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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

You Never Know What You'll Find

The biggest cliche, I think, about the show "COPS," which I don't mind admitting to you that I love with all my soul, are the "talking head" pieces that welcome the TV viewer back from commercials. If you still watch TV on a television, you know what "commercials" are.

The typical talking-head piece is filmed inside of a Ford Crown Victoria and it's a shot of the officer behind the wheel, and he or she briefly pontificates, in that cop sort of way, on some aspect of policing-- more likely than not, the "Reader's Digest" version of his or her affiliation with law enforcement.

"Well, I grew up in Fort Worth, and my dad was a cop, and his dad was a cop. I got three uncles in the Fort Worth Police Department, and my dog's a K-9 officer, so this kind of just seemed like a good fit for me. I've been on the job now for fourteen years and I love comin' to work every day-- every day is different. You never know what you'll find."

I've come to grips recently with the fact that they, the police, are never going to accept me into their fold. While I have written a book on their behalf, donated to their causes, penned passionate essays in newspapers, given speeches at police cafeterias and assembly halls, while I have shaken hands with precinct lieutenants and captains and even the Commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department, I won't be wearing their uniforms or enforcing their laws.

I do, however, work at a mental hospital, and as such I can faithfully state that their catchphrase, "Every day is different-- you never know what you'll find" holds true for me. When I slide my gold-colored key into that steel door in the morning, my coffee hot and my hair still wet, I can never quite tell what I will be greeted by.

"I'll never forget my first day here," a co-worker of mine said to me, half-wistfully, just the other day. "It was three years ago-- and the very first hour I was on the unit, this coked-up black guy wandered out of his room-- completely buck-ass naked-- into the hallway and started doing pushups. Then he stood up, peed into a paper cup, and drank it."

My first day was September 13th, and it's hard for me, almost three months later, to remember the exact details. But one thing I can say for sure: yesterday was different from my first day, which has been different from every other day since. On Sunday, I was running an art group for the acute ward patients. There was one of me, and six of them, seated around a long, rectangular table, making holiday cards. For whom, you might ask? Oh, well, one patient was making a holiday card for his daughter. Another patient made one for "the aliens." Another had a big bloody skull on the cover and was addressed to "obamanigger."

"I might not be able to mail that one," I told the patient in question. In truth, we're not allowed to mail anything to the White House, regardless of how the President's name is spelled.

While the patients were drawing, I had classical music playing and, for a rare moment, everyone was peaceful, focused, and content. And in walked Kim-Chee (not his real name!), a fifty-year-old Asian patient, wearing three pair of jeans. He had face cream all over every inch of his face-- maybe he had used five or six packets of it, and he looked like some kind of bizarre Kabuki performer from long ago, all you could see were these tiny little eyes peering out from behind this gloppy, white mask. Everyone at the table looked up from their holiday cards and turned to regard this sight. Kim-Chee looked back at us for a moment, the moment where I always wonder if something violent is about to happen, and then he turned around and walked out. My patients wordlessly returned back to their holiday cards.

This is one of the first jobs I have ever truly enjoyed-- which is funny, because I've had a lot of jobs in my life, and if you told me that I would enjoy being inside an acute mental institution, one of the most unpredictable and potentially violent places in the state, well, I would have told you that you were crazy. But I guess there has always been some part of me that thrives on a delicate mixture of predictability and chaos. The predictability is provided by the schedule, and the monotonous, mountainous paperwork, and the chaos is provided by, well, duh. But there's hope here, too-- it's not just about the zany antics and the unreal shit that they say, which shouldn't crack me up, but sometimes does. There is great, deft humanity here ensconsed within these cinder-block walls, and I'm privileged to be a part of it. You never know what you'll find. Sometimes it's an eerily familiar last name on the admissions sheet. Sometimes it's someone trying to choke themselves in the shower with a torn pillow case. Sometimes it's a faker, or a cutter, or a genius, or a soloist, or a racist. Jesus is here almost every day, in one form or another. A patient gave me a little card with his picture on it just yesterday. I put it on my wife's pillow.

Yesterday found me running art group on the acute ward again. An elderly man, white hair and a beard, frail and gowned with a flannel shirt on, too, was brought back onto the ward after being transferred here from prison. Who knows what he did. The nurse sat him down and covered his bare, spindly little legs with a blanket. As she did, she noticed that the front pockets of his flannel shirt were bulging impossibly. She told the patient to empty his pockets, and out came twenty or thirty ketchup packets, napkins, and plastic forks and spoons. She stood him up and had him reach into his diaper, which I thought was a little much, until he pulled out more forks and spoons. The nurse turned to me and we made eye contact as she picked up the utensils with a gloved hand, throwing them into a trash can nearby.

"Take your feet out of your slippers," she said to the patient, still looking at me. I smiled uncomfortably.

The patient sat down and slipped his feet out of his slippers. The nurse turned to me again.

"Are you kidding me? Really?"

She wrinkled her nose and furrowed her brow as she pulled out two sausage patties, one in each slipper.

You never know what you'll find.


  1. I remember you saying how much you disliked working there. It's nice to hear that you actually enjoy it now. The day goes by much faster if you don't hate what you do.

  2. I'm so happy you're enjoying the job more now than you were.

    I guess that's…exactly what that other girl said.

    Anyway, I'm better.

    If the whole "mental health" thing doesn't work out for you, you should open a spa and offer treatments like the Kim-Chee facial and the sausage-patty pedicure.

    It's got legs.

  3. PW- What a wonderful idea. Even a girl with semi-webbed toes can appreciate the porcine profundities of a sausage-patty pedicure.

  4. She might be mental but she's not stupid :0


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