Unemployed Again

Unemployed Again

Friday, December 11, 2009

A Christmas Story

When I was 14, I worked in a convalescent hospital.

I was too young to legally work, but the word about town was that St. Catherine’s was so desperate for Candy Stripers that they would look the other way. All of my friends jumped on this opportunity, and the best part of that job was that we were all together.

I remember the staff asking me for my social security number, and I had no idea what that was. “I’ll have to call you back,” I told them, then ran to ask my big sister. “Just make it up,” she counseled me. “It’s three numbers, then two, then four.” Her words were reassuring, and I got the job.

My friends were all hired as Candy Stripers, and wore red and white striped pinafores, like candy canes. Candy Stripers were underage girls hired to attend to all of the patient’s needs. To me, the name “Candy Striper” and the duties they performed had a ring of prostitution about it, and I didn’t like the idea at all. Not to mention, I have always been squeamish about nursing. I don’t have that nurture bone that makes it palatable to clean up feces and sponge bodies; and I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it.

So instead, I asked if I could work in the kitchen. And I was the only person who did.

I’ll never forget my first day of work. I was met at the door with a time card, and was shown how to “punch in.” It was very mechanical; the whir of the machine as it spit out my card with a blue ink time stamp upon it. It felt robotic. I felt robotic.

The smell was overwhelming. It was a noxious odor that was a combination of medicine and vomit; cleanser and urine. I was led down the hall to sign my paperwork, and I was suddenly accosted by a patient; an elderly lady who was sneering and hissing at me as I walked by. Suddenly she grabbed the back of my collar and pulled me toward her. She stood there posed like a fragile gorilla; arms outstretched as if about to pounce, exposed white legs covered in blue veins, her mouth angry. “For you, my dear,” she said in a guttural malevolent way, and then she squatted over my shoes and urinated.

I’m not sure if I was more horrified or terrified.

“The bathroom is right there,” said the nurse who was leading me toward my destination. “You can clean your shoes.” She was so matter-of-fact, that I wanted to scream, is that all I get? That woman peed on me! I wanted sympathy; but there would be none of that.

I rounded the corner to the bathroom and was stopped by another elderly woman in the hallway. “Last payment on the welfare check,” she told me. I nodded impatiently, and she continued. “Yep, it’s the very last payment. The LAST payment of the welfare check.” In the coming months, I would learn that this was all she said. Over and over. All day long.

Once my shoes were clean and my paperwork signed, which included my false social security number, I was led to the kitchen. I was introduced to my boss; a very tidy woman, with pert lips and a perpetually tight neck. She was a nutritionist; and she went on to instruct me on how to prepare the food. Before each meal, the carts would be wheeled into the kitchen, which were bright silver and all metal. The carts were bunk bed style, and came with about fifty trays per cart in rows which went about as high as I could reach. On each tray was a patient’s name, their food requests, requirements and restrictions. Each meal I would aid her in preparation; the regular patients got things like meatloaf, mash potatoes and frozen peas. A few could even request wine with their dinner, which was served in tiny wine bottles with a plastic wine glass. But many patients couldn’t eat this or that, and we had to prepare a variety of dishes. The worst were the Mechanical Soft patients, who could only drink liquid. For those patients, I would normally just throw the meatloaf, mashed potatoes and peas in a blender and serve it to them as a meaty milkshake.

My other job was to wash the dishes. I would stand before the industrialized size stainless steel sinks, and a steady stream of trays would come toward me, moving on a conveyer belt. Each plate was capped off with a white marbled plastic lid. I would remove the lid, wash that and the plate under hot water, and then put it into a big washer that would slide it through like a car wash. It was hot, and I would always sweat as I performed this particular task. I didn’t so much mind doing the dishes, but the patients would often leave me little surprises under the white marbled lids. A pile of feces was their favorite gift to me. But a pool of vomit was an equally popular donation.

When I finished with the dishes, I would have to count all the trays, and if I was short, I’d have to roam the hospital and look for them. I remember entering one woman’s room, and I was pleased when I spotted the one missing tray and the white marbled lid on her bed stand. “Good evening Mrs. Wilson,” I said, as I walked in to retrieve it.

“Good evening,” she said in a wicked voice that made me shudder. Then she pulled up her white nightgown, and began extracting bits of salad from her vagina and tossing it in my direction. She was screaming pejoratives as she did this; it was like a scene from the Exorcist. I ran from that room as if I was a soldier running from shrapnel, ducking the pellets that were flung toward my head and the few that landed square on my cheek.

I thought of it like an insane asylum. And I hated every single second of every single day there.

But I had it easy compared to my friends, who were forced to deal with the patients all day long, as well as wash the bodies of the dead, and prepare them for pick up. My best friend begged me to stay in the room with her the first time she did it; as she was so frightened. I’ll never forget the thud as she turned the dead man over to wash him, and revealed his back which looked like raw red meat, and was covered in bruises, scabs and blood. “HE’S ROTTING!” I almost choked. The smell was putrid. “WHAT IS THAT?” I screamed. But she knew what it was, as part of her job was to give sponge baths, and had seen them regularly.

“Bed sores,” she whispered. I was often educated during my tenure there. And the sound of ambulances in the parking lot was the lullaby by which I worked.

There were three levels of patients there. Group One consisted of patients who were almost comatose; sitting in wheel chairs or lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, and without any recognition of the world around them. We rarely needed to tend to them at all; only the doctors and nurses fed and bathed them. Group Two were the patients that the Candy Stripers and I would deal with the most; the ones who hid salad in their crotch and like to urinate on young girl’s shoes. They were by far the most difficult, and it was a regular occurrence to see one of the Candy Stripers in the lunch room in tears.

But it was Group Three that broke my heart every single day.

The patients in Group Three, to me, didn’t look as if they belonged there. They looked like someone’s jolly grandmother or grandfather; wise and lucid, laughing with crinkly eyes that would light up anyone’s soul. Whether it would through circumstance or poverty, the reason they lived there I never knew. And most disturbing to me, was that few of them ever had visitors from the outside; and it would always be a big deal if they did. “Mrs. White is having her daughter here today,” I would be told. “Put some flowers on her tray, would you?” It always made me happy when the visitors came, but these occasions were rare.

Group Three would dine in the dining hall, which was right outside the kitchen where I spent most of my day.

It was Christmas Eve and I’d been forced to work. I remember being resentful, and I had done everything humanly possible to be excused. I would need to work until 9 p.m., and would miss many of the festive Eve traditions that my family would do at home. But the management made it clear; either work that day, or lose my job. So I went.

I remember that the dinner was a little more special that evening. The nutritionist and I roasted many turkeys in the gigantic ovens, and I was busy preparing stuffing and cranberry sauce. They had piped Christmas Carols through the entire building, and I was singing as I worked; and I was determined to still find my spirit in a situation that was less than optimal for me. We had dozens of pecan pies ordered; and they came in piles in big pink boxes. This wouldn’t be so bad, I thought to myself.

I remember swinging open the two sided kitchen doors and running into the dining room to set the table. I saw around the corner the community room, and I smiled to myself as I took in a moment to drink in the Christmas tree that the staff had put there. But it wasn’t the tree that kept my attention; rather it was the sight I saw below the tree.

I saw two of the Group Three patients sitting in their wheel chairs in front of the tree, holding hands. I had never seen any physical interaction between the patients whatsoever; and the sight of it held me spellbound and curious.

I dropped the pile of napkins I was carrying and walked over to where they sat. They were both smiling broadly; their eyes crinkling like Santa Claus; and they were holding hands so tight that their fingers were red.

“Merry Christmas,” I said, tapping the man quickly on his hand.

“Merry Christmas, my dear!” he answered enthusiastically. “And what a magical night it is!” I looked around at the gray room, and breathed in the familiar rancid smell, and could barely muster a smile. I couldn’t fathom how this man could be happy; not in the situation that he was in.

“Yes, it is,” I answered weakly.

“And I’ve got my best girl at my side,” he said, squeezing and shaking the woman’s hand in the air. “And she’s my Christmas Sugar Plum.” With all of his might, he struggled and leaned toward her and kissed her on the lips. He was shaking almost violently as he did so. She giggled like a girl and laid her head on his shoulder. “Two weeks ago, I was lucky enough to sit next to Mrs. Roth at supper,” he continued. “And it was love at first sight, I tell you. Love at first sight.”

“Oh, you do go on, Mr. Jenkins,” the woman giggled, snuggling into his white issued nightgown.

“I’ll shout it to the rooftops Mrs. Roth!” he yelled, and then laughed so robust he could have been Santa Claus himself. I smiled but neither of them were looking at me; they only had eyes for each other. Without a sound, I went back into the dining room and continued setting the table.

But it wasn’t the last I’d hear from Mr. Jenkins that evening.

I was preparing the trays for Group Three which be served in the dining room that evening. I always had to check each patient’s card, which spelled out their meal requests and restrictions, to make certain they were given what they wanted, and were not given what they couldn’t have. On Mr. Jenkins card, under the category for alcohol, he had circled the word “wine” in thick red felt pen, about a dozen times, until the circle of urgent red took up half the card. And as if that wasn’t enough, there was a big red arrow pointing to the circle. Just to make sure I wouldn’t miss it. It made me laugh.

But I was sad, too, as Mr. Jenkins was not allowed any alcohol in his diet. “Mr. Jenkins is requesting wine tonight,” I said to the nutritionist.

“Well, he knows he’s not allowed alcohol. That is the worst possible thing for his condition. Go out and tell him that he can’t have any,” she instructed me.

I walked despondently out of the kitchen and back to the Christmas tree where the happy couple still sat. I didn’t want to interrupt them again.

“Mr. Jenkins,” I said. “Sorry to disturb you. But you requested wine tonight and that is not on your diet. I just wanted to let you know we can’t give it to you.”

I never expected what came next.

He lingered for a few seconds more on his lady’s blushing face, and then turned to me with a look that meant business.

“I want you to listen to me, dear, are you listening?” he said. His eyes pierced into mine.


“I’m 86 years old. I have no living family or children. It is Christmas Eve. I am dying. I am in love. Are you listening?”


Then he motioned for me to come closer. He beckoned me with one bony finger, and continued to beckon me until my ear was right to his mouth. “So, if I want some god damn wine, I’ll have some god damn wine, do you hear me?”

“I understand,” I answered. “But I’m not allowed. I can’t.”

He took his hand and gripped my arm as tight as he could. “You CAN,” he said sternly. There was a pause. Then he whispered, with as much passion as I’ve ever heard in my life, “Please.” I stood up and stared into his eyes for several seconds. There was a world of conversation held captive in that stare; a monument of understanding.

That night, I told my boss that Mrs. Roth and Mr. Jenkins had requested to eat in the courtyard alone, rather than dine with the other patients in the Dining Hall. “They’ll freeze,” my boss said, in an annoyed tone. “But I don’t have time to argue. Take a couple of T.V. trays, will you, and wheel them out?”

I nodded.

Her annoyance at this request was like looking in a mirror, and my soul filled with guilt and remorse at how I had felt about these people since I began work there. They weren’t people to me. They were just problems.

I chastised myself for my heartlessness. But just as quickly, I began to forgive myself. I knew I had distanced myself from feeling compassion, because down deep the entire place was more depressing than I had tools to bear. It wasn’t that I couldn’t feel; the problem was, I felt too much. And it was time to give myself permission to feel.

That night I wheeled Mrs. Roth and Mr. Jenkins to the chilly courtyard, which was strung up with Christmas lights. “You two will have dinner out here tonight, okay?” I said as I grabbed several blankets from the linen closet and draped them over both of them, so they were snuggled in together. They nodded enthusiastically.

Then I brought them their trays and their roast turkey. I had carried the trays right from the kitchen, so there was no wine on the trays. When I put the trays down, Mr. Jenkins just stared at them. His disappointment was so palatable that it brought a lump to my throat. He looked up at me with eyes that screamed his anguish; eyes which asked me why. “I’ll be right back Mr. Jenkins,” was all I needed to say. I gave him a knowing look. He didn’t need to speak, he only nodded and smiled.

I went back to the dining room and grabbed a full carafe of wine off one of the tables, along with two plastic wine glasses.

I hurried down the hall, as if I was a burglar escaping the scene of a crime. My heart was in my throat as I rushed past the nurse’s station, carrying the carafe as low as I could so no one would see.

When I reached the courtyard, they were kissing. I felt my eyes fill with tears, and I waited for them to finish. I placed the wine carafe and glasses between the wheel chairs, beneath the blankets. “My shift is over, I’m going home. I hope you have a merry evening,” I said, winking at Mr. Jenkins.

“Indeed we shall,” he said winking back. And then in a whisper he mouthed the words, “thank you.”

When I walked out that evening, I worried for a moment, wondering what would happen when the inevitable discovery of the wine carafe occurred later that evening. I tried to comfort myself with the notion that perhaps it wouldn’t be noticed; that it would just be swept up with the rest of the dirty dishes, and carried into the kitchen without raising an eyebrow. But I also worried that when the wine carafe was found, I would be found out as well, and I would lose my job. But the worry only lasted a moment.

I walked out of the hospital and stared into a night sky filled with Christmas stars. And suddenly I didn’t care. It had all been worth it.

It was a Silent Night that night. All was calm, and all was very bright.
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Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Why I Believe in Santa Claus

I have always been giddy about Christmas. Since the moment I realized that Christmas existed, the season has energized me in a way I can scarcely explain. For an entire month, I feel like a child with my nose pressed against the windowpane, staring into a snowy landscape of inexplicable joy.

I know it doesn't fill me because of religion, or because of Paganism. Or because of the conglomeration of traditions and rituals that dozens of cultures bring to the holiday. Its roots spread out farther than the strongest tree, and each root contributes its own piece to a culmination that is different to so many people. There are countless cultures, faiths, ethnicities and societies that have contributed to the modern concept of Christmas, but that’s not why I love Christmas.

I know it’s none of those things that make me love Christmas, but I do know it’s because of all of those reasons. I love the risqué and utterly hedonistic undertones that the Pagans lent us; both riotous and lusty, which still makes Christmas feel so merry. I love the reverence that the Church brought to us; the somber and haunting elegance, the Christmas Carols, and the undeniable charm. The magical, dark and joyous conglomeration of what Christmas is. Whatever the hell it is, I love it. And I believe the reason I love it, is the sense of wonderment and awe that was inspired in my tiny soul, when I was barely old enough to understand that Christmas existed. And that stupefaction, I believe, was inspired by my grandmother.

My Grandmother was the Grand Dame of story telling.

Gogo, as we called her, had a keen imagination. Until she died, she mesmerized us with long detailed stories about anything from her history to the fantastical. We were told about World War II in London, England; how she and my mother were so tired of spending their days in the dark, damp bomb shelters, or in their house with the curtains drawn, that one night they decided to brave the streets and go to the movie theater. That night, not only was the back of the theater bombed, but when they returned home, their house had been as well. “If we hadn’t gone to the movies that evening, you all wouldn’t be here, Duckies,” she’d explain in her thick cockney accent. And she would tell the story in such detail, that some nights I felt as if I had been there. I could smell the rancid margarine they were given to eat on rations, and I could taste the cold tea. I could hear the whistles of the bombs as they fell from the sky, and then the dreaded silence, only seconds before they detonated. I could feel the explosion all around me.

But those aren’t the only stories that Gogo told. Gogo believed in the spiritual, the unexplained, the paranormal, and about everything else odd that you might imagine. And in turn, we believed it too. The combination of the fact that she believed in these things herself, combined with her breathtaking narrative, imprinted these ideas in our minds as truth.

Gogo told us about poltergeists; an entity she really did believe in. When we’d be around her, strange things would always seem to be happening; things would disappear then reappear in the oddest places. It always frightened me, and sometimes I would cry. “Don’t worry Duckie,” she’d tell me. “The Poltergeists are mischievous, but they won’t hurt you. When you encounter one, just count your blessings, and let it bring you comfort. Because they give us proof that there is more to this world than we can imagine.”

She would also tell us yarns about ghosts and being visited by her dead relatives; but this wasn’t fantasy, to her this was all true. “My brother just visited me in my bedroom,” she’d tell me. “Look ducky, you can still see the imprint on the blankets where he sat beside me. Don’t be silly, of course a dent that perfect could not be made any other way. When he sat, I could feel his weight, tugging at my top sheet.

She told us once about a Flying Saucer which had flown right over her head, as she was sipping on tea on her porch. She described in dizzying detail every single facet of what she saw; the way the air smelled when it passed overhead, similar to that strange metallic smell right after a rain. She told us how its enormity covered the sky and appeared to eclipse the sun; she described how  theforce of its velocity blew back her hair, and the wake of its tremendous wind nearly pushed her over. “Of course I didn’t imagine it, Ducky. I saw it as clearly as I see you right now.”

Gogo also had out-of-body experiences. They always began in the twilight between sleep and awake, she explained, when her body would begin to violently shake. Suddenly she would hear a sort of a pop, and she’d find herself free of her physical restraints. She would rise slowly to the ceiling, until she could see every speck of dust and fragment of cobweb only inches from her eyes. Then after years of practice, she was able to push herself through the ceiling and into the world. Eventually she could go anywhere she wanted. “I visited my sister last night in England; I did you know. I could see the frock she was wearing; it was brown plaid cotton. She was making herself a cup of tea, and I kept touching her, and she would swat the air like a fly. This morning I called her, and I told her I liked her new brown dress, and she almost fell over, Duckies. Because she didn’t know how I knew.”

She believed it all, and we did as well. So when she began to stretch the truth a little, and tell us stories about fairies, especially one little fairy named Joey who lived in our fireplace, I had no reason to doubt her. The stories she told us about Joey were as complicated and as full of imagery as any of stories. But she also would provide physical evidence that Joey existed; if one of our toys broke, for instance, all we needed to do was leave it in the fireplace for Joey to fix. And sure enough, when we awoke the next day, our damaged toys were good as new, and sitting in the fireplace.

So when Gogo told us about Santa Claus, she did it in such a magical way it was clearly plausible. Santa was as real to me as Hitler was in World War II.

We weren’t given the American version of Santa Claus. The corpulent white man in the cheap red suit wasn’t a part of my upbringing. Father Christmas was somebody that Charles Dickens might describe; a cross between a hippie, and the God of Wine, Bacchus. He was tall, gaunt; with long flowing hair. In fact, I think he had a little bit of Jesus in him. He wore a Victorian crown of mistletoe and holly; and he wore tattered velvet suits of red and green; his shoulders were dusted with perpetual snow. I preferred his solemn sweetness to the other Santa Claus’ obtuse jolliness. I loved his wise Victorian manner; I loved the winter plants that wound around his forehead; I loved the cane with which he walked.

Of course we weren’t spared a single solitary incredible detail. How his leather boots were a bit charred, because he wore them too close to the fire. How he had a burn on his green velvet sleeve, from an accident with a bit of soot. How his brown satchel, tied up with brown twine, could hold enough presents for all the children in the world. And how, exactly, this sorcerer, this magical elf, possessed the powers that he did; and how Santa came to be.

My grandmother would have never been so silly as to try and pass off a department store Santa as the real Santa. We would never have fallen for that rouse; we saw their plastic boots and synthetic beards, and we couldn’t fathom how other children believed such nonsense. Those charlatans, we were told, were just men hired by the stores to pose as Santa Claus, to sell merchandise. We also knew that the slightly drunken fool that appeared at various holiday parties wasn’t Santa either. Santa was dressed in real velvet and fur and leather; and he was an elf. No taller than four feet. He wouldn’t look like a man, she explained. He would look like a mythical creature; something we’d never seen before.

But we would never see Santa.

When we would ask her how she knew for sure that none of those imposters were the real Santa, she explained it was because no one had ever seen the real Santa. He existed only in legends and stories; passed down by elves and Santa himself. Even if you tried, you’d never catch a glimpse of the real Santa, because the moment you opened your eyes to try and catch him, he’d disappear. And this mystery made it all the more spectacular.

Just as most of my friends were told, Santa came down the chimney and filled the stockings that the children had hung there on Christmas Eve. But in our house, Santa would come and bring them to our individual beds, and would lay them across our sleeping feet. Just knowing that Santa would be in my very bedroom that night was more excitement than my heart could stand.

But the oddest tradition we had, was there was absolutely no sign of Christmas in the house when we went to bed on Christmas Eve. There wasn’t a tree; there wasn’t as much as a wreath or poinsettia. There was nothing; not a stitch of anything that would remind anyone that it was Christmas Eve. And when we hung our stockings in the bare room on the night before Christmas, it was a simple and strange event; almost haunting and unreal. The anticipation of it all would make my heart beat so fast, I could hardly catch my breath.

But that was nothing compared to what it was like in the morning.

We’d awaken to feel the weight of our laden stockings, which had been laid across our ankles. With every slight movement we’d make with our legs, the stocking would shift, and the paper on the packages would rustle and crunch. I would always reach down first with my eyes closed; I liked to peruse the contents of my stocking first utterly blind, with only my fingertips. It didn’t much matter what was in those packages; only that a magical elf had visited me in the night and left them. And when at last I would open my eyes to see the colorfully wrapped packages in Christmas colors, it felt as though a little fairy dust had been sprinkled on my shoulders.

Then when all the presents were open, and I was sitting in bed surrounded by torn paper and presents, it was time to creep downstairs.

Of course the reality was I was being knocked over by my older brother and sister. My brother would step on me to get downstairs first. But in my own mind, I was silently creeping; slowly; almost too afraid to take it all in.

I was afraid to look, because as we slept, dreaming of sugar plums and the rest, something miraculous had happened. Something magical and unbelievable.

The naked house which was devoid of any Christmas spirit had been transformed overnight. By fairies. There was fairy dust in front of the fireplace. There was fairy dust on the stairwell. There was fairy dust on the presents.

A fully decorated tree had appeared as we slept, and was surrounded by every bit of garland, tinsel, trim, and Christmas joy that a child could possibly imagine. Everything sparkled and shimmied; lights danced everywhere, Christmas music filled the room, and the smell of mincemeat pie wafted from the kitchen. Santa had come. He’d really come. He’d really been here. And with the help of dozens of busy fairies, Christmas had come to our house.

I hardly remember any of the presents I ever got, only a few stand out in my mind. What lingers is that feeling; that thrilling and enchanting joy, where I knew for one day that all I needed to do was believe, and I would discover that the world was truly a magical place, filled with miracles.

Since that time, my life has taken many devilish turns. I wouldn’t say I’ve become jaded, but I’ve adopted a healthy wallop of cynicism over the years, and I am sometimes filled with doubt and mistrust. But when I see the first Christmas lights go up on my block, or when I sing Christmas carols or decorate the evergreen I just fetched in the cold, all of that goes away. I am suddenly that child again, with my nose pressed against the windowpane, staring into a snowy landscape of inexplicable joy. I am once again transported back to a time when I believed that life was both a marvel and a phenomenon; to a time when I trusted the world and everything and everyone in it.

And that is why I love Christmas.
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Me in Kindergarten

Me in Kindergarten