being there -
Old music has worked its magic again. I heard The Chordettes on the radio this morning. I've mentioned before that my bathroom radio receives only one music station, one that's geared to listeners who are generally older than I am. Viv calls it the Viagra station. I don't care. To the ignoscenti, it may seem like "All Jerry Vale, All The Time," but we keen listeners are in tune with its sublime programming, and the subtle way a bunch of ancient tunes can start the cycle of one memory linking to another.
Or so I like to tell myself.
For example, I can't hear the song "Mr. Sandman" without remembering the time I spent in a mental hospital. To erase the visual image now forming in your mind, I must tell you I was an employee there, a meals-on-wheels driver specifically, and I spent several hours a day in the company of a squad of women who all had at least thirty years on me. They were The Ladies of the Kitchen.
You know The Ladies of the Kitchen. We all do. They're that distinct breed of females who stand guard at the steam table, the ladle-wielding portion authorities in white shoes and black hairnets. Their fašade may be off-putting, but if you dare to venture across the sneeze guard you may find they can be a pretty fine buncha gals. Mine were.
My job there consisted of coming in mid-morning to wash dishes, followed by a half-hour spent loading a Step-Van with thermal sacks full of hot lunches for several schools in the area. Then I'd drive around the county for a few hours making deliveries and picking up empties. I loved the job. I was pretty much on my own and I got to drive along the coast highway or the back roads by the beaches along Monterey Bay. That drive alone is way cool, but in a Step-Van with the driver's side door slid open -- it's mondo cool.
Anyway, one day, for some long-forgotten reason, I needed to know the lyrics to "Mr. Sandman." I asked the gals. One of 'em, Betty, I think (it doesn't matter -- half of all Ladies of the Kitchen are named Betty), knew the words. I got out my paper and pencil and by the time I had all the lyrics copied down the whole cafeteria was singing it. Not just The Ladies of the Kitchen but the patients out in the dining hall as well. It was a memorable morning, and probably therapeutic for all of us.
See? This is what music does for me. It lets me sit back and ramble pointlessly.
That day was not as memorable, however, as my first day at work there. I'd been unemployed for several weeks before I'd finally landed this hospital job, and while in the midst of the hiatus I became eligible for food stamps. As luck would have it, I got the job just before the final paperwork was about to go through and I wound up having to go down to the local food stamp office to get my precious little coupons after my first full day of work.
I didn't have a car in those days, but in Santa Cruz the bus system could get you anywhere. There was a bus stop right outside the main doors of the hospital, and if I hurried I could make the last run of the day. At 4:30 I was out the doors and under the bus shelter, huddling with about six other folks trying to keep out of the rain.
I had the paperwork with me and had to get to the food stamp office downtown before it closed at 5:00 sharp. Pointy sharp. The program was administered out of the Post Office building just a few blocks from the central bus terminal, and if the bus wasn't late and I stepped off running I could make it to the P.O. in time. Piece of cake, I thought. I was hungry. Really hungry. And my new job wasn't going to pay me for another week yet. As we all stood there, shivering, I began to notice that my fellow would-be passengers seemed to have something in common. They all knew each other. From the hospital. They didn't work there.
Ah. Okay. That explains the small talk that seemed a little too furtive, the glances away, the nervous smiles, the grunting, the animal imitations. Other than that they seemed fine. Even happy. Maybe even a little too happy. Okay. No problem. The bus will get here.
Ten minutes go by. No bus.
Fifteen minutes. Still nothing. Just the sound of my stomach growling. And some more animal noises.
The guy next to me is starting to get antsy. It figures, since he's the one with the Army jacket and all the tattoos. His left leg is in a cast where he's drawn happy little cartoons of skulls on fire, knives dripping blood, stuff like that. Don't have any flashbacks just yet, okay pal? Hey look, are those bus headlights coming?
We all peer down the road and see the headlights, hoping.... nope, sorry. Not the bus. We all go back to staring and grunting. All except Sgt. Skullonfire next to me. He's still got his eye on the car that came up and stopped at the front doors of the hospital. He watches it like a cat watches birds. Frozen. The head turns once, then it's just the eyes moving.
The driver gets out, goes inside the hospital. Sgt. Skullonfire pinches the hot end off his cigarette, puts the butt in his pocket, and picks up his crutches.
"Sometimes you just gotta take the initiative." he says. "Watch this."
He speed-hobbles across the parking lot toward the car. It's actually a limousine and the driver has gone inside and left the motor running.
Sarge is on a mission.
"Who has a chauffeur drive them to a place like this?" I say, trying to show how I can chat comfortably with anybody. What I'm really doing is babbling to break the tension of watching a mental patient head toward a grand theft auto rap.
"Nobody." grunts the short round woman eating Doritos next to me. "It's from the funeral home."
Oh. Yeah. I guess people do die in places like this.
Sgt. Skullonfire makes it to the limo. He opens the driver's door and pokes his head in. Then he closes that door, moves around to the other side to open one of the rear doors, and pokes his head in again. He disappears for a second or two, then he pops up and flashes us a huge grin.
I look down the road. The bus gods be playin' wif ma head.
Sarge gets out of the limo, tippy-toes (as best he can) to the big glass front doors of the hospital, and presses his face against them to have a peek in.
Checking for witnesses, I think they call it. For the first time, our merry group is quiet and very focused. We watch him open one door just a crack. He slips inside.
All of us at the bus stop just look at each other, lifting our eyebrows, and then as if on cue we lean out to see if we can spot the bus. No bus.
Seconds later, Sgt. Skullonfire comes bursting out the doors, waving to us with one of his crutches.
"C'mon!" he shouts. "We're goin'! Hurry!"
He lurches to the limo and opens all the doors.
Everybody in our little group is running for the car now, everybody but me, Mr. Hungry. That's right, I'm standing my ground in the rain holding papers for pretend money so that I can go to the store later and be the guy everybody stares at with disdain in the checkout line. I am not moving toward the vehicle that can get me there on time, no, I'm waiting for a bus that clearly isn't coming.
And I'm calling myself the sane one.
I see movement at the hospital doors. The limo driver has emerged and he's not upset.
"I'm on my way back into town." the driver/mortician says. "Bob here says your bus is late. I'll drop you off wherever you want." It seems Sgt. Skullonfire has negotiated a deal.
Yeah, I always knew he had it in him. Smart cookie, that Skullonfire, oh yeah. I tear across the parking lot. Sarge, er, Bob, has generously held the door open for me, the timid one. I check my watch. I've got six minutes. I squeeze forward between a couple of my new peers to explain my situation to the driver.
"I have to be at the post office by five. Can you do it?"
We fly down Ocean St. and actually make skidding sounds as we turn onto the bridge across the river. We're squishing up against each other, a howling bunch of happy people, woo-hooing with every daring maneuver.
It was one of those times when I knew I was in the middle of something fun and strange and I was already enjoying the memory it was going to make.
With a whole two minutes to spare, the limousine pulls up to the red curb in front of the giant marble building. The driver comes around, opens my door. I thank Sgt. Bob for his negotiating skills, wish my fellow passengers a good day, and step out onto the sidewalk. I give the driver a casual salute and take the steps up two at a time.
Food stamps via limo. It's the only way.
It's been years since I last thought about that afternoon.
The Viagra station indeed.
"Magic Moments" -- Perry Como -- THE LOOK OF LOVE: THE BURT BACHARACH COLLECTION
(hey, it was a gift)
"When we remember that we are all mad, the mysteries disappear and life stands explained."
- Mark Twain