Saturday, November 26, 2011

Water Flowing Under...Ground


I was driving down Magnolia Boulevard in Burbank the other day when a song came on the radio.  It had been a while since I heard it, and it reminded me of a writing assignment I struggled with and had since always felt I had failed at.

One of my tasks in 11th grade English class was to take a popular song and deconstruct it, explaining it’s meaning in an essay.  I chose, “Once In A Lifetime,” by the Talking Heads.  I couldn’t have chosen a more difficult song for me, personally, since at that age, the meaning totally washed over me in my seventeen year-old teen-aged bubble brain. 

One evening, I got to work on my assignment and sat in my room and playing the song over and over, appreciating the complicated rhythms and layered sounds.  However, I found myself forever stumped with it’s meaning.  “What is this?  Water flowing…holding me down, finding myself here, and then there?  I’m driving a really nice car, and then I’ve got a gorgeous girl?  This doesn’t sound all that bad to me folks.  Can I just write that in my essay?”

But some part of me knew that there was more to the song than was apparent on it’s lyrical surface.  I was just naïve.  So I called my mom into my room for help.  It was one of those last steps I never liked to take; getting help from my mother.  I liked to think that I could accomplish my studies on my own, as lacking and half-assed as they were at times.  And calling her in to listen to a pop song; well, it was crossing a universal adolescent boundary that added unpleasantness to my already bruising ego.  But I just couldn’t get past this task on my own.

My mom sat with me on the edge of my twin bed, and I played the song for her on vinyl while I held the album cover hoping she might glean some meaning out of what she was hearing.  As new and exciting at the rhythms were to me, they were very confusing and distracting to her.  My mother loved the fluidity of classical music, and this was its antithesis.  Not even the straight on rock and roll I listened to day and night had acclimated her to this new wave sound.  As the song ended, she gave me with a quizzical look and asked, “Would you play it again?”

As I put the needle onto the beginning of the track again, she took the album cover from me and inspected it as we listened through again.  The lyrics were written on the album sleeve, so when the song ended, we read over them talked about what they could mean.  I suppose that by that time, she had deciphered it’s meaning and was now helping me arrive at an answer for myself.

“Well, you hear him talking about getting all of these wonderful things, and he’s sort of questioning it all, isn’t he?”  “Yeah,” I replied.  “What could that mean?” She nudged.  “I don’t know…he’s wondering how he got them?"  God, I was just lame.  I just wasn’t getting this.  The idea of unattained dreams and misuse of one's own time sacrificed for materialism was just too far beyond my conception.  She eventually led me to understand the idea of what David Byrne and Brian Eno had written, but honestly, I might as well have picked another song because I don't think at that age, I ever fully digested it all.  I simply didn’t have the life experience nor the perspective to appreciate this artistic work.  I don't actually recall, but I'm guessing my essay was mediocre at best.

It’s ironic in a way, because as I was driving the other day I though of how much I love music, writing and thinking about the meaning of the tunes I hear.  I often ponder what the lyricist might have personally been going through when he penned a particular song.  And I thought to myself, it would have been nice to have had that same assignment a few years on down the road.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Psychiatric Smoking Wards

To this day, I still don’t really remember why I left CPC Westwood Hospital.  I know what I said was the reason.  That I wanted to get more varied experience working in varying environments, and that a lower grade hospital would be good experience.  I still had the goal of attaining an advanced degree.  I thought I would either get a PhD, or a PsyD in psychology, and of course, the more experience I had in the interim, the better for applying to graduate schools.  But something else was going on inside me.  I had one of the cushiest positions at CPC Westwood that one with my experience could have being the favored Mental Health Worker with a 9am-5pm shift with nurses and doctors who enjoyed working with me.  I think it had just gotten old after three years or so, and furthermore, I believe that there was the kernel of a thought that maybe I didn’t want to go into psychology after all.

I lived with a woman at that time that worked as an assistant at WDI (Walt Disney Imagineering).  She did internal training for employees, and her office was in a loft space of the then WDI Library in Glendale.  We lived in Venice together, and often, I would have to pick her up after work since we were sharing a car.  While waiting for her, especially during winter afternoons, I could see into the windows of some one story bricked buildings along Flower Street.  I didn’t know exactly what I was looking at, but I could see painting backgrounds left in people’s work spaces.  Some of the traditional background artists would leave their light boards on, which would illuminate towards the street and draw me to their windows like a gnat to fire.  They were fascinatingly beautiful to me, and at some point Kristin, my girlfriend, told me that most of those buildings were for the Disney animated features.  In hindsight, I think I was seeing some of the backgrounds for “Aladdin” and some of the visual development for “Lion King.”

All of this was brewing in my mind when I made the shift from CPC Westwood to the hospital in San Fernando.  Almost like it was a way for me to ensure that I could pick Kristin up and be close to this little hub of creativity in the east Valley each day.  My work at Disney, however, was still a couple years away.  It’s interesting how a seed is planted and can take a while to flourish.

My work at San Fernando Community Hospital was the most dismal of all of the jobs I’ve ever had with the exception of the cleaning of chicken racks at 5:00am working at Hughes Market in Studio City.  That will always be the bar I’ll strive to remain above (note my great aspirations).  This hospital served people with psychiatric disorders who were brought in by the LAPD from the streets and from very low socioeconomic situations.  With severe psychiatric patients, there is always the issue of hygiene for some portion of the psychiatric population.  However, with this hospital, it was an issue with almost every patient.  People, who could not care for themselves, were homeless, hooked on drugs, and just absolutely out of their minds.  I saw police bring patients into CPC Westwood only on occasion.  But with San Fernando, it was just round the clock, and more so at night.  A pair of police would deliver someone, either in handcuffs, or holding him or her, and the intake person would hit the officers with the same set of paperwork every time.  The intake nurse would also fill out her paperwork rapidly and get the person admitted within fifteen or twenty minutes. It was a constantly rolling intake door.

The patients would be delivered into a kind of new arrival wing.  I only once or twice had to work that wing.  It was the hardest because at that point in the process, no one wants to be there; not the patients, and not the workers due to the volatility.  Making a person feel at home in a room with a twin sized bed that has plastic fitted sheets, one regular sheet, one pillow with a pillow case, and one seemingly always rust red-colored blanket is almost impossible.  And a few who were out of control needed restraining here and there.  One worker actually got his finger bitten off at CPC Westwood and then subsequently committed suicide.  So I was very careful during take downs to keep clear of anything that might cause me to regret having taken the position.  There was one very strong patient who needed to be restrained in an isolation room.  It was the only time that I can remember really feeling afraid of having to go in there.  I quickly yelled to the nurses to call Howard and Dan in immediately.  They were the two largest psych techs on the premises with builds like big bowling balls.  I waited outside the isolation room for their arrival and let them go in like storm troopers, while I basically mimed helping with the assist.  I’m still content with myself that I did that!  I’d rather have felt slightly impotent rather than have lost a digit.  I suppose that can apply to more than one situation.

My job was to work as a Psych Tech on a locked unit that had some benefits for the patients. The unit was shaped like a “T,” with the nursing station being at the head of that T, and had a television recreation room, and also an outdoor patio for the patients (and staff) who liked to smoke outdoors.  I must point out here that the TV-rec room was also okay'd for smoking.  And so was, to my extreme discontent, the nursing station, where tenured overripe old nurses with raspy voices puffing their cigarettes like chimneys.  They had the practice of writing in their patient logs with one had while their free hand fed their faces an endless chain of tobacco sticks.  All three hallways, even those parts not particularly near the TV room or the nursing station, were filled with a light, constricting fog of smoke.  Had there been laser pens at the time, I would have put on an ‘80’s light show for everyone in that thick haze.  Kristin used to smell the stench on me as soon as I walked in the door of our Venice loft.  It would radiate loudly from my clothes and hair and waft along behind me as I moved from room to room.

There was a cute worker with a very attractive body at the hospital, Pam, who constantly flirted with me.  She lived with her boyfriend, as I did with Kristin.  Yet, everyday, she would say things to other workers in front of all of us such as, “I think I’ll take Fred out to my car and do him now.”  That brought some levity to my work day.  Pam would trot around the unit in tight jeans and loose tops constantly seeking my attention.  She even trapped me in the medical supply closet one day, asking me how I thought she looked in her Halloween costume, which was basically a black leotard, a skirt and some ears.  I said, “Yeah, it looks good,” the moment so full of sexual tension that I was unable to add anything else to my sentence. The hospital was lax regarding professionalism in many ways.

But one day, I’d had enough of the smoke.  I was about half way through my shift, maybe about 1:00pm, when I walked off of the locked ward and over to human resources.  The H.R. person was posted in a rickety trailer with an unbalanced, soggy carpeted ramp leading up to it’s front door, in which, guess what….the H.R. person could smoke too!

I walked up to her desk, as if I were in a scene spewing out bad dialogue from a B-movie about some disgruntled blue-collar industrial worker, put my pager down and said, “I’m quitting as of today, and as of now.”  When I explained to her that the smoke injesting was just too much for me, she said, “Well, I know it can be an issue for some people, the smoking.  But what is the real problem.  Is someone harassing you in any way?”  I flashed to Pam in my mind, thinking that maybe this could be a great opportunity put in an official request for Pam to harass me more frequently each day.  But I said, no.  It was only the smoking, and that there had been an L.A. Times article recently that pointed out how second hand smoke was just not good for people.  She seemed perplexed that someone would leave just because of the smoke.  I had no desire to educate her more on the matter or on my discomfort, so I just left and took a bus down San Fernando Boulevard to Glendale since Kristin had our car that day and waited for her to get off of work.  The hospital called me on three separate occasions after my abrupt walkout to ask me to fill in for various shifts.

When Kristin emerged from the WDI building into the parking lot, I declared to her, “I just quit my job.”  She was shocked, I could see it in her face, but to her credit, and especially during a time when neither of us had been making much money, she immediately replied, “Good for you!  I know you hated that place.  Good for you!  You’ll find the right thing.”