Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Rifle


I was the little brother. My sister, Elaine, 16, called me Mikey. We loved each other.  To me Elaine seemed so very old. Our 1950’s family treated me as a little prince but Elaine was not raised as a princess. 

Despite the unequal treatment, Elaine never resented me.

We lived in Phoenix where western events were a big deal.

 Each year Elaine and I would go to the Annual Rodeo Parade together.

I was always so excited. Elaine and I would plan it all out.

“First we’ll take the bus downtown.”
“We can catch in on Indian School Road.”
“Here, Mikey, you should wear this red bandana.  Let me cuff your jeans.”

I told Elaine, “this year I get to be on a parade float with the Kinelworth elementary school.

Elaine hugged me as we plotted the day.
“We’ll go to Woolworth’s for lunch.”
“We’ll get ice cream at the big Carnation store downtown.” 

After the parade, we took the city bus home.  Elaine asked me to help her with her squaw dress. She was wearing some type of Indian costume for an event beyond the ken of her little brother.

We went in the backyard of our suburban home.  Elaine had a bright blue embroidered skirt hanging on the clothes line.

“Mikey, hold one end while I twist it.”
Elaine began to tighten and twist the dress to create special wrinkles
“Are you going to wear your silver concho belt?, I asked.
“Are you going to wear the turquoise bracelet.”

In earlier years, I had  been the annoying little boy listening in on the phone extension:
“Mikey, are you on the phone!!
“Get off!! I’m going to tell mom on you.”

I liked to make Elaine yell at me.  I never thought she was truly angry with me.

Elaine saw herself as my teacher on all things related to etiquette.
“Now, open the door and let the women enter first.”
“Help mom with her chair.”
“Always let women  go first.”

And then there was personal appearance.

“Stand up straight, Mikey.”
“Comb her your hair! You can’t go with me with your hair like that.”
“Throw you shoulders back. Don’t slump.”

I obeyed.  Elaine seemed to know the order of things and I listened to her.

As a 10 year old boy, I was generally not included in family decisions.  So it came as a surprise to me when mom and dad announced  we were moving to Long Beach, California. They explained, Elaine would stay behind and live with her friend Dorothy.  Elaine would finish her final year at West High..

Elaine promised, “I’ll write you and tell you about high school.” 
“Here, I have some stationary for you to write to me.”

I wondered what would happen with my big sister gone.
I felt she was leaving us.

After dark, our  stuffed 1951 Chevrolet pulled away from our driveway headed  California.  Without air conditioning, we always made this  desert trip in the night.

During the car ride, my  mother and father explained  the move. They had purchased a small business,  It was a delicatessen. .

Mom said: “we have rented a big apartment near the ocean.  It is close to where we go on vacation in the Summer.”

As a bonus, she explained, I could walk to the ocean and to my favorite Belmont fishing pier.

For years past, we had been going to Long Beach each Summer had been a huge treat for me and Elaine. Every day, I hunted the beach for shell and various treasures.  I was out all day, every day. 

Our car pulled up at the curb to our new home. The  apartment was done in a grand Spanish motif.  The outside stairs were  brightly painted  tiles with each stair level a different pattern of flowers.  A 12 foot yellow hibiscus grew along the stairway.

Inside,  the rough stucco walls had sconces that had once held gas lights but now were electric  The doorways were arched. The front door was a particularly heavy oak with a little black iron peek through window.

At the end of a long hall, I had my own room.  This seemed pretty fine to me.  Elaine’s room would be next-door.  But her room was empty for now.

I felt we had  begun a vacation. The apartment was so unlike our box-like home in Phoenix.

Among my most prized possessions  was my 22 rifle.  I had been a proud owner of a BB Gun in Phoenix but now I had moved up the gun food chain to a real 22.

My dad, taught me how to fire the weapon and clean it. He took me to gun ranges and often to the Arizona desert where I shot at the rusty tin cans sprouting up like the surrounding mesquite and cactus.

“OK Mikey,” lay down and hold the rifle like this.”
Dad lay on a blanket on the floor of the rocky desert. He bent his hat back, just so to shade his eyes.  

“You have to slowly squeeze the trigger and keep your target aligned .”

“There… good shot. You came closer this time!”
Ocassionaly I could hear the sound of the bullet hitting a can.

I was proud. I loved spending this time with my Dad.

Rifle instructions often included stories about his time in the Army. He had been in the 7th Cavalry when they still had horses. My dad had been a polo player.

I loved to take out his Army paraphernalia . He still had boots, spurs and a sword.

By the time we moved to  Long Beach, I had become reasonably proficient with my 22.  Mom and Dad were consumed with their new business, so I didn’t get out to practice and in Long Beach there was no desert.

Often while watching TV, I would take out the 22 and clean it. I would fondle the wooden stock and polish the metal parts. I liked the ritual of swabbing the barrel with gun oil.  I kept the 22 shells in the top drawer of my bureau and my stood my rifle in my closet.

My parents drilled me about gun safety. Even as a boy with a cap gun, I was forbidden to point it at another boy.  Of course I broke that rule, but, if caught,  I would always be admonished
“Never point a gun at a person.”

As soon as Elaine finished her last semester of high school, she came to live with us in the apartment.

I was so excited to have her back. Elaine could now drive. She took me shopping and bought a large yellow fishnet for me.  We bought a bamboo pole and she rigged it up on the wall of my room.

“There! Now you can hang your starfish and shells on the net!”
I was ecstatic.  My room was even more wonderful.

 Elaine  began community college and made new “college” friends. She met a lot of students in the performing arts.  She told me about plays and the actors she had met.  

Elaine seemed to suddenly be much older. With mom and dad at work and Elaine busy with friends and school, I was mostly alone.

When Elaine was home, she  and I often ate in a diner near our parents delicatessen .  There was no time for family dinners.

In the diner one evening, we sat at the counter
Elaine: “I’ll have coffee.”
Me: “Coffee!!” Elaine, you are having coffee!! I said a bit too loud.
The waitress smiled.
Elaine: “Stop it, you are embarrassing me.”

Despite her embarrassing little brother,  Elaine continued to do her duties as my big sister. Moving on beyond basic etiquette she enjoyed trying  to teach me to dance.  Getting ready for a 6th grade event of some kind, we put on music in the living room of the apartment.

Elaine would show me where to place my hands, how to move my feet as we turned our living room into a ballroom.

We laughed and danced around and around. Eventually we put on some very loud rock and roll and really began to stomp around.

“Boom, Boom, Boom”
Oh god, it’s Mrs. Ehrenkrantz downstairs. She has a broom out again!
We stopped but continued to giggle.

In the early evening, it was already  dark in November.  I was home with my mother. Dad was at work.  Elaine came home. We all began to talk about getting Pizza or going out to Delmonicos.  We lived two blocks from a busy street.

I was headed down the hall to phone for Pizza  when the doorbell rang.

My mom pulled open the door, not bothering to look through the metal grated box to see who is visiting.  She swung the door wide and a man walked in pushing my mother aside.
“You are Elaine’s mother.”
“I am here to tell you that I have bee watching her.  She is seeing some very bad people at City College! She’s hanging out with those no good kids in the theater!

I stood at the end of the hall. I put down the phone.  I could see my mother and sister were both frightened. He was a big man with backpack.  He was menacing.  I knew this was bad.  I felt afraid for mom and Elaine.

I thought: “I should protect them.”

He was much bigger than all of us.  I could sense the threat from my hallway vantage point.

“I want you to leave right now! “My mom said,
“But you have to listen to me. You are being a bad parent.!!”  His voice sounded angry and loud. He was screaming.  

I closed the door to my room. I could hear the argument continuing down the hall.

I got out my rifle and loaded a single shell.

I sat on my bed for a moment thinking what should I do?

My mind raced.  My imagination took me out in the hall with the rifle.

My rifle fired one shot at a time. If I took off the safety, I could fire it.

What am I supposed to do?  Should I shoot this man?

While I thought, I heard the front door slam.  He was gone. 

I discharged the shell and put everything away. No one knew about my little life defining melodrama in my bedroom.

After the event, Elaine became fearful to walk alone. Although I was still relatively small, Elaine wanted me to meet her at the bus stop and walk down our darkened streets.  If she needed to go out, I went with her. 

I felt older and bigger.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Laura Ann

Sarah was what we called seriously pregnant.  She was sitting on our thrift shop sofa in our Berkeley apartment.

“Come sit by me”

I sat on the couch collapsing the middle cushion. Sarah immediately tilted and started to fall on me.

We laughed.

I had just come home from my job in the hospital, I was still in my Army dress uniform, complete with my one little medal.

Sarah grabbed my hand and put it on her tummy.
“Its  really kicking hard.”  “Maybe the baby will come tonight!”
I asked, “Do you have any cramps?”
“No” “It’s just jumping around a lot.”

We were so excited.  None of our friends had children. Both of our parents lived far away.  So, it was just the two of us.  And we had Dr. Spock’s book on Common Sense Baby Care. 

We were going to have  our first child.  We painted our extra bedroom a bright yellow.  Sarah made curtains.  I assembled a crib. We went to garage sales to pick up things that would be good for our new baby.

I was happy  and worried at the same time.  What did I know about being a father?
We read our Dr. Spock book as if it was a bible. We were sure Spock would tell us what to do.

We were in full baby mania. That is all we talked about. It was November, we didn’t pay attention to the holidays or much of anything else, it was all: BABY BABY BABY.

Sarah picked the name: “I want to call her Laura Ann.”

Sarah seemed to be healthy and doing fine, yet I worried at every stage of the pregnancy. We took a natural childbirth class in downtown Berkeley.  We practiced breathing.  They showed us scary movies.

I wondered “Was I up to this?” I was sure Sarah could do it.
“Could I do this?” Could I be a father?

The next morning, I drove our  VW back to my work at Letterman General Hospital where I worked on the locked psychiatric ward as a social work technician.  Sarah had stopped working at the University. She stayed home. Waiting.

The Letterman psychiatric unit was a separate building from the main hospital.  I found my usual parking spot under the freeway and hiked up to “the unit”. Almost as soon as I was buzzed in through the big locked front door, my phone rang.  I closed the door to my tiny office. It was a very thick door and I could close out the ward sounds. 

“Specialist Gorodezky, Speaking Sir!” I said as I picked up the phone.
We enlisted Army folks always talked like that until we knew who was on “the other end of the line.”

“Its me, Sarah”

I took a deep breath, thinking this was it!  My 16 mile  morning drive had taken 1.5  hours in rush hour traffic. I thought:  If the baby was coming, I would have to drive back to Berkeley, pick up Sarah and then fight my way back to the hospital which inconveniently sat at the foot of the Golden Gate bridge.  I felt far away from Sarah.

Over the phone Sarah said,”
“I think this it. 
I’m not sure.”
Come back but don’t drive crazy. Be careful. I’m not sure.”

I got out my keys and let myself into the next ward to find Sergeant Embry.

“I gotta go home now Sergeant.”
He knew what was going on with Sarah.  Chuck Embry spun around in the hallway and said: “OK Mike, Get going!”  He had a big grin and was genuinely happy for me and Sarah.

I ran about a mile to my car, jumped in and started back to Berkeley. Panting, I tried to calm myself. The car radio music made me crazy. I had to turn it off to concentrate on getting home.

This trip only took 60 minutes. I ran into the apartment. Sarah had her bag and was ready to go.

“My water broke. I called the hospital they said we probably have time to get back into the City.”
I said, “How do you know your water broke?”
Sarah looked at me with that “You-can-be-so-stupid-look.”

We began to drive back.  Suddenly the traffic stopped dead.  I got out of the car to see what was happening. It was a long train.  I had never seen a freight train crossing University avenue. Never in the several years we lived in Berkeley. But there it was.
“Ok Mike, calm down.” Sarah said.  I might have been slightly freaking out.
“The train isn’t even moving”, I whined.

After  what seemed like an hour,  I heard the clanging of bells as the barriers rose and we could move onward.

We got to the hospital. I drove fast up to the gate, but then went very slow once I passed the flags and cannons.  The Presidio, where the hospital was located, was also the home of a school for Military Police.  They were very aggressive with speeding cars even when carrying a pregnant soon-to-be mother.

 Since I worked at the hospital, I knew how to get to OBGYN right away. I navigated the warren of little service roads behind the hospital. The  Maternity ward  was in some old wooden light green barracks.  

I knew the medic who took Sarah away in a wheel chair.
“Hey Mike!”
“Hey Charlie”
“Big day, huh! We grinned.”
Charlie,  told me to wait in the hall outside the double doors to the ward.

This was not the waiting room I had imagined.
No pacing men.  No men at all. It was just a long hallway with a bank of windows facing a parking lot. I was completely alone. Various people casually came and went but nobody was waiting.  Just me.

I spent my time worrying. I am a specialist at that activity.  I had nothing to read, no radio. I just that there and vacillated between the thrill of finally meeting our baby and the fear that something might go wrong.

The night before the trip to the hospital, I got up during the night and found Sarah watching tv. She was a bit weepy.  It was the story of a mother who had a baby that was ill.
“God! Why would you watch that now?!”, I said
“I just want to.”
“But why that”
Sarah continued to watch the melodrama. I went back to bed, confused.

In my hallway waiting room, the time seemed like hours. This time it was several hours..  Finally, a nurse came out and told me the baby wasn’t coming and they would wait a while and then if necessary they would induce it.

They let me in to see Sarah.

The Nurse told me, “You should just go home and go to sleep. We’ll call you.”

Sarah agreed, but said to the nurse: “You promise you’ll call him if I want Mike to come back.” “Right?”
The nurse smiled and promised.

I thought briefly about sleeping on the tile floor of nearby office in the Psych Ward, but, in the end, I drove back over the bridge home to Berkeley.

About 4 in the morning, I gave up trying to sleep and drove back to the hospital. I walked into Sarah’s room. She was awake.

She said: “I asked them to call you. Did they call?”
I shrugged “No I just was worried so I came back.”
“Well they are going to induce the baby.”

They sent me back to my empty hallway.  The hall had a long vinyl green couch with huge cushions. It had metal bars at each end. It was a real institutional treasure.  I lay on it briefly until an officer came by and told me to sit up.

A new morning shift was coming on and I recognized one of the interns who had just rotated through the psych unit.
“Hi Captain, Smitham,”
“Hi Mike,” I’m coming over to deliver my first baby.”

I thought, “that would be our baby!’

Another hour passed and Captain Smitham walked by me  still sitting on my couch.

“Don’t you want to see your wife and your baby?”, he asked.
“Oh, didn’t anyone tell you. You could have watched. The baby is fine”

I rushed through the ward doors, crashing them against the walls.
Sarah was sitting up, a bit groggy.  There was no baby nearby. 
Sarah said, “I just feel very tired. I’m ok. They said if I want to see the baby, I have to walk to the nursery, down the hall. “Let’s go see the baby.

I asked, “Is the baby o.k.?  Does she have all her fingers and toes?”
Sarah laughed. The baby was o.k.  I felt a rush of relief and joy.  I felt I could finally relax a bit. But only a bit. I was excited to see baby Laura.

When we got to the nursery, there were only a few babies there. A nurse handed our Laura to Sarah.

According to Army hospital policy in 1966 Sarah had to stay for 5 whole days regardless of how she felt. 

Sarah said, “I feel like I’m in jail.” “I want to go home now.”

On the fifth day of maternal incarceration, I had the day off. It was a Sunday.

Sarah, said “You have to go buy Laura a baby dress to come home in.”
I asked, “Where do I get a baby dress?”
Sarah ignored my question, turning to baby Laura.
“Just get it now, so we can go home.”

I drove off base to the big Sears store on Geary.  It was my first foray into dress buying.
“How big is the baby,” the clerk asked?

“I gestured with my hands?”
I was a in a foreign land, of sorts. The baby department.  I was amazed they had dresses for babies.
“She is about this long.”
The male clerk held up a dress. I grabbed it anxious to be out of the store and to get back to the hospital.

I returned to Sarah’s ward.  Now, on a Sunday afternoon the place was crowded with visitors with gifts of balloons and flowers.

Sarah yelled at me. “It’s yellow!!”  “Go back and get pink!  Laura is  a girl.”

“Really? I have to go back?”
“Yes Really!”
Another trip to Sears.

I returned with a pink dress covered with tiny, tiny white buttons.
A medic with huge hands more suited to construction work, began to try to put the squirming, crying Laura into the little dress.
“Damn it,” “hold still” , he cried.
He couldn’t hold the baby and do the tiny buttons.
Sarah sighed “Give her to me, “finally said as she rescued the  medic and the baby.” The medic and I watched as Sarah magically assembled Laura in her tiny pink dress.

As we left, the nurse casually explained that Laura’s clavicle had been fractured during delivery. They had used forceps. (Remember, Dr. Smitham’s first baby?)

The nurse went on
“Its no big deal, we don’t do a cast, just an ace bandage.  Come back in 3 days and we’ll check it”  I passively mumbled some acknowledgement, took our discharge papers  and we headed to our car.

We were given a case of Enfamil along with other things. I put the case on top of our VW, helped Sarah into the car. The medic handed the baby to Sarah and I drove off. Sarah held the baby in her arms. I went about 2 blocks before an MP stopped me to inquire about my case of Enfamil on top of the car.

We went home to our apartment and began to study our Dr. Spock paperback. Far from our own parents,  we felt alone. Just the 3 of us.  A new mom, a new baby and a new father.

I thought, “My god, what have we done. I don’t know anything about babies.”  Fortunately Sarah was the oldest of 4 children and she knew a lot about  the care and feeding of babies.

In a few days, we took Laura back to Letterman to have her bandage checked.  We were directed to the Orthopedic Clinic. It was an  area with perhaps 50 chairs in a waiting room.  That  room was full  of severely injured soldiers from the Vietnam war.   Many men were smoking. It was loud.

I showed the Sergeant on duty our paperwork.  He pointed to some empty chairs.
“OK, take a seat. Today is cast day, so I don’t know when you’ll get seen. We sat as far away from the crowd as we could.  I sat for only a moment.

I thought, now, I was not Specialist Gorodezky, I was Laura’s father. 

I stood up.
I checked my uniform.
 I walked passed the Sargeant who told me to
stop.  I whacked  through the DO NOT ENTER doors.  I walked into a hall filled with busy doctors and nurses.

I stood in the middle of the hallway.
I spoke in a loud clear voice.
Heads turned to listen.
“I have a 3 day old baby out there and I don’t think we should wait out there to see a doctor!

A nurse with Captain’s bars took me by the arm and lead me back into the waiting area.  She ecorted Sarah and I to bring Laura in to see a physician.

We silently  waited in an exam room, I began to understand a bit about becoming Laura’s father. I had a new important job. This job mattered.

The doctor arrived
As he removed the ace bandage around Laura’s shoulders, I asked
“Why is her clavicle broken?”
“What happened.”
The physician calmly and perhaps condescendingly answered:
Oh this isn’t unusual. It says right here on her birth certificate that forceps were used during delivery.  It was the forceps.”
“Don’t worry, this will heal quickly. Babies heal fast.”

Sarah held our fragile baby close to her.  I held on to Sarah. Our tiny family walked out of the clinic.

Laura did heal quickly.

Happy Birthday Laura Ann

Sunday, October 15, 2017

From The Corner Office

From the Corner Office

1982, Madison, Wisconsin

The local TV station came into office. I sat in a folding chair waiting to be processed. The ceiling fluorescent lights seemed very bright.   Cigarette butts were sprinkled on the linoleum floor. I was to be filmed as I waited  for unemployment benefits.  I was a first time visitor.

It has already been  seven months of unemployment.  Home interest was at 13%. The newspapers talked of recession. I was one of many people without work.

Both of my daughters, Laura and Suzanne,  were away during the day for school.  I was bored and depressed. I had read that exercise was good for combating depression. I ran each day in a forest area near our home. 

It was an odd urban forest. Once you enter it, you have no notion that a large city is only steps away.  It was humid and buggy. I hate humid and I really hate buggy.  Despite my distaste, I ran, walked and plodded through the forest.  I watched the squirrels and the occasional bird. There were Wisconsin Fall colors and the smell of piles of leaves. But I became interested in the cars.

The trail was narrow and cars would periodically emerge from sharp turns going very fast. Tires squeeled.  Drivers seemed liked to race through the forest. Cars came very close to me. I could feel the wind as they passed.

I began to plan how I might end the depression. I thought,
“I just need to take 2 steps to the right and it would end.” …….
“No, I can’t do that.”  “What about Sarah? What about the kids?”

My thoughts looped through that exact monologue every day for weeks.

Our financial situation was bad.  American Express had very aggressive bill collectors and our two income family now had one income.  We were going to lose our home. 

So, into this dreadful scene of a very private horror, came the telephone call.  Suzanne was in the basement playing with the cat. Laura was annoying Suzanne.  Sarah was at work.

The loud telephone bell  rang over and over again. We kept the phone in the hall. It had a long cord. I took the phone into our bedroom and sat on the edge of the bed.

“Hi Mike, it’s Tony. How are you doing?”
“I’m doing good!” I lied with that practiced fake enthusiasm we all learn.

“Well, the reason I’m calling is we have a job in San Francisco that you could do.”  He went on to tell me the salary for a temporary job with a software start-up in San Francisco.”
“You’d have to move out here from for a while.”

I said yes without discussing this with Sarah and the kids. I felt trapped and this seemed an escape route.

A friend in Berkeley offered me a room in her big house and in a few days, I was gone. I left my family. I flew to Berkeley to live in a leakey attic room on the third floor of my new place on Ashby Avenue.

I did not  sleep well. I awoke each day before sunrise and walked to a 24 hour donut store. It had that wonderful smell of greasy donuts and cinnamon and coffee. Oh, and tobacco: it was cinnamon, coffee, grease and cigarette smoke.

 Even at 5:30a.m. ,  Ashby was busy with cars, trucks and buses racing toward the bay bridge. I didn’t have a car, so after my morning donut treat, I walked a mile to the BART station. The train was packed with standing commuters. In the morning they all were dressed sharp and they smelled good. 

 The train seemed to raise it’s voice to scream when it went  under the San Francisco Bay.  Standing and gripping the overhead bar, I would close my eyes and drift into semi-counsciousness as we sped into the City.

Never speaking to anyone, I moved throughmy  morning routine.  I felt very alone.  The donuts seemed the highlight of the morning.

My new San Francisco job was to help a fledgling company with a big project. We had the task to  convert all of San Francisco’s mental health clinics from paper records to a new computer system.  I was one of the first employees, but others came rapidly.  Hiring friends, we quickly expanded to 10 employees.  We were all men and 1/2 of the men were gay.

San Francisco had become quite an assembly point for gay men and women. The Castro district was the scene.  Along upper market, it was another world to me. Men wore a variety of outfits, lots of chains, short leather caps, and tight pants.

One day, soon after I arrived, the heel to my shoe broke off.  I needed to repair it.

I asked:“Hey Bob, where can I get some glue around here.”

“I  don’t think there is anything downtown here next to City Hall.  At lunch, I’ll drive you to a hardware store.”

As it turned out, there were 5 of us packed in a car as we drove up Market Street in to the Castro.  Along the way, my mid-western perspectives began to peel away.  I stared out the car window at the various passing scenes that I had not seen before.

We pulled up about a block from the hardware store.
“OK Mike, it is just down the street. We’ll wait for you.”
I got out of the car and stood on the crowded noon time street looking at the outfits men were wearing, the couples holding hands. Finally, I saw a man wearing a dog collar while another man followed with a leash.  I stared for more than a moment before I recovered and went into the store.  I felt I had traveled far to a distant foreign place.  I thought people were starring at ME.  Finally, I darted into the refuge of the store.

When I returned to the car, I realized I had been the afternoon entertainment.  The car was convulsed with laughter as they described watching me.

“You were standing with your mouth open.”
“We thought we were going to have to rescue you. You went rigid.”
“You were really shocked, weren’t you. “

That quick immersion experience was good for me.  I soon became comfortable in my own role as the straight man with children.  I was fine being me.

As a start-up, our little company had no office. We just worked at the customer’s site. In this case, we worked in the public health building directly across the street from the ornate golden dome of San Francisco city hall. We had a big corner office.

One morning a police officer came to our work place and told us we needed to close the huge swinging windows.  He explained the Queen of England was to be driving down the street near us and all windows needed to be kept closed for security.  It was a warm day and we were not pleased.

Our office contained a pile of construction debris that included several lengths of metal conduit tubing.

“Hey! Let’s make dart guns.”

Somehow, we all knew how to do this. We stopped working on our computer terminals and grabbed sheets of printout paper. We rolled the paper into tight long darts and began firing across the large workroom.  Others in the room were not happy to be poked by paper darts, but we kept at it. The darts got more and more well designed and with a quick puff of breath we could shoot them quite a long way.

“Lets open the window just a bit”
“Yeah, let’s see how far we can shoot these things.”

We had only fired a few before one dart shot across Grove avenue and right past a security guard at the door.

“Run, Run” someone yelled as 5 grown men scrambled out the door. 
I was a member of the group.  I was the oldest but I didn’t feel old.  We laughed until we could not stop.

“Stop it you guys, I gasped” 

We held our breath trying to stop the care free hysteria. We had to try to stop laughing.


A few months later, I looked out of the big corner windows. I could see the United Nations plaza in front of City Hall.  It was a Sunday morning. I worked almost every day and today I was alone in the Public Health building.

The previous day (Saturday),  there had been a huge demonstration.  A terrible new disease was ravaging the community and demonstrators stood on the steps of city hall to protest.  They wanted more done to deal with AIDS. 

On Sunday morning, I saw the sanitation workers cleaning up the trash  in the plaza. The workers wore masks and gloves.  News reports told of muni-drivers running busses from the Castro were wearing white surgical masks. 

“What was happening?”

“Could I catch this?”

I went to my dentist.  The office was in the Castro District. The dental hygienist now had a mask and a large plastic visor over her eyes. I had never seen this before.
“What was happening”

At this point, we were all pretty ignorant about AIDS but we knew something horrific was underway.  It was contagious, but how? The scene on Castro now included some very ill, very thin men.  People were dying.  People were becoming frightened.

At work, I overheard some of my gay friends talking about AIDS.
“They are trying to blame it on us.”
“They want to close the bath houses. Why should we do that?”
“This is some kind of conspiracy. The disease was created by the CIA.”

In this setting, I met Jimmy.   He was tall and skinny with genuine red hair.  Although 6 years younger than me, we instantly become close friends.  We liked the same music. We  ate at a local diner. We both liked grilled cheese sandwhiches. Jimmy like to order “I’ll have a Grilled Cheese Samwich”.

Jim and I went on long walks all over San Francisco. We talked constantly about our families, gossiped about our coworkers and what was happening in the world.  Jim had never married but loved children. My children loved him.

I suddenly had a real best friend.

Walking one day, I asked Jim: “How do you know if a man is gay. You seem to know from secret cues.” “What do you see?”
Jimmy laughed.

“I just know. It’s obvious to me.”

Jim lived in the Castro and would sometimes invite me to parties. Often I was the only straight man present.

Yes, now --- I just knew I was the only straight man.

Jim and I often climbed  up on the back stairs of our workplace above the Orpheum theater. We sat in the stair well.  We liked talking alone on the stairs . There, We could conspire on how we could change our future lives. We dreamed of becoming rich.  We played The Fantasy Game.  The rules:

You can dream without restriction.  No limits. Anything was possible.

 “Maybe someone will buy our company and our shares will be worth a fortune. 
We will go public.
We’ll buy homes and drive fancy cars. “
“I’ll buy a Porche”
I said: “I’ll take Sarah to Paris.”
Jim threw in: We’ll get a real office on the bay.
We will eat in the best restaurants. No more diners.
We’ll pay off all our debts.

I said: Jimmy. Some day you and I will sit at a table on a balcony overlooking Lake Como drinking wine.

Neither of us had been to Lake Como, we just like the sound of that statement and the image.  Plus it fit the rules of the Fantasy Game.

About 6 months later,
Jim did move into a grand home in Pacific Heights with his new lover,  George, a wealthy restaurant owner.  Jim began to live a different life style.

Jim and I and Carol (the only woman in our company) became 3 drinking buddies. Almost every night we walked ½ a block down New Montgomery to the Pied Piper Bar in the Palace Hotel.  This was a truly grand bar with a giant mural of guess what? A huge pied piper mural was painted behind the bar.  The piper was leading the children of Hamlin away.

Because none of us drove to work, we could drink after work, sometimes at length.  Carol was recruited to play the Fantasy Game and we all sat in darkened elegant bar and watched the other patrons. We came often and watched the show like an evening soap opera:

Carol watching the bar said: “Oh look, she took off her shoe and is rubbing his leg.”
Look at those CFM shoes?
Jimmy, stop flirting with the waiter.”

At the end of an hour or two in the bar: “OK, I’ve got to go”  I want to catch the next train back to Berkeley.

Carol said “ I’m going down the stairs for the muni to the Mission”

Jim took a different train up to the Castro.  We went our different ways every night.

We didn’t talk about AIDS.  It was front page news every day.  Our company began to build a database for the public health department. We did it for free.  The printer near my desk would list the hundreds of names on paper as it folded back and forth into a tall pile. The printout showed AIDS in big letters. The pile of paper got bigger and bigger.

On Saturday morning, I took my car from Berkeley and drove to Jim’s house in the City. Jim didn’t say why I was invited. It was an unusual invitation. Some of our mutual friends from work were already sitting in Adirondack chairs Jimmy’s sunny back yard. I sat next to Carol.

 I knew Jim had been to the doctor. He had sores on his face. I imagined why we were invited  there, but I forced dark thoughts away. “It could be acne? “Couldn’t it?” “Don’t be paranoid,” I told myself.  “Don’t be so negative.”

Jim told us he had lab results.

We were sitting in a semi-circle and Jim stood with the bright sun behind him.  I tried to look at him through the shadow. I thought, “what I should say”.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

A Simple Truth

I walked away from the Berkeley coliseum a 1965 graduate. I had already begun a job search process. It was Spring and it was time to apply for jobs.

My first job interview was in one of the temporary barracks located on the UC campus. We called them T-buildings.  The shabby green wooden buildings  were clustered directly opposite the grand marble stairs and entry columns of the main library. The T-buildings had a wooden ramp that lead to the entrance.  The old barracks had been there since the end of WWII. Inside the building was a warren of little interview offices.

I checked a bulletin board every day in the employment placement office. I was excited to have my first interview. Newly weds, Sarah and I  had essentially no money and earned just enough to get by with campus jobs. But since I was about to graduate my student job would end. I needed a real job.  Today’s interview was for a job called a Public Health Investigator I.

I came to the interview with zero knowledge about this “investigator thing”. I knew nothing. I had on my white shirt and tie and I polished my shoes.  I walked into a tiny interview office and sat in a war surplus metal chair across from a kindly young man perhaps 4 years older than me.  Quickly he explained the job to me. I would be expected to interview people with newly diagnosed syphilis and then do follow-up interviews with all their previous sexual contacts.

I sat there a bit dumfounded.

I thought: “Really?!”

I squirmed a bit on the chair. It squeaked and I flushed a bit.

“You mean I am actually supposed to ask people that?”
“Yes, could you do that?”

I thought for a moment. No doubt it was for a moment too long, before I said” Yes, I could do that.”

The interview was brief. We  both knew the outcome.

A pleasant firm handshake,
“Good luck”
I headed down the dim hall towards the bright red Exit sign.

At this time,  the Vietnam war was underway, and so was the draft.  While  looking for a job, I was also looking for a way to not be drafted.

My next interview was with the US Army Reserve. If I could get into the reserves, conventional wisdom promised:I would not be drafted.  I found an Army Civil Affairs unit about 40 miles North of Berkeley.  My interview was in the early evening at an actual military facility.

I drove my Volkswagon north on a busy highway and then down a dark road through barbed wire fencing to a guard gate. 

“Oh wow,” I hope they let me in here”. 

It all seemed quite official.  I had never visited such a place.   

I was shown to another interview room. Again, I sat on a small metal office chair, this time with a uniformed reserve Army officer on the other side of a metal table. He explained the work of Civil Affairs Units to me. I was actually interested. I thought: “This seems to be a bit like local political science, sociology and anthropology. “

Hey! I know this stuff.

“Well, if I have to do something in the military, this would be o.k.  I could put up with it.”

At the conclusion of yet another brief interview the officer said:

“Mike, the next time you have one of these interviews, you need to at least pretend that you want to do it.”

I was learning about being interviewed.

Hmm, I thought I am being a bit transparent. Everyone is trying to get into these seemingly safe Reserve units. There is competition and I was not competing.  I need to be enthusiastic. I need to pretend better.

My job quest next took me to a civil service test to become a deputy probation officer trainee.  Fresh from 4 years at CAL, the written test was easy and I very quickly was hired. I ranked high on the test score and I did not bumble the pro forma interview.  This was a real job.

Training was mostly on-the-job. The training program  was modeled after the sink or swim school of swimming instruction. The first few weeks we worked as assistants in juvenile hall.  The kids called Juvenile Hall, the Green Hotel. 

I worked on one of the several locked units.  Each section was a segregated by age with the teen-age unit considered to be too challenging for trainees and much too scary. I worked with 9 and 10 year old  kids whose most dangerous activity was grinding down their toothbrushes into   very sharp knives. The routine work days  revealed  sad little kids. Each boy had been sent away from  home. They were locked-up.

“OK” the voice commanded over the loud speakers situated in each child’s locked room.
“Time for breakfast, everyone OUT.”
As the trainee, I walked to the end of a long hall and then quickly opened each door.  The kids, all in jeans and white t-shirts left their rooms in silence.

The atmosphere was military/ hospital/institution-like.  Although the building was full of children, there was rarely laughter. There was no color. Just light green walls.  A smell of Clorox was common. The rules were many:
No loud noises.
No television unless as a special group privilege
No touching, shoving, pinching, taunting,
Absolutely no fighting

One afternoon, I was called to the front office. A 9 year old black child with very short curly hair was standing in the hall with his hand bleeding. His white t-shirt was bloody. His hand had been caught the door to his room. The doors were heavy.  

I stepped around a pool of blood on the floor. The officer in charge told me to take Sammy to the hospital. The hospital was only a few hundred yards away. 

The boy was mute and was trying to be brave. His face was wet from recent tears.  Some of the custody officers were discussing handcuffs.

I said, “Really?” “His hand is bleeding”. “I don’t want to put him in handcuffs.”

“But if he runs, Mike, just let him go. Don’t chase him.”

This was a repeat of our standing instructions. Kids almost always ran home.  Chasing was dangerous since he might run into traffic.

 I put my hand on his should as we went to the door. The loud buzzer sounded and we walked into the bright sunlight of the parking lot.

I said, “Sammy, we’ll go see the doctor.” “They will take the pain away.”
Sammy said nothing.

As we walked through a parking lot, I worried he might indeed take off running. I helped him with the towel that was wrapped around his hand. I kept my hand on his back.

We walked through the automatic doors into the ER at the County hospital. 

A nurse saw us and quickly took me aside. She whispered, “Dr. Blau” is on duty”. She pointed him out. He wore a white coat with the required stethoscope around his nepck. He seemed quite old to me and was clearly muttering to himself.

“Don’t let the boy near him.  I’ll get an intern or resident to sew him up.”

She took us to an exam  room, bypassing the busy waiting room.

I helped Sammy up on an examining table.  I held  on to him gently afraid he might roll off.  A young physician approached us. He was rushing.  He quickly looked at the wound.

“OK hold him down.”  He injected some local anesthetic and then walked away.  The injections were very painful and Sammy cried.

“I’ll be back,” said the young doctor. He did not speak to Sammy.

After a long wait, the physician  returned with a needle and thread and was ready to suture the wound closed.

I said, “Do you think the anesthetic is still working.”
The doctor gave me a look of complete disdain. He began to sew the wound.

Sammy screamed loudly.
The doctor:
“Hold him down.” I laid my body across the child and the nurse held his feet.
I petted his brow and face and tried to reassure. I spoke softly directly into his ear.
“Ok now Sammy, you are going to be ok. He’s almost done. He’s almost done. He’s almost done.”
I had a cloth and wiped Sammy’s face as I spoke.

The doctor said, “These people are just animals.”

I felt ashamed by the doctors words  I thought:
“Who are these people? Does he mean black people?”

I did not say anything. The nurse and I exchanged a quick glance. I tried focus on the child.

When the sutures were finished, the nurse said:
“Is this your brother?”
Her remark was spontaneous and genuine.

Again, I didn’t reply as I helped Sammy off the table and I we walked back  to the locked facility.

After my training period ended, I was assigned to do pre-sentence investigations for the Court in Alameda County.

Each day, I would interview 3 or 4 men who had been convicted of a variety of minor crimes. I wrote reports  to the judge recommending probation, jail, restitution or some combination.

Through the door to my glassed in office came a variety of persons convicted of such things as driving on a suspended license, public drunkenness, soliciting sex in a restroom, possession of marijuana, shoplifting and petty theft of various types.

The people I met were poor people.  They often wore tattered, soiled clothing.  They had little education and were  not very forthcoming when talking. They rarely made eye contact and my interviews were mostly questions  from me and brief answers from them.

“It says  in the police report that you stole a bottle of beer at the 7-11”
“It says here that you have done this before”
“No that’s not true”
“Your rap sheet shows you were arrested last year for the same thing.”

“Oh, I forgot”
“Do you have a family”
“Do you have a job”

And so it went each day. Sometimes the interviews were in the county jail and sometimes in my office.

First thing Monday morning, the receptionist called to tell me John Brewer was in the waiting room.
I went out to bring him back to my interview room.
John was dressed nicely and extended his hand in greeting. 
I thought, “Oh, this will be interesting.”
In my office, John told me he was married and was expecting to begin work soon.  He had been arrested for stealing bologna and bread.

Going somewhat off script, I asked:

“Did you steal the food?”
Unlike others I met, John looked straight at me with an engaging smile.
Yes, my kids were hungry.”
“Do you have food at home?”
“No.  We are 4 days away from the next welfare check and we having nothing to eat.”

I thought, “my refrigerator is bursting with food. We throw food out every week.”

John continued:
“Hey, do you think you could loan me some money and help me out. I can pay you back as soon as I start work.” “Really, I promise I’ll pay you back.”

I thought, “I am  probably being hustled.”
I reached into my wallet and handed him $10.00.  This was a good bit of money in 1965.
John smiled: “Thank you! I promise I’ll pay you back.”

After John left, I worried.
“Had I just done something stupid?” At our morning coffee chat, would my co-workers laugh at my naiveté.  Was I being a dumb kid?

The next morning, I hesitantly asked to see Mr. Greene, my supervisor.
He was a tall dignified black man, always dressed perfectly.  He invited me to sit across from him at his desk.

“What’s up?”
“Well, uh.” “Yesterday, I was doing an investigation and, uh…”
I took a breath.
“Well, this guy told me he had no food for his family and asked me to loan him some money. I gave him $10.00.”
“Was that stupid?” “Was I being conned?”

Mr. Greene smiled. He said:
“Well, Mike, you get to decide who you are going to be. You can be someone who is never fooled. You can be someone who is rigid and never ever falls for any false appeals for help. Or, you can be that other person who might have helped a family to have food.  Who do you want to be?