Excerpt for American Wage Slave by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

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

Anaheim Police Department Clerks On The Edge of The Abyss

The Der Wienerschnitzel Debacle

The Pink Tiger Dry Cleaning Nightmare

Terminal Ward Worker In The AIDS Epidemic

Full Circle With Rodney King

My James Brown Panic Story

J.D. Dupri And My Flight From The Rap World

The INS Incident

He Was Not An Imposter

Full Circle With Lionel Ritche

The Geneva Building


Ma & Pa Security

Other Smashwords Ebooks by Mel C. Thompson

Living On $300 Per Month In San Diego

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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

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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 third-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, though 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. 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

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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 that 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

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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

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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 patient, 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 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 also lived in Southern California when I had, 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. Also, 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; and 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, though there were some swing shifts too. 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 at night, 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 or swing shift driver over to get the body. Given how harried the nurses and administrators and chaplains were, it was decided that the duty of meeting the men from the mortuaries at night 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 is a curious matter to some people that I should consider my experiences in this hospital to be so disillusioning. Hadn’t my first two families abandoned me? Hadn’t I abandoned my third family? One might think, having seen these terrors in my own family and in myself, that I might have simply passed off this family-abandonment phenomena at the AIDS ward as simply a part of life as I understood it. But I did not take the family situations of these dying men with the equanimity one might imagine I would. This is because I viewed my three families, and myself, as not at all typical.

Even then I realized I was a very high-maintenance person, and it could just be that my families had burnt out on trying to deal with the complexities of my case. It could reasonably be speculated that, at some point, they felt it was a choice between their survival or mine. Whether accurate or not, it’s not inconceivable that someone could reach that conclusion, since I was mostly a huge problem since the day I was born. And my leaving my third family was not a surprise to outside observers, most of whom were confused that I had not fled long ago. We had, more than several times, left people who observed us with an impression of profoundly-strained and awkwardly-labored artificiality. So, rail as I might, against those who had deserted me and those I had deserted, there must have been some level of acceptance there, at least up to that point in my “career.” Weird people and weird families break apart. That was not really news to me.

But apparently, at least to some part of my mind, it was another thing altogether to see countless “normal” families abandoning their sons. My case could be written off as odd, some incidental and eccentric evil, whether on the part of my relatives, or me, or both. But it was seemingly too much for me to see something worse happening on such a massive scale that it was becoming normal.

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. 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 son 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

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