Reading Steinbeck…again…

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.

24 responses

  1. Liana

    I don’t even need a photo…a picture couldn’t begin to do what your words have done with this

    February 2, 2013 at 9:12 am

    • Thank you, Liana.

      February 5, 2013 at 6:35 am

  2. Jason R. Martin

    Vivid and accurate my old friend….thank you

    February 2, 2013 at 9:29 am

    • My brother…thank you.

      February 5, 2013 at 6:35 am

  3. Kathy

    a friend once told me “what prescriptions are there for a fractured spirit”, your essay is soul wrenching and remarkably real. Thank you for sharing.

    February 2, 2013 at 9:45 am

    • Thank you for your nice words, Kathy.

      February 5, 2013 at 6:36 am

  4. Powerful stuff Scott and the gulf that separates gets wider by the day.. 😦

    February 2, 2013 at 9:57 am

    • It does, Adrian, sadly so…thank you.

      February 5, 2013 at 6:36 am

  5. Your passion for people is noble… write with such an intensity….it just pours forth…and you paint a panorama of images….I am moved by your humanity…and your skill as a writer.

    Great stuff, Scott.

    February 2, 2013 at 10:24 am

    • Touching words, John…thank you.

      February 5, 2013 at 6:37 am

  6. me


    February 2, 2013 at 12:38 pm

  7. James O.

    Speechless. Incredible writing.

    February 2, 2013 at 1:43 pm

    • Thank you very much, James.

      February 5, 2013 at 6:38 am

  8. Beautiful writing, Scott. I like Steinbeck too. You could try writing some of the individual stories you encountered, as short stories, and publish them here. I think a lot of people really enjoy your writing. I certainly do. Seems like your work is really difficult… both now and before. But it’s very important work. There are many sides to people, and to society too. I can imagine it must be very wearing, and painful too, to deal with so much of the negative. How fortunate that you have a family that can give you some happiness and consolation.

    February 2, 2013 at 2:47 pm

    • Hello Shimon…and thank you…for your kind words, your encouragement, and your insight…. The work has been wearing and painful, both…and you are correct, I do have a family that brings much happiness and consolation…they are a source of peace…and good sounding-boards, too…as is the cathartic process of writing and giving form to thoughts that are otherwise often left in a jumble after the work is done.

      If you would like to read more stories or musings that came from my work with the health department and police department, you can scroll down to the bottom of the page and click on “Thoughts from/of Work” under the Categories widget in the bottom right corner…there are also writings that might overlap with my work experiences in the “Just Thoughts” and “From Somewhere Inside” categories.

      Thank you, again, Shimon….

      February 5, 2013 at 8:02 pm

  9. Yep, I recognize the Steinbeck characters too. It’s odd, but I never talked about my experiences in the field with anybody except other social workers. Probably for the same reasons soldiers don’t talk about war with people who have never been to a war and policemen don’t talk about being policemen-doctors don’t talk about patients. Social work is “normal” while you’re doing it, but it’s hard to explain to anybody who isn’t involved in it. And pointless. You become part of other people’s lives, but once you leave, you can’t go home again. We did some good, Scott. We did. And, we are not the same people we were before. I don’t think about it much anymore, but I know it’s true. It is what it is. Thanks for re-posting this. I could smell it all again as I read your words.

    February 3, 2013 at 12:02 am

    • I’m glad you were there with me, George, comforted that you could smell the smells and see the people…see them live again in the words on the page. Your comment about not talking about your experiences with anybody except other social workers makes me think about why I do talk about them or share them with others in my stories…makes me wonder, really…and I think it’s probably just to show another part of life that many people don’t see…to explain why we see things so differently sometimes…how we can love and hate so fiercely, how we believe and disbelieve the way we do…and how we can decide so differently what is right and what is wrong…maybe I do it to expose all of those other colors that don’t fit into the black and white of life…or to honor those people who just fight so damn hard to live when it would be so much easier not to…I don’t know…but you are right, George…we do become part of those people’s lives, as they do ours…and we are certainly not the same people we were before….

      February 5, 2013 at 8:26 pm

  10. settleandchase

    Brave and honest writing Scott – when you’ve seen such things, sometimes the absolute beauty of a tree, landscape, flower, or such, they can almost overpower you, sometimes absolute relief, sometimes almost what feels like guilty pleasures – when we know what else is there. (if this makes sense at all..) Sounds like you had and still do have very valuable work, and your words are very important..

    February 3, 2013 at 9:34 am

    • Yes, they are guilty pleasures, Cath, and sometimes they feel intensely so…when viewing this beauty while knowing what is on the other side. Thank you for your kind words…and your understanding….

      February 5, 2013 at 8:34 pm

  11. Lives that are so twisted. It’s hard to imagine being in that shape. Then there’s always that feeling of “there but for the grace of g*d, go I…”

    February 3, 2013 at 9:45 pm

    • So very hard to imagine, Gunta….and compelling….how many degrees of difference are there between us…how far are we really from being in their shoes…?

      February 5, 2013 at 8:40 pm

  12. I’m glad Steinbeck, and life, inspired you to get this down. I hope you do more. It makes me think I should try to write about a schizophrenic HIV + client I had whose apartment in the poor section of Norwalk, CT was a dirty, sad place to spend time, who was forever trying to get .50 from me for a loosie. She was close to illiterate and needed help with the KFC menu, but sometimes she wrote these wonderful prayers in a looping script, set diagonally across a small sheet of paper. Poems she was embarrassed to let the white SW’er see. George, above comment, is right, as is Shimon. Thank you for re-posting, for those of us who are new here.

    February 4, 2013 at 10:44 am

    • Thank you for your encouragement, Lynn…for being able to see inside of that world, also…from having been there with us. Your client sounds very interesting, too…a touching paradox.

      And…as I shared with Shimon, I do have other writings published here on my blog…you can find them in the “Categories” section at the bottom, right-hand side of the page if you’d like to browse through them…. Thank you, again…for your kind words…and for being here.

      February 5, 2013 at 8:56 pm

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