American Wage Slave
Mel C. Thompson
Copyright © 2017
Mel C. Thompson Publishing
Mel C. Thompson
3559 Mount Diablo Boulevard, #112
Lafayette, CA 94549
Table of Contents
Living On $300 Per Month In San Diego
Fibromyalgia, which almost no one had heard of in the late 1980s, was mostly understood as a mere pretext for malingering. Only two medical clinics in San Diego took it seriously. Due to it not even being on the Federal list of “approved diseases and syndromes,” you could not get on Social Security Disability for it no matter how crippled you were. You could get on the more liberal State Disability program, but only for six months, after which you were essentially consigned to death on the streets.
The doctors had gotten me to where I was no longer bed-ridden all the time and could walk up to two blocks, maybe more. And while I could sometimes play guitar for an hour or more, because it oddly conformed to the exact shape of my curled hands, I still could not type enough to hold a job typing full-time, and typing was involved in almost every job I was qualified for. Additionally, I could not even do the remaining old-fashioned jobs involving hand-writing, because, after about ninety minutes my hands would give out. On any random day, my hands could only be counted on to work for an hour or so. On a great day, perhaps my hands would work for two hours. (My temp agency tried every type of job to save me from bankruptcy, but at last I went bankrupt and lost my car too, as there simply were not enough accommodations at any job site for a person in my condition back in the 1980s, or so we thought.)
Jobs not involving either hands or legs were quite rare then, so, when my State disability ran out, I was in a real fix.
I dared not ask my family for the amount of help the few sympathetic souls around me thought I should. My reticence to turn to my family in a whole-hearted or consistent way began with the following incident: One time a visitor had declared me a malingerer in front of the whole family on some Holiday get-together. No one in my family called me a malingerer, however the whole room fell silent. Then they all looked at me and smirked. I desperately tried to explain my situation, but the more I tried to explain, the more they silently watched, grinning, as I twisted in the wind. They allowed me to dangle that way and they did not offer any pushback to the visitor’s assertion. After the get-together was over, I went to my family members individually to see if they thought I was a malingerer, but they all turned away silently and offered no comment in support of me after this humiliating episode. The overall atmosphere surrounding my chronic pain went on this way for decades.
This has led to a lot of tension between me and anyone being introduced to this dilemma, because every time I would be in severe financial hardship due to muscle or joint pain, people would all ask, “Can’t you ask you dad for help?” Then I would explain the silent treatment I’d gotten around this topic and how humiliating it was to never get an answer about it; and why, therefore, I could not persist in asking for anything like the kind of major life-support that folks were suggesting I ask for. In fact, no matter how long I spent explaining how many awkward and humiliating interactions took place with my family around this, the reply always came again, “I don’t understand. Can’t you just ask you dad?”
What sporadic help I got from my family always felt so degrading that I often felt it would be better to die on the street than to accept the random types of irregular help I did get from them. I did accept aid, after all, here and there, but always left such interactions feeling guilty, inadequate, or somehow filthy.
Many friends also began to write me off as a malingerer too. It was Southern California, in the 1980s, and most people were solid conservatives whose party line was, “We don’t believe in being sick.” (They believed illness was all a matter of beliefs. Conservatives at that time had decided that even aging itself was a belief problem; and so it was not unheard of to meet people who said they “did not believe in growing old,” several actually saying to me that they could never die since they “no longer believed in dying.” And so elderly persons looking for anything like deep sympathy at that time were largely out of luck, because, as the New Agers had it, old age, sickness and poverty only had one cause, and that cause was always negativity on the part of whoever was suffering, period.)
At this time Republicanism was just beginning to merge with the New Age movement, (and the heart of this New Age Republican fusion, as my bad luck would have it, was San Diego County). People were already dying on the streets of San Diego, as the belief spread that illness was a sign of bad thinking and that weak thinkers didn’t deserve help, but rather a good “kick in the butt.” And so I was profoundly alone, afraid to ask for help from most of the people I knew. I was isolated in a studio apartment in a dangerous, heroin-laden, mugger-infested section of San Diego right under the loudest jet-path in America. It was not an ideal situation for a person whose nerves were already on-edge.
My last State disability check had run out, and I would need $300 to pay rent for my hundred-square feet directly beneath the flight path. (Each night jet liners, diving down at a steep angle to try to not to miss the runway, had to come within thirty feet of my roof. This was one of the most dangerous landings in North America at that time.) The roar of the jet engines was deafening, and so my nervous system was starting to go, and I was developing sleep disorders. However, it was the cheapest apartment in San Diego, and there was no place else for me to go. I would have to again attempt to go back to work, although I had no idea what kind of work I might do, as the maximum time I could picture myself spending out of bed in a working environment was about four hours or so, sometimes only three.
Miraculously, about four blocks down the hill, and some blocks to the right, was a typesetting company that needed a courier to deliver galleys to their customers spread out all over the county. As it turned out, they only needed someone four hours per day; and while my hands were not good at any work where the fingers had to be outstretched, they could curl around a steering wheel, as, of course, the disease had already curled them and that was now their natural position. Also, it turned out that each of their customers had good parking close to the receptionist desks I’d need to deliver to, so I would only need to get out of the car and walk a few hundred feet, drop off the envelope and then get back in the car. The whole thing would turn out to fit within the precise parameters of my limitations, (although I worried that trying to go four hours per day might be pushing my luck).
Being in chronic pain 24/7 had driven me insane; and back then they didn’t easily hand out Vicodin to Fibromyalgia sufferers, since most doctors at that time did not even believe Fibromyalgia patients were suffering. Access to pain medication would have involved a fight. And, in any case, I was hesitant to become an opioid addict. It was insanity either way: become a drug addict and go insane, or go without medication and let the pain drive one insane. I decided not to become a drug addict, but, I was still totally nuts. During the interview with the typesetters, I flatly confessed that by then I was both crazy and crippled and would need to be accommodated at every turn; and I let them know that, even with many accommodations, I doubted I would survive the experiment. Even so, they kindly gave me a chance to survive.
The job worked out because the place was a family-owned business and they felt as if I were kind of like a disabled child of theirs, so they took great care of me. One of my direct supervisors had a crush on me and she was a bit overt about it, and sometimes a bit too aggressive, (and while this made me pretty uncomfortable, I very much needed the attention; and so I went along with everything, because I really needed a safe haven from the world). So each day I took the sheets of typesetting and put them in the back seat of the car and turned on the radio. (The music gave me a shot of adrenalin to motivate me to try to hang in there. This was back when The Cure, The Cars, REM, and The Police, were everything to me.) Then I’d pull up to various publishers’ offices, hobble out to the receptionist desks, give them their typesetting, then curl my wasted, little hands around the wheel and head back to the office.
The job paid minimum wage and it only involved twenty hours per week. My paycheck, after taxes, each week, was about $75, which paid exactly rent, and nothing else. For the first time in my life I used Food Stamps, Medicaid and assorted charities in order to live. The friends who had not abandoned me, came over and took me out to dinner when they could, and a nice, eccentric artist down the hall provided free booze. (She even set me up with her best friend, and so I had someone to date for a while. That dating arrangement lasted a year, which, in those days, for me, was above-average.)
And so I tried to carry on, (with airplanes diving at the rooftop all night, with heroin addicts and muggers combing our neighborhood), hobbling to and from the courier’s car, driving to and from the office, getting by on $75 per week and whatever I could scrounge up from other sources.
As I look back, I realize that probably my eccentric neighbor, along with the typesetting business, saved my life. Without them, I’d have never had the will to fight back against my condition. But with a little help from my neighbor’s gin, and a little help from her girlfriend, and with the good conversation and friendship they both provided, I kept fighting until I got at least a quarter of my old functioning back. Later in life there would be further improvements with my fibromyalgia, better doctors and better treatments. However, from then on, I never really trusted my immediate family again. We never regained our former closeness, and relations became strained, artificial, cold and distant. Over the next thirty years, we eventually pulled so far apart that there was nothing left and absolutely nothing in common. I finally cut off all contact. We are complete strangers now.
But I will always be grateful to that little typesetting company for giving me a chance when I was at my lowest point of desperation and not feeling sure of a single person or institution on this planet. They kindly gave me a chance to survive.
Anaheim Police Department Clerks On The Edge of The Abyss
There were no computers in the records department back then. Each record had to be hand-written, then typed, then microfisched, (a kind of microfilming on flat sheets). The work was so backed up that the records department had to run a graveyard shift. We were paid too well to quit, but the job made us go nearly insane with sleep-deprivation, anxiety disorder and depression. Even at midnight the station was full of people working as the crime rate had gone out of control and was lurching toward 3rd world levels, with seemingly no end in sight.
The graveyard shift clerical supervisor was a suicidal Orthodox Catholic woman with a huge metal cross between her breasts who had become morbidly obese and overtly said she wanted to die, but her faith forbid suicide as an option. My other very close coworker was a gay Fundamentalist Christian who was attempting gay-to-straight conversion therapy, which was causing him to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I myself was forced to microfische the interrogations of rapists and killers all night, having to see every detail of the grisly crimes that were going on all around us with the chaos increasing every day beyond hope of ever curing. We were all addicted to the good money and didn’t dare quit, but our jobs were driving us mad.
There was a front counter area that was tended by a lesbian cadet whom the homophobic police officers were continually asking management to fire. She too was often driven to tears in this ocean of bigotry, crime and social decay. We all knew these jobs were killing us, but we were also addicted to the few workers we were close to, and also everyone loved the shift commander who was one of those policemen who was a real hero and would give his life to make sure he wasn’t injuring anyone unnecessarily. He always gave even the most dangerous of criminals a chance to surrender peacefully, even though giving them those chances had almost cost him his own life. The building was like a ship of the doomed rolling toward the abyss.
Amidst the tension, giant potato bugs and huge moths and weird spiders would crawl in, attracted to the lights which contrasted with the horrifically pitch-black, mugger-filled night outside. Sometimes a tensed up clerical worker would shriek when some big bug would burst into the working space. And so the commander would come up with a giant bottle of insect spray and douse the creatures till they died of poisoning. Our boss, risking getting herself fired, would come and do our jobs for us and let us go take two-hour naps when she could see the sleep deprivation and the inept heating was making us nervous and cold to the point where we were shivering. We had an hour of overlap with the day crew who recognized that we were all maniacs on the edge of losing our minds. They wanted us all fired, and the city sympathized, but said good graveyard clerks were hard to find and that our replacements would likely be even stranger and more incompetent than we were; and thus the city flatly ordered them to tolerate us, however hateful we might seem.
When the almost-in-tears lesbian cadet would take her breaks from the counter work, after having again been insulted by sexist, homophobic police officers, the suicidal Orthodox Catholic lady with the huge cross hanging between her breasts would stumble tremblingly up to the front to take care of anyone who might wander in. And if the Bible-reading gay-guy took off for lunch by himself to study his gay-to-straight conversion therapy books and eat his meal, I’d go up to the front counter and sometimes talk for an hour and a half with my shift supervisor while she discussed the premature loss of her late husband, the empty nest syndrome caused by her now-absent kids, and how terribly bad she felt about herself, again reiterating how good it would be if the Good Lord should just take her life now.
Little did I know that the Good Lord was on the cusp of taking her up on that very offer. She stood up and said to me, “Mel, you’d better step away from the counter.” I looked and I saw an extremely scary madman come in the front door shouting something that sounded like death threats. He looked like a crazed monster, far more hardened and tough than the usual street-people I’d become used to. And not only did he look and act like he was ready to kill, but he held what was obviously some kind of lethal weapon, (to my mind probably the kind of sawed-off shotgun that killed a childhood friend of mine), inside a kind of burlap bag. As he approached the counter, I said to my supervisor, “Why are you telling me to leave when you’re not leaving?”
Then my supervisor stood tall as the crazy man approached, shoving his concealed weapon towards her again and again, threatening something or other that seemed certainly like death. She puffed out her chest and said something like, “Yes, yes, it’s time for me to go. At last I am to be set free from this life.” And I shouted, (not realizing the danger I was in), “But why aren’t you leaving too!” “Don’t worry about me, Mel,” she said serenely, “I am finally ready. My sorrows shall soon be at an end.” I should have run, but I was transfixed as this woman appeared to be about to commit suicide through the agency of this crazed killing machine marching toward her. I was frozen with confusion and did not run for my own life either, but just stared.
Suddenly, I heard a voice whisper from behind me in the most gentle, calm and compassionate tone I’d ever heard, “Mel, could you please get down beneath the counter?” Suddenly, I came out of my trance and realized the shift commander was giving me an order as gently as a thing could be given and still be called an order. Immediately awakened, as it were, out of my stupor, I very calmly slid beneath the thick wood of the counter and realized that I myself would live, through I just did not know what would be the fate of my supervisor or my shift commander.
Then I looked up from the ground I was seated on, and saw my shift commander draw his service revolver out and say to the madman, “You will drop that weapon now!” Amazingly, the madman was so high, or so deranged, that he believed he did not have to follow the order, but instead began pointing whatever it was he had in his burlap bag alternately toward both my supervisor and the shift commander. Had it been a spear, by now he could have hurled it at the heads of either of them and killed them, but neither my shift supervisor or the shift commander budged.
Again came the command, “You will drop that weapon now!” The madman decided to push his course further, indicating that he would harm anyone who interfered with him or who sought to relieve him of the contents of whatever was inside his burlap bag. His manner became even more agitated. I could hear that the thing was coming to a head. My blood ran cold. I was about to be in the presence of a killing, or multiple killings, though somehow I knew I would live. Still, my blood seemed to stop in its veins, and I felt petrified, like human stone. Beads of icy sweat welled up on my temples.
At last the shift commander said, “I am going to count to three. If you do not drop that weapon, you will be shot and killed!”
The madman indicated that no one could speak to him that way without facing his further wrath and that he would not comply.
“Oh shit!” I thought, “I am about to see a dead body in the lobby tonight! Oh my God, I don’t want to be here! How did I end up here! What terrible luck!”
But at the count of three, one fraction of a second before the shift commander’s gun was to fire, the madman’s weapon dropped to the floor and the crazy man, though still yelling, no longer had the weapon in his hands. Sneaking up behind him, another officer tackled him, and then a third put handcuffs on him. The burlap bag was opened. It was something along the order of a small samurai sword which looked like it could shred a person to pieces in a moment. The lunatic was taken back to a holding cell.
My shift supervisor, realizing she was now going to live, and that she was not to be liberated from the endless, meaningless days of this particular bodily incarnation, suddenly lost all the radiant joy and courage that had swept over her face. She now wept very slightly and lumbered back to her desk.
I was caught up with my work, so I began to attack the pile of the next night’s work, which was already bundled nearby. Somehow the only thing that brought me peace was reading the shocking Dostoyevski-like cross-examinations of our department interrogator and comprehending his psychological mastery as he matched wits with the most hardened criminals, reducing them to repentant confessions in most cases, thus sparing the judicial system lengthy trials. Some confessions literally ended with, “Sir, I am a sick man. Please have mercy on me.” Why reading these stories brought me some kind of calm, I can’t say, (not that the contents of those stories didn’t sometimes traumatize me and prevent me from sleeping for a couple of days).
The shift commander put his service revolver back into his holster and went back to his desk, which was fairly close to mine. I looked up at him and he just shook his head and said, “These people!” But after that very mild outburst, he then went serenely back to his paperwork as though nothing had happened.
Central Orange County was in the midst of a crime wive, and our county seat, Santa Ana, became one of the most dangerous cities in the country for a couple years. The violence was unimaginable at times. There was an inordinate amount of random killing, thrill killing and road-rage killing; and everyone was walking around with guns. I’d had a friend shot in broad daylight in a crowded supermarket he was working in. One of our Philosophy professors at Cal-State Fullerton murdered a guy I used to have dinner with. One day a guy who worked at our college began randomly killing anyone he came across. Richard Ramirez, The Night Stalker was murdering people in their bedrooms, daily, and no one could even stop him for weeks. It was a rough time to work at a police department.
I was scared to death and was sometimes armed. The police knew I was carrying weapons, sometimes walking around with guns, or bats, or a knives. They pulled me over a lot because I was often in bad neighborhoods. But, in my case, since my record was clean, the cops never disciplined me for it, never even took my weapons away, even if they blatantly saw them. They admitted that they knew we had to defend ourselves somehow, and they even said to me once, “We’re afraid we can’t protect you.” Everyone was just out of ideas at that point and it was every man for himself.
The Der Wienerschnitzel Debacle
My first official employer was a big, tall white guy named John who had purchased a Der Wienerschnitzel franchise and apparently made a good living from this business. (Of course I’d had countless failed micro-businesses by then, and there was the usual under-the-table stuff where one worked along side undocumented immigrants in rather disturbing situations; but the first work that shows up on my rather lengthy Social Security printout is this employer.)
He wasn’t hiring at all when I approached him to ask about possible employment. The standard answer I got in those days, whenever people were trying to get me out of their hair, was that I should check back in a couple of weeks. Instead of realizing I was being politely dismissed, I took it literally, as I did everything back then, and kept coming back every two weeks until the employer in question finally summoned the courage to tell me that my case was hopeless.
In some cases I personally knew that the business had fired people and hired their replacements during these two-week intervals, and this should have been more than enough evidence for me to realize my dreams of being a “real worker” were deeply improbable. But the job market was very tight at that time and I felt desperate, not because there was any real danger of hunger or homelessness, nor because there was any danger of being denied health care, but desperate because my entire sense of self-worth was based on how Orange County conservatives judged me.
At that time Orange County was so conservative that I literally had not heard the word “conservative,” because there was only one reality and one interpretation of reality tolerated, period. The word for the belief system we now distinctly refer to as “conservatism” would have been simply equivalent, then, to the word “reality.” There literally could be no dissent, unless one wanted to be mocked and discredited at every turn. (Agreeing with conservatism was not enough: One had to agree with it and succeed monetarily with it, or absolutely all was lost and the “failure” in question simply lost all right to consider themselves human.)
Having no other reference point than this completely triumphalist world view, I was required to believe that my life’s calling was to seek any and all low-level work and then try from there to work my way up to CEO. Since this imperative was psychological survival itself, I had to keep bothering John until he said yes.
The rush hours at this mostly drive-through business were intense, and the employees were hard pressed to get the business ready for the next working day while still serving the incoming customers adequately. John’s solution was to tell the regular workers to go home after the busiest periods had quieted down, and then, about an hour before closing, John and one or two other workers would serve the few stragglers who drifted into the dining area. As for the mess that would be left behind, John would hire me to attend to that. It was mostly janitorial work which the front-line crew workers were usually neglecting anyway, due to their exhaustion from the peak hours. And thus was I finally made an official worker and tax-payer when it was decided I should work two hours per day at this left over janitorial work.
Whether I was mopping or sweeping, cleaning toilets or emptying trash cans, my movements were awkward, labored, unnatural and somehow just off-putting. He even told me on a regular basis than any sane employer would fire me after watching my pathetic efforts for even one day. But still this kindly man seemingly sacrificed himself and his happiness so that perhaps I could be saved and somehow be transformed into a worker who wasn’t doomed.
The most important of my duties was to unfurl a long, wide hose and spray-clean the dirty sidewalks around the building. This part of my job became my favorite part of my short work day. The OCD perfectionist in me enjoyed blasting away the grime and soot. My physical weakness was compensated for as the blasting water obeyed my will. When accomplishing this task, I felt whole again, not like a mere petitioner devoid of power.
But it was not enough to merely sustain a job, or keep a job. I wanted to excel and prove I was no ordinary employee, so I decided to surprise my employer by taking on an extra duty, at no extra charge, just to show him that I would one day be worthy of promotion. I happened to notice that the roof of the building seemed to have years of dirt collected on it. And this building had long, wide, sloping roofs that came a third of the way down to the sidewalk; and so it would be, so I thought, quite an upgrade to the overall atmosphere and morale of the place if I could devise a way to clean this most unsanitary roof without the owner having to hire a separate contractor to do the job.
Having decided on my scheme, I sneaked myself and the trusty hose up through the ceiling hatch and onto the roof. As it turned out, the slope of the roof was just perfect; and as I turned the hose on to full pressure, immediately years of soot flew off the sides of the building leaving a beautiful copper green roof siding glimmering in the bright Fullerton sun. I was thrilled with how instant and how complete the result was. But one man’s work of artistic genius is another man’s madcap annoyance.
Much to the displeased surprise of the customers still in the dining area, walls of water soon streamed over the windows they were looking out of. Thundering sheets of water were rushing down every face of the building until the people inside felt as if they were in the middle of a rain storm. It was, I suppose, like dining on the inside of a waterfall.
John, the owner, rushed out from his office as soon as he heard of the water-filled adventure that was underway. He craned his neck up and gawked at me in disbelief and stared incredulously at the hose I was holding.
“What the hell are you doing up there!” he yelled. “God damn it! Jesus Christ!”
After I came down from the roof he made it clear that the remaining diners and the other workers saw my behavior as bizarre, as that of a lunatic. I illogically argued with him that the project was beautiful and a gift to him, which infuriated him even more. I was fired on the spot.
I should have marked this event as a turning point, and should have, from that moment on, sought some solitary line of work which would steer me clear of the great river of normal employees and managers that populate the world. But, like a jilted lover who is socially awkward, I just could not get the hint that I was already far too strange to make it in the conventional conservative environments of the ordinary employment market. And so I continued on, for many miserable years, trying to fit in to a system with which I was hopelessly out of step.
This all reminds me of an episode some twenty or twenty-five years later. After drifting from office building to office building in San Francisco, I ran into one of my most beloved supervisors with whom I always got along. By sheer luck, he was a Hindu from India and I was already quite Hindu in my outlook and knew many Sanskrit words. Because of this connection, he never dreamed of trying to extract from me the kind of work that was of the exacting standards the building managers had wanted.
Many years after I moved on to another building, Yatin Patel came up to me amidst the skyscrapers of the San Francisco skyline and enthusiastically shook my hand. We were thrilled to finally see each other again after so long.
“Oh Melvin, Melvin. You are an excellent person, you know, just excellent, a truly great man, indeed. You were never meant to be a worker.”
Ah yes, and if I had seen how very true his words were, imagine the pain I could have been spared. Instead, after my job at Der Wienerschnitzel, there would be countless other calamities, all because I was trying to force my way into a working world that didn’t want me, and, once it was cajoled into receiving me, rejected me like a bad organ transplant.
The Pink Tiger Dry Cleaning Nightmare
I responded to a dingy “Help Wanted” sign posted in a chaotic-looking window. Only profound self-loathing would tempt me to even consider such an environment, and there was no doubt, by that point, that self-hatred, subconscious or otherwise, had infiltrated every pore of my being. I was probably already lost in some kind of advanced biochemical clinical depression. But like most psychological illnesses, the problem is first getting a person to use their sick mind to perceive their mind is sick. But the sick mind, by its very nature, does not like being outed and does not like any diagnosis, treatment or cure which involves putting it out of business.
So, even as I was going in to apply for a job that, on the face of it, involved the most degrading kind of self-torture for a person who was already sick, my sick mind was explaining to me that this move was very rational and that happiness might be just around the corner. There was indeed something around the corner, but happiness it was not.
Above was a large sign with a replica of the Pink Panther next to the words “Pink Tiger Cleaners.” Looking back, it sounds like the set up for a perverse joke. But I believe by then my sense of irony and my ignorance of classic literature made me unable to interpret the slapstick comedy inherent in my sad journeys through the working world.
Pink Tiger Cleaners was owned by a chubby, balding, grumpy, middle-aged man from Australia. His nose was red from too much sun and too much booze. He had no communications skills whatsoever.
We deeply disliked each other upon our first meeting, but he was in a situation much like that of the proprietor of the janitorial firm I’d recently been booted from. Managers in the dry cleaning industry could not be too picky, or rather, they could not be picky in any way. And so, against all clear indicators to the contrary, he and I both faked like hiring me was a sensible thing to do.
My whirlwind tour of the dry cleaning industry lasted only a few days. The place was crowded, stinky, dark, depressing and ugly, and I was glad when he became fed up with me and I decided to get the hell out of there. There are limits, apparently, even to codependency like mine. (Little did I know the outsourced, downsized, subcontracted world of the future would be like this, globally.)
He attempted to run the shop with a skeletal crew amidst total pandemonium and endless shouting in Spanish, Chinese and English.
I found myself rushing to the front to take orders and do cashiering and then rushing back through an ocean of big coats, long dresses and tacky suits in order to tend to the dry cleaning machines. There was barely room to walk as I searched through countless racks of dress shirts and tailored slacks to find the item the customer was seeking.
Each item had to be tagged with two paper squares with unique numbers and color-codes, depending on the type of cleaning that needed to be done. The system was complex and would take even an ordinary person weeks to get used to. He expected me not only to understand the whole system within two days, but also to quickly learn to press clothes on steam racks like a pro within hours.
While all this was being dealt with, customers would come in looking for their clothes. I would be trying to match clothing with the number on the customer’s crumpled claim stub as the phone rang off the wall.
The owner was always coming in and out cursing and shouting. He simply had no grace whatsoever. It’s amazing that some workers stayed on for months. He was continually angry because some worker or other had miscategorized some garment and safety-pinned the wrong color code to it.
I was forced to load mountains of dirty clothes into massive, smelly steel machines. At other times I navigated clouds of steam that filled the hot, heavy air, and it seemed like I would suffocate. It reminded me of some kind of concentration camp. Dante would have smirked at the sight of my presence there. Who, I wondered, could survive this for years?
By the third day I was doing surprisingly well steam-pressing shirts and slacks as I endured continual reprimands, harsh criticisms and degrading comments. As each shirt arm and back was pressed, blasts of hot air belched out and hydraulic equipment screeched. My allergies got even worse, as I had gravitated from one job involving lots of smelly, sickening chemicals to another.
The owner was, no doubt, going slowly mad from the grinding nature of this miserable work and the thick, inescapable chemical odors that permeated everything. It smelled like a cross between a hospital and a cesspool. The only thing like it I can imagine in the Bay Area would be to perhaps work in a petrochemical refinery in the worst part of Richmond inside a small room with bad ventilation.
Later in the day the owner began to imply he might fire me, thinking this might motivate me to work at an even more frantic pace. Little did he know that I’d already been fired many times and was losing my sensitivity to such threats. In fact, I would be deeply relieved whenever the topic came up.
Having already been taken into police custody a couple of times, I could safely say being placed in a holding tank or a squad car was more comfortable than this hellhole.
By the afternoon, I was losing my mind and my emotions were raw, so I abruptly said, “You know what? Why don’t I just spare us both any more trouble?” He mumbled something in angry agreement with my proposal.
I tossed down the pile of ugly clothes I was sorting through and stormed out of there totally pissed. Later, however, I howled with laughter at how really silly my work life had been. I recounted to myself the demeanor of the owner and the coworkers who slaved there, and I reviewed my duties in detail and realized I was becoming a vocational nightmare, and again, this made me drunk with laughter. For months, whenever life became absurd, all I had to do was invoke the name of Pink tiger Dry Cleaners and again I would burst out laughing and gain some relief from my sorrows.
Terminal Ward Worker In The AIDS Epidemic
It was late 1989, San Francisco. The “AIDS cocktail” did not exist. Everyone who’d been infected since the 1970s sexual revolution was on their way out, and it was happening all at once. It was that era after the long gestation period for those who first contracted it, but well before any real hope of truly life-prolonging treatment was on the horizon. And the hospitals of San Francisco were simply deluged, crushed under the weight of so many thousands of terminal cases. In order to deal with the pandemic, saintly people were turning their basements into hospices, and there might be ten dying people all over the floors of houses of compassionate people who knew the medical system was all tapped out and no one had anywhere to go. It was an ocean of death. Everyone was losing several friends per year, every year. It was like a kind of holocaust.
Within days of my moving to San Francisco, I was immediately hired to work at the now defunct Garden Sullivan hospital on Geary, not far from Masonic. (It has since been converted to some sort of senior care facility.) And although Garden Sullivan had initially been designed to be a satellite of Pacific Presbyterian Medical Center as a temporary nursing home for people recovering from surgery or injuries, so they could transition back into ordinary life after some down-time, this mission became distantly secondary. It’s main mission, the day I arrived, was to serve as a three-floor terminal ward for gay men dying of AIDS. (From time to time some other kind of patient might be there, the odd cancer diagnosis, the occasional ALS sufferer, a drug addict or two, and sometimes a woman really recovering from some medical issue. But ninety percent of the three floors were simply consumed with the project of what to do with all the men dying of AIDS for whom there was no hope.
I had a few jobs there, but my main job, the real job, was to sit in the reception area and sign in any visitors and to turn away confused San Franciscans who kept trying to come in for various random reasons. When the front desk was slow, and it was slower than you might imagine, my job was to wander the halls and talk to anyone who wanted to talk, (though not many people wanted to talk), and to unlock the back gate for privileged vehicles that were coming in or going out. And there was another key duty which I’ll hold off discussing till later.
In spite of all the despair around me at work, there were reasons for very unusual levels of optimism in my life:
Within a couple of weeks arriving in this new city, I met the love of my life, and within a couple months, I was sure I wanted to marry her and was already planning to buy an engagement ring. The few people who knew me in the Bay Area, ones who had lived also in Southern California with me, were as sure as I was that I was genuinely head-over-heels in love. It was a little difficult keeping up with her sexually, as she was an “every day” kind of person and I was a bit more on the three-times-a-week end of things. But I had just turned thirty years old and was holding up well in spite of this demanding situation, at least I was at first.
(There was a bit of a contradiction here regarding my health. I was at the height of my attractiveness and vigor, in both an emotional sense and also in a sexual sense. And I could even walk vigorously for a few blocks, meaning that if I could score a job where the patrolling was only a few floors at a time, then I could fake it through, patrolling in earnest on days where my feet and legs were good, and then cutting corners on the patrols on days when it hurt to walk. At that time my girlfriend and I did lots of day trips around San Francisco together, but we had to bring a wheel chair. It was a curiosity of my form of fibromyalgia that I could even run two blocks, in a burst of strength, but then, after that two blocks, I might start limping, and then after a few more blocks, I might again have to be pushed around in the wheelchair. This uneven kind of disability only added fuel to the fire for those in my life who were convinced I was a malingerer. The odd inconsistency on the part of those who charged me with malingering is that they could not explain why I was continually looking for work and taking work. Since, ideally, one would think, the whole point of malingering would be to hardly ever work. And the same inconsistencies occurred with my mental illnesses, where people had to simultaneously, in any argument, maintain that I was discredited because I was insane, but that I should not ever be treated in any special way, since I was perfectly sane and there was nothing wrong with me. To this day, they would maintain both things are true simultaneously. So, when they didn’t want to include me in certain deliberations, it was because I was crippled and crazy, but when my participation was desperately needed, it immediately turned out that they maintained I had never had a problem. And so they simply rotated which position they held about me in perpetuity, depending on which stance served their immediate advantage.)
Additionally, I’d landed a job that paid more than most, and, simultaneously, had scored an amazingly-low-rent unit at the top of Cathedral Hill. And, furthermore, I was already starting to fit into the best live-poetry scene I’d ever heard of. In every area of my life, the trajectory was looking straight up. Furthermore, because I’d converted away from the conservatism of my native Orange County and had become a raging liberal, I was, for the first time in my life, surrounded by people who didn’t despise my beliefs. For the first time in my life, I felt truly in with the in crowd of a civilization that was going all my way, (except for the part about one in every ten people I was getting to know being terminally ill with AIDS).
And so my life began to settle very quickly into a most satisfying pattern: going to work and getting paid well; dating the most passionate person I’d ever been with; going to poetry readings and hearing the most exciting work on the planet, (and myself sometimes doing pretty good as a performer). But there was a catch.
Most of the shifts I was forced to work were graveyard shifts. And although I’d worked graveyard shifts once before, at the Anaheim Police Department, this place was not quite as liberal with the on-the-job naps, so I was left to fight off the urge to sleep; and I had no supervisor who’d let me pass out for an hour when the going got really tough. Not being able to pass out when I really felt like it was taking a really hard toll on me. It eventually became like sheer torture. However, I could have held up under the physical stress of this because I had a really nice pad to come home to, where I’d draw all the shades and sleep the day away. And, after I got up from my slumber in the early evening, there’d be the most fabulous woman on earth for me to adore with all my heart.
But then things took an even darker turn. The heating was not working so well in the reception area, and I’d never spent more than three weeks of my life anywhere north of Los Angeles County. As fate would have it, it was the coldest winter anyone there could recall, with temperatures going below freezing, something I’d never come close to having to live with. The combination of freezing at that job while fighting to stay awake was really a trauma to my system. But, at last, morning would come, and I’d escape to my little room and bury myself in as many blankets as it took to stop shivering. The thing seemed survivable until something changed with my upstairs neighbors.
Suddenly my upstairs neighbors, who had apparently not been early-risers, had somehow changed their lifestyle. And now they were up at 9:00AM sharp, just as I was getting to bed, (as I did not get off work till 8:00AM). And now, when they got up, every single day, they decided to blast bass-and-drum-oriented dance music for hours on end. Their large speakers were on their solid wooden floor, causing my ceiling to essentially become a bass drum. Perhaps the noise would die down by noon, but by then I could only lay down for a few hours before having to get back up again to see my girlfriend who was going to be wanting to make love feverishly.
For a while my youth allowed me to push through and make an okay showing in both my dating life and my work, but then work got to be more of a problem too. As the fellows starting dying off in droves, they ran out of places to discreetly keep the bodies till mid-morning. Finally the head administrative nurse who really ran the whole hospital at night, settled on this arrangement: When patients expired, he would call the mortuaries, (and the mortuaries, overwhelmed with work, were also running 24/7), and the mortuary would go ahead and send their graveyard shift driver over to get the body. Given how harried the nurses and administrators and chaplains were, it was decided that the keys to the back gate would be given to us in the lobby. The body of the expired person, covered only in a white sheet, would simply be rolled into the hallway directly across from my desk. When the mortuary workers arrived, I’d open the gates for them, and then they’d haul the body away, after which I’d re-lock the back gates.
It must also be noted that, other than Manhattan, downtown San Francisco was the must densely-populated place in North America. The pace and crowding of this new reality was beginning to disorient me; and I was no-doubt, subconsciously home-sick for the only area of the world I’d ever lived in for thirty straight years, Southern California. (While I could name nothing I particularly missed about it, my doctors believe that the change was a very radical one and, even if a seemingly positive change, one that could fully disoriented an already-compromised nervous system; and anyone who’s read this far is already quite aware of how compromised my nervous system generally is.)
Now several factors were pressing in on me at once, and these things would conspire to utterly shatter every ounce of confidence I might have had left after a very shaky life. Firstly there was the cold, and additionally there was the population density; furthermore there was sleep deprivation combined with maddening levels of noise from the apartment above me. And, while I was completely drained from all of this, there was a woman now complaining that sex once a day was okay, but that she really preferred going twice a day. And once I wore myself out in her presence, there was a stream of dead bodies and hearses and emaciated dying men continually before my eyes. It must also be noted that eighty percent or so of the men never had any visitors, and so I had to watch them dying alone with not a single family member ever coming once, not even to say goodbye. It was the most disillusioning thing I’d ever personally witnessed about humanity; so that my soul was crushed by all of these betrayed people.
It must be noted that I could eventually come to some acceptance of the possibility that I might eventually betray my own third family, and I could accept that they might one day decide I was not worth the heroic effort it took to deal with me, because, as I note in my family biographies, our relations were unimaginably frigid and distant, and we often left people who observed us with an impression of profoundly-strained and awkwardly-labored artificiality. My dad was already on his third marriage. The first two families, both the mothers and the daughters, fled without leaving me even a forwarding address. And so while there was no dream of any of my particular families being there for me, and no dream that I would consider being there them, I could not accept that all these “normal” families were abandoning their sons.
There was no way everyone in the hospital came from multiple broken homes and decades of battles with rotating step-parents, as I had. Most of these fellows, (and the nurses assured me of this), came from regular families that were still intact. These were once seemingly-loving families that were not in a state of perpetual strangeness like my third family; (and the thing got so obviously fraudulent with my third family that the others in my family would occasionally burst out with such cringeworthy statements as; “Yes, we are a family. We are together, and we are celebrating Christmas, because we’re family, and that’s what families do;” but then later that same evening confess, “We’re not a real family. We look like phonies to you. Well, anyway, you’re not a family person.”)
But at Garden Sullivan the majority of patients were from regular families, but they left this world with their whole families simply cutting off all contact. (True, cutting off all contact happened in my family, but we were facing my mental illness, fights over estates, sibling rivalry, and every other nasty thing imaginable; and there was no way such things would have been typical for the families of all these men at Garden Sullivan.) And so I concluded, alas, that Americans are simply, on the whole, an untrustworthy, cold and selfish lot. And so, at last, one fine day, the world went black for me, and I lost my mind completely.
In defense of our fair country, I now must admit that back then people still worried that AIDS could be contracted incidentally, like the cold virus can; and, furthermore, homosexuality was far, far more controversial back then, than it is now; and so it might be that the “normal” families were the ones than panicked the most. After all, a closeted son could be tolerated, but once that sone was dying of AIDS, it was hard to save face before a homophobic world. And so, perhaps, I should have been more merciful in my outlook toward the great institution of the American Family, but alas, I was not.
Shortly before I went off the deep end and ended up at the acute psychiatric ward at Saint Francis Hospital, I recall the graveyard shift hospital manager at Garden Sullivan coming down to sit in my office for a while. As we sat staring, exhausted and drained, he glanced over at the gurney now occupied by a corpse covered with a white sheet and said, “Well, I just called the mortuary and told them to come get the body of this person who might as well have never even existed. His family never came by once. What a horrible country this is. I am ashamed of the human race.”
By the time I was admitted into the hospital, I had lost my circadian rhythm and was simply unable to relax, rest or sleep at any time, day or night. I was again put on state disability. As my condition was deteriorating, and no improvement was in sight, I was kicked out of the hospital as simply incurable. And I asked them, “What happens if I die out there? I can’t even figure out what the stoplights mean anymore because I’m so disoriented.” And they replied, “We’ll see, won’t we?”
And so I was simply dumped onto the sidewalk in the middle of whirling and chaotic downtown San Francisco, having to shiveringly trudge back to my little apartment with crashing bass drums waking me up every morning. My girlfriend was pissed at me and wanted to begin having sex continually again, but I was far, far too shaken up to feel sexually aroused; and so she replaced me with a liquor store clerk who worked at the intersection of Geary and Leavenworth. The romantic pressure caused me to cut the relationship off at one point. My doctors at the HMO all but ordered me to get out of that relationship until I could somehow recover from my anxiety disorder, which, sadly, I never really did.
My dad and my third mother did actually show up, briefly, at my apartment, but reached the conclusion that I probably should not come back to Southern California as there was probably nothing there for me. After that, they made a point, as they crisscrossed the State to visit everyone they knew, of avoiding visiting me, even if they actually drove down Van Ness to get to the 101 North. There had not yet been time to make new friends in the City, and many of my conservative Southern California friends abandoned me as well after hearing too much about the disasters I’d gone through. And so there I was, alone in a noisy apartment, now with no family, no one to marry, and nowhere to work.
By a series of extremely unlikely incidents, I was enabled, through much mercy on the part of total strangers, to get back to work, to get back to the poetry world, and to again fall in love and even live with a woman, (things which I had not expected to get a second chance at, given how many times I’d been out to the edge of the world).
Full Circle With Rodney King
While the L.A. Rodney King riots were going on, I was at my guard desk at 111 Maiden Lane at Kearny Street listening to the events unfold on my small transistor radio, which I’d probably be too deaf to listen to now. But suddenly the announcers were saying that echo riots were starting in other cities, including Oakland. Then later it was announced that thousands of people were walking across the Oakland bridge to march on downtown San Francisco.
As I got up to do one of my hourly perimeter checks of our building, I noticed that the police had put up large metal barricades about eight feet long and three feet high. I guessed from this that the planned route of the march was to come down the Kearny Street side of our building. There had been many marches down Kearny Street, so I thought almost nothing of it, only that I’d like to stand outside the building and watch the march go by, as I often did in such situations.
Sure enough, within an hour the crowds of people protesting the violence against Rodney King were indeed marching in a massive throng down Kearny Street. I watched the masses go by for a bit, then became bored with it and decided to go back to my desk. Some moments later I heard some shouting and chaotic hollering back and forth. Suddenly a giant crashing sound could be heard. It turned out to that the march had halted at Maiden Lane and the protesters had decided to to toss the barricades through the large plate glass windows of our building. Suddenly building alarms were going off all along the street. I came outside to see that the thing had degenerated into a full-on looting spree, with looters coming in and out of every store, scooping up countless thousands of dollars of the designer items that were sold all along Maiden Lane.
Although no one was attacking me, I realized I had to get out of there. I went to my desk phone to call for help. And it had turned out that when I called my girlfriend, she had already gotten a call from one of our poetry promoters, the late Bob White, who was already on his way to drive me out of the rioting and looting that was consuming downtown. He and my girlfriend were there within minutes and picked me up and drove me out of the tumult. The mayor at the time, declared a limited form of martial-law-type curfew for a few days until things returned to normal. In time, the memory of the L.A. riots and their echo riots in San Francisco had all but faded from my mind.
Perhaps a decade later, as I was sitting at my guard desk at KMEL enjoying a rather normal day, suddenly an entourage came to my desk to sign in before going up stairs to be interviewed. The leader of the entourage looked familiar, and I was certain it really was someone famous, but I couldn’t put my finger on who it might be. As he signed in I said, “I have to call up to the broadcasting booth to let them know who’s here for them. Who shall I tell them is waiting for access?”
The man, who seemed a bit shaken, upon closer inspection, as though he had some kind of mild PTSD, tilted his head and squinted his eyes a bit and said, “Rodney King. Tell them Rodney King is here. I’m here to promote my new album.”
My James Brown Panic Story
I was half in a daze, sitting at the Clear Channel building at 340 Townsend, in San Francisco, (The most insane job of my life), on a sunny late afternoon. It was like a hallucination. A car pulled up across the street, and out stepped three people: a woman who looked like a kind of African-American Marylin Monroe, and a tall, muscular man in a tuxedo-like outfit who turned out to be a bodyguard, and, quite obviously, James Brown, with his hair and every other detail looking more like a photograph than a real person.
I stood stunned and just stared as they came to the front door of the station. As usual, management at the radio station had again failed to warn me a VIP guest was coming, so, of course, no one was ready, least of all me. I rushed to the door and didn’t even bother to ask them to sign in but just led them toward the elevator. But suddenly James Brown stopped.
“Okay, the elevator’s here, let’s go,” I said, rather redundantly. But there was a pause. James Brown looked around and said, “Where’s the stairway?” “No, no,” I replied. “We can’t take the stairway because the studios are five floors up.” “But you don’t understand,” the big guy in the tuxedo said, “Mr. Brown don’t like elevators.” There was an awkward silence. The four of us stared at each other.
Then it dawned on me, “Oh, he’s phobic of elevators! Oh, I get it.” James Brown nodded. “Here’s the problem,” I explained. “The stairways are heavily armed, if we try to go up them, the cops will show up with guns drawn, because they can’t risk anyone sneaking in here that way. They’re only emergency exits. That’s it.” The big man said, “Well, then, he ain’t going up then.”
Finally they all trusted me when I said, "Look, I'm the one who locks and unlocks this elevator all day and night. I've been doing it for years. And the odds of the elevator getting stuck are less than one-in-a-thousand. It maybe sticks a few times a year, at most; and I've been here for years, so I know. So, don't worry. You won't get trapped in there. The odds are 99.99% against that."
At last James Brown nodded in agreement, and I unlocked the elevator controls and sent our illustrious visitors to the studios above. The doors to the elevator closed, and before the elevator got two feet off the ground the alarms went off, the elevator stopped and the doors froze shut. “Oh my God,” I shouted to myself, “The Godfather of Soul is stuck in my elevator and it’s my fault!”
The situation drove me almost mad, so, even though guards had been fired for doing this, (as we were supposed to wait for the fire department or elevator company to come, which could take forty-minutes on a bad day), I was not going to stand for such an embarrassment. So I grabbed a screwdriver and hammer and I pounded the screwdriver between the stuck doors, and twisted till I got them a half-inch open. Then I wedged my fingers in there and pulled with all my strength, but alas, I could only get it another two inches open. And in there, you could see James Brown staring on in horror, till he suddenly gained presence of mind and said to the big body guard, “Help that man!”
And the big body guard in the tuxedo-like suit began pulling on the door-sides like I was. Our combined strength caused the doors to suddenly burst open, and out stepped James Brown and his female companion and his body guard, terribly relieved and thankful not to be trapped.
I managed to work with the controls until I got the elevator reset so that it would not malfunction again for some time. (Like I said, once I did a good reset, it might be thousands of uses later before the doors became stuck again.) Somehow the rapidity of the rescue, and his obviously having survived the elevator jamming without a scratch, seemed to give him a new confidence about elevators. And this time, with perfect calm and dignity, James Brown willingly went right back in and we successfully sent him to the upper-floor studios.
For the next couple of days I had some kind of post-traumatic stress and just kept walking around, perspiring, saying, “Oh my God. Oh my God! I can’t believe this! How could this happen?” And I just kept saying that till a few days later the panic started to wear off, and finally I could laugh at the incident, but only for a moment, then I’d get nervous again and try to think of something else. At this moment, as I type this story, I notice my fingers are sweating. That was just one of the most awkward things ever.
J.D. Dupri And My Flight From The Rap World
There are turning points in every crazy career in which, ideally, the person involved realizes when it’s time to get out with one’s sanity and body intact. That realization came to me when the DJs at our radio station warned me that a famous rap producer was coming to give an interview, and that people were crazy over him, and that I should be extra careful that day.
As the security guard manager for the Clear Channel Building, I thought I had seen it all, because we’d had stalkers, imposters, vandals, crank callers, medical emergencies and arrests. But nothing prepared me for the appearance of this DJ-producer. Of course he did his own music, and was well sought after for that, but it was his producing skills that drove everyone crazy.
While fans of musicians can be driven insane with an obsession over a star they admire, even more insane is the aspiring musician or lyricist who becomes obsessed over a certain producer or promoter whom they believe could hold the magical key to their dreams of fame and riches. This means that when such producers show up, there are often crowds of not just fans, but hungry artists starving for a chance to finally be seen and heard. They more desperate an artist becomes, the more likely they are to pin their hopes on a single record they are making or a single book they are writing, and sometimes they are also pinning all their hopes on a single meeting with a certain promoter, producer or agent that can finally save them from their long exile in the artistic wilderness.
Now we’d often had celebrities come, and there would often be one or two crazy fans attempting anything to get by me and get access to their beloved idols. But when J.D. Dupri came, the entire station, including all the doors and windows and garages, were surrounded by rappers-in-waiting who’d heard that this big producer was coming. They all felt they just had to get at him, to slip a demo CD into the lionized producer’s hands. Luckily, the crowd had just started to gather by the time we got him out of his limousine and safely into the radio station.
But as his live interview proceeded upstairs, downstairs a storm cloud of even more cult-like people in even more agitated states seemed to be gathering. The expressions on their faces looked different than that of the average lunatic fan. And because I was also the manager over the other guards, and dealt with many building issues besides security, and because management had full faith in me, I had a right to give emergency orders. And so I decided, for everyone’s safety, it was time to act.
Fortunately, J.D. Dupri’s entourage included a big, tall, strong, young man who was clearly and obviously in charge of security for this magnate who had to live with a disturbing set of fans. I approached him and said, “Could I have a word with you?”
I took him downstairs and said, “Look at this,” (and he looked at all the people surrounding every entrance and exit to the building), and I added, “Now I’m getting scared.” He bent over and said to me, “Me too.” And so I told him my plan for making almost certain none of these people got near J.D. Dupri.
My plan was for the body guard, and another member of the entourage who felt that he could fight if he had to, and me, to arrange an end run maneuver. The three of us would rush out to the limousine, two of us covering for the body-guard. The body-guard would then hop in, under our protection, and rush the limousine around to the back garage gate. I would make up some excuse why folks needed to clear away from the garage gate, and at just the right second, the limousine would speed into our garage, which was built like a fortress, and I’d just as quickly shut the gates behind the limousine as it dashed for safety.
The plan came off perfectly, and the whole entourage was definitely relieved. You could see the stress just slip off of their faces as they began to relax and not worry about how the heck they were to get out of there safely.
After his interview, which went extremely well, was done, J.D. Dupri and his people came down and were directed to the limousine which was now in the protected garage. From the outside, the zombie like believers were staring on and shouting things. Me and the body-guard explained the plan to J.D. Dupri, and he immediately liked it and got into the car amid a chorus of desperate calls from the throng of needy hip hop artists-in-waiting behind the garage gate. He was very happy now not to be exposed to them close-up.
Again, I gave a signal, and the body guard, just as the gate slipped open, sped madly out of there with tires screeching. I ran after the car a short ways to make sure no one tried to grab onto it and risk injuring themselves. After the car was at a safe distance away, I realized, “This is crazy. I need to get out of this business in a few months. This kind of life is just not sustainable.”
The zombie crowds outside all looked at me like I was a horrible traitor, and they protested not getting a chance to meet with their favorite producer. I shook my head and said, “Sorry folks, but I’ve got to get back inside.”
Some weeks later, many of the DJs I’d been working with doing on-air projects were transferred or let go to make way for new talent. The chemistry between me and the new on-air folks did not quite click. It was really the perfect time, after four years of hard labor, so to speak, to protect my own safety and sanity and to get away from the pressures of the radio world for a while. There just had been too many crazy incidents, and I felt that I was tempting fate to stay on; and simultaneously, my own on-air segments just didn’t seem to fit the style of the new on-air staff. And so I finally turned in my resignation and was happy to walk away from that industry in one piece.
The INS Incident
So I was guarding one of the smaller satellite mostly-Federal buildings in San Francisco, and, as bad luck would have it, the Immigration and Naturalization Service had temporarily been located there. As you could imagine, there were many unhappy scenes when people were being denied citizenship or residency or work permits. It was a scary place for an unarmed guard to be.
At one point things got so bad with one case, the case of a Chinese national, (perhaps originally from Taiwan), that he became desperate. We had guards posted at every entrance, but somehow, under some pretext, he’d gotten by one of the other guards and was free to roam the building.
When he got down a hallway on the first floor, right across from the interior doors of the INS, he began shouting that he had a bomb, and indeed he had some kind of baggage with him that easily could have contained a mid-sized explosive device. At last someone in the building came to my desk and reported this. My only choice was to call the Federal Protective Services. They showed up within five minutes.
The Federal Police checked in with me first to get an update on the situation, and I told them that apparently other employees in the building were unable to talk the man down from his hysterical state and that he was becoming louder and more erratic. We were out of ideas as to how to diffuse the situation.
I followed the police to the entry area of the hallway and pointed to the suspect. The suspect appeared to hold up his pack or bag and again reiterated that he would detonate the thing, blowing himself up and damaging the building, perhaps harming other people in the process. The cops crouched down like cats and pulled out their service revolvers, each approaching from a slightly different angle. When they got close enough, they told him that if he did not surrender they’d have to shoot him.
As it turned out the standoff ended with the man admitting he had no weapons at all inside his pack and that he had no way of hurting anyone or damaging the property. So they handcuffed him and hauled him away past my desk. He looked back at me, almost grinning mischievously. This was before 9/11 and so the law was much more forgiving about such irregular behavior. The INS did eventually give his case some kind of hearing, but I never found out what became of him. Perhaps he is walking around Chinatown today, having lunch in a Taiwanese restaurant.
He Was Not An Imposter
At KMEL we’d had a lot of impostors coming in and actually getting away with getting into the broadcast booth with the DJs by claiming to be various celebrities. The station was getting tired of this and so they permanently locked the front door and the elevator and left us with strict rules not to let anyone in or up unless they were on a list a pre-approved guests; and even then we had to call to the broadcast booth and get approval once the person arrived and announced themselves. On more than one occasion I had to go upstairs to the broadcasting area and tell crazy imposters who had snuck in through the back way, or had followed someone else in while the guards were on break, that they had to leave or we would call the police. We were just all burnt out on this happening over and over again.
One Saturday afternoon I was extremely burnt out from the high-pressure nature of this job and was finally getting a chance to chill out at my desk and listen to some music when someone began aggressively pulling on the front door, making a banging sound each time they did it. The person appeared to be the typically-underdressed forty-year-old delusional. He obviously had no entourage and didn’t even seem to have a car. It was unlikely he was a guest DJ because he had no equipment and no stacks of music CDs or vinyl with him. The broadcast booth had left no names for that day, indicating that no guests were expected; and they had gone so far as to tell us to please stop bothering them with losers who thought they were entitled, due to some delusions-of-grandeur pretext, to go up and visit what were some of the highest-paid DJs in all of the radio industry.
The guy at the front door, who kept producing a banging sound by yanking the front door extremely hard, looked like the typically-impatient weirdo who was not only nuts, but also in a hurry to get upstairs to assume some place of imaginary stardom. I approached the door, but didn’t open it because the guy only had a white tee-shirt on and some old-looking jeans, and he was sporting some kind of frumpy-looking cap which made him seem rather poorer and more out-of-sorts than your usual whack job trying to get into the station under some guise or the other.
I told the guy to go away, but he kept shouting, “Let me in! Let me in! I’m late! I’m supposed to be on the air!” And I replied, “Right! Everyone says that, but there’s no one on the guest list today, so I’m not letting you in here.” Then he shouted again, “Open the door, will you! I’m already late for my show!”
Exasperated, I cracked the door open, still feeling somewhat afraid of this aggressive person and not really knowing what would happen if I risked even letting him in the front lobby. And I said, “Okay! What is it?” And he said, “Why won’t you let me in man? Don’t you know who I am?” I began to laugh at the persistence of this seemingly bankrupt-looking nobody alone at my front door, and said, “We get every star in the R & B music business in here, and I don’t recognize you. Who are you claiming to be? Don’t you know how many crazies we have to deal with here?” “But,” he protested, “I’m M. C. Hammer, man. I swear!”
“Alright!” I said, “since you insist on putting me through this, get in here and I’ll show you.” So he walked up to my desk and I got on the phone and called up to the studio: “Hey, guys, sorry to bother you. I know you’re sick of these calls. Sorry guys, but there’s some lunatic out here claiming to be M. C. Hammer, if you can believe that. He’s like twenty years too late, so the story is weirder than usual, but what can I say?”
The DJs began conferring with each other and finally the senior DJ in charge up there came to the phone and said, “Oh, I’m sorry, guy, we forgot to tell you. Yeah, that really is M. C. Hammer. He’s living in the Bay Area now and so we’re going to have him do a weekend guest spot for the next several months. Dude, sorry we didn’t get the memo to you. It’s all good. Let him on up.”
“See? Told you so!” said M. C. Hammer. I just smiled and unlocked the elevator so he could get to the broadcasting booth and do his show. I would have been more surprised, but that’s just the way things went at the Clear Channel Building back in those days.
Full Circle With Lionel Ritche
My 3rd mother loved Lionel Richie, and I, as a kind of nightclub dance addict was also pretty addicted to his music. As a disco-era guy walking around with platform heels, polyester pants, long hair and a gold chain around my neck, I noticed nothing got the ladies more excited to hit the dance floor than when “Dance All Night,” “Brick House,” or “Lady, You Bring Me Up When I’m Down,” came on.
And so, on any given night, if I was totally striking out, I’d hang back and wait for a pumping Lionel Richie song to come on. And sure enough, one of the out-of-my-league ladies would give me a break and let me dance with her, so that, at last, the night would not be written off as a total failure. And it goes without saying that all his slow-dance songs were the best for make-out sessions in my white ’68 Chevy Malibu or my dad’s corporate Oldsmobile, (or sometimes my brother’s red ’67 Ford Mustang, and on even rarer occasions, my 3rd mother’s E-Type Jaguar.) This man’s music was peppering my personal life, (not to mention the fact that his easy listening work was always being streamed through our workplace muzak speakers and our car radios). And hence, in my life, this person I’d never even seen on a concert stage, except on television, loomed large in my world. (Ironically, his song “Sail On” was even the anthem song that I’d play to myself in my head when I was ending up back at the psychiatrist’s office or the emergency room. So, by then, the man was practically a mythic figure to me.)
Two decades later it so happened that Clear Channel was wanting to consolidate as many of it’s San Francisco radio stations into one building as possible, the building I was guarding. This meant that in addition to getting death threats on the phone all day from disgruntled rappers who could not get their music on the air, (and I got so many death threats at the guard desk that the building supervisor told me not to even log them into our daily security reports anymore), we most-confusingly, had easy-listening and oldies musicians coming in to do interviews at K101. This new onslaught of easy listening and oldies acts, combined with total gangster rap maniacs and their brutal entourages made for a simply confusing life.
One day, after a long day of being insulted and threatened and mocked by assorted rappers who were charging in and out of the building and refusing to sign in, a small or mid-sized family car of some nondescript sort pulled up and three gentlemen got out. They were dressed in Khakis or nicely-pressed jeans, seemed to be in their late-forties, and looked like dads who might be on their way to pick up their sons from soccer practice. They joked around easily and gently padded their way to the front door. I figured they were there to pick up their kids, because many teenagers worked as unpaid interns for school credit, college credit, or just to get trained in the radio business. I buzzed them in without even approaching the door, because they looked so harmless.
The leader of the three came up to my desk as I was just finishing some paperwork. Towering above me was Lionel Richie, quite unmistakably. Unlike the other celebrities, he didn’t appear to have an ounce of ego in him, but was as gentle and unassuming as any person I’d met. He radiated kindness and care.
I looked up and said, “You know, my stepmother thinks the world of your music. Our household wouldn’t have been the same without you.”
The three men laughed in a very subdued way, and then Lionel Richie grinned at me and said, “Now son, you go tell your mother she has very good taste in music.” We all smiled and had another good chuckle; and after that, I found myself much more relaxed. For once the day was ending up peacefully.
The Geneva Building
After fleeing Transamerica and vowing never to work a “real job” again, I took my first night-watchman job. I had gotten my California State guard card and signed on at Universal Protection Service in Orange County.
The first post they gave me was at an infamous building where some disgruntled person had gone nuts and shot a lot of people some months ago, prompting them to put a security guard on every single floor of the high-rise office building. it was 1988. I started using the empty middle-of-the-night hours of my shift to read novels and write poetry and do yoga. The yoga routine was started to try to help my fibromyalgia condition, which, after a short period of improvement, was getting worse; and again I could hardly walk. (It was pure luck that I got this assignment, because the entire floor was only about three-hundred feet around, so the patrols were doable; and, since each floor had a guard, I didn’t have to patrol anything more than the floor I was already on.) After being fired from, or being forced out of, so many jobs, I saw no option but to take a late-night shift just to escape office politics, a game I almost always seemed to lose at.
(Looking back I now realize there were good reasons, in many cases, for me to fare badly in office politics, the first reason being that “real worlders” can always sense when they have a rebel on their hands who is only there for the money, but otherwise despises the entire enterprise in question. So, it is not merely pettiness that causes conformists to chase off misfits, but an honest assessment of the doubtfulness of such unlikely marriages as black sheep and huge corporations. Throughout my life I have vacillated between, and the reader will eventually see my vacillation, condemning well-adjusted workers for not accepting me and later absolving them for simply not wanting to work beside a person who was obviously experiencing their beloved work environment as a living Hell. And more than one boss had fired me, saying, “You have to believe us, we’re not just letting you go for our own advantage. We’re sick of watching you suffer.” So then the questions get turned back upon myself: What the heck was I doing there in the first place? How had I been so craven as to let family rejection and peer pressure intimidate me into abandoning everything I loved in order to “prove my worthiness” by sacrificing my life in environments that everyone knew were a horrible fit for me? In any case, I finally “woke up and smelled the coffee” and abandoned the day-world altogether in order to find some refuge among the alienated zombies working, or not working, until dawn.)
Having never worked that shift before, I found myself falling asleep at around 7AM, just when “real” workers started coming in to work. At that time they were not very harsh with late-night guards who fell asleep. And our supervisor would even come in and assume our posts so we could take naps. They did gently pressure me into drinking coffee so that I’d be awake more often, (and I had never liked coffee before this time). I’d wake up with a steaming cup of coffee on my desk and understand that I was expected to drink it. And so, finally, at twenty-eight years of age, I would become a coffee addict just like most of humanity in the Western World.
One morning my eyes opened up and, standing tall over my low desk was a notorious congressperson whom I’d always despised. He was the famously right-wing William Dannemeyer. Although I had always thought I’d chew the man out if I ever saw him, suddenly it occurred to me not to hate him, and I said, “You’re our Congressman, aren’t you?” And he said, very politely, and with a surprising amount of warmth, “Yes, I am, son.” I replied, “Well, I’m sorry, sir, but the building management is strict about guests, and (presuming I was awake to see them), I’m required to sign in every person no matter how well known they are.” He again smiled, but in a playful and charming way, and picked up the pen and clipboard, and replied, “Why I’d be happy to sign in.” And, instead of the kind of scribbled, nearly-illegible chicken scratch that passed for a signature for most people, he largely wrote in round, full letters, “William Dannemeyer.” It was the most beautiful and clear signature I’d ever seen.
Then he held out his hand to shake mine. I shook it. Then, he concluded, as he went into to see the corporate President or Vice President, or some other dignitary, “You’re a fine young man and an excellent citizen. It was a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
There was a time when being a computer programmer in the Bay Area was truly a gold mine. The kind of wealth computer programmers had back then was unparalleled, although, in all fairness, none of them thought of themselves as wealthy. We ever admits to being rich anyway?
But let me the lay the situation out for you a bit better: Right now the rent in Santa Clara County, San Mateo County or San Francisco County, (the greater Silicon Valley area), is so expensive that even if one were earning a hundred thousand dollars a year, one would struggle to rent a three bedroom apartment for one’s self, one’s spouse and one’s kids. Houses are almost beyond reach, except for couples where both people are working and earning over $110,000; and, truth be told, I know of couples struggling to get by on $300,000. I’m actually saying there are neighborhoods I used to live in, or had the option to live in, in which there are couples earning over a quarter of a million per year, and on up to a third of a million per year, who, after taxes, mortgage, child care and vehicle care, (not to mention health care), are actually having to budget tightly.
To make matters worse for programmers, at this point, there are hundreds of thousands of people flooding in to Northern California from all over the world who have multiple Master’s degrees and who will work for less-than-half the price that a typically-seasoned American programmer believes he is worth; and these new programmers will be happy to sleep several people to a room and will never even dream of anything like privacy, retirement funds, eight-hour days, or anything that us elders feel we’re entitled to.
So as the cost of living space has soared, the absolute disposability of programmers has simply erased the glory-days reality of the first dot-com bubble. Before that bubble burst, it was not unusual for a programmer to make up to $100,000 at a time when rent might only be $1,100 per month. The result was that the programmer literally had money to burn. It was an amazing time to be a low-income, half-starving poet / security guard. Today, even my very closest of friends would struggle to perhaps take me out to dinner once a month, and very few can still do that, if any. And, even under these conditions, being any kind of a parasite is a dicey matter. Before, if it was widely-known that if a person was a poet, working at a minimum wage job, or something similar to that, he or she could never afford to socialize. And so each time they were asked out to a meal with a non-poet friend, the invitation came with a, “It’s on me. Don’t worry.”
Back then $100 was a considerable amount of money. For reference, my basement studios were only about $400 per month in downtown San Francisco. But the programmers were swimming in money, and not just in terms of gross earnings, but in terms of really disposable party money. Hence, they could easily afford to spend a quarter of my monthly rent, per week, just socializing in bars and restaurants.
It was under this most interesting set of circumstances that I got to know a programmer named Cimarron. He was a few years younger than me, but already able to freelance, go in and out of jobs, set up labs at home and attempt exotic IT experiments, and date women, and travel. The world was his oyster. And each night, after he was done with his work, being the philosophical sort, he’d stop by my desk at the New Montgomery street building I was working in and chat about every topic under the sun. Eventually he said, “I know the situation, your being just being a front-desk guy and all. So, don’t worry about that. Once or twice a week we’ll just go out and have some Italian food and drink some wine. You deserve a break.”
We had great times together; and sometimes he’d forget to go home, just chatting with me at my desk till it was time for me to lock up the building, after which we’d both just saunter on out to the nearest pub for some beer and grub, still philosophizing the whole while. (And that’s a big deal now, because with the current economic pressures, most everyone’s too scared of losing their social standing, and too, very afraid of aging and losing their chance to make a mark on the world; and so things have gotten a bit too serious for folks to be chatty. And too, they’re eyeing their Facebook feed and afraid they’ll miss their big romantic, vocational or artistic break if they let themselves go and just talk up a storm. So, the conversations of the type he and I used to have are quite rare for me now; and it doesn’t help that some of the ones who were free of romantic, artistic or vocational delusions happened also to die young and are therefore no longer resources for manic ramblings at all hours.)
One fine night, just as I was about to lock up, the alarm went off. Most of the buildings I guarded had very old fire alarms. The new technologies were coming in, but were rather buggy, and the old systems were starting to become faulty due to age; so it was the golden age of continual false fire alarms. As this one went off, I said to Cimarron, “Now I have to patrol the whole building once, just so I can say on my report that I confirmed everything was clear, then I’ll reset the thing and we’ll go to dinner.” Well, we never did make it to dinner that night.
As Cimarron and I were patrolling the floors, I happened to notice a big puff of charcoal-colored smoke burst out of an air conditioning vent. As a lifelong guard, I knew that white smoke was a concern, but black smoke coming out of a vent — that meant that behind the doors of that hallway, a raging inferno was going on and the building was about to become a disaster scene. Me and Cimarron looked up at that puff of black smoke, and I said, “Do you know what that means?” He said, “No, what does that mean?” And I said, “This building is going up in flames now!” And I ran up to the floor above me, at some risk to my life, since the flames could burst through the walls at any moment and cut us off. Cimarron followed, still not believing me, but deciding to follow this adventure wherever it went.
I was aware that there were offices above that people were still working in, and so I screamed throughout the building that everyone had to get out. By time time the last of us were making our way down the stairs, the flames had already scoured the carpets and walls and were blasting out the floor-to-ceiling glass windows that covered the building. And as the flames burst out of the side of the building and people were screaming, the fire trucks were already arriving. By the time I ventured out the front door, (and I was the last one out, having made as sure as I could that everyone had escaped), I had to cover my head with my guard jacket and duck as shards of burnt and breaking glass fell like rain all around me. It was a perfect metaphor for my life and times.
Ma & Pa Security
When I had made my debut in the San Francisco working world, I had been lucky enough to get to work for Corporate Security Services, one of the most high-end security contractors in the city at the time. It helped that I had a Bachelor’s degree, as this agency specialized in sophisticated security situations where a solid degree of literacy and articulateness would be required. While many buildings hired security contractors merely to cover themselves with regards to insurance regulations and municipal laws, some building owners wanted someone who could really communicate, dress well and project an educated air.
Not to insult my own co-professionals in my former field, but some truth-telling has got to go on here. No young child says to him mom or dad, “When I grow up, I want to be one of those weird, creepy guys in a black polyester suits who stands out in front of CVS looking like a lost soul.” No, they want to be firemen or policemen or soldiers. It’s usually after they fail the physical exam, or the psychiatric exam, or the extensive background check, (or, worse yet, are booted out of boot camp or training school for being too weak, too crazy, or just plain incompetent), that they come, like homeless zombies, into the branch offices of some security contractor.
There are some notable exceptions: Sometimes young students will take a graveyard shift to earn some pocket change and get some paid studying time. And then there are the applicants who legitimately completed a military, law-enforcement or fire-fighting career and are just supplementing their retirement fund or social security check with a little minimum-wage gig. And also, it must be mentioned, that there are many people who have just arrived in the United States, usually by the good graces of a family member who already lived here, and who are looking to establish a work record here. They need an easy win, some job that will require almost nothing of them in return for a paperwork trail showing they made use of their green card. (Hopefully this will cover the exceptions well enough that I may be permitted to get back to the main rules, rules which happened to most specifically apply to me.)
When I arrived in San Francisco, I was not yet fully crazy, but I was already notably crippled. The full scope of the career failures I’d had by then will, I hope, be more extensively elucidated in future volumes. The number of attempted careers at which I’d failed might, if I can ever list them all, turn out to be a hundred, or more. But I had two things going for me: several months of successful security guard work in Orange County, regarding which I was already told I would receive a good reference, and real writing and speaking skills, a thing Corporate Security Services assiduously tested for. I was in the “sweet spot” for this agency, that is, I was just crippled and incompetent enough to want to be a guard, but literate and articulate enough to pass the tests they gave. And, although my work record was a crazy-quilt of flops and rejections and humiliations, still, my last employer of record regarded me as a success, and that last employer was specifically a security guard company. Given the labor shortage in San Francisco at the time, and given how many guards could not pass the pre-employment testing this agency required, there was virtually no option but to hire me. (At least I had no criminal record and no record of drug use or alcoholism, and additionally, I didn’t have long hair, or brightly-colored hair, nor any tattoos or piercings, nor any odd beard or sideburns or quirky mustache.) In short, while being a maniac-in-waiting, I appeared, “on paper,” like a perfect square with some English skills. That would be enough for this agency to contract out my services and overcharge those clients for my questionable presence.
However, for reasons explained extensively in the Garden Sullivan story earlier in this book, I had a multi-part tragedy strike which caused not only the loss of my Corporate Security Services job, but also the loss of what was to be a person I was going to ask to marry me. Complicating matters, I was, by then, quite homesick, but alas, my family had tired of welcoming their floundering son back to his old bedroom and all but disinvited me back to Southern California, making it obvious that five-hundred-miles-away was exactly where they wanted me. After a most humiliating stay in the psychiatric hospital, and after being released as incurable, I was again forced onto short-term State Disability. However, again, that few months of insurance would run out, and, just like in the days when I first got fibromyalgia, I’d find myself tossed into the world with a bad recent work reference and almost no emotional or physical resources to rely upon. In short, I was shark bait, dust, utterly screwed and without any defense.
I had one option, a well-known one that became obvious after a few months of living in San Francisco while working in the security guard industry. There was an absolute bottom to the employment world that was far deeper than the typical unionized security shops most Bay Area guards worked out of. It was the world of almost-unregulated, verging-on-criminal, non-union shops that were known as “Ma & Pa” outfits. At that time, before 9/11 brought much fraudulent pomposity and fake training to the guard world, any nearly-bankrupt person who could rent a single-wide mobile home trailer and put it on a temporarily-vacant lot, was as good as in-business. The law, strictly-speaking, demanded that guards have no criminal record, be tested for drugs, have an extensive background check performed, and otherwise be truly fit to be the last line of defense for a hundred-million-dollar office building or ten-million-dollar plot of land. But here’s how Ma & Pa shops really ran:
Back then the State entrusted guard agencies with testing the guards to make sure they understood the minimum State regulations regarding officers. If a union house were involved, union officers would make sure the private guard agency didn’t cheat and would report the guard agency to the union if it caught the agency cheating. This meant that the guard applying for a job, if he was to pass the State test administered by the guard agency, would have to be able to watch a short film and really understand the contents of that film, then read a short booklet and really understand the contents of that booklet, then truly pass the test. This put unionized guard companies at a deep disadvantage, since they often had to hire something like a semi-real worker. And this inevitably meant they could not low-ball their quotes to prospective property managers. Sleazy property managers looking for a guard agency at the lowest possible price, cared nothing for ethics. They merely needed to claim that they believed they had hired a real security company. That’s where your Ma & Pa agency came in.
Any husband and wife team could rent that single-wide mobile home and run a help-wanted ad. If the union even tried to come sniffing around, the business could just as easily be closed that day and the single-wide sent back to whomever it was rented from. You could never unionize a Ma & Pa shop, since their whole stock-and-trade was cheating and cutting corners. If the union took that away from them, they simply vanished into thin air. Since the husband and wife, with one friend, could incorporate, the corporation simply went bankrupt and the husband and wife retained perfect credit, credit they could use to reopen under another name in another trailer on another vacant lot.
The worst losers on earth knew they would only be accepted at Ma & Pa agencies, and the Ma & Pa agencies knew that no unionized guard of any sophistication would ever stoop to work with them. The State, in order to help the Ma & Pa outfits along, delayed processing the background checks of these bottom-feeding guards. The cycle ran like this: Guards who were on drugs and had criminal backgrounds would go in to the Ma & Pa agency which would administer the State guard test. Since no union folks were around to watch, the Ma & Pa company would simply correct all the wrong answers the officer gave and send the test in as if the guard had really completed it. (Often these guards could not read, and struggled, even if born in the United States, to form coherent sentences.) The State would issue the guard card first, (on a so-called provisional basis), and then save the background check on the guard for later, six months later.
Once that State background check was performed, the guard’s license was canceled, since, after all, the officer was a felon and thereby forbidden to work in the guard industry, by law. The Ma & Pa agency, after collecting six months’ worth of profits off someone they knew was illegally stationed at the client’s post, simply fired the guard and allowed him to collect six months of unemployment. Between the six months as a false guard and the six months of unemployment, the former felon, or illiterate person, got their year’s salary and thereby lived to fight another day, as it were. After the employment ran out, the State would “lose” the records of the illiterate felon’s last go-round in the guard industry. At that point the hopeless soul in question merely rotated to a new Ma & Pa agency, perhaps owned by the same people he’d worked for before, though under another name. They all would pretend they knew nothing about the past and simply repeat the process in an endless mutually-beneficial cycle. (Of course the State had an agency which existed to investigate such shady outfits, but all California State Agencies are deliberately underfunded so that they are overwhelmed with investigative leads, but only have the staffing to go after the most publicly outrageous corporate offenders, usually limiting themselves to ones who had behaved so badly that they ended up in the news.)
The State of California has never been liberal. (See “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck for clarity on the alleged “liberals” of California.) The State has always celebrated diversity in terms of personal style and looks and national origin, but it has never celebrated economic diversity and has always absolutely made sure the poor were crushed to death by simply horrific public schools, barbaric social services and a complete fawning, obsequious love for the rich. Nowhere on earth, even among those voting Democratic, is there a more astounding level of deep, deep dislike for anyone not rich, (unless they are overtly in the process of becoming rich, or if there’s an inheritance coming due). If the average Republican voter from Alabama knew what we did to our poor people in California, they would be deeply proud of us. You have my word on that. Don’t let the television appearances of hippies and feminists fool you. Try calling out our profoundly-conservative Democrats on their absolute betrayal of the poor and you’ll end with up no friends, (and I don’t mean just no political friends, but rather everyone you know will desert you, personally). I had better luck finding respect when I was passing through Mississippi, and I’m not even joking.
And given this underlying ardently pro-corporate agenda that all California Democrats embrace with untrammeled fervor, it goes without saying that the Ma & Pa enterprises did nothing but steal, lie, cheat and violate the law, 24/7, and the State knew it, and the State didn’t care. And so, in addition to illegally hiring criminals, and illegally cheating on the tests for illiterates, it also simply bypassed the expense of drug testing, claiming to clients that all their workers were drug tested, then simply blowing the procedure off. If a client found out he had a drug addict and alcoholic on post, which put his huge commercial real estate investment at risk, he could, of course, force the State to investigate. The State, reluctantly agreeing to “look into it,” would send the offending Ma & Pa agency a leisurely note mentioning that some months from then, an investigator would stop by. Again, the Ma & Pa agency would vanish into thin corporate air, so that on the day the investigator arrived, the office or trailer would be empty, and no such corporation would exist. (Across town the same couple we mentioned before, “Ma & Pa,” would have rented an even sleazier office and would have reincorporated under yet another name, thus buying themselves another couple years in business before anyone figured out anything.)
The goal of all Ma & Pa guard agencies was to unfairly steal tons of property management clients by making low-ball bids that no union house could match, for the simple reason that the union house had to play by very expensive rules and the Ma & Pa agency had zero rules to follow. If no State investigator moved to close the place down, then, in five years or so, the Ma & Pa agency would be bursting at the seams with unfairly-gained clients, offering that rich, stolen customer base, for sale to the highest bidder. Ma & Pa would get ten or twenty million for their laborious work as criminals, and then, at last, retire to the British Virgin Islands, none-the-worse for the wear. The union company would, in essence, be buying back its own clients and itself live to fight another day, as an endless string of Ma & Pa agencies sprung up at its heels to begin again pecking away at that long client list through more low-ball bids.
At that time the largest of the Ma & Pa agencies had its offices in an ugly, depersonalized dumpy building within walking distance of my house, so close, in fact, that, while still harassed by fibromyalgia, it turned out I could walk there. It might have been four blocks away, at the most.
I stumbled in, having an anxiety attack, loaded on psychiatric medicines and beer, 100% lacking in any semblance of self-confidence. I was a mess, and I looked like it, so much so that even the Ma & Pa agency guy noticed it. He confronted me about my last employment. I told him forthrightly the whole story of my nervous breakdown; and I also confessed that on a good day I could walk, and on bad days I might not be able to at all. He noted that, even though I ran out on my last employer, he was worried I might want the premium wages they were paying, that I might be unhappy there. I made it clear to him that if he didn’t hire me, I’d be homeless within eight weeks and that I had nowhere else to go. Furthermore, I told him that I was so mentally-ill that I was given to bouts of blatant sobbing several times a day; so that whatever facility I guarded, there had to be very little public contact involved. I could, perhaps, hold it together to not look utterly hysterical for a few minutes here and a few minutes there, but that was about it. I recall even telling him that I frankly didn’t even expect to live much longer and that I was an orphan in the world anyway; so, in the end, he probably wouldn’t be stuck with me long. He viewed me with a severe gravity unknown even to the silly world of Ma & Pa agencies. He could promise me nothing, as the reader might well understand, but he rather haltingly said, “I’ll try and see what I can do.” I stumbled out of the office, weeping already before I even made it to the stairs, feeling that he offered me as close to an offer of employment as could be made to a person who was judged too insane to remain in a psychiatric hospital.
If my memory serves me right, it was a Friday when this bizarre excuse for a job interview took place. (Of course there was no drug test, no background check, and, actually, they later admitted, not even a bother with a phone call to check out my references. They later admitting their whole profit margin came from just doing none of the Human Resources work that responsible agencies had to do. They knew they were going to be bought out, since it had been four years already and they were still stealing contracts, but no one could get the State to clamp down on them. If the unionized companies wanted their clients back, it would cost them a few million dollars, period.) And so, since all hiring was done either by sheer intuition, guessing or flat out desperation, there was nothing more to say or work on regarding my application.
The phone rang, and I believe it was Monday. It was the Ma & Pa agency. They asked me to come in. I “ran” over. (Of course I couldn’t literally run too often back then, but you get the idea.) When I got there they announced that they’d found a temporary shift for me. By sheer luck, they’d gotten a call from the Navy, which was still renting out assorted facilities in San Francisco at that time. It seemed that there were not enough parking spaces for their civilian workers at a nearby office building, so they rented out a now-defunct dock and paved it over, painting parking spaces all over it. The one problem was that the parking lot was not well lit and so there were workers being held up at gunpoint and cars being broken into left and right. In response to this, The Navy had erected a guard shack in the middle of the parking lot with a single light bulb secured to the ceiling. The Navy requested that Ma & Pa send over a single officer to occupy that guard shack from 2PM to 10PM, Monday through Friday. The pay was $5 per hour, just enough for me to pay rent and PG&E, back then, and still be able to budget $1 per meal for food.
The light in the guard shack, showing the outline of a night-watchman would turn out to scare off the bad guys. Additionally, I would try patrols, when I was up to them, and shine a flashlight all around. The whole lot was only two blocks long, so it was a manageable distance. And so I was to be deployed as a human scarecrow. Furthermore, there were a few people who, for some reason, preferred to leave their keys with the morning parking attendant and pick them up at night. But those needing such services would amount to less than one person per hour, meaning I need only be able to fake like I was sane long enough to take their receipt and return their keys to them. The guard shack’s conspicuous presence, and the bright patrol flashlight were enough to show the car burglars in the neighborhood that someone was watching and prepared to use the phone in the guard shack to alert the police. (Consumer cell phones did not exist at that time.)
While I was myself afraid of being robbed or beaten, I felt I had no choice but to take the job. Who on earth would hire me? And even if anyone hired me, how could I continue for more than a day when I needed to rush to the restroom stall to cray several times a day? This job would allow me the privacy to try to live through my continual panic attacks without being observed and subsequently fired. The job paid five dollars an hour, which, at that time, I believe, was about fifteen cents an hour over minimum wage. It was, of course, cold, dark and lonely. However, most miraculously, rent got paid for my San Francisco apartment for some months. At some point, the gradual pullout of the Navy from San Francisco got underway in earnest, although it took many years to finally complete. Sadly, the employees who used my wood-and-pavement dock as their parking lot were among the first to be relocated or let go. And so the job ended. The Ma & Pa agency admitted that they had nothing else for me, as any of the other jobs on their list would involve real human contact, actual work, and pressure, which they already knew for certain would be too much for me.
When the assignment ended, since I’d been on State Disability before I went to work for Ma & Pa, I’d still not used all of my yearly allotment of Unemployment Insurance, and so I was able to go on that and thus survive yet a few more months. Most astoundingly, after that, a few poets, whose fates were to be quite tragic, had a stunning amount of mercy on me and accepted me into their inner circle. By sheer chance, several of them had psychiatric disorders almost identical to mine, and so I was treated as almost normal among them. This gave reality and color and visibility to my otherwise marginalized life. This environment was so nurturing that it was able to achieve the “impossible.” It allowed some patina of self-confidence to reemerge in me. This little uptick in self-confidence, combined with a good job reference from Ma & Pa, along with the good job reference from Orange County, allowed me to score union-house jobs again. (Thankfully they didn’t press me on the Corporate Security Services debacle.) Magically, I got one another one of those pure-luck posts that also nurtured me and babied me to an absurd degree, (and unfortunately that kind of hand-holding was necessary).
This union house was, through a series of buyouts, eventually to become one of the heart-and-soul offices of the guard world, one of the central offices of the most prominent global security agency. Our chemistry was fantastic. They found a perfect post for me. And, as luck would have it, one of the managers there who liked me would also be a high-ranking manager at other agencies where I would later apply for work. By the wiles of chance, and because of these personal connections, I would, for the next twenty years, be virtually guaranteed as much or as little work as I could handle, whether or not I could walk, whether or not I was sane, and whether or not I was buzzed out of my mind on psych meds, or anything else.
The property manager at my new post, a stunning-looking woman, could see that I was having to disguise my instant crush on her, and she was charmed by this. And so, while she never dated me, the fact that she knew I loved her meant that she would take special care of me for years. In fact, I remained at that post, a very happy man, until our agency finally lost the account some three years later. In all my life, I’d never been able to sustain a position at one location for three years. This success gave me enough confidence that I was able to start a sideline business in publishing, which not only made me a far more popular person, but also created the context for me meeting the only woman who has ever, in my whole life, stayed with me five years. And while I did eventually screw up the relationship, it was nothing short of a miracle that anyone tolerated living in close quarters with me for five years. This was probably the happiest and most successful period of my life, but it never would have happened if Ma & Pa had not given me a big break at what had turned out to be yet another new low-point in my life.
Other Shakespir Ebooks by Mel C. Thompson
The Epic Journey to The Great Palace of Non-Judgment
Khrushchev’s Second Chance
The Waste Basket
Antiheroes In Palestine
Wage Slave is born deformed. His mother is a paranoid schizophrenic. He is mentally ill and disabled, but he is unable to prove there is anything wrong with him, so he lives in the netherworld between unemployment and disability. The pressure of not being strong enough to lift himself out of poverty and being labeled a malingerer unworthy of aid, finally drives him over the edge. When psychiatric treatment, and the surgeries he needs, finally come, it is already too late. He spirals into a dark path of downward mobility. Discredited and abandoned, he drifts from job to job, each one as bad as, or more dispiriting than, the previous one. His first wife cuts him off. His first two families run away without leaving a forwarding address. He is forced into a third family which he eventually abandons completely. And he attempts a second engagement, but breaks it off due to his inability to keep up with the demands of married life. Utterly lost, he drifts from relationship to relationship, his health, and therefore his personality, deteriorating as his access to consistent health insurance and social services is subverted by the Clinton and Reagan welfare cuts and healthcare cuts. The plight of Wage Slave is both big news and no news, big news because his fate is shared by countless millions of people, but also no news because, in spite of how many people live under identical circumstances, the overall topic of his life is taboo, a topic upwardly mobile people are forbidden to fully engage in, or even consider briefly. Even the words used to describe his story have been purged from the English language and have been replaced by the language of self-serving denial. As the linguistic tsunami of Positive Thinking, Religious Science, New Age Healing, Positivity Coaching, Affirmation Training, The Prosperity Gospel, and A Course In Miracles, washes over the landscape, indulging in Wage Slave's story has become a social crime for which the punishment is instant cult-like shunning, disfellowshipping and interpersonal excommunication. You can speak of the story of those murdered, of those tortured, even of whole populations suffering genocide, but you may not ever speak the truth about Wage Slave's story, because that is the ultimate social sin. This cuts across political lines; and you will find your Democratic congressperson every bit as hostile to you as your Republican senator. If you insist too strongly on telling this story, some friends will simply cut you off. Why? Because everyone lives with the subconscious fact that Wage Slave's story could easily become their story. It is as if each American were navigating a thin trail on the top of an endless mountain ridge with thousand-foot drop-offs on either side. In such a world, the one taboo topic would be that of possibly falling. It's simply too close to home to admit into the conscious mind; and so we plod on, unreal to each other, as we deny each other, face to face, the opportunity to tell our real life story, since that story points to, at every turn, a possible plunge into Wage Slave's fate.