where has it gotten me?” 

I have done what is easy.  He is the one who has made a business out of nothing, from an idea people thought was frivolous at best.  For me, going onstage to fly, to make people laugh or tell them a story is as natural as breathing in the hopeful air of the City of the Angels.  He is the brave one, the man who goes out every day into a world which never once frightened him, a world he is comfortable in.  He is the one whose baby blues put people at ease, who does not hide behind jokes, who listens more than he talks.  

I am the one in tattered nightshirts.

I wake up at 6 AM.  The boyfriend and I have been sleeping for days, two, three, four, I do not know.  My pillows and sheets smell of our sweat.  I am too tired to change them.  I walk the dog, put food out for the cat, empty the litter box, my feet shuffling back to the bedroom to watch the boyfriend as he sleeps.  He is the one man on whose square jaw stubble does not work, scruffy makes him look like a crystal freak.  It was a great joke to say he gave me his Viagra so I could pound him good.  People laughed until they gasped for air when I told that tale, it was one of my best.  

His name is Matt and the fact is Matt wanted me in him.  

That is not funny.  What have I put in him?  My sadness, self pity, my doubts, the fear I hide behind my stubble and dreamy eyes.  

It is time to pull out.   

I draw Matt a bath, hot as he can take it, peach scented bubbles and foam courtesy of a sale at Rite Aid.  There is enough left in the bottle for one more bath, then no more.  I wash Matt’s hair, shave his face, scrub his feet, trim his fingernails.

“We’re not going to sleep all day anymore,” I tell him.

“No? Not anymore?”

“I’m going to work the phone banks for Obama and No on 8.  I don’t know what will happen after that.  I can’t think that far.”

I brush back his wet hair.  He looks good.

“What are you going to do?”  I ask.

The water is still.  He moves his big toe, a small ripple hits the side of the tub and bounces back.

“I’m going to live with my parents…it’s come apart so fast…I want to go home, guy… I want to go home.”

I wipe away tears with a warm wash cloth.  From his eyes or mine?  What difference does it make?  Tears are tears.  I take a sip of cool tap water and put the glass to Matt’s lips.  He takes a large gulp, his Adam’s apple moves up and down.

“That’s good…you’re smart, you’ve always been smart,” I tell him.  “You’re doing the right thing.  After I dry you off, we’re going out for breakfast.”  

“You don’t…you can’t…”

“I’ve got a few bucks left on my American Express card. We’re going.”

It has been a while since either of us has eaten something besides rice.  My tattered nightshirts thrown into the trash, I listen to Matt for hours after we eat.  His voice reaches behind my eyes, we lie in each other’s arms, afraid that if we let go we will no longer feel the air of our City stroking our skin.

♦♦

Unemployment sets up a phone interview to determine if I qualify for benefits.  It seems the pimps on Sunset told them I refused to work with Medicare patients.

“Those are cases with infants on ventilators,” I tell the unemployment worker.  “I’m not trained to do that.”

“Why would they even suggest you take that type of work?” 

“The scary thing is they’d orient me on a case like that for two or three hours and then assign me to it.  If something goes south, they’d say I never told them I had no experience with infants.”

A  month after applying, I get unemployment.  $177.00 a week.  $159.00 after taxes.  The total of $636.00 a month covers credit card payments, a few bills, a week’s worth of groceries, but not the rent.  My New York work ethic stops me from defaulting on the credit cards.  I will pay them down.  

Lucky man is more of a dreamer than people think.

♦♦

I have to make the call.  

Jerk off three times, then clean the living room windows with watered-down Windex and unread editions of “The New York Times.”  When the daylight comes, I pound the pavement from Franklin Avenue to Western Avenue, walking back very slowly, not wanting to go home, to the emptiness of high noon in Hollywood.  I check my car’s oil and transmission fluid, my eyes ignoring the bald tires.  I locate my cat Sunset on the shelf in the kitchen, tell her today is not the day.  My Ajax used up weeks ago, I scrub out the toilet using bleach and stainless steel pot and pan cleanser.  

Every porcelain surface in my apartment gleaming, there is nothing left to say or do.

I call Bank of America.  They are happy to hear from me, overjoyed.  They are not in India, sounds like they are in Ohio or Indiana.  They would love to advance me one thousand dollars, love to.  They are so glad they can help me in these tough times. The rent for November covered, I fall asleep for five hours during which Sunset vacates the shelf to eat the wet food I left out for her a few hours before.

♦♦

The No on 8 people are flat out dumb, not because they are young, their passion and outrage are in the right place.  More totalitarian than “Morning Joe’s” Mika, their playbook of encouraging the No on 8 voters to get out and vote is flawed.  A few calls in, it is obvious the voters do not need me or anyone else to tell them how to do anything.  The phone bankers and I prefer trying to persuade the yes voters to change their minds.  

“Don’t waste your time trying to change anyone’s mind.  It’s too late for that.”

No, it was not.  

A week in, I quit my brothers and sisters and start working the Obama phone bank on the sound stage of “From Here to Eternity” at the former Columbia Studios in Hollywood.  These people have it down.  Skipping the coasts, we call undecided, independent and Republican voters, concentrating on states where Barack might not make it, Wyoming, Missouri, North and South Dakota, Tennessee, Kentucky.  We spend as much time as we need chatting voters up, telling them Barack is not a Muslim, he is a citizen, Michelle is not a racist.  

We call him Barack, never Obama.

Plates of food wait for us on our breaks: pasta, pizza, veggies, bread, salad, chicken, sushi, pastries, candy bars, potato chips, fruit, juice, sandwiches of all varieties. My shrunken stomach expands in delight.  I make a plate to take home for dinner, covering it with Saran wrap and slipping it into a paper bag. Matt and I can eat a real meal tonight.

One of the phone bank staffers shoots me a look.

“I shouldn’t have,” I say.  “I’m sorry.  I’ll put it…”

“It’s happening to a lot of people,” the staffer says, handing me a six-pack of apple juice.  “Take what you need.  We want you here.”

♦♦

On election day the phone bank is packed, a line of volunteers five people deep threads a half block down Gower Street.  We call all day, until the polls close on the West Coast.  Over and over, we make the connection.  

Enough.  Enough. Enough.  

Barack is going to win, he has to.  

My grateful belly stuffed with pizza, I call a man in Florida. 

“I’m not voting for him.  No way.  No how.”

“Do you know where your polling place is sir?”

“Yes…I’m not really sure.”

I tell him.

“Why you telling me that if I’m not voting for your guy?”

“Everyone needs to get out and vote today.  If you’re not voting for Barack, please vote for whoever your choice is.”

My throat tightens whenever I say Barack, growing hoarse by mid-afternoon, having chanted it all morning.  

“Thank you,” the voter says.

His throat tightens as hangs up to go vote for his guy.

♦♦

After watching Barack claim our victory, I wake up to my lucky life.  

In the mornings, I apply online.  

In the afternoons, I cold call hospitals.

“Our protocol is for applicants to apply online.”

I cold call agencies. 

“We’d love for you to come in and apply.” 

An actor friend calls, crying, screaming he has no money for food, his cell phone has been cut off, gas next, then his lights.  Unable to pay his car insurance, he no longer drives.  Funny, he has never been able to cry onstage, now he has something to draw on.  I mail him  a fin and give him the address for the SOVA food pantry.  I have not been there yet.  I wake up early on the Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays the pantry is open.  I am the nurse, the one who helps people, I do not need anyone’s help.  Rice, pasta, peanut butter and jelly.  I will be OK.  

Thinking about my out, I go back to sleep.

♦♦

I get an insurance assessment, my first in a month, fifty bucks, food for two or three weeks.  Before he gets a chance to change his mind, I set the appointment up with the applicant, a nice gentleman in Century City.  I park next to his Mercedes, my eyes staring at mauve cinderblocks, my skin yearning to feel the air again.  I spot a first edition of “The Day of the Locust” on the bookshelf as I walk into his living room, where we are swallowed up by the silence of glass tables, leather couches, Persian rugs and the intricate patterns of family silver billeted in dark antique cabinets.  He is impressed that I know Nathanael West lived on Ivar Avenue in Hollywood.  We talk about West and John Fante before the assessment begins.  If I met guys like this in my other work worlds, I might get someplace. 

Never happens.

“Are you having more difficulty balancing your check book or managing your finances?” I ask.

This is a sneaky assessment question to see if early onset Alzheimer’s has kicked in.  My neck hurts, fingers throb, jaw aches.

“I let my accountant do that.”

“Could you do it on your own if you had to?”

“Sure, couldn’t anybody?”

I stare at the wall facing me in parking garage, then look at the assessment’s signature page to make sure the gentleman signed in the right place.  I turn on the ignition, the mauve concrete shouting at me that I have not reconciled my checkbook against my monthly bank statements in over six months, not since the morning my hands went numb and sweat seeped through my wife beater with the realization my check register was ten dollars off.  I go over the numbers, go over the numbers again, do it until two hours have vanished and I can not find the ten bucks.  I can pull it from the week’s gas money, buy five dollars worth instead of fifteen.  I drive with the gas gauge on empty for two days, my gut screaming that calling AAA to fill my empty gas tank would eat into my GoPhone minutes.  The signature’s good, my foot presses down heavy on the gas peddle.

The engine will not start.  I am a dead man.  

I want to get home, sleep on my featherbed, eat toast and jam.  My ice cold fingers slowly turning the pages, I go over the gentleman’s paperwork for twenty minutes.  Which card can I use to fix the car?  I could sell it, the money for its intact body and interior would net me beaucoup bucks.  Taking the bus is not too bad, the Metro Rail is a bit lame for this New Yorker.  With a world-weariness I can only associate with Marlene Dietrich, the engine turns over, my bald tires crawl down Olympic Boulevard in the mind numbingly slow traffic of a Friday afternoon as bone white smoke billows out of my muffler.  I light Shabbat candles, my stomach punching at me as I wait for what my balls and jaw have in store for me over the weekend.  I will figure out the repair money Monday morning.  I lose the next two days to a sleep so deep my gut does not demand food, my soul refuses to dream.  

Monday morning, my car starts up without a hitch.  

Lucky man.

♦♦

The receptionist from the hospice agency on Olympic and Fairfax calls.  I always liked her.  She asks how I am doing.  I tell her.  

“I’ll pray on that.  You should pray on it too, like when you’re in temple.”

I look at Sunset, wide awake on the closet floor, never taking her frightened eyes off me.  I want to tell the receptionist to go fuck herself.  Sunset closes her eyes for a few moments.  

I say a polite and final good-bye to the receptionist. 

♦♦

Enzina, a college friend who now lives in Kentucky, calls.  She asks how I am doing.  I tell her.  Why not?  After graduating for college, we lived for two months on a hippie farm in Arkansas, swam naked with the locals, got the shits the same week after eating veggies for a month, stumbling over each other at 2 AM running to the outhouse.  I could not keep my eyes off the boys swimming.  Enzina was the first girl I loved, but once the naked boys kicked in, it was time to sing her a sad good-bye song.  We are still in each other’s hearts.  

Enzina is not big on prayer.  Her photography business is starting to get shaky around the edges.  She is holding on for now.  Turning it over to Jesus would only help if Jesus and his buds wanted to pay cash to have their pictures taken.  When she says she will send me five hundred dollars, I tell her I do not need it, I was not asking for it, I will make out OK.  She knows I won’t.  I know I won’t.  I hang up and cry for an hour, smash my blue plastic wastebasket against the shining salmon and pink tiles of the bathroom wall.  I never take anything from anybody.  Except their crap and their bullshit. 

Is it possible the receptionist’s prayers worked?

♦♦

I need stamps to mail bills and birthday cards, but at $8.40 for twenty, they have become a problem.  Eight bucks is gas on a slow week.  My literally starving actor friend tells me about paying bills online and how to insert quirky pictures into e-mails for birthday, thank-you and holiday cards. 

The lucky man will use his stamp money to buy two cans of oil to lubricate his Chevy’s dried out bowels.

♦♦

Thanks to Enzina, I only need to credit card part of December’s rent.  This time, I do not get too weird before the call.  I take a short walk, do a bit of vacuuming, save my sperm for Matt.  I call Bank of America.  They are happy to hear from me, overjoyed.  They are not in India, sounds like they are in Ohio or Indiana.  They would love to advance me seven hundred and fifty dollars, love to.  They are so glad they can help me in these tough times. With the rent for December covered, I fall asleep for a mere hour after the call.

♦♦

Getting the 411 off of Craigslist, I interview with a paraplegic in his high-rise condo on Wilshire in Westwood.  He is a quiet guy in his early thirties, our tortured stubble and dreamy eyes like each other right away.  After being hit by a car while riding his bicycle, he moved from Connecticut to Hollywood to study cinematography.  Wanting to hang out in coffee shops and art galleries, he smiles when I Google map the ones I go to for him.  He is a sweet kid, brave to take all of this on.  The nursing tasks are minimal, basically he needs someone to watch his broken back, someone to tell him when to slow down, to conserve his energy for the real battles.  

His mother asks me what kind of music I like and before I answer, she tells me the money for her son’s care comes from a trust.  She informs me I can work off the books, actually, she prefers it that way.  I quote her my rate, smiling as I explain to her that working as an independent contractor involves paying more taxes than what an agency would pull out of my pay.  

Mother pulls up her pink tube socks, tightens the laces on her green Nikes and proceeds to escort me to the door as I tell her I was listening to Billie Holiday that morning.

I e-mail the son a few times, telling him I would love to do the job.

I never hear from him.

I stay up nightly until four or five in the morning.  Jaw aches, balls throb, gut lurches.  No bills are due in the middle of the night, no resumes to send into the black hole of the internet.  

Who needs sleep?  Not the lucky man.

♦♦

There are more garage sales on Beachwood than ever, folks selling everything before moving back home.  Should I start peddling my stuff?  The 30s Sears rug in my living room was my friend Don’s.  Back in my San Francisco days, Don’s life got too hard, at forty-five he thought himself too old, his hair too grey, his belly too fat, his out was to kill himself.  My living room couch and chairs were my friend Mark’s.  His sister Diane and I sat at his bedside at 3 AM as he lay dying in a Culver City nursing home, our hands on him like the caressing air of the City of the Angels, his once strong voice pleading with us not to pray for him.  Don, Mark and my dad touch my skin every day.  I should be able to let go of the things they willed me.  Everything else I have is junk, “Northern Exposure-esque”  Boho chic, none of it could net me much.  Sleep takes me down at eight-thirty at night, knocking me out way past noon the next day.  

I can not sell their stuff.  Not yet.

One hundred dollars arrives from my nursing school friend, Kathi.  

The memo line on check reads: “Hope this makes it easier.”

Despite what Obama preaches, hope can not do a thing, only cash does.  I wait a few days to deposit her check,   signing it says I need it, that I can not make it on my own, can not take care of myself.  

“It means you have friends who love you,” Matt says as we eat our rice.  “You have to let people touch you…get inside you.”

I might never feel the air on my skin again, but I can feel the beating of my friends’ hearts.

I am a lucky man. 

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Filed under Memoir, Personal Essay

Once I was.

Chapter 14/ 2008

Once I was.

For reasons I do not understand, I get up off of the couch a week later.  Maybe the  worms beating against my skull need to get out of the house for the afternoon.

I attend once again to my Holocaust patient.  Twenty-five years ago, I worked in the hospital he has been transferred to.  I know the place well, he will be a lucky man if he gets out alive. 

The flat screen in the corner of his room screams out the new mantras: “Times are tough,” “You’re blessed if you have a job,”  “We’re all in this together.”  

And my favorite, repeated several times a day: “One of the only sectors of the economy not shedding jobs is healthcare.” 

Really?  I am making a few dollars more than I did when I last worked in this hospital, in the shoulder pads and big hair days of “Dynasty” and “Knots Landing.”  The pimps running the agency on Sunset claim they are not reimbursed enough by Medicare, Medical or private insurance companies to pay their nursing staff a decent wage.  Interesting, in that they all drive Mercedes, wear Prada, sport Rolex or Raymond Weil watches on their well-fed wrists, go out to lunch every day and scream into one of their two or three iPhones.  

We’re all in this together.

My patient’s youngest daughter and her husband enter the room, the savagery of their unblinking eyes slapping my face on both cheeks.  I guide their balled up fists into the sleeves of bright yellow isolation gowns, mandated by my patient’s tanked white blood cell counts.  

“Why didn’t you ride home in the ambulance with him?” the husband asks.

“I wouldn’t have had a way to get home from his condo.”

“You could’ve taken a cab.”

“I don’t have the money for a cab.”

“GET ON A BUS.  If you’d gone with him this wouldn’t have happened.”

“I’m taking off,” I spit out with the venom of Brooklyn born Barbara Stanwyck.  “I’m sure you can find someone else to take care of him.”

I chose not to continue the scene as Stanwyck would have, employing instead the humble voice of a little boy lost, lovingly slipping my copy of “The House of Mirth” into my 1950s medical bag, its cracked black leather skin in need of a few shots of Restylane filler.

“No,” the daughter says.  “Daddy’s comfortable with you. Why wasn’t his caregiver here? Shouldn’t you have coordinated the trip home with him?”

“He didn’t answer his cell when I called.  Actually, he never answers his cell when I call.”

“None of this would’ve happened if you’d done your job,” the husband says.

The bone white scleras of their eyes hurt my skin.  My balls are killing me, the groan in my stomach is waking up for the day, as are the worms.  The straight boyfriend is right, this is like sewing together a sleeve that is ripped open at the elbow, only to split apart when my fingers point the remote at the curved glass screen of my television.

The daughter and husband smile at the man in the hospital bed.  I sit a few feet away, reading the tale of Lily Bart, a woman whose cup is most definitely half empty.  The man I have bathed, massaged and groomed that morning closes his eyes the moment his daughter approaches, all ears unable to hear the new mantras being mouthed on the flat screen by a meshugge Ali Velshi, my fingers having muted his song when the husband and his wife entered the room.

♦♦

“Their botox is fierce,” the charge nurse, whose Louise Brooks bob reveals an unlined neck, says after the daughter and her husband leave.  

How did I not spot that?

The nurse mimics the way the daughter’s fingers pound into her BlackBerry as her lonely green eyes and immobile face stare down anyone in her way.

Time for the lucky man to lay off Garbo and Stanwyck and start watching “America’s Next Top Model.” 

 ♦♦

At 6 AM a week later, the pimps on Sunset call to tell me my patient is back home.  I arrive at his condo in Westwood early, a surprised sounding kid buzzing open the garage’s black iron gate.  The car behind me, piloted by a young man, follows my unwashed 69 Chevy Malibu into the dark hole I find myself once again descending into.  As I listen to Chet Baker’s breathy “My Funny Valentine,” I try to imagine having the energy to hose my car down when I get home.  The young man, turned out in well tailored new brown scrubs, exits his Honda.  This building sure seems to have its share of sick tenants.  I watch as the young man’s feet tap dance over the smooth grey concrete floor, his body bouncing to the lobby door, white teeth and blonde hair gleaming in the underground darkness.  He appears to be, at tops, twenty-one, the skin on his thin body no doubt feeling every soothing caress breathed out by the heavy air seeping in from the street.  

He is a sweet, funny valentine, alive in the City of the Angels.  

Did I move like that when I started nursing thirty years ago?  Did my eyes look without fear at what was in front of me?  Was my smile welcoming?  My stomach woke me up this morning an hour before my alarm was set to.  Balls swell in pain beneath my years old green scrubs.  I have an apple and an avocado sandwich for my daily meal.  Maybe the Cuban will fix me a coffee after I have folded my patient’s freshly washed bed linens.

The condo is quieter than my apartment is at noon.  The Cuban spots me from her perch at the kitchen table and walks into the dining room, leaving me unable to see her from where I stand.  I walk down the hallway to my patient’s room.  The young man from the garage is at my patient’s bedside, the kid is demonstrating how to suction the trach.  Neither wears gloves, neither gets the catheter in deep enough or pulls it out fast enough.

“This is rich,” I say.

“It’s not me…the daughter…he make the decision” the kid says, his dirty bare feet leaving long grey streaks on the white carpet.  “He say you cost the too much.”

I fix the kid with the look I gave the Armenian.  He fingers his rosary.  It will not save him.  

I look at the young man.  

I did move like that.

♦♦

While executing a flawless turn on to Beverly Boulevard, I use my cell for the first time in over a month to call my iPhone wielding procurers.  Much to my cynical surprise, they are clueless about the young man, offering to pay me two hours show-up time.  It amounts to groceries for two weeks, but if I stretch it, I can also buy GoPhone minutes.

I call the boyfriend.

“How do you feel?” he asks.

“Real light.  Whatever was pressing down on me is gone.”

The boyfriend is vacating his office to work out of his condo in West Hollywood until things as he somberly states: “…pick the fuck up.” 

I offer to help, but as usual, he wants to do it alone. I head to the his office with a plan.  Now, it will be my turn to keep the boyfriend off the zebra skin of his Crate & Barrel couch.  I will pound on his chest like Stanwyck does whenever she wants a man to do things her way.

I make a left to get off of the always slow moving Beverly Boulevard and take Melrose Avenue to the boyfriend’s office, my fingers touching the steering wheel’s warm plastic, as I smile with the realization that when I start teaching in two weeks my lost year will finally be over. 

Such a lucky man, with so much more to lose.

I do not have to pound on the boyfriend’s chest.  Our eyes looking out on to Highland Avenue, he smiles and surrenders the duct tape to me.  I work on my list of what is going where, then line up rows of sealed numbered boxes in front of his live/work space’s floor to ceiling wall of windows.  The street is quiet, the sun so bright it blanches out the gummy grey layer of film hugging the windows’ exteriors.  In the still air, a man pushes a fully loaded shopping cart up Highland toward an empty donut shop across the street, the baker behind its counter waving the man and his cart away before it reaches his door.  The gas station at the corner gets a customer every few minutes, each purchasing gasoline in odd denominations, seven, twelve or three dollars worth.  I have been feeding my Malibu like that for the last year.  

The boyfriend and I stand at the parking spaces in the back of his building, its burgundy wall deflowered by graffiti, whose elongated lettering and huge terrified faces have never been painted over by the landlords, despite their promise to do so over a year ago. 

“Remember the party you helped me with at the Chateau Marmont?” the boyfriend asks.  “It was so totally your style, guy.  You’ll be living there when your book sells.”

“We slept here because you were afraid someone would break in and steal the gift baskets.”

“Stupid office…I always had to up the volume on the phones when the cars raced by to Wilshire.”

The sliver of red paper I have attached to the floor lamp sticking out of his trunk waves at us as a transitory breeze blows through the alleyway.  The boyfriend’s tears come and go as quickly as the breeze, his head rests on my shoulder a bit longer before he pulls out for the last time from the parking space, his company’s name stenciled defiantly over the nervous colors splashed on to the brick wall.  

♦♦

The boyfriend and I drive the empty streets of the City of the Angels to homes we suddenly can not afford to own or rent.  I head up Gower, watching in the rearview mirror as my lab coat blows in the breeze, its collar secured to a hook above the back seat’s passenger window. Whenever I have left empty rooms with labeled boxes, irreplaceable yard sale bought tchotchkes and beloved pieces of furniture, I was moving to somewhere better, to a place I wanted to be.  I am lucky the streets are empty.  All four of my tires are bald, causing my car to do a wicked shimmy whenever I drive up the ramp out of my garage or make a sudden turn on to Santa Monica Boulevard.  I have noticed many tires like mine lately, SUVs, BMWs, pickup trucks and even school buses, all with  their bottoms bulging out on the insides.  I stick my arm out the window, my palm facing ongoing traffic, my fingers splayed open.  

I still can not feel the air.  

Like the indifference hovering behind the placid faces of my patient’s daughters, I never once tried to open myself up to him, to take him in, to imagine what was going on in his head after watching hours of Filipino soap operas or to have our days together give him some degree of refuge from the diseases slithering through his body.  Lucky man, I was able to forget the kid and the unthankful daughters by the time the magnet of the boyfriend’s round delts pulled my car on to Beverly Boulevard.  My eyes stare at the blank wall in front of me as my tires slide nervously into my parking space, the dead stillness of my lab coat making me realize that for the first time in my thirty years of nursing, I never once entertained the thought of getting close to this patient.  

Everything ends so quickly.

What’s the point?

♦♦

My abandoned lab coat hanging in the closet next to the restless vintage suits I plan to wear when I teach, my jaw drops as I watch the Republican convention. This Sarah Palin is going to throw a wrench into it.  

I have covered the rent for September, leaving me to choose between paying the minimum payments on my credit cards or buying food.  With two full bags of rice in the cupboard, I make the payments.  I eat rice sprinkled with cumin, dill or basil for my one daily meal.  It tastes lousy, like I am eating rice every day.  To keep hydrated and without money to buy fruits or vegetables, I fill up empty three gallon Arrowhead containers with water from the sink, my newly shrunk stomach unable to tell the difference between tap and bottled water.

Gazing straight ahead at the Republican gladiators before them, Levi Johnston holds his pregnant girlfriend’s hand.  I say let McCain win the fucker.  Things will fall apart quicker, maybe then people will hit the streets to change all of this.

♦♦

I apply for unemployment.  First week is a waiting period.  No payment.  They will be in touch for a phone interview to determine if I am eligible. When I call to speed up the interview date, I am bounced around in a voice mail labyrinth whose final destination is hold.  I press the phone to my ear as I wash the dishes and look for my cat, only to have the line disconnect after a few minutes.  I hit redial and rearrange glasses and dishes on shelves lined with faded white paper, its smiling sheen having faded months ago.  I call Monday through Friday and, when not being disconnected after fifteen minutes, wait on hold for an hour or two, never managing to get through, not even at 6 AM.  

♦♦

Thinking it will be easier to write in a tidy apartment during the two weeks before school starts, I decide to organize the piles of books, newspapers and magazines I have not read in the past year.  Instead, I begin with the movies I have recorded but never watched.  What can they tell me that the worms slithering around in my brain have not?  Forget it, I will clean.  Not having the money to buy paper towels from even the 99¢ Only Store, I use old dish towels and rags I have made from torn nightshirts to wipe down table and counter tops, before moving on to the soiled areas around the knobs of once industrial white doors.  Two minutes into running the vacuum cleaner over my carpet, the floor rollers snap after  eating up the lone black nylon sock my cat has been playing with when I am not around.  Lacking the skills required to resuscitate this machine, I affix an upholstery nozzle to the long black flexible attachment hose.  Vacuuming takes a bit longer, as I have to run over everything twice, still it sucks up dirt pretty well.  I have the time, but the exertion makes me hungry, leaving me to wonder if I am cheating by eating two bowls of rice.   

I sit down to write, stomach churning in protest, balls laughing in defiance, my neck tightening to stone.  The truth of my life remains stuck in my fingertips, their refusal to tap out what is real on to the keyboard seducing me, along with the silence of my building, to lie down on couch to read the “New York Times.” 

I fall asleep pages before reaching Paul Krugman. 

♦♦

To save on gas, I walk to the Staples on Sunset to buy the mandatory supplies my instructors at the Teacher Training Academy told me I will need as a substitute.  I show the checker my LAUSD ID and ask for the ten percent discount on supplies the always smiling instructors told me teachers receive.

“No such thing,” the checker says.

I ask to speak with the manager, the customers in line shifting their weight and letting out loud deep breaths.  As the man behind me sighs painfully, the manager tells me there is no discount for teachers, never was.  I charge one hundred dollars for pens, pencils, transparencies, felt tip markers, rubber bands, reams of paper, post-it notes, clip boards, paper clips, manila folders, index cards, chalk and crayons.

The Beachwood shuttle to home, leaving from the Pantages Theater, next to the Frolic Room on Hollywood Boulevard, costs twenty-five cents.  

A quarter. 

I walk.

♦♦

The afternoon is quiet, my cat sleeping on the couch, stretched out and dreaming.  

I can see, but not feel, the warm air and caressing heat of the City of the Angels, its arms refusing to hold me as they run their fingers over the hedges in my courtyard.  I wear a wife beater and boxers, sit at my writing table and pour hot water over the orange mango tea bag I used this morning.  My fingers scroll through pages of my novel, my eyes smiling as they take in my words, which are not half bad, they are good words, strung together by the invisible chains encircling and pressing in on my heart.  When was it that I last sat and wrote until my fingers were numb?  When the hot air of an afternoon like this held me to my desk straight through to the cool stillness of early morning?  

My fingers rest on the keyboard, forgetting that my way into writing is to edit the words I last worked on.  

Where will I pull the hundred dollars for the school supplies from?  

My eyes move to the chipped yellow paint of my desk.  

I should be able to recoup the money my first week teaching.  

My back pushes into the wood of the chair I sit on, my feet wrapping around its legs.  I have been fired for the first time from a job.  Replaced on the other by what appeared to be a teenager.  Everyone can see who the lucky man is behind his curtain.  The students I will be standing before in two weeks will not listen to anything I say, my co-workers will roll their eyes when I walk past, they will  smirk and tell me about my attitude when I sit with them in the teacher’s break room. 

I turn the computer off and sleep for a day, which is a good thing.  

Lucky men do not eat when they sleep.

♦♦

For the next two weeks, I give up Garbo and Stanwyck to review teaching strategies and rehearse lesson plans.  During my worm imposed naps, I dream I am in front of a classroom taking roll.  I wake up to peruse the passages I have highlighted in “The Substitute Teacher Handbook”  and re-read “The First Days of School: How to Be an Effective Teacher.”  To prepare myself for my new hours, I go to bed every night at ten and wake up at five in the morning.  

To avoid the drama of my computer’s five to ten minute boot up time and the ten to twenty minutes to get online, I set my silver Sony Viao to hibernate, Mozilla opened to Google Maps on the Sunday night before my first on call day.  I will shower while the printer takes its customary five to fifteen minutes to eject the one page of directions to the school I am assigned to.  It is my belief my computer was crippled early last year by the berserk machinations of MySpace’s out of control graphics. 

To compensate for the fact I can not sleep with my phone, its battery so old it will be dead by morning if I remove it from its base, I go to sleep with the ringers of both my landline and fax machine set to loud.  At 5 AM, I turn the television on to something called “Morning Joe,” my ears waiting for the ringers, who have not uttered a word for weeks, to break their silence.  This Joe guy is a serious loser, the bitterness of his smiling cynicism putting to shame the best of my stand up routine.  The ringers have not yet spoken when Joe signs off at 6 AM.  My stomach heaves, my balls tighten and push against my upper thigh in the stillness of the next hour as the light blue of early morning fades into a grey mist.   It is my first day on call.  Tomorrow, I will be working.  

I will write today.  

I switch the channel to CNN, where the red shoes, pencil skirt and tight blouse of Sarah Palin whip her crowds into a frenzy, their cheers screaming for Obama’s blood.  

Tomorrow, LAUSD will call, I think as I check IMDb to see when Leni Riefenstahl died.  I take a nap, eat rice and look at the one can of cat food I have left before falling back to sleep.

♦♦

For the rest of the week, I float in the blue silence of 5 AM, watching Joe and his sidekick, the off the hook and beyond controlling Mika, my only thought being: what retraining camp did MSNBC find this woman in?  

On Tuesday, I feed my resume into the void of Monster.com, CareerBuilder.com and Craigslist.

No response from anyone.

On Wednesday, I call the agency on Sunset.

No work.

On Thursday, I call the 800 number for my insurance assessor gig.  

People have stopped buying insurance,” the voice whispers to me.  It must have something to do with the economy.” 

On Friday, I call LAUSD.

“It’s the beginning of the term,” the voice says.  “Give it another week or two.”

I do not tell any of the voices my bag of rice is getting low or that the cat food can is half empty.  

The worms put me to sleep on the couch, chanting into my ear: “It’s going to go like this now.”  

I wait to be lucky.

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Filed under Memoir, Personal Essay

Here’s the Skinny.

Chapter 2/2007

Here’s the Skinny.

I don’t know if this is a correction, a recession, a depression or a meltdown.  I know that for me, it’s been bad since the spring of 2007.  I was at the end of having taken two years off from nursing.   I did not stop working, I entered into a new kind of work, something which came out of me, work which was mine.  I wrote for eight to ten hours a day.  A literary magazine had published one of my short stories.  I was halfway through a film noir screenplay.  I had sent out query letters with copies of my short stories to over one hundred literary agents.  I was sure to get representation.  My writing mentor told me I would be snapped right up.  I had done the lead role in a truly awful play, in which I not only remembered, but gave subtle shades of meaning to every one of its tongue twisting lines.  I was being asked to give readings of my stories, perform monologues and do stand up a few times a month, in venues where the audience paid admission.

“I felt you up there, man.” John Fante’s son told me.  “I felt your insides.”

I had just walked off stage, having told the tale of the short life and pathetic death of one of my patients at San Francisco General Hospital.  Fante is one of my writing Gods, meeting his son was like dark chocolate slowly dissolving in my mouth, the way the last breath of my patient had lingered on the skin of the audience in front of me, all of us wanting to hold this lonely man in our arms, stroking his hair and watching him smile with the realization that his loneliness was about to end.

I was who I had imagined myself to be before I fell asleep at night.  The palm trees of the City of the Angels watched over me, the shade from their swaying green fronds telling me there was a life beyond lighting Yahrzeit candles for homeless young drug addicts.  I knew who I was, my two year sabbatical from the antiseptic sterility of nursing had almost paid off.

Almost, but not quite.

That spring, a producer, the husband of a friend, asked me to write a spec script based on Nikos Kazantzakis’ “The Greek Passion.”  His producing career consisted of a 70s exploitation movie, but he was a bit player in “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis,” staring my teenage crush, Helmut Berger, so I deemed him to be a good guy.  This was my break.  I could smell what my life was about to become.

♦♦

Things went the other way.

Dreaming up dialogue to replace Kazantzakis’ stilted lines while ignoring the crawl through traffic on the 101, my bare foot floored the gas when I hit the deserted Vine Street off-ramp at the very moment the muffler fell out from under my car, followed, five minutes later, by the radiator inexplicably cracking down its center as my numb hands glided, as if by rote, my red 69 Chevy Malibu into my apartment building’s parking space.

I practice the one benefit being an adult child of an alcoholic has given me. I deny the fact that a month ago I spent the last three thousand dollars I had rebuilding my car’s engine and transmission.  My fingertips pounding with fear, I call the mechanic, who informs me in an ominously deep voice that the muffler and radiator are not part of the warranty.  I charge the repairs.  Through an agent, I am sure to receive an advance from a publishing house. I truly believed that would happen.

While my car is being brought back to life in the outer reaches of Glendale, I write a beautifully cinematic opening sequence set in a high school swimming pool, from where terrified students watch Communist Partisans round up their teachers.  In an homage to my father, I punch Kazantzakis’ anti-Semitism by setting the film in 1950s Poland, using the killing of Polish Jews by their neighbors as a major plot point.

Again employing my adult child skills, I ignore the gut pain I have begun to wake up with every morning.  I drink huge cups of coffee to purge what feels like concrete encircling my intestines.  I am a nurse, a practitioner of the healing arts who should know better.  When the pain arrives at my house, I forget the logic and knowledge I impart to both friends and patients.

I have no money to buy food with.  I charge my groceries.  I charge gasoline.  I charge coffee.  I charge Tums.  The screenplay will net me a few thousand.  I truly believed that this too would happen.

♦♦

“Keep working on the script, it’s great, you’re an amazing writer,” my straight boyfriend tells me with a voice as deep as my mechanic’s.

It is possible the boyfriend is doing more than humoring me.  He used to be an agent with William Morris, dealing twenty-four-seven with not only the never ending meshugas of once committed actresses transformed by the City of the Angels into clavicle baring starlets, but also the demands of monosyllabic actors whose cheekbones even Larry King would swoon over.

At bedtime the boyfriend gives me his Viagra, whispering “Show me who’s boss,” in a voice turned as breathy as Chet Baker’s.

“I’m going to find you a lawyer to negotiate your deal,” the boyfriend says after I have bossed him around for a good hour.

When we wake up, we exchange stomach pills.  He may be straight, but we share the same afflictions.

♦♦

“Do you know what an honor it is to adapt a Kazantzakis novel?”  my producer asks.

I am three unpaid months into working on the script and have just told him I need up front money to keep going.  I have received eighty responses from the agents.  Two want to see additional stories.  Several have written notes telling me they enjoyed my work.  The rest are form letters thanking me for submitting.  No one is biting.  I am in debt.  Nothing is left in either my checking or savings accounts.  I have paid the rent with credit card checks.  Every time I start my car, I fear which essential part will fall off next.  My gut keeps me awake throughout the night. The boyfriend and I exchange more medications.  Nothing works for either of us.  I charge a few hundred in co-pays and deductibles to find out I do not have the ulcer causing Helicobacter pylori bacteria brewing in my stomach.  The Gastroenterologist is stumped.  Do yoga, relax, take a vacation he advises me.  Tough it out, I think.  I truly believed I would feel better.  As soon as I got some money coming in.

“Have you gotten the rights from the Kazantzakis family for this adaptation?”  I answer the producer as our cell phones hiss in the quiet heat of a Los Angeles morning.

He stops his incessant yammering about creating a sequence in which Russian Soldiers smash a baby against a stone wall.

“I can go to the Golden Globe’s office right now and find someone who would be happy to write this script.  Everyone is out for a buck in this town,” he says after a minute of silence.

I tell him the sound he hears in the background is his script being fed into my shredder.

♦♦

Here’s the skinny.  In 2005, I retired from a seven year stretch at San Francisco General Hospital and moved back to Los Angeles.  I became a lucky man.  With a small pension, health insurance and the proceeds from my overpriced condo, I was able to take two years off.  I sat myself down to write at a table with no boundaries, clocks or rules.  I have worked hard.  I have found my voice.  My fingers pound my stories into the keyboard, while I fly as if I was barreling at eighty miles per down the 101 at 2 AM.  Time means nothing to me anymore.  As long as I can write, my life makes sense.

The producer might have screwed me, but at least I didn’t give him the boyfriend’s Viagra to do the deed with.  I have owed money before.  I understand that now I must sit at a table with nurses, where as always, not one of them wants to be there.  A few twelve hour shifts a week and I will be flush.

“Write in the small cracks of time you have,” my writing mentor tells me when I whisper my fear that my flying days are over.

It is hard to hear him.  The morning pain has not yet left me.  The money I owe and the money I need tighten their fingers around my neck.

I always thought I was a lucky man.




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My Eggs and Orange Juice Expire in Two Days.


Chapter 1/2009

My Eggs and Orange Juice Expire in Two Days.

I sit in the Frolic Room on Hollywood Boulevard.  I don’t want a drink, haven’t had one in nineteen years.  I want to sit at a bar at 5 PM like I used to whenever things went south.  Hunch over a drink. Listen to music.  Smile at slack jawed faces. Look at the green caricatures on the wall.  

Have I missed something?  Have I not done something I should have?  For weeks, I have been breaking out in a sweat at 3 AM as I watch over my patient.  He sleeps quietly, smiles when I wake him to change his diaper.  

I think back to the nights the bartender poured lighter fluid into the inset of the bar and dropped a lit match on it.  Everyone screamed, smiled and drank.  I look around for a friendly face.  There isn’t one.  The faces are tanked and tattered.  I have not been here in almost two decades.  The floor is dirty, its dull black plastic tiles covered with peanut shells, swizzle sticks, empty cigarette packs and candy bar wrappers.  It couldn’t have been like this when I hung out here.  

The iced Calistoga water I drink makes me want to pee, but the peanuts are good.  And free.  I look at the caricatures coated with dust, maybe one of them will talk to me.  If she said “Hello,” I could tell the contorted face of Tallulah Bankhead that two days ago, at 10 AM, I was fourth in line at the First Presbyterian Church on Yucca Street in Hollywood.  

Under a dark overcast sky, I wait for a bag of food, the breath of rain hovers in the cold air.

“Sit down here,”  a man with urine stained pants says after opening the church’s locked courtyard gate for me.  “Don’t trip out, they’ll give you something.”

Women with swollen ankles and heels in need of a Ped Egg speak Spanish.  An elderly woman with a portable oxygen tank in her shopping cart smiles and nods her head “No” when I ask if she wants my seat.  I sit and read “Tomorrow They Will Kiss,” a novel suggested to me by a Joe in my writing group.

“You should submit your stories to his agent,”  he said.  “Your styles are similar.”

No, don’t think so.  Reading about how the gringos are the enemy doesn’t work for me, never did.  I should have brought “The New York Times.”

A red faced, massively overweight woman in green stretch pants arrives to open the door and let us in.  The faces around me whisper she is late.  Eyes look up to heaven, feet in cheap shoes shift weight from side to side as several languages are spoken.  All mouths smile when Stretch Pants picks out who she will see next.  I stare at the bank of the 101 freeway across the street, trying to remember what my style is or what it was.

Stretch Pants takes me next to last. 

“You make too much money to get food,” she says.

“My patient has been hospitalized and I haven’t worked in two weeks.  I have no money for food.”

“Is his name Tom?”

“No, he’s a child, born prematurely eight years ago.”

“I’ll give you a bag for now.  If you’re still out of work next month, come back.”

I buy a breakfast donut for a buck, taken from the five I have until…

Until I don’t know when.  

I carry the heavy grocery bag home and, not wanting Stretch Pants to see my purchase, keep my head down as I walk along Franklin Avenue.  She will not be hard to spot, her blonde hair is a literal bird’s nest.

♦♦

My apartment is quiet and still at noon.  It is cold, no sun today to stream in and warm it.  I unload my goods.  A dozen eggs and a large can of orange juice, both due to expire in two days.  Small Crest toothpaste.  Two significantly tiny sample jars of Grey Poupon Dijon mustard.  Two cans of green beans.  A rusted can of black eyed peas.  A bag of brown rice.  A box of Thai Delight loosely covered in cellophane.  Three green tomatoes, determined to turn red any day now.

My mouth hurts.

I call Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky’s office to speak with his intern.  I had asked the downtown courthouse to excuse me from jury duty due to financial hardship.  No go.  I do not meet their criteria for hardship.  A day on jury duty means no money for food, gas and a bill or two.  More than a day will eat into my rent money.  Hopefully, the intern can help me.  Yesterday, she was at lunch, then on a break and when I made my last call of the day, she had stepped away from her desk.  Today, she’s called in sick.  I used to have sick days.  I went on vacations.  I had a substantial savings account.

The tips of my fingers make small indentations on the bag of rice as I wait for the sun to come out and warm my hands.

♦♦

Tallulah refuses to look my way.

I drink my second Calistoga water and, so as to not wake up the pain, carefully chew a few peanuts as if they held tiny cyanide capsules in their cores.  My jaw holds my stress.  Or did the dental student assigned to my case at UCLA mess it up?

The dental student, whose go-to line is: “You’ve let so many dentists work on your mouth, you’ve like developed serious mandibular problems.”

He repeats this whenever I say the word pain, none of his way cool babbling having anything to do with the fact that, a few months ago, he pried my mouth open for four hours to work on, as he calls them: “Your totally difficult teeth.”

My jaw has never been the same since.  The pain, when not acute and nausea inducing, lies tapping at the roots of my rear molars.  At my appointment this afternoon, I explained to the dental student how difficult it has been to concentrate, to care for my patient or to write and rehearse my monologues once the throbbing starts.

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

When the dental student thought a drop of my saliva had splashed in his eye, he, the supervising dentist and the clinic’s receptionist demanded I get an HIV test.

I did.

As we were waiting to have our blood drawn, the dental student said:  “I’m not too worried.  I’m sure you’re clean.”

“Yeah, my mouth is promiscuous.  I’ve let my teeth be worked on my so many dentists.”

I should have said that.  I didn’t, my twisted gut telling me it would slow the dental student down and he already works like he eats two Extra Strength Vicodins every four hours.  His skin is so white any mention of a slutty mouth would not only turn it translucent, it would put a wrench in his attempts to carry out the treatment plan he had come up with for me, which called for replacing three crowns and doing five fillings.  For that, my dentist on Wilshire Boulevard wanted more than three thousand dollars over what my insurance covered.  UCLA charges less than half of what my dentist does.  Eighteen months later, after the weekly three hour, if I’m lucky, round trip bus ride, taken to escape the $9.00 UCLA parking fee, the dental student still has to do the final filling, replace the last planned crown and get to work on a crown which cracked the week before.

“Oops,” the dental student’s blue eyes said a few hours ago as he removed the last crown, its underlying tooth suddenly beyond repair and in need of either a bridge or any number of 2K at a pop implants.

I look into his spinning eyes and ask:  “Do you think if we’d looked at this tooth a year and a half ago we could have saved it?”

“Did you know that we get less patients now?”  he answers.  “Even with our discounted rates, they can’t afford it.  I’m blessed. I can ride the recession out going to school.”

The dental student opens my mouth again and pushes my jaw to the left for three hours.  I try to go over plot problems in my novel.

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.

♦♦

“Hungry, darling?” the theatrical arch of Tallulah’s eyebrows snickers as I leave the Frolic Room.

In my drinking days, after closing a dump like the Frolic Room, I would come to in the AM and order a pizza, down a few liters of Diet Cherry Pepsi.  Tomorrow, I will drink tap water and bite into a hopefully ripe tomato.

I head up Hollywood Boulevard to home with the same distracted gait Gena Rowlands walked it thirty-five years ago, she a woman under the influence, me a once lucky man whose jaw belts him a good one for spending his emergency money on water which allegedly sparkles in even the gloomiest of bars. 

The much handled bag of brown rice Stretch Pants gave me resembling one of Pamela Anderson’s implants after a heavy date, my cold hands touch the goodies sitting on the faded white paper lining my kitchen shelves.  Rusted can thrown into the trash, I take my own Extra Strength Vicodin to numb my whore of a mouth. Drifting in and out of sleep on my couch, I watch Michelle Obama walk the CNN, MSNBC and Fox red carpet.  One of her J. Crew dresses could pay for groceries for a month.  Her Jason Wu ensemble would cover my rent for a few months.  If I could just have a month or two for myself, I could finish my novel.  I put my pitchfork down and sleep through until the next day’s outing to the SOVA food pantry, recommended to me by a raspy voiced social worker at Jewish Family Services.

I awake to a Vicodin hangover, my eyelids unable to blink, my pupils, hypnotized by the emptiness in my belly, stare at the clear glass of the tiny Grey Poupon jars.  

Five years ago, I worked fewer hours at one job and made twice as much as I do today working a full-time and a part-time job.  

A heavy duty shot of novocaine and the dental student’s Vicodin regime can not touch that pain.



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Filed under Memoir, Personal Essay