My day job was night shift at a Community Mental Health Center in Brooklyn, N.Y, working as a Psychiatric Nursing Aide on the Inpatient Unit. (My union, 1199, called the position “Mental Health Worker,” which I preferred for its proletarian ring).I was a burning heap of thwarted ambition, idealism, horniness, loneliness and rage, i.e. an aspiring i.e. totally obscure painter and writer, and being an M.H.W. gave me a much-needed sense of belonging somewhere, of being something, even some thing. And the idea of the Community Mental Health Center was righteous. It was supposed to be an alternative to the big Dickensian state hospitals that imprisoned the mentally ill for decades to drool, rock, pee on themselves and straight-jacket the decades away. C.M.H.C.s had no big orderly guys in white pants and shirts, (we weren’t big, didn’t wear uniforms, and some of the staff refused to wear name badges, though I was proud to wear mine). On The Unit straight jackets were called “camisoles.” “Escaping” was “eloping.” No one was drugged, they were medicated. And peeing on yourself? Say “incontinent.”
To get to “The Unit” (I liked the paramilitary ring of “The Unit”) you took a crowded elevator to the 4th floor and waited inside a locked Plexiglas stall that never seemed strong enough (and wasn’t) to withstand the fabled (but actual) Unnatural Strength of the paranoid schizophrenic snapping to their latest command hallucination (ELOPE.BREAK GLASS. BITE FACE).
Squinting past my cigarette like Elliot Gould in The Long Goodbye I would march to the staff room and check the nurses’ notes on “my” patients (by this time having been promoted to “Case Manager” status because of the high quality of my patient progress and admission notes, which read like Henry James in comparison to the beginning E.S.L. standard of English writing practiced by the mostly Indian, Pakistani, Dominican or Chinese residents and interns). Then I would come out of the staff room and turn right toward the back of the ward to “check on”, (ever the magisterial clinician) the “The Blue Room.” The B.R. wasn’t blue and had never been blue and was another locked area behind Plexiglas walls where the most “acutely psychotic,” or suicidal, or homicidal, or violent, or “labile” or destructive, or flat out crazy and scary patients were kept. (There was also a single classic locked “padded cell” in the opposite end of the ward for very, very hard cases, that I have since seen duplicated in every middle school I’ve ever subbed at where they are called “Time Out Rooms”). Then a room check (ever the magisterial, professional paraprofessional clinician) to make sure that no one had hung themselves, slit their wrists, set fire to their room or was sleeping, alone or together, through assigned “therapy activities”, and then back to the staff room for report from the previous shift, (mostly orders to put a patient on a liquid diet, or take them off a liquid diet, or withhold food altogether for fasting blood work, or make them go to a therapy activity, or all of the above ).
If I were back on nights the next duty would be to sit down at a round table set up at one end of the floor and drink coffee, tell stories, play scrabble, smoke (everybody smoked on the ward -- It was a hospital) and pray that it would be a quiet boring night of do nothing much except kill time until it was 6:30 and time to collect urine samples and wake patients for a liquid breakfast or no breakfast at all. And feel the sorrow of pink first light coming up over the blunt tops of the apartment buildings across Ft. Hamilton Parkway after another shift with the night M.H.W. crew. The usual was: Sam, an older, stately political refugee from Haiti who walked with a limp and told 2 a.m. horror stories about Papa Doc and voodoo; Belinda, a small round woman from Jamaica whose pressured, incomprehensible English conveyed perpetual outrage; Donna, an Italian- American Mother of six who grew up in the neighborhood and knew most of our patients as kids (and scolded them as kids whenever the police brought them in violent, psychotic, handcuffed, and covered in blood and vomit), and Raoul, a tall, mustached Cuban immigrant with the smooth, purring assurance of a consummate con man, often taking me aside to share “unique business opportunities” like the can’t fail plan where I smuggle diamonds into JFK in the hollowed -out soles of special shoes. The Head Nurse was an Indian woman named Gupta, who cut an unforgettable figure batting away her vaporous orange sari to stab hypos of stelazine into roaring psychotics three times her size. It was grungy, scary, depressing, sexy.
Then I remember first hearing about AIDS at the hospital during a staff meeting discussing one of the M.H.W.s who’d been sick for a long time, and it was explained by our dapper, diminutive director Dr. Sienna that the M.H.W. had a mystery flu named AIDS. I half listened, looked interested, forgot about it. He died. The dying kept coming.
It was a job of sorrowing mornings after lots of bad coffee, scalding, in Styrofoam cups that I carved and doodled into with boredom hieroglyphics, and the writing of endless free-association journals about my runaway ambition, runaway sex drive, runaway aching burning heart. And scraps of staff and patient conversation that I told myself I’d someday transform into art maybe 30 years from now until this next paragraph has become the 30 years later that I wrote for then:
And the patient says I don’t talk to no guy who looks like a preacher (me in my all black clothes) and all I can say is thank god for thorazine Joseph is out like a light and yet, I can do a drawing like the drawing I did for Liberation News Service equating thorazine with capitalism, and I’m thinking about a gigantic ink drawing of a submachine gun, and Donna says, “I think the big difference between Catholics and Protestants is that Catholics secretly love death, and Protestants secretly hate death,” and I protest, “NO! We love death too!”
The thing was, we had all the enlightened attitudes, there were no lobotomies (though we did do electroconvulsive therapy-- “E.C.T.” -- which had the vexing property of actually helping some people recover from acute depression, but that memory loss, that memory loss), but the patients were still medievally insane, and we were medievally oppressive. They drooled and rocked and screamed and raked their fingernails across your face and threw chairs at your head and set fire to stuff and pooped on the floor and tore doors off the hinges and shattered windows and attacked staff in group therapy sessions and stabbed other people and themselves with scissors and paintbrushes in Art Therapy and ate glass and cigarettes and obeyed command hallucinations to take a bite out of your face, all of it up the wazzoo, as one of my favorite Psych residents (and another short term girlfriend) diagnosed it.
My side still hurts from where that guy punched me while I was with a bunch of patients doing “Art Therapy”: “What does that look like to you?” “Jus the moon.” “But how does that make you feel?” “Jus like the moon.” And then being socked in the face, coming off night shift and collapsing into bed and setting my alarm for 2:00 p.m. and hoping that I can get some painting done today, then sleep then a.m. care this a.m. his face like a fat hand grabbing a wrench, her cigarette bouncing to the tempo of F-U!!! “I be takin’ care o-BEEZ-nis.” More sleepless nights.
In the morning I sit down with David his blue skin stretched over a huge brow. His fingers are always interlocked like he’s tying or untangling invisible shoelaces his gums always bleeding and mornings I give him a new toothbrush and then throw it away. Specs of old oatmeal fleck his pants. His yarmulke he smashes on his head like an angry after-thought. Then Patient Emmerich says, Samurai! There’s a samurai hiding behind me! Watch out! One false word and I’m sliced down the middle! How many times has it happened already? We all look like slices of cheese, and the samurai is endlessly slicing each section into thinner and thinner pieces! What is the source of his skill? Now Debbie’s arms are outstretched in front of her. She’s demonstrating traditional hand gestures. This is the fish. This is the waterfall. And this, her hands visibly trembling, is the angry father. Only a liquid diet? Only a liquid diet? This is all I fucking get??!!
Meanwhile my next, long term girlfriend and I shared a “hobby”: visiting haunted houses, spook houses, fun houses and houses of horror. We started out in Coney Island, New York, moved through the rest of Brooklyn. My girlfriend was a level-headed Irish Catholic Psychiatric Nurse named Beth who loved me and put up with my enthusiasms for cheap, tawdry horror movies and cheap tawdry funhouses in a way that still fills me with wonder and awe.
At that time houses of horror were still pretty low-tech affairs, labors of amateur love with handmade and hand-painted sets, papier Mache gargoyles and demons, smoke machines, strobe lights, Halloween –cassette sound effects and creaky, wobbling mechanical skeletons and skulls rattling pathetically out of the dark like hell’s own grocery carts. Funhouses were a source of part time work for area high school students, ex-cons and psychiatric patients willing to dress up as ghouls or sit up out of caskets for minimum wage. I was always on the lookout for “my” patients, as if they belonged to a merry band of migrant workers roaming the countryside to pick the fields of tactile hallucinations. The funhouses were mostly open in the summer and did a good business because they were cheap and cool and pitch-black places to cop a feel. But one funhouse stayed open through the winter, an especially infamous Brooklyn winter, bitterly insanely cold, the day Hell froze over for real, so to speak. The poor guys who had to lay in the casket all day and all night, they couldn’t relax because they had to sit up and snarl every couple of minutes when a new car load of rubes clanked by. And the amplified shrieking on the speakers beside their heads, poor guys, and it was so cold that one of the Draculas was wearing earmuffs and a huge down coat, so cold there were icicles hanging off the painted flames of hell, icicles hanging off the bloody maw of the devouring demon at the gates of the Hell Hole.
The housekeeping guy says something about “Off the Handle Crandle.” A woman in the Blue Room asks me for more toilet paper. “We need more toilet paper, Jerry.” “My name is Tom, Janet.” “Until I get more toilet paper your name is Jerry. “ I get her the toilet paper. She says, “Thanks, Jerry.” “You were going to call me Tom. “ She takes the toilet paper. “Is this all your name is worth?” Make sure the RR train is marked “Astoria” for local to Manhattan. Now I drink sanka. I smoke camels. Exit sign buzzing. Light up a cigarette.
The rubber bats that flopped around on wires were so stuff that they packed all the terror punch of black paper towels bouncing in the air, and I wondered how and why the place could stay open when the weather turned so record breaking bad. Turns out the owner thought he could capitalize on the cold, promised a warm hangout and a toasty freaky good time to teenagers trying to get away from the cold and their parents, but the wiring didn’t pass code and all the space heaters blew the works but good, plunging the Hell Hole into a freezing inferno pit. The staff of part time zombies, ghouls, Draculas, Jason knock offs and teenage Elviras and headless cannibals (this was the owner’s idea; he wouldn’t listen to the kids’ protests that it didn’t make sense, I mean, how could a headless cannibal eat you, you know?) were sent in day after bone chilling day, night after hypothermia night until the staff of the undead refused to go (the public long gone by now), instead starting a bonfire in the vacant lot across the street that quickly engulfed the place and burned like the Hell Hole it was meant to be. I also heard the version that the night shift ghouls ran their own propane heaters and were either overcome by carbon monoxide fumes or burned to death in an electrical fire. Or maybe the owner, haunted by responsibility for their deaths torched the place himself, dying in the final char.
This was the beginning of a doomed, five-year plan to write and draw an epic graphic novel called Explosion in a Mask Factory. Pieces of it later became my first novel (the one that all writers are supposed to “get out of your system” before your first “public” book is written, keeping it hidden in the bottom of a locked drawer to remind yourself of how bad bad can bad). In my case I’ve got 6 reminders filling most of a footlocker and maybe am working on number 7 right now ; it has really taken me 30 years to understand that “paying your dues isn’t the painful, necessary first step, but the whole stairs). And the burning ambition, the profligate blaze that’s long since hunkered to blue white embers, stewed to red coals, settled into hot ash that I keep fed and coddled with a history of lies, the stuff that torques and torches my stories, has torqued and torched my memories to this day.