Working on the psych ward brought me my first exposure to homosexuality. I had never known a man who was openly gay, and had never met a lesbian. There was no such thing as “coming out” and Aids had not yet been discovered, or at least I wasn’t aware of it.
It was 1976, and I had recently been divorced, with a one year old baby. Gone were the days of partying till 4:30 a.m., dancing my heart out every Saturday night. Disco was dying and I had lost my enthusiasm for dating. I didn’t really get serious about anyone until 1978, two years before I met my second husband. I felt I owed it to my baby to be around as much as I could.
Every so often the policy makers at the hospital would brainstorm and come up with ideas to entice employees to switch shifts, a form of cross training should there be a shortage of employees. People weren’t exactly clamoring to be hired there. We were offered the choice of floating our hours, that meaning we could work the day shift one week (7:00 a.m.-3:00 p.m.) the evening or the night shift (11:00 p.m.-7:00 a.m.)another week, as long as we worked it out among ourselves.
Of course, Jeanne and Louis wouldn’t tamper with their schedule and no one would even think of asking them to switch hours. I thought about accepting the challenge. I had fallen into a sort of complacency after I was there a few years, after learning the tricks of the trade. Always empty the bed pans BEFORE you eat anything. Never ASK anyone if they wanted to be bathed, just roll them over and do it. Never enter a room without turning the light on first, so you could see where the cockroaches scattered to. That kind of attitude was becoming second nature to me, and I didn’t like it.
So I spent some time on the day shift. I made some great friends, two women I still keep in touch with today. Every year we exchange Christmas cards, and update each other on our children, marriages, and jobs.
It was during that time I met Robert. Robert was, as the older employee folks would say, queer. To the less enlightened or tolerant, he was a friggin queer, and they made sure he heard them when they said it. They liked him, but they kept their distance. Flamboyant and lispy, I had never met anyone like him. He celebrated his homosexuality at every opportunity. This, of course, drove everyone around him nuts. Except me. I found him to be a loving, kind, smart and sensitive man. I didn’t care that he was gay. He was a good friend to me. Jeanne and Louis and I were his only friends in the hospital.
One late afternoon, Robert and I were sitting outside on the overlook, enjoying the summer breeze. It has been a difficult few hours, because one of the patients had to be restrained. We were both tired, hot and cranky. I was lamenting of how discouraged I was that I wasn’t able to find a boyfriend, that a lot of guys didn’t want someone with a young child. “I wish I was pretty” I would moan. My freckles and short red hair screamed CUTE and I wanted to be pretty, sexy, more womanly. He was as short as I was, and his black hair sparkled with specks of perspiration. Robert leaned over, took my face in his hands and looked into my eyes. His eyes were the darkest green I had ever seen. “You don’t know it yet, Red, but one day you WILL be beautiful. You just haven’t grown into yourself yet. You need some lines in your face and grey in your hair. Then, you will be beautiful. You will be a knockout.”
I looked at him in disbelief and shock. No one had ever said anything like that to me before. Of course I thought he was just being nice. I realize now what he was saying to me. You can’t become a woman until you’ve lived some life. I don’t know if I would qualify as beautiful now, but when I look in the mirror, I am comfortable with what I see. But at that moment, I didn’t know what to say to him and he was still looking in to my eyes so intently, so sure of what he had just said to me.
“What do you know about it, Robert, you’re a friggin queer, remember?” It was Jeanne and she was standing at the doorway smiling, arms full with her handbag, canvas bag and some charts she had picked up from the office downstairs. The spell of the moment broken, we laughed while we walked back to the office and helped her unload.
At the start of every evening shift, Jeanne would come bounding off the elevator, dishware and aromas in her canvas bag, her eyes scouring for “her” radiator. She had to get to it fast to keep Louis’ dinner hot. Robert and I would be sitting in the office, waiting for the shift change, and we would always smell the food before we saw her. He winked at me and started the routine they went through every afternoon.
“ooooooweeeee” he would yell out at her. “What did you make for that lucky dog to-night, Miss Jeanne?”
“Catfish, collard greens and macaroni & cheese, with a slice of sweet potato pie, and don’t you touch that tin foil, Robert!” She laughed as she settled the plate down on the radiator and then plopped down on the swivel chair to catch her breath. She had walked the stairs all the way up. All three elevators were broken again and the maintenance elevator in the back was full of bins holding smelly, urine stained sheets, waiting to be transported to the laundry room. She didn’t want her Louis’ food anywhere near it.
“He sure is a lucky, lucky man that Louis” he said, accentuating the LUCKY.
“He sure is” said a big booming voice from behind us.
Standing in the doorway was Randall.
The year was 1978. It was about this time I decided that I would take my three month trek with a friend to Phoenix, Arizona. Having never been out of New York except to elope to Maryland in June of 1974, I was anxious to do something different, the yearnings of wanderlust taking hold.
I left on a Friday afternoon in February, and returned home on the greyhound bus with my son, on Mothers Day. I was gone ninety days, but I might as well have been away for ninety years.
It was during this time Geraldo Rivera had made a name for himself. A young upstart and a hungry reporter, he had uncovered atrocities at a neighboring mental hospital in New Jersey. He spawned a nationwide look at how these facilities were managed and was successful in the closing of several psychiatric centers. Legislation was rewritten to be read as more compassionate to the patient, the beginning of political correctness in a system that was anything but correct.
Most of the poor souls who had found a haven in the wards were now let loose on the streets. They were homeless, alone and scared. But most of all, they were ill.
The wards were half the capacity they were when I left. The first floor free birds were gone. Every single one.
Gone also was Randall, Jeanne’s husband. Jeanne never told us exactly what happened to him, except to say he had wanted to relocate down south. He realized Jeanne would always love his brother more than him. He felt he had done right by her, though, raising her baby and giving her two more. They were all grown now, his job done. That was the reason he was standing in the doorway that afternoon as Robert was teasing Jeanne about the aromas coming from her canvas bag. He was saying goodbye.
I thought that she was kidding me when she told me. I had been the butt of many a practical joke in the past, and I thought this was another.
One evening after a particularly trying week, a patient had died in her sleep, succumbing to the darkness and finally free from her pain. Jeanne and I had tagged her toe for identification purposes, wrapped her in a clean sheet and lifted her onto the gurney. I had never seen a dead body before and I was extremely nervous. It was my turn to take someone down to the morgue, since Jeanne was the senior aide and the ward could not be left unsupervised.
We were out in the hallway waiting for the elevator when Jeanne suddenly yelled “Oops! Don’t forget the chart. It’s in the office.” So I ran back and got it off the hanging file holder that sat on a cabinet, holding a lifetime history of pain and misery for 38 women.
As I wheeled the gurney into the elevator, I realized I was going to be alone with a dead person. My heart started to pound as the door closed in front of me, shutting out Jeanne’s wide smile, those big white teeth shining at me.
What was she smiling at, I wondered. What the hell is so funny?
As I managed to keep it together while descending the eight floors, I glanced down at my white work shoes. Standard issue nurses white, when first hired I was constantly painting them with the white shoe polish, as if to keep the despair and dirt off them. As time wore on, I fell into step with everyone else. They were a dingy grey. At least my uniform was still white, I mused. Finally reaching the basement, the elevator doors opened with a loud clank, echoing down the empty hall. Dark and dank like all institutions, it reeked of past cigarette breaks, quick pee’s in a corner, and old coffee. The morgue was on the the left at the end of the hallway.
The body started to pass gas and maybe some fluid, I couldn’t see. But I recognized it as a fairly common practice. The body’s final attempt at freeing itself. I quickened my pace just the same.
As I got to the door of the morgue, I realized that I had forgotten my skeleton key. All the locks in the buildings were opened by specific skeleton keys unique to that building. Mine was upstairs on the desk. I was alone with a dead body in the dark, in the basement. Mice were peeping in the corners, singing a little micey squeak song.
“Damn” I muttered to myself, “Damn, Damn, Damn! How could I forget the key?”
“Here take mine” said a voice from inside the sheet, and an arm jutted out, holding a set of keys.
I jumped so high, I swear that I have never jumped that high since. It was Robert, laughing hysterically as he freed himself from the sheet wrapped around his middle, sitting up and leaving his bare upper torso exposed. Pleased with himself, he told me how Louis and Jeanne had gotten him ready and switched the gurneys while I had run back into the office to get the chart.
It was a great joke, I had to admit. But what wasn’t a joke was that Randall was really gone. What would that mean for Jeanne and Louis?