Posts tagged “health department

exposed…again….

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 –

Hello?

“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


field work

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.


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.


I saw Superman, again….

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.


Since I’ve Been Gone

In those many orbits around the sun, and the moon around ourselves, in that figment of time and space that we call months and years, and in those days of our passing, in that time that I’ve been gone from that place where I had worked and worked and wondered for other years and gone, things changed and progressed and grew and became other things that someone else had imagined.  Technology and practice and practice became new and better and more precise and less invasive in a personal sense, for some, for those in the practice of this medicine and art and then.  Time has changed some of the occupants, too, of the circles in which and around which the plagues are passed and given and shared and transmitted in knowing and unknowing senses all.  While some advances have been made in several of the related realms, some of the old and tried and true remain and serve as beacons and exemplars of what works and what lives still in our humanity and theirs.  A handshake and an eye-to-eye look of greeting and acceptance or a touch on the arm or shoulder or a shared smiling frown still connects their lives and ours as we mix and meld in our humanity and striving so.  There is the unknown and the fear and the real pain of their physical pain and non-understanding and guilt and shame and glistening eyes and downcast, as they ask questions and await answers as they stare at the lines in the tile on the floor.  No quivering today in that unshaven and rugged chin on that young man, little boy, who described his estrangement from his parents, their disapproval of his life and his mom’s fears for his future and health and physical living.  He spoke of church bonds that are harsh and unforgiving and uncompromising and are tied harder and faster and sharper than a love for a child.  He said, too, that there is a sister of mom or dad who still loves and accepts him and will always be there.  He wonders at what a test result might mean, in that it changes the way even friends look at you.  They don’t joke the same, can’t tease the same way…maybe like stepping on an un-dug grave, so he couldn’t share it with them either.  “You are so young,” I said, “and that is both good and bad.  You believe in your invincibility, still, and in your right to conquer the obstacles in front of you, but you’re not old enough to remember your friends wasting away and dying from what they contracted during the fun and love of an earlier time.  Your brain tells you that the others’ memories are true, but you live in your actions as if they aren’t.”  We think it can’t happen to us, he said, unconsciously squirming at the sensation of what was leaking out of his front and back-sides as he has waited so long to come in for a simpler malady.  He was quick to respond to my call that he’d been exposed and needed treatment.  Whatever he had scheduled was suddenly less important because he now knew and understood that what he had been feeling for weeks and weeks was real and could be ignored no longer.  And so he was there…and so was I.

No radio was in the background and I had no concern for a status-list.  I couldn’t feel a headset cord at my side and there were no black-banded badges or shields on posters on the wall reminding me that it wasn’t how they died that made them heroes, it was how they lived.  My heart wasn’t beating with an anxious pulse waiting and waiting for someone to clear that it was Code-4, it was beating in sympathy and empathy for the distraught young man who sat in front of me who was wondering at test results and the fact that his father hadn’t spoken to him in over three years because of who he loved, yes, both the father and the son, the “he” in their each and solitary selves…and the men they loved.

Many things have remained the same…since I’ve been gone.


Exposed

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 –

Hello?

“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….


Mary Had a Little Lamb

My work didn’t hold anything real exciting for me that day…April 7, 1993.  I needed to check-up on some near forgotten pieces of paper.  They, the pieces of paper, represented people that I’d never seen or known.  Up till then, they were just hand-writing images of maladies and locations and the people who owned them.

I went to see Mary…for the fourth or fifth time in the space of a month or so.  She lived in a small trailer court that looked like old people lived there…43rd Avenue and Maryland or Missouri, something like that.  Gene, her boyfriend, was sort of old, I guessed – late 50’s to 60’s – gray hair on his head and body – spots and scabs all over his arms and legs from the scabies that his prostitute girlfriend brought home to him.  She, too, looked old…bad old – even though she was only six to eight years older than I was, her body was thin and weary, her teeth were gone – some “date” that went bad – all beat out of her ragged, road-map wrinkled face.

On that particular morning, Gene greeted me at the door in his underwear and tossed hair.  The day’s light was making his eyes squint by themselves – “Mary is in the back in bed” – he told me to come in and go talk to her.  I squeezed my way between the couch and chair that was blocking the sliding door.  The trailer was stuffy and smelled like warm sleeping bodies.  Not dirty, just very warm – so much so that you could smell the oil from their skin.  Mary’s face was all wrinkly and shiny from sleep – she stumbled out of the door – skinny body bumping into the door jamb.

Mary said that she knew she needed treatment but hadn’t had the transportation to get there – she smiled and confided that “at least I haven’t been out spreading it.”  I gave her a card and told her to come see us – very soon.  She glanced at the time and told Gene that “we can come down in the afternoon, see….”  I nodded my approval and watched Gene scratch his belly.

My senses were aware of the stillness in the trailer – the warm stuffiness – Mary slid open the window on the back door to let it out and I heard mourning doves in the mulberry trees outside.  Sounds that soothed me as I watched an old worn-out prostitute wake-up and realized the day was half over – to me – and just beginning for her.

As I drove to the park, I remembered Mary’s daughter from the last time I came to visit.  A younger version of Mary – already tall with long straight brown hair –  not a lot of meat on her body – sunken cheeks, small breasts, long white legs, clean thin arms that hadn’t seen hundreds of needles and hot pipes.  Little Mary’s eyes were questioning and untrusting as I asked for her mom – “Who are you?” was her answer.  How intelligent already, looking out for her mom.  “Where does she stay when she’s not here?” I asked.  A small smile and a single lifted eye-brow belied the knowledge of what a girl shouldn’t have to know about her mom.  I hoped I wouldn’t get papers on Little Mary someday.  Maybe she was learning what she didn’t want to become when she grew-up.  “She doesn’t have another permanent address when she’s not here.”  Of course not…a street corner or drug store parking lot or stretch of road couldn’t really be called a permanent address.

There at the park, sitting in my non-air-conditioned Tercel, parked under the shadiest tree I could find, I listened to the familiar sounds of children playing on the merry-go-round, roller blades rolling and clacking on the sidewalk, wind blowing and moving through the leaves in the branches overhead, and doves coo-cooing in the mulberry across the way.  Two years earlier, Mary told me that she shared a shack with Little Mary behind some friend’s house just north of the street where she would work.  “She knows that I have to do things so we can eat sometimes and have new clothes for school.  I always come home when I can and my friend is almost always there in the front if Little Mary needs something.”  Instead of roller blades on the sidewalk, it was the sound of Mary sobbing about being beat-up, thrown out of the van and losing her teeth.  Instead of mourning doves in the trees over there, it was mice and other scurrying, scavenging, living things under the bed and outside that you could sometimes see through the chinks in the wall.

Were the miles traveled by Mary going to strengthen her daughter’s resolve not to travel the same road, or were they going to condemn her to the same journey?  Did Mary learn this road from someone close to her, or did she stumble onto it by herself?  What destructive, violent, self-losing act started this?  Would it ever end, or would it only continue to repeat itself?  I didn’t know; I still don’t.

Like I had said earlier, it wasn’t going to be too exciting that day, only full – full of every thing and emotion and experience.  They were all out there and I would only get to see a glimpse of it that day, any day.  I got to feel it, though, and smell it…and sometimes only sense it.  That was part of why I loved my job; I got to touch the essence of being alive, of being a human struggling to live.

And it continued…as things did and do…January 13, 1997…and on this day, this one particular day, came the final news about Mary.  That inevitable end had come.  Eugene, or Gene, came to the clinic because he was named as a contact to syphilis again.  “Again” was the third time in the seven years that I had been there at the health department doing that type of investigative work.  Gene spoke with my partner, Gilbert, and revealed that Mary had been found dead on West Van Buren about four months earlier.  She was just found dead – that’s all.  The incompleteness of that answer, the pure lack of substance found therein was nearly as sad as the death itself.  “Oh, I don’t know.  She was just found dead.”  That’s all?  That’s all he could tell us, this man who slept with the woman for five or more years?  She was just found dead?  I wondered…and wonder.  I did and do.  Mary died in August or September of 1996.  While we were all bustling about getting ready to begin the school year, trying on new clothes, getting sports physicals for the fall league, setting about to do whatever we were going to do for that particular Labor Day weekend, Mary died on West Van Buren.  Was she shot?  Did some bastard date pull a hunting knife on her and slit her throat like the guy did to one of her prostitute friends four years earlier?  Did he stick the knife into her belly just above the pubic bone and peel open the skin clear up to her chest like he did to the girl with the cut throat?  As skinny as Mary was, it would not be difficult to imagine that she had AIDS and was killed by some vengeful date who thought she had given it to him.  That was the rumor then, that dates were killing some of the prostitutes they believed have AIDS.  That was the rumor, then….

So, Mary was dead, possibly from an overdose of heroin, a bad grade of cocaine or batch of crack.  Maybe even by a sour date.  I didn’t know and don’t know, and further, I didn’t know if I would be able to find out.  It was too late to contact the Medical Examiner’s Office…too late then…and now.  And what about Little Mary…where was she living with her mom gone?  Where was she the day she died?  Was she at school, at work…on the street…looking for her mom?  Was she still living there in the stuffy trailer with her mom and Gene, or was that living arrangement as much a part of the past as the rest of it?  With as much time as had gone by, she might have been out on her own already.  She might have been in school somewhere, living out-of-state somewhere with her grandparents or an aunt.  She could have been in as many places or situations as my imagination could have offered or created.  It was possible, too, in recognition of life and the reality that exists therein, that Little Mary was on the street herself…working.  Her virgin soul might have already been tormented and abused and raped by the same shit that snuffed-out her mother’s life.  Time would tell…maybe.  I don’t know….

Mary had a little lamb…I wonder where she is now….


On West Pierce – Part II

After leaving the apartments, I drove to the jail to have a chat with the guy.  My job required that I interview him and try to get more contact-information…disease intervention stuff.  While that was my reason for going to the jail, officially, I also wanted to see what kind of person this Carlos was.  I wanted to see, for myself, what the textbooks and psychologists have been talking about all these years when they discussed ‘anti-social personality-disorder,’ or ‘psychopath,’ or ‘sociopath.’  It was just my opinion, of course, but what else could he be to conduct himself the way he had during these recent events?   

 

The buildings and other vehicles passed thru my periphery in something of a blur as I drove from the neighborhood of West Pierce and into downtown Phoenix where I would find the Madison jail, and inside – this guy, or man, or Black man, or 20-some-year-old male, or person, or living-breathing human organism, or creature, or thing, or whatever he was, who would try to rape a 73 year-old woman.  What type of being would do that?  What type of person could do that and then go home, kiss and hug his mother, and then ask her about her day, or if her knees have been bothering her, or if she went to the doctor like she said she was going to do last week?  How could he pick-up his three year-old niece and nephew, toss them into the air, catch them, and then smother them with whiskery kisses and tell them that he loves them?  Is that possible?  Is it possible, too, that this type of person could have, earlier in the day, lain down with his girlfriend and made tender, passionate love, gently caressing her skin, body, and soul, tenderly moving the long strands of black hair out of her face so he could look into her eyes at that one, terminating moment?  Would he be capable of something as gentle, or tender, or as humanly passionate as that?  I doubt it.

 

It’s more likely that he went home and asked his mom for money, opened the fridge and pulled several, deep swigs of milk directly out of the jug, asked his mom for money again, and then pushed the nephew out of his way and picked up the niece and set her on the table – getting her out of his way, too, as he went to the cabinet and rummaged through whatever dry goods he hadn’t pilfered the week before.  “You know my check don’t go very far, Carlos.”  No, it doesn’t, not with the twins (his niece and nephew), their mother (his 19 year-old sister), and her own nine and ten year-old boys (his half-brothers) – all living off of her one income and the little that AFDC gives her.  “Well don’ you have nothin’ left from it?  I need some money.”  His mom’s face twists about as she tries to keep herself from starting-in on him again.  “He hates it when I do that,” she thinks to herself.  “Then why don’t you get a job, boy?  Quit smokin’ that rock ever’ day n’ night, n’ get a damn job!” – words that echoed in her mind alone.

 

And making love with his girlfriend – no, there was no love made that afternoon.  One person got satisfied, that’s all.  There was no tenderness to speak of – unless ‘tenderness’ means that he didn’t’ rip her clothes this time.  They were removed without passion, and after a few quick squeezes of her breasts, he pushed her onto the bed and mounted her.  She wasn’t ready, of course, so it hurt while he was moving on top of her, and then it burned when he was done.  “So quick,” she thought, and was glad when he rolled off of her and went into the bathroom.  “Gotta take a quick piss so no female burns me,” he said with an almost benign chuckle, standing there at the bowl, waiting for the muscles to relax enough for the stream to flow, “can’t trust anyone, know what I’m sayin?”  “Yeah,” she thought, “I know what you’re sayin’.  I noticed a rash last week, Bastard – bumps and spots starting to grow on my shit down there.  What’s that mean, Mother Fucker?”           

 

The blood had already been drawn when I got to the jail, so I didn’t have the opportunity to jab the needle into his arm myself. 

 

“Been looking for you, Carlos.”

 

“Why’s that, man?”

 

“You been messin’ with someone and caught syphilis.”

 

“Who told you that?”

 

“I spoke to someone who’s being treated for syphilis and they said they mess with you.  So, we don’t know if she gave it to you, or if you were doin’ someone else and caught it, and then gave it to the person I talked with.”

 

“Okay, so who’d you talk to?  Some female?”

 

“You mess with guys?”

 

“No.”

 

“Alright then, it was ‘some female.’” 

 

“Yeah, but which one?”

 

“I can’t tell you who it was.  I’m not allowed to.  We got rules, you know.  Like you and your lawyer, your public defender.  You guys can talk and he can’t tell anyone what you said, right?  Well it’s the same with us.  Medical confidentiality.  It’s the law and I can’t say anything that’s gonna make you know who it is.  But, that person asked me to get in touch with you to make sure you get treated.  That way, they won’t catch it back from you when you get out of here.  You know what I’m sayin’?”

 

“Yeah, but that’s fucked-up, man.  People be sayin’ shit about me and I can’t know who it is.”

 

“Nobody’s talkin’ shit about you, Carlos.  The person had syphilis.  I read the chart and saw the blood-test results.  They just wanna make sure you get cured.” 

 

“Whatever, man.  I still say it’s fucked-up.” 

 

“Okay, so it’s fucked-up.  What else is fucked-up, Carlos?  Why are you in here?”

 

“Had some problems with some dudes, you know what I’m sayin’?  They said I stole some of their shit and then the cops were lookin’ for me.  This shit happened a long time ago.  I don’ know why they’re still after me.  So then I was at these apartments last week and BAM!, there they were.  And now I’m here.  I told you man, it’s fucked-up, you know what I’m sayin’?”

 

“That’s why you’re here?”

 

“Yeah, it’s fucked-up.”

 

I already knew the truth, so when my anger and disgust for him overwhelmed my sense of responsibility for the job, I didn’t care anymore.  I went ahead and took a chance at fucking-up the rest of the interview.  I had already decided that he wasn’t going to give me shit anyway, so to hell with it.  It was unlikely that he had, or was going to have sex with anyone I knew, so I thought, “What the hell.  This wouldn’t be my first bust-interview and it wouldn’t be my last.”  Sometimes the job just didn’t get done the way it was supposed to, and usually it wasn’t my fault.  Today, I didn’t care that it was, or would be. 

 

“Well, that’s not what I heard.  When I was out on the street looking for you, someone told me you beat-up some old lady, really kicked her ass.  What’s that about?  They said you really beat on her, punched her in the face, ripped her pants off, tried to fuck her, and then stole a bunch of her shit.  Is that what it’s about?  Is that why you’re here, ‘cause you tried to rape some old lady and then stole her cell phone an’ shit?”

 

He didn’t care – didn’t give a flyin’ fuck what I thought he’d done.  He stopped shuffling about the room in his flip-flopped feet and fixed his dead, empty eyes on mine and said, “Fuck that, man.  You got it all wrong.” 

 

Unimpressed, and still operating outside of my normal realm, I stared back with contemptuous, angry eyes.  “Really?”

 

After a moment, he broke away, and turned to shuffle back and forth, again, on his side of the exam table.  And now, with less conviction, “It’s not like that at all, man.  I was over to the apartments and this old lady starts throwin’ my shit at me, you know what I’m sayin’, gittin’ in my face an’ shit.  So I hit her, BAM!  Told her to get the fuck out of my face, you know what I’m sayin’, an’ then I hit her, once.  An’ the rest of that shit, like tryin’ to rape her an’ shit, that’s fucked.  I got all the pussy I want, man.  Wouldn’t try gittin’ it from some old lady.  Someone’s lyin’ to your ass.” 

 

“Is that right?  Old lady’s got her head busted open, choke marks on her neck, bruises all up and down her thighs – someone seen you doin’ it, they called the cops who came and arrested you, an’ now your ass is sitting here in jail saying it’s not you.  Okay.  Right.  Whatever.  Anyway, had to get that shit squared away in my own mind before we went any further.”

 

“Naw, it ain’t me, man.  Not all that shit.  I got my own female to mess with.  I don’ need to fuck that ol’ bitch.”

 

“Right.  Like I said, I just needed to get that shit squared away in my own head before I do the rest of my job here.  So…who else you mess with?  You’re usually around 21st Avenue and Van Buren, or Adams, right?  Who’d you mess with around there?  I already have you named by three or four females, so I need you to tell me your side of the story.”  And then, for effect, I added, “So I can make sure people aren’t just talkin’ shit about you.”  He responded with a quick, sideways glance.  I couldn’t help smiling as I said, “You know what I’m sayin’?”

 

And it went from there.  I didn’t screw things up too badly.  He still talked to me.  Before the interview, I only had his one contact, the young pregnant girl who was the original patient.  By the time the investigation was closed, there were three other cases related to Carlos.  Unfortunately, there were too many unknown contacts from the five cases, and we couldn’t take the investigation any further.  This is not uncommon, considering the area and the traffic it gets – transients, prostitutes, drug dealers, child-stealers, passers-by…anyone who comes to West Pierce Street. 

 

 


On West Pierce – Part I

There was a Thursday-morning kind of glow to the sky that could be explained in only one way – it was a Thursday morning.  The air was different than it was on the other days of the week and the slight sense of expectation was at once tangible and reassuring.  You could say with a certainty that the week was almost over and today would have to be conducted seriously.  Whatever things you had slacked on during the week had to be made up for today, because you knew, you just knew that you weren’t going to put any kind of conviction-based effort into whatever you might encounter tomorrow, Friday.  The reason for that being, of course, that so many supervisors take Friday off as part of their flex-schedule, combining to give them a three-day weekend, every other weekend.  And, again – of course, every other Friday is payday, and although the stipend is small, it is enough to throw many into fiesta-type frenzies, causing them to splurge on donuts for everyone in the office, or to spend a few dollars more on lunch than they did earlier in the week.  So, again, the Thursday morning sun was making its way across the eastern sky, providing any onlooker with what I knew was a special hue and a certain something else that meant I should conduct myself diligently in the task that I had before me. 

 

You could enter the neighborhood through any one of the many side roads or thoroughfares and eventually find yourself heading toward Pierce Street.  There was nothing remarkable about it from my perspective and if you would sample the people who might pass along your same path, you would probably find that it wasn’t too inspiring to them either.  Yes, you might encounter the one or two souls who have lived there for most or all of their lives, and sometimes run across another person or two whose family was born and raised in the neighborhood, but all in all, it was just another one of the central city streets named after a former president and has come to represent a poorer, or more disadvantaged part of town.  Without much effort, you can find prostitutes and drug abusers, transients, drunks, and incorrigible juveniles running, or walking, or pacing, or stumbling along the street.  Come back in the darker hours and you might encounter the drug dealers, gang-bangers, auto thieves, murderers, suicides, and prostitutes who were too busy sleeping or working their day jobs to have been running around earlier.

 

Two streets west of Willow Park, another haven of the un-blessed and a favorite spot of the Public Health Clinic’s disease investigators and Terros out-reach workers trying to stop the spread of some of society’s plagues, the passerby will encounter two sets of white, almost ramshackle apartments that run lengthwise from the street back.  There are two or more buildings, actually as many as several buildings spreading almost diaspora-like from the small curb-front property-line.  The individual property seems to just keep going farther and farther back as you walk north from the curb.  And, of course, the farther back you go, the more hovels you will encounter in the various stages of disrepair and decrepitude that are not uncommon for the area.  And yes, you will encounter the little bungalow-like homestead amidst the ruin where flowers have been planted or in some other way adorned in life-like representations of multicolored plastic leaves and nearly natural-looking flowers, stuffed or placed gently, gingerly into dust inviting, brown or whitewashed baskets that cannot help but be remindful of Easter Sundays gone by.  There are sometimes little, freshly-scrubbed children peering out from behind Windex-streaked panes or standing in open doorways whose breeze-enhancing currents are touched with the healthy aromas of Pine-Sol or Mr. Clean.   The dens are often dirty as hell, but the occupants have tried to transform them into clean, sweet smelling Home Sweet Homes, something that is admirable and honorable from any perspective.

 

On this particular Thursday morning, I was looking for a guy named Carlos Bur… something or other.  Earlier in the week, I had spoken to one of his lady-friends who told me that I might find him here.  The girl was, at the time, wearing black and white striped, baggy clothes that resembled operating-room scrubs or jail attire.  The latter was correct in this case.  Michelle, a Hispanic-looking Native American mix with Black type of young lady was in jail for criminal trespass, prostitution, and possession of narcotics with the intent to sell.  Her medical record said that she was twenty-three, but the little waif in front of me appeared to be just pushing sixteen or seventeen – possibly even fourteen.  She sounded like she was eleven or twelve, and excepting the basketball-sized belly that she was sporting, someone might be tempted to say that she was one of the more innocent inmates that they’d seen in the jail.  I don’t know.  There was an immediate sense of pity, confusion, paternalistic hopefulness, and then from somewhere else – there was that something that reminded me of the reason I was there – the rash on her face and arms, which was also on her chest and back.  I had to interview her and determine, or at least begin the investigation and hopefully, later determine where she had acquired her syphilis infection.  The innocent, soft-spoken, little girl slowly told me about her boyfriend, Carlos, whom she had been hanging-out with for the last several months.  No, he wasn’t the alleged father of her very soon to be delivered baby, but he was already “in love with him” and promised to take care of the child like it was his own.  I have heard these words before, from not so dissimilar looking and sounding young girls or women in the same jail. 

 

Michelle told me that I could locate Carlos at any of several of the apartments that I found this morning on West Pierce Street.  I immediately went to the specific apartment where they had been staying before she was locked-up and found that it was occupied by three Hispanic males who spoke only Spanish – even when I tried to converse with them in their own language, they held fast to the ‘no speak English’ phrase of their hiding.  Usually they put up a front, denying even the possibility that they could speak English when someone looking almost professional, and white, approaches them and asks questions about certain somebodies’ whereabouts.  Yes, that statement is probably tinged with a bit of stereotype, but it occurs often enough to give me reason to mention it – and besides, stereotypes can be true.  Anyway, the guys told me, in Spanish, that they did know Carlos, a young, heavily tattooed, Black male, not Hispanic, though he was light-skinned enough to pass as such from a distance.  He was recently taken to jail and might still be there if I would hurry up and leave their apartment and go look for him – there – in the jail.  One of the guys nodded to another apartment, the one in which Carlos had actually been arrested, and told me to look for the manager/owner of the property, an older woman named Linda Kalinowski, or Calaminski, or some other name that began with ‘Cal’ and ended in ‘ski.’  The man said she was very old and drove an equally old and beat-up white pick-up truck.

 

I did find Linda, in that other apartment, cleaning up what looked like the aftermath of a hurricane or tornado.  Actually, I heard her before I saw her, yelling and swearing at near the top of her lungs at the destruction that she was wading through as she walked about the apartment. 

 

“Goddamned filthy pigs!  What the hell’s the matter with people nowadays?  Can’t they clean up their own shit when they leave – look at this mess!  What?  Who are you?” 

 

She looked more used than old, the poor lady did; dark-golden, leathered, wrinkled, and veined skin covered her face and arms.  Linda was 73 years-old, by her own report, and was getting “goddamned sick and tired of cleaning up other people’s shit.”  She stood about 5’9” and might have weighed 125 pounds if her jeans were wet.  Her shoulder-length, white hair was thin and I could see the rosy pink of her scalp when she removed her San Francisco Giant’s baseball-cap.  Her glasses weren’t too far out of style, but the lenses were so scratched that I couldn’t see her eyes clearly.  As the fiery oaths spilled from her quickly moving jaw, I could see that the years of smoking and drinking coffee had left their mark in the yellow hue of her teeth and fleeing gum-line. 

 

“Good morning!  Linda?” – I greeted her.  “My name is Scott and I work with the County Health Department.”  In my hand, at the end of my outstretched arm, was an official looking badge, with a picture that resembled me in my just-out-of-the-Air-Force street innocence of nine years ago, that would have confirmed what I just said…if she had cared to look at it.            

 

“Well, it’s about time you guys got out here!   Do you see this mess?  Can you believe people actually live in this shit?  And you think it’s bad right now?  You should have seen it when I first got here this morning.  I’ve already loaded-up my truck two times and hauled some of the crap to the dump.  Who called you anyway?”

 

“Actually, nobody called me,” I said, “I’m not here because of the mess in the apartments.  I was hoping you could help me find someone.  I was told that you know Carlos and might be able to tell me where to locate him.”

 

“Well you shouldn’t have any trouble finding the bastard!  That son-of-a-bitch tried to rape me last week.  That’s right!  Called the cops on him, I did, and they got here right quick and hauled his ass away!  Talk about a piece of shit!  He punched me in the face, slammed my head into the doorjamb, dragged me down to the floor, and then was ripping my pants off.  Look at my neck and the side of my head!”  I had already noticed the stitched laceration near her right temple and the finger-mark bruising around her throat.  “Look at me!  I’m 73 years old!  What’s he doing trying to rape me?  I’ve seen the girls he goes around with, and besides them, all he has to do is go out to the street and they’re giving the stuff away – so why mess with me?”

 

“I’m…not sure Linda.  Maybe it has to do with power…like he’s trying to show you who’s in charge around here.  You said you’d already 86’d him from the property…so maybe he was trying to get back at you…I…I don’t know.”  Who the hell knows?  And, goddamn!

 

Before I left the apartments, I learned that Linda has two sons in California.  One is a doctor of some type and the other is a consultant with a computer software company.  They have begged her repeatedly to sell her properties in Phoenix and move out to California to be with them.  She said they were concerned with her getting so old and having to put up with the constant problems from her tenants.  Linda confessed that she never tells them what’s happening in her little corner of the world…doesn’t want to add to their worries.  “I don’t do this for the money…I’ve got plenty of that.  I just do it to keep me going.  My other old-lady friends have all died off, just sitting around the house or going to the country club, playing cards, and going to art shows.  No thanks.”

No, instead you get to deal with the likes of Carlos.

To be continued….

 


Reading Steinbeck

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…and 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…and 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…or 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 and 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…and 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…and 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…and 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…and 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…and 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.