Tuesday, March 20, 2012


In the early 1970's, America was in turmoil.  The Viet Nam war was still raging on. His college deferment had expired and he'd already passed his physical. He applied for and was granted a Conscientious Objector status. He received the CO,  because his high school buddy,  recently returned from his tour of duty; spoke as his witness.  Under the Michigan summer sun, they spoke to each other, the way friends talk when they say goodbye.  He was to shipping out the next day. Standing in driveway, he asked him to come back alive.

His friend was terribly wounded  in a deadly ambush with the Viet Cong. His statement was simple and direct, he said, "don't get this guy killed...." That's all it took, the draft board was unanimous in its decision.

A week later he was a new orderly at an inner city hospital.  Dee-troit was still reeling from the 1967 riots. He was assigned afternoons,  the 3 - 11pm shift. Harper Hospital was the site of the nation's first open heart surgery. The  morgue was located in the original 1863 structure, far below grade, embraced by thick red stone walls; keeping it  a constant 40 degrees. As a surgical orderly, you wheeled patients up to the 9th floor for surgery and back down to the recovery room. If things didn't go so well,  you took the long ride to morgue in the basement.

The orderlies' locker room was on the 8th floor. It smelled like french fries and cologne.  They changed into crisp green scrubs and criss-crossed surgical caps, to create a "turban" look. Personal accessories included gold plated snake bracelets, heavy fake gold neck chains, hi black socks - so sheer you see your leg and white patent leather slip-ons. On his shift, the orderlies included Otha, Andre, Raj, Des, Rod and Dee. He shared a locker with Durrell -  sullen,  light skinned, sleepy eyes, processed hair, probably in his late 20's. Durrell asked where he was from ? Not listening for an answer he said, "Only white people and you live there ?" The orderly struggled to answer.  The best he could do was ask Durrell where he stayed ?  Durrell looked at everyone else but the new orderly and said, "I'm from Jacktown, boy." The other orderlies laughed and  repeated "Durrell from Jacktown, man !"

Durrell reached up to the shelf inside the locker and pulled down a small brown paper bag. He took out a chromed, pearl handled Berreta .25 caliber hand gun. With one arm Durrell cradled the new orderly's neck, with the other he dug the gun in just below his ear and pushed upward to punctuate each word.  "If anyone wants to know, this is your gun, understand ?" The orderly nodded ever so slightly.  After that, the orderly always changed in the bathroom. Durrell was a former resident of the Southern Michigan Correctional Facility, in Jackson, Michigan. He did some time for armed robbery. 

Miss Violet was the elevator operator. She must have been in her late 70's, wore nurse's whites, a little pastel sweater, white opaques and white shoes with thick foam soles.  Her voice was raspy from the Parliament cigarettes she liked to smoke. One thing Miss Violet always had with her, was a shopping bag containing her  knitting. The inexpensive bundles of sky blue yarn always seemed to be cascading out of her bag.  She must have been a very slow knitter because those bundles of Woolworth's yarn and the big knitting needles never seemed to get together.

On the first floor, Rod, Des, Raj and the new orderly  tumbled onto Miss Violet's elevator. Everyone greeted Miss Violet reverently and she said "Hey baby, it's tea time. We go up to four." This brought out some boyish giggles and slappin' of  some skin. The new orderly was mystified as the elevator bypassed  floors 2 and 3. Miss V said, "Lemme go cut it off". She  switched the "On" key to "Off". The elevator hung suspended between floors, like a  submarine; trying to avoid detection. She picked up her knitting bag and pulled out a bottle and a stack of tiny Dixie cups. The glass bottle had a pebbly texture with a clear liquid, tinted of grey and green. It was a pint of Seagram's gin. Miss V passed out the cups and cracked open the new bottle. She gave  everyone a pour and said, "To your health boys !" The new orderly never drank gin and it felt like he'd swallowed herbal lava. She quickly put the bottle and knitting away. She gave her boys a stick of Juicyfruit gum and let  everyone off on 5 - the psych floor. As the elevator doors closed Miss Violet said, "Be good boys !" 

The submarine  descended into silence.

Friday, March 9, 2012

St. Louis Heights

The smell was tropical. Not like sun tan lotion or mango or papaya smoothies, but decomposition. The feeling was like taphonomy - from the  Greek  taphos, meaning tomb.  It was like breathing inside the tomb of humidity. He was 4 years old, so he could not imagine something smelling like life and death simultaneously.

The house was located in the St. Louis Heights section of Honolulu - 96822.  This was before ZIP codes existed and stamps cost 3 cents. Architecturally, it was a bungalow, porch in front, over a one car garage,  on the left - a 38 degree stairway, with one turn, no backyard and a very narrow side yard. Located on extremely steep, hillside terrain; a car had actually run off  the twisty road above  and crashed into their house.  A real estate agent might point out the ocean views and beautiful sunsets.

The side yard was about 5 feet wide x  40 feet deep, with koa, hilo and rice grasses; punctuated with the abstracted lines of staghorn ferns. The earth was  dark reddish brown, a silty clay content, very granular and  hard packed. He felt the cool, damp moisture that seeped up from the ground, that made dark spots on his jeans and T-shirt.

There were no dump trucks, action figures or even plastic shovels, to create pretend battle scenarios. He lay on his stomach surveying this fecund red  planet. From this position, it was like taking a cinematographic low angle shot, he slowly panned his location. Exactly on cue, stage right and advancing crazily with a tipsy spidery gait was  Scorpionida...an arachnid with a long  reddish body with pincers in front and a thin segmented upturned tail tipped with a venomous stinger. Not realizing the consequences of his actions, he reached out with his right hand to corral the scorpion.
Scorpions have three sets of eyes and as the boy reached out, it seemed to do a reverse flip, landing the stinger on the back of his dark skinned hand.

The boy shrieked in surprise and pain. He tried to raise himself off the cold hard dirt, but tumbled crazily into a small tangled pile. He looked up at the blue sky and smelled the reddish clay soil.


He was traveling with the Louis Vuitton of public transportation, 2 doubled up CVS plastic bags. Ample storage for rain pants, a bag of gummy bears, a paperback book - not memorable and some smoked almonds. It was fine for his commute of 20 minutes.

He hated the next stop, because she always got on. She must have been a nurse, because he heard her mention several hospitals she'd be working at for the week. If there was a Filipino cartoon with a character with the highest pitched voice ever, that would be her. His Louis Vuitton was no match for her big Filene's, Bloomingdale's and GAP bags. Inside those bags, were even more bags, containing a partially a eaten banana, a vintage Sony Walkman, some kind of pudding, crackers and a small cosmetic salon. He wondered how she kept track of everything and what was possibly at the bottom of those bags. She was a walking Dollar store.

Then it hit him. What an asshole he was. A complete and total ASSHOLE.  Why let this little bag lady annoy him. Plus - does a "nice person" think these awful petty thoughts ?  He looked down at his hands for some answers. Dark skinned and very veiny, wrinkly with knuckles that bulged at each joint. They looked like the hands of a chimp. A gnarly old chimp. There was an odd shaped scar on the back of his right hand, between his forefinger and middle finger; and below the webbing of those two fingers. The scar was not from a cut, scrape or puncture. It's origin and shape looked like it came out of a kaleidoscope.

It was from one of his earliest  memories.
It was a scorpion's bite.
A scorpion bit him on his hand, leaving the odd shaped scar.

Some things are meant to leave a mark.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Bus

Rows of azure blue plastic seats and brushed stainless steel grips were secured by tamper resistant fasteners. As usual he rode the MBTA #38 bus, enjoying the predictability of each passengers routine - who got got on and off at what stops. Sometimes he pretended he could look into the future. He knew which drivers were friendly and which drivers would not respond to his tentative greetings.

On the bus people shut life out with earphones, smartphones, cell phone conversations, even books. By nature he was a watcher. Cautiously studying the other passengers or looking out the window, at places he had been and places he would never be. Riding the bus let him discover the many architectural details he would miss by driving, walking or even riding a bike. Among his favorite sightings were mansard and gambrel roofs, eyebrow and bullseye windows, corbels and Queen Anne turrets.

Inbound and outbound routes retraced AM and PM; before and after work. In the morning, there was the sense of rushing anticipation. The evening dialed down a quiet desperation. His thoughts followed a repetitive pattern, always coming back to the same question. What happens when you die ?

As the bus approached his stop, he wondered if death was like stepping off the bus and never getting on again.