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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Pre-Med Primer: 1960

by Claude Clayton Smith

            I turned sixteen during March of my sophomore year in high school and several days later began searching for a summer job. I needed to save money for college. I intended to become a doctor. So I put on a coat and tie, brushed back my crew cut, and caught a bus downtown to Bridgeport Hospital, where I soon found myself in the narrow, out-of-the-way office of the Housekeeper, Mrs. Ogilvie.
“Mrs. O.,” as she was called, was a short, trim woman in her fifties, who dressed all in white like a nurse but wore no nurse’s cap. Her small mouth was a perfect oval of bright red lipstick. She studied me for a moment with her piercing dark eyes, before quietly informing me that there was currently an opening in her department for a wall-washer, and if the position were still open when school let out, it would be mine. It was only after several weeks on the job that I realized why the position had not been filled—Housekeeping was the lowest department in the hospital, and wall-washer was the lowest job in Housekeeping.
But it was mine—my very first job, the gateway to my future—six days a week, eight hours a day, a dollar and five cents an hour.
When I reported for work, Mrs. O. showed me how to punch the time-clock, then sent me to the laundry for a uniform—a khaki shirt with long sleeves and a pair of khaki pants with wide cuffs, folded flat and starched as stiff as cardboard. The uniform was to be exchanged for a fresh one every Monday and Thursday, just when it had become comfortable enough to work in.
Then I was sent to the foreman, “Mr. Steve,” an immigrant or refugee from behind the Iron Curtain, whose long last name hardly contained a single vowel. He was a thin, anxious man with thick-framed black glasses offset by a tidy white moustache. In what he called “the old country” he’d been a lawyer, but the difficulty of learning English at an advanced age—he appeared much older than Mrs. O.—had kept him from practicing law in America. I later learned that when he began working at the hospital, Mr. Steve had been twice his present weight. A heart attack, plus the strain of supervising the men of the Housekeeping Department, had reduced him to a nervous wisp.
Mr. Steve prefaced all announcements, orders, or small talk with a quick “Ahem, ahem …,” a verbal tic more throat-clearing than intelligible. He wore khaki, as did all the male housekeepers, but his pace was triple that of anyone’s. Except mine. I kept right up as he escorted me down the long corridors and flights of stairs to the men’s locker room, a cramped area in the very bowels of the old hospital, where I had to duck beneath the heavily bandaged pipes.
And as he assigned me one of the battered green lockers, Mr. Steve somehow discovered that I was studying Latin in high school. “Arma virumque cano,” he recited proudly, lifting his eyes to the insulated pipes. I would need two more years of high school before I could quote Virgil to Mr. Steve in return, but he seemed more than
satisfied with my sophomoric offering from Caesar: Gallia est omnis divisa in tres partes.” Latin, Mr. Steve reminded me, was the language of the legal profession.
“And medicine,” I added brightly.
The dingy locker room had a few benches and half a dozen barroom-style chairs at a round wooden table in the corner. As I was putting on my uniform these quarters suddenly filled with the Housekeeping crew—African-Americans (then called Negroes), Puerto Ricans, and a contingent of short, sullen, broad-faced men whom I soon labeled the “Mushka-Pushka Men,” for that is how their language sounded to me: “Mushka-Pushka! Mushka-Pushka!”
It was 9:15. Time for a coffee break.
Very quickly, as if it were understood, the Mushka-Pushka Men occupied the table in the corner, and from their wooden circle came only one word I ever understood, a word that rose heatedly during every coffee break: “CommuNEEST! CommunNEEST!”  The Mushka-Pushka Men—Mr. Steve spoke their language—came from Hungary, Czechoslovakia, perhaps Poland. But my geography was weak, my interest in history even weaker.
            Then Mr. Steve was standing at the door, tapping his finger on his wristwatch. “Ahem, ahem … Gentlemen.” Coffee break was over. Time to get back to work.
            As the locker room emptied—more slowly than it had filled—I lagged behind to wait for Mr. Steve, who was always the last to exit. I had been on the job since 7:00 a.m. and was yet to lift a finger. Before long, however, I found myself in a dim, windowless corner of the basement in which rows and rows of Venetian blinds were suspended from the ceiling like so many room dividers. Mr. Steve neatly rolled back his sleeves, drew a pail of hot water from the sink on the wall, added liquid detergent like a waiter pouring wine, and demonstrated how to wash the blinds on both sides, dampening the rag just so, careful not to get the drawstrings wet. When he returned at noon I had completed the job—had been standing around, in fact, for an hour, watching the Venetian blinds dry—and Mr. Steve seemed confused by my efficiency. I think he had expected the task to take me all day. Now he was stuck with finding something else for me to do.
            “So this is what it’s like to work in a hospital,” I remember telling myself. But what about wall-washing? I had been hired as a wall-washer.
            As we returned to the locker room for lunch—I had to be shown the way, still disoriented by the hospital’s subterranean maze—Mr. Steve muttered something about seeing Mrs. O., then he’d get back to me.
            I took my lunch, as became my habit, upstairs. The cigarette smoke in the locker room burned my eyes, the African-Americans frightened me, and the Spanish of the Puerto Ricans was as annoying as the chatter of the Mushka-Pushka Men. Any laughter, I assumed, was at my expense, so I trotted my brown bag (two peanut butter sandwiches, one apple) to the cafeteria, a room as big and bright as our high school gymnasium. Here a hundred or more diamond-shaped tables hummed with the conversation of the staff—nurses all in white (except for the rims of their caps, which, I later learned, identified the place of their training), technicians in long lab coats, Operating Room personnel in loose-fitting green coveralls, silver-haired volunteers in pink pinafores, and their counterparts, the young candy-stripers, as pert and pretty as cheerleaders. And then there were the doctors—haughty and harried—in green surgical garb or, on certain days, Madras sport coats, bright pants, narrow ties.
            At a far table I noticed Mrs. O. in animated dialogue with a nurse twice her size. I noticed, too, that I was the only one in the cafeteria wearing khaki. Fortunately, Mr. Steve came through the cafeteria line and, catching my eye, joined me. “Ahem, ahem ….”
            Picking at his lunch, he began talking about his wife, Bronislava, whom I imagined as a short, square woman with a babushka and dust mop. Apparently she was seriously ill. Then he talked of his coming day off, which he planned to spend at the local park, a pathetic patch of green not far from the hospital that had once been the showplace of Bridgeport. But before our allotted half-hour was over, Mr. Steve excused himself, emptied his tray, and hurried off. He had to rouse the men from the locker room at exactly 12:30. On his way out, however, he stopped for a brief word with Mrs. O.
            Later that afternoon, relieved of Venetian blind duty, I followed Mr. Steve out a rear door of the hospital and across a narrow parking lot to a row of duplexes—housing for the resident doctors and their families. Several units were empty, awaiting new tenants, and I was to clean them in the meanwhile.
            “This is more like it,” I told myself. There was room to move—kitchens, hallways, bedrooms, baths—and windows to open for looking about. Mr. Steve issued me a scrub brush, pail, sponge, and jug of detergent, and demonstrated how to do the walls. I was not to touch the floors. The Mushka-Pushka Men would do the floors.
            After Mr. Steve left, my euphoria turned to depression. The apartments were filthy—grease on the ceilings, stains on the walls—and this was where the doctors lived! Bridgeport Hospital, as I would learn, was a teaching hospital, but unlike Massachusetts General and similar institutions, it could attract only foreign doctors for residencies and much of its staff. They came from Latin America, India, Turkey—the educated elite of their respective homelands—but if these empty apartments bore accurate witness, they had brought the squalor of their homelands with them.
            Later that summer I was sent to clean the dormitory of the unmarried male interns, a barracks-like arrangement on the hospital roof, where unshaven young men of all colors lay about on narrow cots, thick textbooks propped about them, small electric fans riffling the hot air. Not many were American, and it saddened me to see how they lived. But I was earning money for my own education, so … scrub, scrub, scrub.
            By the end of my second week in Housekeeping I had finished the apartments and returned my scrub brush to Mr. Steve, its bristles worn to the nub. He showed it, in turn, to Mrs. O. as she inspected the apartments, shaking her head and smiling sadly as if there were something I didn’t understand. She had given me that same sad smile my first day on the job when I answered “Yes” to her initial question: “Well, did you make all A’s?”
            What I didn’t understand was why the men of Housekeeping (the men of the
world?) hardly worked at all, but spent their days hiding in broom closets and toilet stalls, listening for the click of Mr. Steve’s heels. I had discovered that time passed quickly when I was busy, so I stood there like a soldier awaiting my next order.
            The following week Mrs. O. herself took me to an old, high-ceilinged ward that had been out of service for years. Removing the padlock from the heavy swinging doors, we pushed our way in. “This,” Mrs. O. announced in a rare moment of drama, “is going to be the new ICU.”
Bridgeport Hospital        Photo Credit Brian Smith
            Intensive Care Unit. Even with the initials translated, I couldn’t imagine anything
in that ward except a flophouse for the homeless. The yellowed shades were drawn on the
tall, narrow windows, cobwebs laced the overhead pipes like camouflage netting, U-
shaped metal rails, like shower-curtain rods, arched from the walls at head level, above empty spaces once occupied by beds. These rails were tilted and bent, the metal rusty.
At the far end of the ward a rickety scaffold of boards and pipes rose to the ceiling.
The abandoned ward was the cause of the vacancy that I’d filled. The former wallwasher had flatly refused to work there. But, Mrs. O. informed me quietly, as if to prevent my own defection, she was hiring a second wallwasher to help me. We were to “have at the ward,” and once we finished, the painters and plumbers would follow. It was a job that would take the rest of the summer.
The new wallwasher—Roberto—was a Puerto Rican about my own age. Born in Bridgeport, he knew English as well as Spanish, and he laughed readily when I told him the old joke about a Spaniard hearing the national anthem at his first baseball game: “José, can you see?” And suddenly I had a pal in Housekeeping.
Short and slim, Roberto was deceptively strong, and a good worker. He was
trying hard to grow a moustache—“to impress the señoritas”—and had a ripe sense of fun. Once, when I was perched on the very top of that rickety scaffold of boards and pipes, snapping a wet rag at cobwebs in the corner of the ceiling, a soapy sponge smacked the back of my neck. Ten minutes of wet warfare followed, after which—the boredom of our enormous task dispelled—we returned to work with renewed vigor.
Roberto made it easy for me to be in the locker room, which made the coffee breaks, finally, enjoyable. The turning point came soon after he was hired, at the expense of Lester Mirfin, the oldest man in Housekeeping, and, except for the Mushka-Pushka Men, one of the few whites. “Leslie,” as he was called, was a frail specimen whose job was to sweep the stairs about the hospital, which he did with a broom and long-handled shovel. I used to think that, if he ever had to bend over to do his job, he would never straighten up.
One day during the coffee break, slipping into the locker room after the crush of men that would have otherwise trampled him, Lester leaned against the doorframe and lit a cigarette as if it were his last.
“Hey, Leslie,” I called out, surprised by my own boldness. “Does your mother know you smoke?”
Roberto translated and the Puerto Ricans exploded with laughter, silencing the Mushka-Pushka Men at the table in the corner. The African-Americans laughed, too, confirming my status as one of the crew. . . .
I spent two more summers at Bridgeport Hospital, getting myself promoted to oxygen technician in Inhalation Therapy, where I wore a smart gray tunic and white duck trousers and assisted a doctor with pulmonary function tests. As it turned out, however, I would abandon pre-med during my sophomore year of college, discovering that I had no real love for the requisite sciences. But I did return to Bridgeport Hospital a few years later, driving in a panic all the way to Connecticut from Washington, D.C. to visit my father in the ICU—the very unit I had helped to establish as a wall-washer—where he’d been admitted with a blood clot on the lung.
I found him in an oxygen tent, looking shrunken and immensely old. And suddenly the hospital and everything to do with it seemed utterly foreign.

Professor Emeritus of English at Ohio Northern University, Claude Clayton Smith is the author of a novel, two children’s books, and four books of creative nonfiction. He is also co-editor/translator of The Way of Kinship, an anthology of Native Siberian literature (University of Minnesota, 2010). His latest book is Ohio Outback: Learning to Love the Great Black Swamp (Kent State University Press, 2010). A native of Stratford, Connecticut, he holds a BA from Wesleyan, an MAT from Yale, an MFA from the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, and a DA from Carnegie-Mellon. His work has been translated into five languages.

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