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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.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Of Faith and Hope

by Sheila Morris

“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
---Hebrews, Chapter XI, Verse 1

            Whenever I speak on social justice issues, someone invariably asks me about my religious beliefs.  Some people opt for a subtle approach and others want to make sure I clearly understand their perspective.  Last year I participated in a panel discussion on memoir at a book festival in South Carolina, and the moderator called attention to the three authors’ different backgrounds, including a remark about my life as a lesbian activist.  Following our discussion, the audience was invited to ask questions.
            We took turns responding to typical inquiries regarding memoir as a genre, difficulties in the publishing world, and whether our books provided cathartic experiences for unresolved issues in our lives.  It was a lively interchange, and I enjoyed the questions and listening to the other panelists while I added my own opinions.  As time for our session was about to run out, the moderator asked for one final question for any author.  I saw a hand raised in the back of the auditorium, and a microphone was passed to a man who stood up and reached for it.
            I sensed this was my question before he said anything.  He was a tall man with vanishing silver hair and nicely dressed in dark pants, white shirt, and a tie that was an indistinguishable color from my seat onstage.  He did, indeed, direct his remarks to me.
            “Miss Morris, I was wondering how you reconcile your life with what the Bible says about homosexuality.  I know that God loves you, but He hates what you do.  Why don’t you change?”
            I was prepared for the question since it was a familiar one to me, but I paused to assess the restlessness of the audience before I spoke. Yep, everyone was ready to move on.
            “The few Bible passages that refer to homosexuality are typically taken out of context and require deeper discussions than we have time for here,” I said.        “Change is a word that implies choosing.  My life has involved many choices, but my being a lesbian is not one of them.  I’m not sure that anyone really knows how God feels about my life—including me.”
            You get the picture.  For those of you who ask these questions, and I think you know who you are, I want you to know that I appreciate your concerns.  I usually answer with as much candor and humor as time allows and direct the conversations to other topics.

            In real life, when time is not an excuse and levity and brevity beg the deeper questions, my journey of faith has no glib explanations.  I am surrounded by the ghosts of generations of family members who relied on their convictions about God during the difficulties they faced throughout their lives.  One of my eighty-three-year-old mother’s favorite sayings to this day is, “God is on His throne.  No matter what comes, we know that God is on His throne.”  This phrase comforts her in the confines of the Memory Care Unit where she lives and assures her that everyday problems are temporary and serve some greater purpose.  It also relieves her of any personal responsibility for outcomes that aren’t suitable.  It’s an expression she’s used frequently in her life when someone contradicts her opinions and she wants to end discussion.  After all, what else is there to say when she declares that an omnipresent and omnipotent Deity reigns over us?  In some deep inner place, my mother’s faith sustains her.
            Certainly this core belief system came partially from her mother, who lived a life of constant struggle as a single mother in the Great Depression.  Left with four children when her husband died, my grandmother waged wars against poverty and, ultimately, herself when she fought the more difficult battles of loneliness and depression.  A letter to her sister in 1954 following the death of their father illustrates her convictions that surely passed to my mother: “I know Papa has gone to heaven, and that is where I want to meet him.  The Old Devil gets a hold of me sometime.  I slap him off—and pray harder for the Lord to help me be a better Christian.  I realize more that I need the Lord every day, and I want to love the Lord more and try to serve Him better.  He alone can take away these heartaches of mine.  I want to have more faith in Him.  I have been so burdened, and I want to be happy.  Serving God and living for Him is the only plan.”
            My grandmother’s belief that faith was the only solution to the multitude of problems she faced and that there were higher levels of faith beyond her grasp was reinforced by the teachings of the little Southern Baptist church she attended every Sunday.  The sweat, and often, tears of pleading preachers for more trust and more commitment stirred their listeners' emotions and created an environment of permanent unworthiness, or as Paul writes in the New Testament, “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans, Chapter III, Verse 23).  My grandmother’s efforts to “have more faith” included a daily ritual of reading Bible passages using the rudimentary skills she acquired during a schooling that was limited to a third-grade education.  I can still see the outline of her sagging body framed in light through the thin partition separating the kitchen from the enclosed porch that served as our bedroom while she sat at a small table and I lay in the darkness wishing she wouldn’t get up so early.  But, there she would be, struggling to read godly guidance in the ungodly hours before dawn so she could be dressed and ready to walk to work by 7:30 a.m. six days a week.
            Shockingly, my grandmother on my daddy’s side glossed over the deeper issues of faith in favor of a focus on hope.  You may remember the famous quotation from the Bible in the thirteenth chapter of I Corinthians: “In a word, there are three things that last forever, faith, hope, and love; but the greatest of them is love.”  For this paternal grandmother, the greatest “thing” that lasted forever was hope.  She wasn’t concerned with the intricacies of faith nor did she exhibit excessive “love” toward others outside of her immediate family, but she attended the same Southern Baptist church faithfully every Sunday.  Her hope was for humor, however.  Her belief was that in every Sunday church service she could find something or someone—or, preferably, both—that she could use to entertain her family at the dinner table later.
The preacher was irreverently skewered on a regular basis.  “Brother Latham is such a handsome man, but his sermons bore me to tears.  Same old talk about sin every Sunday.  Everybody knows he’s against it by now.  He needs to come up with a new position or a new topic.  And, did you see those poor little children of his?  They look just like their mother, bless their hearts.  God didn’t answer any prayers there, if you ask me.”  The pious friends who seemed to take church so seriously were open season for my grandmother as well.  “Did you see old lady Shead?  Her face was twisted in such a tight knot it looked just like all that hair she has wadded up on her head.  She must have fifty hairpins holding it together.  She looked like God gave her some secret bad news this week, or maybe He put a burr up her butt.”  And she was off and running as my grandfather and I laughed hysterically at her assessment of our churchgoing experience.  No one, and nothing, was sacred at that table.  She was a woman in charge of her home and family and most of the conversations that took place within both.  I worshipped her.
            And so, this was the faith of my mothers.  The church was the teacher, the Bible the textbook, and the interpretations ranged from the holy to the inadvertently profane.  I listened and watched these women for as long as they lived and, throughout my childhood, absorbed their diverse values that blended with the Sunday school teachings and preaching of the Southern Baptist churches my family attended.  I learned to sift the messages and keep the ones that appeared to lessen my likelihood of going to hell when I died.
 Since I knew from the age of five or six that I had what the Bible called “unnatural affections,” I also understood the threat of eternal damnation that could be my fate, unless God wrought a miracle and transformed me from my evil thoughts and desires.  During my teen years I felt particularly wicked as I lusted after the girls in church and after my favorite female high school teachers.  In 1963, when I was seventeen and felt the flames of hell licking around me, I read a small pamphlet called a Statement of the Baptist Faith and Message.  I thought I had discovered my saving grace, a distinctive Baptist teaching called “the priesthood of the believer.”  While this doctrine produced volumes of theological intrigue, my simplistic interpretation at that point in my life was that no one stood between God and me.  What a relief.  No need for confessions to a priest or, necessarily, to trust the ravings of Baptist preachers.  I was redeemed.  It was a doctrine that kept me tied to the church and allowed me to censor its bad tidings for more than forty years.
It carried me to a Southern Baptist Seminary where I, rather ironically, had my first lesbian relationship when I was twenty-three years old, a seven-year relationship mired in our guilt and my infidelity.  It carried me to a small Southern Baptist church where I had a lesbian affair with a married woman who was the Youth Director and another one with the preacher’s wife.  God and I didn’t consider this to be adultery.
            To say that my faith odyssey took a zigzag somewhere during the past fifty years is an understatement.  With a genealogy of six generations of Southern Baptists and a family tree that includes a great-great-great-grandfather who was a minister during the Civil War in a rural North Carolina Baptist church, it's no surprise that I surrendered wholeheartedly to the faith of my forefathers.  I served as a minister of music and youth for five years in two Southern Baptist churches in South Carolina in the 1970s.  Even after leaving the ministry, I continued my membership in the church and its music programs for more than twenty years.  As the Southern Baptist denomination abandoned the doctrine that supported direct communication between the believer and Creator in favor of a collective acquiescence to a pervasive ultra-conservative leadership that led to the restructuring of its institutions of higher learning in the 1970s and '80s, I stayed.  When the boundaries between church and state blurred and the denomination took right-wing political bent, I stayed.  When the sermons of the ministers in the churches became a royal proclamation of morality as they and their leaders deemed it in the 1980s and '90s, I knew my favorite doctrine was in trouble, but I stayed.  Yet, eventually, that faith turned to heretical unorthodoxy—a seismic shift in my core belief system.  Why?
            My work as a paid staff person exposed me to the inner power struggles of church leaders and the budget requirements of doing “something great for God,” as one minister explained to me in the midst of a burgeoning capital campaign.  I overlooked the hypocrisy of rancorous Wednesday night business meetings with the harmonious Sunday worship services.  After all, the music was what God and I had in common.  I didn’t forgive the preachers for their tirades against homosexuals, but I ignored them because God and I knew better.  The “priesthood of the believer” was such a comfort—until it wasn’t.  I was forever changed by a personnel matter, a blip on the radar screen of Important Events.  When the church pianist, a close personal friend, was fired for being gay, I ran out of excuses for God and me.  If God didn’t want my friend, I was sure He didn’t want me, and the feeling was mutual.  I was done.
Charting that journey on a blackboard entails an array of colored chalk that begins with white for the innocence of childish trust to green for the color of money in the church to red for the anger of betrayal by believers to gray for the edges of doubt and disbelief in the Deity of my mother.  “God” and “throne” are words that summon visions of clouds and enormous golden chairs from a Cleopatra movie in the '60s—not a bad image, but not a convincing one either.  My maternal grandmother’s duel with the Devil also evokes strong feelings for me, but they are feelings of sadness for her inability to achieve that higher level of trust she desperately wanted.  She never could be quite good enough, and I can’t believe in a Deity that inspires fear and irrational guilt.  As for my dad’s mother, her irreverence was an early confirmation for me of my introduction to the doctrine of “the priesthood of the believer” and gave me permission to begin to overcome feelings of shame when I faced the puzzles of sexual identity that were my life.  My grandmother definitely had a unique relationship with her God.  Her words and sense of humor helped free me from the somber sermons of damnation in my youth and encouraged me to think for myself.  I wonder if she knew.
 All paths lead somewhere, and mine returns to where the journey began.  My faith is in the rising and setting of the sun each day—with hope that I’ll live to see them, and with love for the laughter that makes each day worth living. 
Sheila Morris was born and raised in rural Grimes County, Texas and describes herself as an essayist with humorist tendencies.   She is the author of two memoirs, Deep in the Heart – A Memoir of Love and Longing and Not Quite the Same. She and her partner Teresa live with their four dogs in South Carolina and Texas.   Her author’s website is