There’s a branch of the County’s credit union on the east end of the building, downstairs, and just west, to the left, there’s a drive-through rolling garage door that one can access with their County badge or after speaking with the person at the other end of the button that’s available at the key-pad. The sign above the drive-through garage door said “Employees Only,” so I figured that meant I could park in there, given that I work for the County, as well. After I pushed the button at that key-pad, the speaker-man’s voice said to go ahead and park in the next garage, the one just a bit further west that has a sign over the drive-through door that says “Public Parking.” Whatever….
I learned on a particular summer afternoon that it’s better to park on the right-hand side in that “Public Parking” garage, as the sun will stream in through the mesh-wire covered window spaces and heat your vehicle just as if you were parked outside…and because the pigeons fly in through the open drive-through doorway, perch on the water and electrical conduit over the left-side parking spots, and then shit all over your vehicle for however many hours you’re parked there. Go inside the jail and speak with an inmate, listen to his variously interesting or depressing stories, and then come back out to your roasting vehicle and deal with pigeon crap on your windshield. Park on the right.
There’s a plastic tarpaulin type thing covering the slanted and handicapped-friendly approach to the jail’s public visitation check-in waiting room just south and east of that parking garage. Years ago, that covering wasn’t there and it was only ever hot in that outdoor and public smoking waiting/approaching sidewalk ramp area, only ever hot, cement upon cement, with metal doors and institutional 1960s era buildings that house the low-risk, minimum security prisoners. Of course, back then, in those years ago, I could just walk in through the employee entrance and go straight back to the clinic where the nurse would have the inmate/patient already waiting for me in one of the exam rooms.
But times changed, years passed, regimes came and went, another disease investigator did something stupid and raised the institutional ire of America’s Toughest Sheriff and he or his minions decided that we could no longer have such simple and ready access to his prisoners, could no longer occupy one of his valuable exam rooms for half an hour or longer, and we were then relegated to visiting with the rest of the “privileged” people, the public defenders, chaplains, social workers, probation officers, and other miscellaneous agency volunteers, in the glass or wire-mesh separated individual visitation rooms, or even at one of the handcuff adorned wood laminate covered tables in the larger room.
Those privileged people and uniformed staff could watch and try to read your lips and cameras could watch with their silent eyes, but in those little rooms, you would be away from their direct listening and direct loud voices talking over the other visitors’ questions, asking canned questionnaire questions with flat voices and bored eyes and slow fingers that typed slow answers into open laptops one key at a time, two keys and the space-bar, or the robust look-at-me laughing of fat-cheeked White men with their sweating red faces, backwards collars, and bad breath; we would be away from all of that.
This particular jail had an open room with those dark wood-grain laminate tables and slide-in benches, all of which had been bolted to the tiled floor, all of which had been deemed visitor and inmate friendly and safe and not able to be lifted and thrown at someone in anger or whatever. The tables had a huge “U” bolt affixed to the scarred and worn table-top surface and a pair of handcuffs that the previous sheriff, the toughest one in America, had painted pink, along with the inmates’ boxers, t-shirts, socks, and gelled flip-flop sandal-type shoes (those things weren’t “painted,” but were dyed or manufactured in pink…an apparent insult by said sheriff to the incarcerated manly men?). The pink paint was chipped and flaking off the otherwise chrome-plated handcuffs, maybe somewhat symbolic of the regime that had been removed after 24 years’ time. The inmates’ outfits are orange now, or white with wide black stripes, or maybe black with wide white stripes, whichever you choose, like institutionalized and tattooed zebras with the bold letters of “MCSO” on their backs.
I try to get there early, before the public defenders and questionnaire questioners arrive, try to get one of the visitation rooms on the far side of that great room with the handcuffed tables, which I did manage to do on this particular day. They are small rooms, probably only four by six feet in their floor-space taking dimensions, and they have a smaller dark wood laminate table inside with two bright orange resin chairs with their chrome metal tube legs and back supports. The rooms are so small that one has to move the inmate’s chair to even close the door. And then it’s just you and him in that small room with the window in the door and the narrow dark gray walls and your pen and paper and his pink-paint chipped handcuffs. Rooms 1, 2, and 3 are favored over Room 4, as only Room 4 has exterior windows and catches the ever burning sun. The ventilation in the room sucks and it’s only minutes before you’re starting to feel sticky and irritated. Interviews never go well in Room 4 because nobody wants to be there…and because infrequently showered inmates don’t smell so nice in Room 4.
So I was in Room 2 wearing my three shades of blue plaid button-up untucked collared shirt, blue jeans with a slightly fading left knee, and black and gray New Balance shoes. The patient came into the room with his bright orange jumpsuit, white socks, tan gelled flip-flop sandal type shoes, buzz-cut haircut, multiple tattoos on his face, neck, arms, and hands: tear drops next to the left eye, a woman’s name on his neck, children’s names on his arms, spiderweb on his elbow, and whatever else thrown into the mix, along with his official MCSO inmate ID bracelet. I didn’t wear any tattoos, just a $17 dollar watch from Wal-Mart and a Road-ID wrist band with my emergency contact information so the EMTs or coroner’s office know who to call if I’m found incapacitated (or beyond) while out working in the County or hiking in the desert or mountains.
The man came into the room with a smell so warm and alive, yet nearly dead, like fermented and plastered skin and sweat and oil sheen on an old pillow case, so thick and unwashed that its fibers and weave were lost. It was more than a smell; it was like a cellular mist kind of odor, a vaporous emission with a flavor, a taste that rode from the back of my throat and up into my brain on a rail and informed me at that deepest level that he is dirty and stained, yet human and alive and close to kin, or like a brother, even, that I would know in the dark; his hands were mine, and if I steeled myself enough to look closely, to stare and examine the depths of his eyes, I might see them as my own, or as our fathers’, full of a hope and despair that we might know like the ticking of a clock or the falling of sand down through an hourglass holding the time in our lives, joined and separated as worlds and planets apart, as eons of thought and memory gone, passed unbidden between the cells of our hands in greeting touched.
Still, we were quite a contrast, the inmate/patient and I, sitting in Room 2 of that particular jail a couple of weeks ago. His blood test was positive for syphilis and negative for HIV, he had already received his three weekly penicillin injections, and was going to court the next day with a hopeful release coming shortly thereafter. We spent about an hour talking about his infection, his drug use, his 38 year-old self living between the Street on the east side of town and his aunt’s house on the west, his being a self-professed “entrepreneur” who earned a living by dumpster-diving and rescuing various household items and video game terminals from said trash cans. He said people “get mad and throw everything away…perfectly good cameras, Xbox and PlayStation consoles, watches, iPhones, kitchen appliances, you name it.” He managed to get arrested, this time, he says, after having just climbed out of a dumpster while wearing only his boxers and a pair of socks. He said the police were called about a noise disturbance or some other shit happening in the alley, said he was minding his own business and didn’t notice everyone else running away, said the cops ran his name and then told him that he was going to jail on an old warrant. He asked if he could at least put on his pants and they told him no. The man explained to me that he had finally turned his life around, was focusing on staying out of trouble, taking care of his kids, not using so many drugs, all of it; he was getting squared away and then the police showed up.
The conversation also touched on risk behaviors and sexual partners, those people who could be the source of his infection, or a spread, the unwitting origins or beneficiaries of his known or unknown sore(s), the new homes for his self-grown and cork-screw shaped bacteria that entered their blood streams within 30 minutes of their couplings, that would incubate for three or four weeks and then cause sores on their bodies, on their organs of generation, or in their mouths or nether regions…whatever body part they used for that fleeting act that exposed them to his sore(s). The literature claims that they are painless, the sores, unless they’re infected with another bacteria or virus, and they can be the size of a pinhead or a quarter, so maybe they would be unknown, or maybe they would be noticed and not of concern. At any rate, some would get attention and some would get neglected. The neglected ones would resolve on their own and the sore’s owner would be relieved or still unconcerned…for another couple of weeks or months…until the rash appeared in chicken-pox form, or like a heat rash, or welt-like, but not itching…spots on the palms of their hands and soles of their feet, or chunky wart-like protuberances or wet and snotty sores in their mouths or other mucous membranes…maybe they would even lose their hair, clump-like disappearances, or fading and gone mustaches or eyebrows.
If those things weren’t enough to encourage some health-seeking behavior (medical attention), they, too, would resolve on their own in a matter of time, again bringing relief or unconcern to their bearers, as no treatment is necessary to make them go away; it’s what they do, all on their own. If they’re lucky, it might be many years until anything else happens to them, or if they’re really lucky, they’ll never have another problem, big or small…but if they’re unlucky to any degree, they might start to lose their vision or hearing, they might suddenly have headaches and dizzy spells, difficulty thinking or remembering, or trouble walking upright, they might even suffer a stroke from an aneurysm in their brain…or have any number of other things happen to them.
We talked about those things and the need for him to tell me who he has had sex with so I could find them and get them tested and treated…cured. He was open during the discussion and told me everything I could want to know, told me about the trans-gendered man and the two women he had been with in the last eight months, told me that he met the trans-gendered man at a local Burger King and then walked to a transient camp and had sex with her there, said he met one of the other women at that camp, as well. The man told me what they looked like, how I would be able to tell that they were the people I wanted and not someone else, told me how tall and dark they were, how their faces were thin from drugs and how their noses remained large as their cheeks sunk in over the months, and then gave me the time-frames in which their exposures had occurred. The other person was on the other side of town, closer to where his aunt lived, a girl he met as she was riding her bike through the neighborhood; they had sex in an abandoned house four or five times over a week or so, said he wouldn’t know where to begin to look for her other than by simply walking the streets in that particular part of town.
The transient camp was located at a “T” in the alley that was just south and east of an intersection that I knew well; it happened to be directly east of where we had our clinic in the long-ago. The alley itself hasn’t changed over all this time; it remains a thoroughfare of garbage trucks, a shortcut for neighborhood kids trekking from one place to another, a convenient dumping place for people who live in neighborhoods where they don’t have alleys, and it is now an increasingly utilized space for the growing numbers of un-housed people whose lives have gone to shit by choice or by circumstance.
Within several days of visiting with the man in that particular jail, I went to the streets and found the transient camp in the alley, just where he said it would be. In the photos above, you can see that several someones actually frequented the place, ate there, maybe even slept there, but nobody was there when I visited and nobody has responded to the cards I left for the people on the chairs in the photographs. As evinced by their names, transients are not long in areas where we sometimes find them; maybe a couple of days or weeks, but not likely for months, as was the situation in this case. The man in the jail said he had last seen these people 2-3 and 5-6 months ago…so they could be anywhere now…or nowhere.
I was heading west on County Highway 85 (MC85 for any locals reading along), also named “Buckeye Road” in its eastern environs, going toward the town of Buckeye, where I hoped to find someone who had some positive test results and was in need of medication.
My work with the health department takes me to various corners of the county…all of them over time…so I get to go places and see things that a “normal” office job likely wouldn’t provide. Sometimes I go to jails, city parks, transient camps, doctors’ offices, hospital emergency rooms, or psych wards…and other times I’m actually out “in the field.”
The US Department of Agriculture’s “2012 Census of Agriculture” (the most current one I could find) for Maricopa County, Arizona, provides that there were 2,579 farms consisting of 475,898 acres of land at that time. Those numbers reflected a 38% increase in the number of farms and a 2% decrease in acres of land since the previous census, dated 2007. I provide all of that to simply state that there remains quite a bit of agricultural land in the County, with most of it being situated on the outskirts of the more densely populated areas.
For those interested, this Wikipedia article provides that Maricopa County has a total area of 9, 224 square miles, is 132 miles wide from east to west, and measures 103 miles from north to south…it has a greater land mass than seven states, is the fourth most populous county in the USA, and has a population of 4,307,033 (2017), which is greater than that of 23 states.
I took my camera to work with me on this particular day because I was hoping to make some photos of the melon and corn fields that are near my home, on my way home from work…when the light would be softer with the setting sun, etc…so I had it with me when I was in the field driving hither and yon…passing field upon field of corn, cotton, hay, onions, and alfalfa.
A five minute stop on the way to Buckeye allowed me to get down and personal with a surprisingly fragrant field of alfalfa at about 10:30 am on a day that was supposed to get up near 115 degrees.
I found the address, but not the person I was looking for when I made it to Buckeye…
…but I did bring back some unplanned bounty in the way of a few photographs…and testimony to the fact that Arizona farming can yield beautiful results!
There was a certain feeling of nakedness and vulnerability that came with being the only visible white person within several blocks…who was also standing on the second-floor landing of an outside staircase in front of a faded and worn, black security door and having an invisible dark-brown voice coming out from somewhere on the other side of the door telling me that I needed to leave…telling me that I needed to go, to be gone, to be absent, to be somewhere else…anywhere else…and away.
It was full daylight on a bright desert weekday in some kind of month when the sun was making my face run with sweat, smack-dab in the middle of the neighborhood at 15th Avenue and Buckeye, easily within the perimeter of the inner to mid-city boundaries of central Phoenix. The address used to be 1502 West Buckeye Road, but the two-building, two-storied, and L-shaped apartment “complex” has gone the way of urban-renewal and no longer exists. It was deemed to be part of the blight in that particular city-council precinct. The corner was now home to just a traffic-signal pole and an empty and graveled lot that sparkled with the detritus and glass of a Mad-Dog and beer-bottle graveyard. People parked there sometimes when they were visiting the tent-revival meetings at the “church” on the south-side of the street and a little east of there…other people parked their taco-wagons and multi-colored, plastic patio chairs there and sold those spring and summer-time evening tacos and birria (goat-meat) burritos to passers-by with a middle-loud to real-loud loud-speaker playing various folk-tunes from south of the border. If you’ve heard them before, you know what I mean when I describe them as sounding like they come from a Bavarian Oktoberfest celebration with the polka-accordion-esque tunes that seem foreign and absurd in their central Phoenix surroundings.
As I said, there was a certain feeling of vulnerability, standing there, elevated as I was, on the back-side of the complex on that four-by-six foot metal platform at the top of the stairs. There was nothing to hide behind and no porch-cover overhead, no posts or poles to hold an awning or sun-shade that no longer existed. It was just my tall-assed, white-male self standing there beneath the sun with that soft dark voice talking to me through the security door. I didn’t even have to knock –
“Hey,” I said, as I was held-up my ID tag. “I’m with the health department….”
What do you want?
“I work at the clinic and I’m looking for So-and-so….”
I know who you are, he interrupted, put that thing down.
“Oh…ok…. Well, I need to talk with So-and-so. Is she here?”
I said you need to put that thing down…really…you need to leave, man.
“Ok…it’s really important that I talk with her….”
I know that, man, but you need to leave…please.
Yes, he really said “please.” He was articulate and warm and kind and sounded like he didn’t belong there, either.
I almost whispered, “Alright, can I leave a card for her?” as I was pulling-out a card and envelope and pen and turning sideways to look back and around and into the neighborhood.
No, man, you have to leave, and don’t be turning around like that.
His voice was urgent, yet gentle…like it was coming from someone who was almost my friend…someone who, if he was in a different place, would be my friend, big brother, or mentor. It felt like he was trying to protect me…to urge me away and back into some kind of safety where I belonged.
I tried to hand him my business card, not the one that I would have had to stand there longer to write on, but just my card.
Put that down, man. Don’t try to give me anything. Just go. I’ll tell her. Go on now.
So…I left. I walked back down the sun-faded and shiny and greasy and dirty staircase and out through the alley and toward my car. I fought against the urge to turn and look back at the door I had just left, so I occupied my mind and eyes with slowly panning side to side, searching for other people and eyes that might be looking in my direction. Maybe they were inside other houses or buildings and sitting behind the partially closed mini-blinds that faced the sunward side of the alley and street where I walked…maybe they were in the truck or van that drove down the street and turned away and gone.
What was there? What was going to happen or might have happened…what did I walk into…or away from on that long desert day in that whatever month where the sun was hot and bright on my face?
…you need to leave…please….
****This is a Favorite Re-post from March, 2010
There was a time when I wondered why it was called “field work,” but I never asked about it, and after a while, it didn’t matter. It became one of those words that just was, it represented things that were both inside and outside of its clear meaning; it was a job thing that those who did the work knew about and those who didn’t might wonder about for a while and then not, after the conversation or topic was discussed or reviewed, or maybe not…it came to be understood for what it was, we were out of the office looking for people…out in the field, sometimes literally, literally out in or near the fields, maybe sometimes just driving past them, watching brown skinned people bent over in their labors plucking and pulling some vegetable or other from the irrigated desert something, hauling it in sacks, placing it in waxed and sun-warmed boxes that lay in rows between the rows, becoming heavy with their loads of that some thing or other…and sometimes I’d pass other fields and become so transfixed with what grew there that I had to pull over and get out and look at them, at it, at what was growing there, to ponder those things up close and with my flesh and senses in a way that I could never do sitting behind a desk or absorbing intended meanings by reading someone else’s printed words about what they had beheld out there on the side of the road when they were there…watching harvested carrots tumble from a truck into a bin and then carried loudly away on a conveyor belt into a tin-covered shed with blue-jeaned and white-shirted black-haired young men scurrying about…intentional, purposeful in their scurrying as fighter jets from the nearby air base passed, screaming loudly overhead…jet noise, the sound of freedom.
These became my fields, my stretches of irrigated and corrugated earth that smelled like a warm and freshly opened bag of sour-cream and onion potato chips when the onions were being harvested, or expanses of red and pink and yellow and white blossoms lying restless in the breeze atop their green bushes of rose leaf and thorn that stretched to a near horizon of Phoenix’s western desert, or the rows and rows upon more of the same of white cotton bolls rich against their brown and dried plants of late summer, soft and marvelous in my gentle and searching fingers, waiting to be harvested by rolling machines that were loose from chains and whips and had drivers with air-conditioned cabins and cup-holders…rolling, plucking, chopping and raising the desert dust again to fly perpetually away in the breeze and gone…they became my fields that live in my memories and my printed words…and maybe even in my heart, as these things sometimes do.
I was back in the field again the other day in the place where I started doing this county-level work so many years ago…and while I did drive past fields and fields, some sown and most fallow or raw in their desert form, most of my time was spent in the figurative field of city streets and neighborhoods, apartment complexes, and doctors’ offices, visiting and searching, finding some people and taking a small tube of their life’s blood from them, finding another some by going door to door in an apartment complex asking, do you know Tom, do you know Tom, I’m looking for Tom, have you seen Tom today…not finding some other people, but finding people who knew them, people who loved and dreaded their homecomings when they get out of jail this weekend, people whose lived lives are worn in their tired and wrinkled faces and hands, in their faded tattoos that spoke of prior affiliations or devotions…of tears shed for lovers and sons who were sent away, and in the sweaty palms of anxious little sisters and daughters who carried their futures in their swollen bellies and were shyly proud of being the only one who had never been to jail…they wore those lives on their persons and in their slurred and whispered words that echo still in fresh memories that are only a few hours old and are reminders yet of other fields and visits…and other found and unfound people.
“Your mom is dead!”
Yes, I had heard her; I just couldn’t believe that she was saying those words to me.
“I said your mom is dead.”
In a flash, or less than a flash, I wondered how this woman could know that my mom was dead. My co-worker, whose name I still do not know, was standing across from my work-station, stretching as far away from her own station as her head-set cord would allow her to reach. Her eyes were wide open and she had a pale, freckled face and curly, long, brown hair, the images of which have embedded themselves forever in my mind. They are as vivid as if this happened yesterday, and not six months ago.
How could she know that my mom was dead? Why was this woman, this fellow call-taker, telling me that my mom was dead? Why hadn’t my supervisor taken me into one of the offices and told me, gently, that my mom was gone? Why? Yes, my mom was sick. She had a mitral-valve prolapse that was slowly worsening, and if she didn’t have an operation pretty soon, the valve was going to give out completely and she would die. The heart would lose its compression and not be able to pump the blood through her body. It would still beat, but the blood wouldn’t go anywhere. So, knowing that my mom’s surgery was scheduled for the next week, and that she was doing OK the last time I had spoken with her, I couldn’t grasp the reality of what this lady was telling me – that my mom was dead.
I stood up from my terminal after telling my own caller to hold-on a second.
“What…what did you say?”
“Your mom is dead. You know…from your call.”
Oh…not my mom…the one from my call. The call I had taken 15 minutes ago. The one that I had already tried to place in the back of my mind so I could move along and take whatever other calls were going to interject themselves into my life, one beep at a time.
One beep at a time. We never know what is going to be happening on the other side of the phone when we hear the beep and answer it with “9-1-1, What is your emergency?” The callers may be misusing the emergency phone system and want to know how to get from one side of the city to the other; they may want to talk to an officer about their Elvis on black-velvet painting, “You know, the one I reported as stolen last year,” that they found this afternoon at a garage sale; or it may be serious…like the one I had several minutes earlier.
A near-frantic woman’s voice answered my question by saying that the two neighbor girls just banged on her door and told her that they had just escaped from the bathroom in their apartment where they had been locked-in since about 7:30 that morning. In the background, the girls were talking very fast, whimpering, crying, rambling…. “He broke through the door and pointed his gun at us and shoved us into the bathroom. He had some cord and tape and wrapped us up real tight and then ran into the other room where he started yelling at our mom.” The voices were excited, scared, and it seemed that they were almost unbelieving of what their own eyes had witnessed those many hours before, and were now reliving, as they told their neighbor what they thought they remembered seeing.
The lady went on…“The mom’s boyfriend then went into her bedroom and started throwing her around. The girls said they could see him tying her to the bed and then he started choking her. When they came to my door they said they didn’t know where their mom was…they think the guy may have taken her somewhere…or that she may be dead…and you’ve got to send someone over here quick!”
My mind was racing and trying to get it all down right and to remember to hit the correct keys and to ask the right questions and to code it properly and my mind was getting stuck on what to call this because this was the first call that I have ever had like this and I’m scared and I know that if I don’t do it right all kinds of things can happen and I’m still on probation and what if they pull the tape and review it and…. I managed to get everything done and then I hit the transmit button and the ‘Hot-Radio’ button and told the lady to hang on a second while I got the officers going.
“Radio,” she answered. “Radio, this is for Chase North. Incident Number 3694. We have a possible kidnapping or murder or something…at such and such an address at the San Carlos Bay Apartments in Number 3122…. The little girls think their mom’s boyfriend may have abducted her and the last time they saw her this morning, the man was choking her…and they just got out of the bathroom.”
“Ma’am, we’ve got officers started…help is on the way. Can you ask the girls what the man’s name is? Do they know where he might have taken their mom? Do they remember what he was wearing? Have they seen the kind of vehicle that he drives? Can you ask the girls….”
…those little girls, the ones right there beside you, the little girls who saw their mom strangled to death…can you ask them….
I was gone. I was lost. There was nobody else in the call-center. The other operators had disappeared like so much dust and left me there, alone at my console. There was no laughter; there was no sound from the ring-down lines from Fire or DPS. The supervisor’s station to my left had vanished into the misty haze of my periphery and the fax and computer printers were mute. The large bank of windows in front of me might as well have had bricks mortared into their frames, for I saw none of their light. Someone must have put black canvas over the several sky-lights…silenced the other 25 phones, and…taken it all away…there was nothing in the world but the screen in front of me with its lines and the words that I was feeding it…and my fingers couldn’t type fast enough. My mind couldn’t think fast enough. My ears couldn’t stop hearing the little sobs on the other end of the phone. The lady was brave for them. Her strained voice rose and fell. I could hear the words cracking as she forced herself to repeat my questions to them. My own throat was tight with the need to cry, and I could almost see their tears as they were glistening down their cheeks. I could feel the girls’ shaking bodies in my own. My face was burning; adrenaline was flying through my veins; my heart was pounding in my chest; there were four heartbeats echoing in my temples as the lady and girls huddled there around the phone and shared their horrible sadness…asking me to help them.
Somehow…I got the call to Radio within 50 seconds of the tone sounding in my ear…the dispatchers had it over the air within another 15 seconds and the officers arrived in less than another two minutes…and then I heard them at the door, and the lady hung-up…and I don’t know what else….
My arm felt like lead as I reached up to press the ‘Not Ready’ button that would prevent another call from coming through to my phone. I guess that motion was like releasing a spring that held the shade down over my eyes, for suddenly, there was light in the room, the other operators were talking, and I could hear them tapping out the words that would send help to another caller in another part of the city. The supervisors were moving about their station, leaning over now and again to listen to the Chase-dispatchers who had taken my call…and the other calls. The bricks were gone from the windows, the canvas was removed from the sky-lights, and the other familiar sounds began, once again, to move in and out of my awareness. I leaned back in my chair and stared blankly at the air in front of me. My burning, tear-filled eyes didn’t move as other people glanced in my direction; my chest slowed from its heaving while my left index-finger twitched with an abnormal pulsation.
I looked at the phone and saw that the ‘Calls Holding’ light was blinking and knew that I had to get back to work. Someone else was calling for help, or for whatever. Another reach of my arm and the “Not Ready” button was released. And the tone beeped in my ear again…and again.
I don’t know how many calls I had taken after that one call, but the minutes passed, and before I could take the time to look at the call-history to see what the officers had found at the girls’ apartment, that co-worker of mine stood up and said “Your mom is dead!” I suppose my own mental trauma, or whatever one would choose to call it, of having taken that call, must have caused me to separate from my surroundings, so that when she said those words, I didn’t think about what I had just gone through, but instead thought of my own mom. I can’t sum-up the psychological processes that were working at those moments, but what I do know is that, when my co-worker said my mom was dead, that is exactly what I thought she was saying – that my mom was dead.
But she wasn’t, and isn’t…but those little girls’ mom was, and is…and that tone still beeps in my ear.
***This is a Favorite Re-post from October, 2009.
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.
I saw Superman walk down my hallway today and he didn’t and doesn’t care what you think about him. He was a white-boy with dread-locked hair that’s long enough to tuck behind his ears and he smelled like the stink and rot of unwashed bodies in tight and closed places. I’ve smelled his kith and kin in hovels bare and small. I’ve sat and listened to their stories of life and things passed-by and wondered at their truth and then found that it didn’t matter, those things and they, well…they became true in the telling. And today, as he shuffled past me in his coke-bottle glasses with scratches and old and yellowed tint from age and sun and wear, the arms hooked over ears with huge and fearsome gauges stuck in the lobes causing holes that would be large as a ring on my thumb, he shuffled past in that mess and whatnot with torn jeans and ravaged converses as he huddled his face into the small baby of two months or less and whispered his whiskered and loving words into his tiny self. He whispered kind nothings and stink and I didn’t smell his breath, but neither did the baby as he lay there cuddled and warm against that chest in the torn and fake-leather jacket and was loved by him in all that it meant to him. That baby there was cherished in those moments where he existed in my life and Superman had him and rocked his world…and I hope he remembers that love when life comes on him hard and rough as it sometimes will…I hope he remembers that his Daddy loved him, then.
***This is a Favorite Re-post from October, 2010.
It’s probably not supposed to end, really, for if it did, what would that mean for humanity, what would that mean for all those people whose livelihoods depend on the shitty things that happen? My optimism wanes, at times, and even with a slant toward realism, I can’t help but hold the cynical view that things just suck sometimes, and with a “sometimes” that seems to occur with much more frequency than it did in days of yore.
The beautiful spring rains brought running rivers and streams and the natural greening hues to our desert city and surrounding areas. The wildflowers were in full bloom and were sustained for weeks and months by frequent rains and storms that were a bit unusual for our particular geography here in the desert southwest. And now the weeks and months have continued on their wheel and we are dead into the second week of summer. The sun is up and out earlier, and its heat is still felt deep into the night and early mornings. The wildflowers and weeds that were so beautiful and green a couple months ago have now gone the way of memories, but still stand in their brown and dried-out husks and broken-off stems along the streets, vacant lots, and river beds where they once flourished. The city-scapes that were transformed in the spring-time have removed themselves back into their desert hues and the denizens are now wilted way-farers who traverse the city streets and then seek the shaded parking spaces when they arrive at their destinations.
When the sun goes down, more people come out. The streets have more slow driving vehicles and more slow walking neighbors and passers-through, and they are hot and restless. Tempers that might have been slow to rise are now quick and furious. In some parts of town, the only air-conditioning to be found is in the corner convenience store and grocery store lobbies. Many homes only have the aged “swamp-coolers” that blow moist and warm air and only provide mild comfort…so people move to the out of doors, with beer in hand, and become part of the night…and part of the night commander’s duty report, as either suspect or victim. In addition to the normal or “run-of-the-mill” shootings, armed-robberies, home-invasions, and coyote infested drop-houses that routinely fill and occupy the commander’s report, we also had the following:
West City Precinct – Traffic Fatality. On a certain Sunday, at approximately 2152 hours, an adult female was driving her Mustang westbound on Timothy Road approaching 82nd Avenue. There were a total of six individuals in the vehicle; they were all juveniles except the driver. The adult driver apparently lost control of the car and collided with a large palm tree. A witness stated that he saw two pick-up trucks racing westbound and forced the Mustang into the median where it collided with the palm tree. Four of the passengers were ejected from the vehicle, including a two year-old. The adult driver and a 14 year-old juvenile were pronounced dead at the scene; the two-year-old child was in critical condition, and the remaining passengers were transported by Fire personnel to St. Josephus Hospital. Vehicular Crimes detectives responded and took disposition.
South City Precinct – Death of Child. On another certain Sunday afternoon at 3330 West Sunvale Avenue. A family attended church and then arrived home at approximately 1430 hours…and failed to bring their two year-old daughter into the house. The child was in the car seat and remained there until 1720 hours when the father went to the vehicle to run an errand. (How do you not notice your two year-old missing for almost three hours? How do you not notice your two year-old missing for 15 minutes?) The father attempted to administer CPR and called the Fire Department. Fire personnel transported the child to St. Josephus Hospital where she was pronounced dead. Violent Crimes Bureau detectives responded for disposition.
North-East City Precinct – Shooting/Suicide. On a certain Tuesday afternoon at 1545 hours, officers responded to 521 E. Whatever Circle in reference to a shooting. The investigation revealed an adult female victim that had been shot four times by her ex-boyfriend. The victim was transported to Ron P. Buchannan Hospital in critical condition and underwent emergency surgery. No contact could be made with the suspect who remained inside the victim’s home. Patrol officers established a perimeter and the SWAT team was called-out. The K-9 units and Air Unit were already on scene. When SWAT personnel made entry into the victim’s house, they located the suspect with an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Violent Crimes Bureau detectives took disposition.
West City Precinct – Domestic Violence/Officer Involved Shooting. Officers responded to a shots-fired call at 3910 W. Whichever Road. On arrival, they heard shots being fired inside the house. The initial investigation revealed the adult male suspect was involved in an argument with family members, retrieved a gun, fired several rounds while inside the house, and then exited through the front door firing at officers. Two West City Precinct officers returned fire and struck the suspect several times. The suspect was transported to St Josephus Hospital. Violent Crimes Bureau detectives and Professional Standards Bureau detectives responded for disposition.
And lastly, while it didn’t make it into the night commander’s report because it didn’t happen at night, this one is still interesting…ok, odd. One of my employees asked me if I had heard about a particular call that he had taken on 9-1-1. I hadn’t, so he told me about it and then I listened to the recording.
9-1-1, Where is the emergency?
“4321 West Why-Not Lane.” The man spoke with something like a lisp, a murmur, or some type of blurred speech.
Is this medical?
“It’s kind of…yeah.”
Do you need paramedics?
What’s going on?
“I shot my wife and children.”
When did you do this?
This is Tuesday morning. You shot your wife on Friday?
Where is your wife now?
“She’s in her office, or my office. She’s laying on the floor.”
And where are the children?
“I don’t have any children.”
Is there anybody else in the house with you?
“I’ve got a couple dogs in the house. They’re just little things, Chihuahuas; they won’t hurt anybody.”
Ok. Let me get this straight. You shot your wife on Friday, right?
And she’s dead?
Ok. And are your kids there in the house with you?
“I said I don’t have any kids. There’s just me and the dogs in the house…and my wife back there in the office.”
And the dogs…they’re ok?
“Yeah, the dogs are fine. I like them.”
You like the dogs.
“Yeah, they’re good dogs.”
And you said you might need paramedics. Are you hurt or something?
“Yeah. I shot myself in the chin.”
You shot your wife and then shot yourself in the chin?
And you did this on Friday?
What’s your name?
And you’re at 4321 West Why-Not Lane?
Ok. Where is the gun that you used to shoot your wife?
“It’s there in the office. I put it up on the desk.”
Are there any other weapons in the house?
“Oh, yeah. I’ve got a .380 and a 45 in the living room and a 22 in the kitchen.”
And where are you in the house right now?
“I’m in the living room.”
Are you going to be ok when the officers get there? We don’t want you coming to the door with a gun in your hand.
“No. I’m fine. I’ve already fucked-up my life enough. I don’t want to hurt anybody else.”
Ok. It looks like officers are in the area. Can you see any police cars outside yet?
“No. There’s nobody here yet.”
Ok. You’re sure there’s nobody else in the house with you?
“Yeah, just me and the dogs…and my wife in the office. I can see a police car out front now.”
Ok. Are you outside?
And you don’t have anything in your hand but the phone, right?
“Nope, just the phone.”
On the recording, I could hear the officer in the background telling him to put down the phone.
“Should I put down the phone now? She’s telling me to.”
Yes. Set the phone down.
My operator had told me that the man had shot his wife and children. He said that he asked the guy several times about the kids and he kept telling him that he didn’t have kids. When I listened to the call, I had to play it back three times until I could discern what the guy said in that first minute of the call. He said “I shot my wife and killed her,” not “I shot my wife and children.” The injury he caused by shooting himself in the chin made the “and killed her” sound like “and children.” He shot his wife and killed her…on Friday.
It’s hotter than shit outside and people are doing stupid things. They’re drag-racing and forcing other drivers off the road, they’re shooting at each other, killing each other…and we’re shooting or killing some of them back, and they’re forgetting their babies in the back seat of their cars…after coming home from church…where are You when we need You, sweet Jesus?
**This is a Favorite Re-post from July, 2010.
The smoke from her harsh and scrap-wood fire burned my eyes as I stood there and watched the dark-skinned woman roll and mash the little balls of flour and water and what-not, pressing them, flattening them so, and then laying them gently on the griddle that sat on three stones, black from use. I moved to the other side and upwind from the fire and the breeze changed directions to meet me again. Without looking at me, she smiled and said, “Sientate alla,” as she pointed to a tumble-down chair next to the shack…sit over there.
She had dirty hands and wide hips, large and loose breasts that swayed with her movements, a musky and smokey scent and broken teeth, shoulder-length hair with frayed ends, and lines around her brown-black eyes and mouth in her young and old skin.
Her brown and scarred hands reached over the fire and turned the tortillas, flipping them gently, brown eyes watching, absently or admiringly, as they sizzled for a second and then raised, doubling in height, growing from thin to thicker and brown and rich and falling again in their cooked flatness. In the same movement from turning the tortillas, she reached for a ladel and stirred the beans and ham-bones in the pot, black too, that sat on the ground with the fire on its side. Steam and the smells of wood-smoke and chilis and beans rose from the little cauldron and ran into the air and caught in my senses…where they remained for the day…along with the images and sounds of the morning there with the weak light slowly brightening through the trees of the wood…chickens pecking the dirt around broken-down cars and trucks with their rusted doors and bumpers, flattened tires cracked and gone in seasons passed and passing.
The woman moved around the fire, sitrring and flipping, this way and that, avoiding the smoke and the dog that lay nearby. She watched me in my looking around, in my watching of her and her hands, her hips, her eyes. As she brought me a plate with her morning fare, she looked directly into my eyes and said, “Ten…somos pobres, pero somos ricos, tambien…ricos en las cosas de la vida, la humanidad…y amor….” Take it…we’re poor, but we’re rich, as well…rich in the things of life, humanity…and love….
Gracias, Yaneli…de veras…. It’s true….
If you’ve read my “About the Blog” page, you will already know or understand that I spent more than ten years working as a police 9-1-1 operator, dispatcher, and communications supervisor. While I no longer do that type of work, my daughter and several friends do…so the memories of “answering the call” are still fresh.
April 8-14, 2012 is National Public Safety Telecommunicators’ Week…as decreed by Congress at least three times over the last twenty or so years. During this special week, 9-1-1 call centers often host open-houses and sponsor tours to give their tax-paying public a glimpse into their work lives and a better understanding of what actually happens when they dial 9-1-1. This is also a week of celebration, essentially, when those same call-center employees are honored by various businesses, agencies, and private citizen groups and individuals for the role they play in contributing to the safety of their communities. There is often a festive atmosphere in the call-centers during this week, when there are gifts and raffles and theme-based banquets and pot-luck dinners, all sponsored by the particular police/fire departments, the call-center administrators, and those businesses and citizen groups mentioned earlier.
In tribute to those women and men (and my family members and friends) who have worked and/or still work “answering the call,” I am re-visiting an earlier essay that details the work performed by those police 9-1-1 operators and dispatchers. Please click on this link “Inside the Roller-Coaster” to take a closer look.