Monday, September 11, 2017

Portrait of a poet as a young man

Back when I was a poet...

I worked as an orderly in a county hospital. I took classes at the local community college. I walked or road my bike from campus to hospital for my 3-to-11 shift. I changed into my scrubs in the restroom. Then I set off to take care of the alcoholics recovering in the 1200 ward. They weren't so much recovering as being refortified to resume their lives on the streets. The hospital staff did its Sisyphean duty. Feed them, keep them locked up and out of DTs for as long as possible. and then release them back into the wild. We had drug cases too -- it was 1973. A young longhair tripped out on LSD and ran naked down Main Street. I had plenty of empathy for him. Two years earlier, I had OD'd on acid and spent the night in the university infirmary. Bad trips were nothing to laugh about.

I gathered plenty of material for poems and stories as I watched over my charges. I wrote on yellow legal pads. I hadn't yet discovered the ubiquitous and portable composition books. One day I emerged from behind locked doors to take a break. The break room was also the meeting room. I looked for my legal pad but couldn't find it. A nurse eating her dinner pointed to the trash can. The head nurse had seen the poetry scrawled on the legal pad, the same kind that nurses used for notes on their patients. "She said that she'd like to know who had the time to write poetry -- then she tossed it in the trash can."

I was mortified. My poetry in the trash. It was probably the most concrete critique I ever received. I hadn't published anything yet. My curious friends asked me what I wrote in my legal pads.

"Poetry," I said. "Observations."

My roomie on Graham Avenue in Holly Hill, Florida, was Bob the Biker. He was saving up for a new Harley. His old Harley had met a bad end which he didn't want to talk about. I just knew that it involved the Hells Angels in Milwaukee and a statutory rape charge. He was a big dude, a fine mechanic who was helping me rebuild a 1950 Chevy truck which I bought on a whim. My dream was to get it fixed up and use it for beach trips with my dog and surfboard. We never finished it. I sold it for parts after Bob moved on, replaced by an old high school friend, Ned.

"Are you observing me?" Bob asked one night when we'd polished off a case of PBR.

"And what if I am?"

"I'd like to see it. See what you think."

"You're not in it," I said. "I do have some poems."

"That's OK. Poetry is not my thing."

Not a critique. Just a rebuff.

The 1200 Ward was a spooky place. I carried around a soft tongue depressor for patients who went into seizures. I used it more than once. Alcohol caused lesions and scars on brains that led to seizures. A seizure is an awful thing. Eyes roll back in the head and muscle spasms cause the patient to bite down hard on his/her tongue. I got called in to plunge the plastic tool into the mouth so he wouldn't bite his tongue in half. Once the seizure fades, the patient is lethargic and disoriented. I reported the incident and let the nurses take it from there.  I usually returned to the ward break room where I played cards with the patients. We drank bad coffee and played cards. They told harrowing stories of life on the streets. Most patients were middle-aged males. Some were WWII vets, but we hadn't yet seen many from Vietnam. Some were women, who had their own room. Part of my job was to keep the men and women separated. We joked about it but the women often turned tricks for a bottle. One of the women had a college education and a good job before she went into the tank and hit the streets. During my year on the ward, she was there three times, once with a black eye and a missing front tooth.

One patient came in with cirrhosis of the liver. A black man with yellow eyes and a distended belly . No insurance. None of them had insurance -- it was thee county's charity ward. The cirrhotic man was shuffled off to a room of his own. The supervisor closed the door and let him die. That seems odd to say. But all of our patients were on their way to death, some slowly, some quickly.

How did we keep the patients from all going into delirium tremens? The nurses fed them paraldehyde. What's paraldehyde? Here's a quick description from the Mayo Clinic web site:
Paraldehyde is used to treat certain convulsive disorders. It also has been used in the treatment of alcoholism and in the treatment of nervous and mental conditions to calm or relax patients who are nervous or tense and to produce sleep. However, this medicine has generally been replaced by safer and more effective medicines for the treatment of alcoholism and in the treatment of nervous and mental conditions.
To demonstrate its toxic qualities, nurses demonstrated by pouring a dose directly into a Styrofoam cup. It dissolved the cup in seconds. The nurses cautioned that you must put juice in the cup before the paraldehyde. I was impressed, but knew I would never been serving up this potent cocktail. I wondered: if it does that to a cup, what does it do to your body?

Never found out. The bodies of the patients on the ward were already compromised. The drug stopped convulsions and helped them sleep. I had already seen what the DTs could do.

"The dog! The dog!" The man's eyes were with with fear and he pointed at his feet.

"What dog?"

"He's eating my feet. The dog!"

"It's OK. I'll get the nurse."

I did. The nurse brought a healthy dose of peraldehyde and a calming voice.

"The dog," the man said. "My feet."

"There, there," said the nurse. She urged to lie down and go to sleep. It took awhile but that's what he did.

I returned to the break room and the continuing card game. Nobody said anything. They had been there.

Sometimes a call went out on the hospital address system. "Dr. Blue. Please report to 1400. Stat." Translation: "All available orderlies run to the psych ward. A patient is freaking out and we need help." In 1973, all I knew about psych wards came from "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Nurse Ratched. Bull Goose Loony. Electro-shock therapy. Lobotomy.

I know a lot more now. My daughter has been in psych wards and treatment centers in five states in the past decade. I have seen patients freak out during visiting hours and the call go out for this generation's version of Dr., Blue. I have seen my daughter freak out in a Casper, Wyoming, treatment center. You look at these events differently when it involves one of yours.

The charge nurse in 1400 was Mrs. Berry. Nobody knew her first name. She was good-looking in a middle-aged sort of way -- that was the view of this 23-year-old. She reminded me of my mother, who was the director of nurses at a hospital across town. Mrs. Berry had a harder edge, maybe because of her charges. She also had a secret. She was fated to become the mother-in-law of my sister-in-law. My future sister-in-law's sister, my future wife, lived a block over from Mrs.Berry and her sons, frequent visitors at my future wife's house. I didn't know them then.

I worked at Halifax Hospital for a year. I resigned to go off to the University of Florida, where I eventually became a prose writer. My first published work was a poem about a break-up. I do not have a copy of that poem. I'm sure it was tragic and filled with a young man's angst. I began publishing stories in newspapers. I joined the staff of the Independent Florida Alligator. I covered city council meetings, trustee meetings, campus events, etc. I was going to be a journalist although I really wanted to be a best-selling author. All I can say about that is I worked as a writer and editor for most of my career. I blog. Bestsellerdom has eluded me. I still write.

I never worked as a hospital orderly again. I was a cashier in the Shands Teaching Hospital cafeteria one summer. I was the only white employee. The African-American staff gave me a hard time but I won them over by September, or so I like to believe. One of the cooks introduced me to grilled cheese and tomato sandwiches. That was what I had every day for lunch. That and chocolate milk.

Back when I was a poet...

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