Reading Steinbeck makes me long for the days when I worked with the health department, makes me long for the time when I used to be out and among the people, touching their lives, sometimes touching their hands or bodies in ways that let me know that they and I were alive in a human sense that also touched me in my deepest heart.
As I write this, tears are coming to my eyes and my throat is getting tight at remembering that life, that previous life when my days were filled with more than the talk of a police radio and the answering of 9-1-1 phone calls, when I could drive about the city where I lived, my city and county where the people were mine and I was theirs and charged with doing something for them. I could see and feel them, could smell their smells and walk in the dust of their roads and unkempt back and front yards.
I long for the smell of a hot palm tree as it is baking in the August sun with the pigeons and other birds shitting down on those people and me and my car, where I could walk among the duck shit at Encanto Park when I was taking a break from my many field visits and rest in the shade or watch the white middle-class moms taking their three and four year-olds decked-out in Oshkosh-by-gosh jumpers and short-sets to play in the sand entrenched playground while watching the transients wander between the bathrooms and pay phones, watching who might be watching them and not.
I would sit in my car and watch the people who came to the park on their lunch breaks, wondering at who they were speaking to on their cell-phones, or wonder at what they were reading or writing as they sat at the picnic tables and looked up every now and then as the swarm of pigeons took wing and brought up the dust and dirt from their wings and the ground in their leaving.
I long for the days when I would walk down 12th Avenue and Buckeye and feel the stares on me as the locals wondered what they hell I was doing in their neighborhood. Some would recognize my white car and white self parked along the curb and come out to talk with me, while many others stood inside at their windows waiting for me to leave.
I can see the area still as it used to exist, with Dixon’s Club on the south east corner of 13th Avenue and Buckeye, old gray and purplish stuccoed building with the one scraggly Palo-Verde tree there on the corner with the dirt parking lot and old wooden door jamb that had seen many fights and raids and strange white cops darken its doorway, and then across the street on Buckeye proper at 12-something west, the Social Club and its parking lot on the east side of the building where I got some blood on my hand after drawing someone at the trunk of my car, with my little black fanny-pack of a blood kit, elastic band to tie off their arm, the tubes and needles and alcohol wipes for cleaning the puncture spot…the wipes that came away filthy brown most times and lightened that tiny patch of skin where I would insert the needle to take some of their precious blood to see if it was tainted with the curse of syphilis.
I would then drive the sample back to the clinic and deliver it to the lab and watch patiently as the techs spun it down and then took a drop of the serum and mixed it with the reagent that would quickly, slowly, or not at all react with its charcoal grains that meant those people or persons had been touched with that curse, that same curse that made me scream in my soul at receiving the blood test results of the newborn that was four times higher than its mom’s blood results taken at the same time.
Reading Steinbeck causes me to see the little insignificant things in life and marvel at their simple-ness and integral-ness to what we call life. He draws a big picture but fleshes it out with the details that I seem to be away from now that I’m in an office or call-center all day. I hear the distress of people on the phones or the excited-ness of the officers as they’re chasing someone and the usually calm voice of the sergeant saying that we are not in pursuit and watch the new dispatcher get amped-up and tense in her typing as she’s trying to get it all down in the officers’ radio traffic….
I see the same two hundred people every day or week and they all look the same in their uniforms and combed hair and large and cumbersome work bags and headsets and their lunches and breakfasts and coffee for their two best friends and supervisor who used to be only their friend but is now their friend’s supervisor, and the radio consoles and phones and computers for call-taking and dispatching and the tables that move up and down and the many chairs that must be arranged so just so in the corners to hold their extra bags and the ones that nobody wants to sit in because they stink or have strange stains where the person’s crotch would be sitting or the one wheel doesn’t turn or it’s wide enough to be a loveseat and some of them bring all kinds of shit from home with them that their desks look like their office at home with pictures of kids and husband and dog and their personal box of Kleenex and Lysol wipes and their three pens and packages of gum and this book and that and the notepad….
My car used to be my office, too, as I drove around from one side of the county to the next, taking my little binder with green cards that represented infections or contacts to infections and carried my notes of efforts to contact and find them on the back, and my pens and pencils in the cup holder and the extra napkins from McDonalds and Jack-in-the-Box and Filiberto’s and Armando’s and Adelberto’s and Los Betos from my own various lunches and breakfasts amid the wandering of my city and then.
I now drive only two or three roads to get to work and back and the commute is a sterile representation of only getting from one place to another, not the driving about and looking for people and noticing the shrimp shack or burger shack where they served pancakes or menudo on the weekends or used a small pickup truck to block the entrance to the car stereo shop when it was closed for business….
Sometimes I’d drive to El Mirage or Surprise and wonder at the surprise of being there, or wonder at what was seen in that first mirage seen out there so long ago before it had a sign naming the year of its incorporation and how many people lived there at the last count…and its cotton fields along which I would stop and pick a couple tufts of the white stuff and wonder at the years of oppression of people who were dragged from African shores to pick the stuff….
I would stand there for several minutes and wonder at the dirt and the irrigation channels and see and hear the aircraft from Luke AFB nearby and be thrown further away and into my childhood where these sights and sounds were a comfort and a normalcy of everyday stuff and business, and then get back into my car and drive past the fields of roses and other flowering bushes and shrubs and be amazed at how fields and fields of the things could be grown here in our hot scorching desert and then cut and shipped to other parts of the country or world to adorn people’s dining room tables….
Then I would drive past fields of onions being picked by hunched over brown skinned people and there would be a smell of sour-cream-and-onion potato chips in the air and I would drive to the far western side of Maricopa county in the truly bum-fuck-Egypt part of our world and find myself surrounded by the huge and monstrous and beautiful female cottonwood trees in full bloom with their white cottony shit flying thick and cloudlike in the afternoon breezes among the trailers and mobile homes parked and anchored in their allotted spaces with the Big-Wheel trikes and Tonka trucks tucked under and beside the wheeled homes that did or didn’t have the nice grating or plastic wall skirts all around their homes….
And the people were gentle and welcoming or suspicious as to why I would be all the way out there in their neck of the woods with my health department identification looking for their daughter or son or whomever and is the water not ok to drink out here or what?
When I read Steinbeck I wonder how I could abandon those field and dairy workers and their little families of infected people and cousins, leaving them to other devices and treatments when I used to be able to tell them to go to the clinic and don’t have sex until you do and the smell of chicken and cow shit is strong on the hot breeze as I stand there in the scorching sun with sweat running down my cheeks as I also smell their beans and ham hocks and rice cooking on the stove, emitting their own clouds of steam or the chilies roasting on the fifty-five gallon drums with the smoke penetrating the neighborhood and my clothes so that I still smell them when I’m driving home to my house in Glendale or Peoria and find some of those same chilies at the ABCO market or Food City…and I could look in their dark eyes and see the hope and trust or wonder or doubt as my white self told them what they needed to do to take care of themselves as their little Juanito ran around in his diaper and nothing else eating a peach with stickiness on his face and hands and arms and belly as he chased their dogs from the trailer to the shed and back….
Now it perturbs me when someone steals my favorite spoon out of my desk drawer at work and I feel the need to send scathing emails to my coworkers accusing them of thievery or asking who dropped the coffee bomb on my desk and among my pictures and I used to not care about such things as I drove my client to Jack-in-the-Box on the way to the clinic so I could buy her two Jumbo Jacks and a large curly-fries and a large Coke because she only had a package of dry Ramen noodles yesterday….
I had found her at her shit-hole trailer at Sixth Avenue and Jones that day and looked into her home and saw daylight shining up through the plywood covered floor and the kids were missing some of their front teeth as they eyed me suspiciously and asked me in their maturity what I wanted with their mom….
The older one noticed that the last name on my ID tag was the same as his and asked if I knew his family…and his name was also Josh, like my 12yo son and he was going to be 12 in November, too…and he was cute and had the same gentleness in his eyes as my Josh did/does…and I wondered at how life could be so unfair and so fucked-up for this little Joshua when things seemed and were so nice for my little Joshua….
I could smell his house and home and filth and dreams for the rest of the day, even after I blew my nose several times, chewed sharp and tingly gum and had enchiladas and salsa for lunch…I could still smell those things of that other Joshua’s house as I drove home to mine those several hours later after taking his HIV positive mom to my clinic so we could also treat her gonorrhea and chlamydia and try to convince her to stop sleeping with her boyfriend who was already dying from AIDS….
But she wouldn’t and didn’t and we came to see her on the foster care review board and later saw that she died and was no more and that her other children went the way of the wind and some and now I’m concerned with ferreting out the problem with the radio and is it the jack or the bottom part of the dispatcher’s headset that suddenly crashed and made the sergeant call me to say that we lost our dispatcher so we’re going car to car, thought you’d like to know….
I know there are Steinbeck stories in the radio room and among the 9-1-1 operators…and their hair is so shiny and their perfume or lotion smells so sweet and their cars are so pretty in the parking lot and the digital picture frames of their children and vacations are so expensive and their cruises are so interesting and so far removed from the shit side of life…and they do have their trials and difficulties and their parents die violent deaths in car accidents and murder-suicides and their lives do suck sometimes too….
But somehow there is no parallel between this and sitting in the small interview room of the clinic or sitting in the dirt under one of the ancient eucalyptus trees in an alley on the south side of town while a hugely fat, dark purple-black man who just told me about the hood rat who sucked his dick and gave him syphilis changes the subject so quickly and asks me if I know Jesus….
I love reading Steinbeck.
***This is a Favorite Re-post from November, 2009.
So…I took my camera to work the other day….
What is that sound, that scratching, that tapping away, that scraping and prying I heard along the way. I passed down the hallway, around the corner and into my room; I heard a shuffling, a movement, and a something-is-there kind of sound. What is that gnawing, that board coming loose, that crack of a something being pressed against and pushed into, forced to be somewhere it wasn’t, and then. I saw the doorknob turning, heard the pin and tumbler move aside, the light from the window caught on the bronze and tarnish and sought my eye, that twinkle where a twinkle wasn’t just a moment before. What caused that thing, that coming to, that vapor from a floorboard, and that mist between the hinges, what could it be…that tiny kind of burning when I started to pee?
A telephone call from a stranger’s place, an office with signs and slogans on the wall, pamphlets in display cases, numbered tickets on the floor, a welcoming eye and a wavering smile, those things greeted me and disturbed my peace, different words from that stranger’s place on that cloudy afternoon. I took the elevator to the second floor and could have sworn there were rats in the walls. The cabin loomed with its scratching sound, that scrape and tear at the insides from something there….
The nurse was gentle, she was not unkind, even with the purple gloves that lifted the boys and pulled back the hood…but there’s no amount of peace or distraction that can help one not notice a swab being stuck into Mister Johnson and slowly turned and dragged along that tender opening in the effort to collect some kind of hiding or tucked away cells from their resting place within the membranes’ coating…it’s gonna hurt, plain and simple…probably…unless you’re one of those guys who like that kinda pain…with the rings and piercings and, well you know what I mean. Anyway…it would have been so much easier if I had just waited to pee…no scraping and grinding and….
…and what are you, I said to that thing? “I am the thing that you thought you’d hidden away, that secret, that something that was lost even to your memory. I’m that laboratory finding, the antibodies’ keys, the hooks and pins, and whatnots, and the swirls of helices in your pee, the elemental bodies in your babies’ eyes, the cysts in your belly and the rash between your thighs. I’m the dysplastic cells in your girlfriend’s womb that means your cauliflower garden is about to bloom. I am that drip, that burn, that strain, that clap, that chancre and rash, those blisters and bumps on your secret place and places and that goopy something leaking from your nether region…I’m the substance of things you never hoped for and the evidence of things you can’t see…I’m that disease you caught in your stolen or random intimacies, your rendezvous-es, and your closing-time hook-ups…. I didn’t come from a toilet seat or a hot-tub or a door-handle or a soiled seat in a locker-room…you got me, you caught me, and you catched me, too, when you got down and dirty, doing the nasty, plowing furred furrows and other kinds of things…and now here I am…the skeleton in your closet…come knockin’ again….
Every now and then, we do something that we end up regretting later. We may deplore our actions or performance because it was not the best we could do. It is ‘just our luck,’ sometimes, to have our hindsight end up being better than our foresight. At times, we would like to erase certain events because they have caused damage to ourselves or someone else. If we are lucky, the injury was not too severe and we can make reparations. Occasionally, life forgives the mistake and allows us to go on without too much of a scar. And then there are times when nothing will change the results of our actions. What has been done is done. No matter how much we repent, no matter how many times we swear that we will never do that again, the damage is done and we will not be forgiven.
* * * * * * * * *
Jennie’s life was not unlike the lives of many people we might have known. Her origins were probably similar even to those of our own. Her family life was just a touch out of the ordinary, but not too uncommon. At twenty years of age, she was still living with her aunt and uncle, in a respectable, middle-class neighborhood in northwest Phoenix. She was old enough to be out on her own, but just hadn’t quite made the final break; she wasn’t completely ready to take that first, big, fluttering attempt to launch out of the safe nest of home.
Shortly before Christmas, Jennie started hanging around with a different crowd. She met a guy named Todd, who had a bunch of friends on the south side of town. They were new people, unlike the ones with whom she had previously surrounded herself. These folks had a certain twist to their lives. There was something peculiar or almost ‘naughty’ about them. They lived outside of the norm, and to her, this was exciting. At first, it bothered her that her aunt and uncle didn’t like them, but after a while, that didn’t matter. Jennie started staying out later and spending more time with Todd and his friends. They became more appealing to her. These other people were somehow more alluring than when she first met them.
Right after the New Year, Jennie went down to Broadway and Seventh Street with Todd. He introduced her to some more people and showed her what good friends they were. At first, the parties she attended included only alcohol and marijuana. When the people began to trust her, however, they reincorporated their normal fare into the party course – cocaine and crystal-methamphetamine. They either smoked it or shot it. The needles were a trip; they were so scary that they were immediately exciting. She held her breath, closed her eyes, felt the little stick in the skin, the tingling in her arm and then it was there – - the feeling Todd had told her about – a rush and a blast – she thought it was wonderful.
The one thing Jennie didn’t consider was that she might become entirely wrapped up in this other world. She thought she was just going to a really long party and would be home in a few days, but months went by before she realized how much time had passed. Was that possible? She partied every night for a week, slept for two or three days, ate like a starving maniac when she finally woke up, and then…she repeated the cycle over and over for four months – four months of getting high and having indiscriminate sex. Having sex just for the pure pleasure of the animalistic rut. The crystal made her desire so intense, she literally ached for the sex. So, there it was – a group of young males and one or two equally young, willing and high females, who desperately wanted to have sex.
There was never the thought of consequence. It hadn’t really entered Jennie’s mind that something bad might come of this. A half-thought or premonition was there at one time, but it never materialized into a complete, solid idea. The substances she was using numbed her conscience and intellect. As they wore off, she only wanted more – more cocaine and more crystal.
Sometimes, rational thought comes back to us in the middle of our folly. It seems to burst through the clouds of delusion like a ray of sunlight, almost blinding us with the sudden recognition of our errors and then leading us back to our sensibilities. Jennie was struck with the stark realization of her mistake on the last Sunday in April. She woke up at about noon, lying on a beer and urine stained mattress. Crumpled next to her were the bodies of other people, some partially clothed and some not. During the night, someone had vomited in the corner of the room and had then passed-out with the side of his face lying in the puddle. On the other side of the room was another mattress covered with more half-clad bodies, all dead asleep. Full daylight shone through the broken-glass rimmed window frames, lighting this hellhole she had called home for the past four months. “My God!” she thought, “What am I doing here?” The linoleum had been ripped from the floor years ago and the bare plywood was coming apart from the rain and sun that had streamed in through the broken windows. Every manner of dirt and filth littered the floor. Through the door to her right, she could smell the human excrement that had been smeared on the bathroom floor. The last visitor had missed the full, broken toilet and had then stepped in his mess while stumbling back to the main room. Flies were buzzing everywhere. Cobwebs had strung themselves across the ceiling rafters with reckless design. Gaping holes stared blankly from the walls where the plaster had been punched and kicked.
Jennie pushed herself off the mattress and followed the tide of filth and destruction that spilled down the hallway and into the back bedroom. This room’s outer walls had been stripped from the outside and light shone in through holes where the electrical outlets had been. On the floor of the closet, she found a shard of mirror. Without hesitation, she picked it up and shoved it before her face. She gasped aloud when she saw her reflection. Facing her was a stranger; a shadow of the person she had been when she arrived there in January. Jennie had lost forty pounds in the past four months. While the one hand held the fractured mirror, her other hand absently held up her soiled and stained pants. How had she not noticed her clothes hanging from her bony shoulders and hips? Her hair was crusted with some kind of dried food that had been forgotten on the mattress. Stringy, filthy, blonde, tangled mess. Dark rings circled her once bright, blue eyes and a road map of burning veins pulsed through the sclera.
Right then, at that exact moment, Jennie knew that she had to get out of there. She had to leave. This was all wrong. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Not to her. Clenched jaws prevented her from screaming “Get me out of here!”
Somehow, Jennie made it home. She made the seventeen-mile trek in about four hours, mostly on foot and the rest by hitching a ride with whomever would stop for her. Her aunt and uncle were not home when she got there, so she climbed the wall and tried getting into the house from the back yard. After checking all of the windows and doors and finding none of them unlocked, she sat down in a patio chair and waited. She must have still been incredibly tired because she fell asleep within minutes. Several hours later, her aunt shook her awake and took her into the house. There was no celebration or joyous reunion, but her aunt was relieved to have her home, alive and in one piece.
The next three weeks was a time of healing for Jennie. Her body began to mend from the abuse it had suffered and her mind began to become whole again. There were still the urges to feel the rush from the chemicals she had been using, but now she had the mental capacity to withstand the temptations and get past them. Her aunt and uncle were wonderful in the care they provided her, basically nursing her along in her recovery. Very little was said about the past four months. When she would mention a certain event or talk about specific people, they would listen attentively, but not offer much in response. They had been crushed by her absence and still couldn’t understand why she had left.
Toward the end of May, Jennie was back to her normal self. One could almost have said that the past four months hadn’t even happened. She had gained back a portion of the weight she had lost. Her hair once again had a healthy shine and her eyes were bright and beautiful, full of hope and appreciation for life.
With her new outlook, Jennie began to plan for her future. First, she went to several local restaurants and department stores and completed applications for work. Then, her aunt took her to the community college and helped her complete the forms for registration and financial aid. Life was good again. Jennie and her aunt became closer than they had ever been before she left. They would spend hours talking about dreams and possibilities, hopes and aspirations. It would be grand to finish school, get a great paying job and succeed in life. Jennie’s hope was to meet the man of her dreams, settle down, make a few babies and then live the full life – with all of the best – even the white picket-fence.
Part of Jennie’s response to her new perspective on life was taking responsibility for herself. She realized that if she would become anything, it would be by her own making. Along with this realization, was the new awareness she had of her health. The one drawback was that she had no health insurance. Her aunt and uncle couldn’t carry her on their plan because they were not her legal guardians. Her biological parents couldn’t do anything for her because she was no longer a minor and she was not yet a full-time student. So, what could she do?
Jennie’s aunt checked with some of her friends and learned of the free clinic on Sixteenth Street. They didn’t perform complete physicals there, but they could at least detect whether or not she had a sexually transmitted disease. This was a significant concern of Jennie’s because of the number and type of people with whom she had had sex in the past four months.
Sometime in the second week of June, Jennie went to the clinic and had a checkup. While she was there, she spoke to one of the counselors who suggested that she also get a test for HIV. “Sure, why not. I’m down here anyway, so I might as well. I don’t think I have it, but it can’t hurt to get it done, right?” The counselor assured her that it was probably the best thing to do. Considering the high-risk activities of her recent past, it would almost be negligent not to have the test.
A week later, the counselor called to inform her that she had tested positive for gonorrhea and chlamydia. Jennie still had to wait another week for the HIV results. She wasn’t concerned, though; she had hardly given it a second thought. For some reason, it hadn’t really occurred to her that she might be positive.
When another week had passed, she went to the clinic to get her test results. The same counselor greeted her and then asked for her copy of the lab slip. He compared the numbers to make sure he was giving the results to the proper person, and then told her in a calm, slightly wavering voice, that she tested positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
A minute went by, and then another. Jennie just sat there. Her mouth was literally hanging open and those blue eyes were like saucers, staring, wide with disbelief. “Are you sure?” He placed the two lab slips side by side and showed her the numbers. They were identical. He then pointed to the results: POSITIVE.
“Oh shit! Oh my God! I’m only twenty years old and I’ve fucked-up my life!”
That single line seemed to bounce from wall to wall in the small counseling room. It held such finality. It wrapped up the whole situation in one statement. Sure, there was supposed to be hope. This wasn’t supposed to be the end of the world. But…it was. At that point in time, there was not a cure. The odds were against the positive patients in that they would probably get sick; and then, they would die. It was only a matter of time.
The counselor just sat there, waiting for the echo of her words to fade away. Training and practice were designed to almost skirt the emotions and face the altered truth that it really was not the end of the world and there really was hope. But…how could one refute the truth in Jennie’s pronouncement of doom? Would one be correct to dismiss the blatant reality of her words? Carefully, the counselor validated her feelings and tried to steer her toward a more optimistic view. He told her that her life would certainly be different, but there were things that she could do to help postpone the end. It was in her control. If she lived a healthy lifestyle, she could possibly achieve some of her dreams….
* * * * * * * * *
And then there are times when nothing will change the results of our actions. What has been done is done. No matter how much we repent, no matter how many times we swear that we will never do that again; the damage is done and we will not be forgiven.