At the end of a long trek through the Iroquois Regional Medical Center, the new intern arrived at last at the Behavioral Health wing and called an elevator for the nether world of drug addicts, pushers, and alcoholics. A group of young black men assembled with him, erupting in greetings and handclasps whenever a new one arrived. Izzy shrank away lest he be struck by flying elbows and chucks of gold swinging from their necks. Like most white guys, he had seldom experienced being a minority and, now that the tables were turned, he studied these men and wondered if his awkward limbs could ever move with their grace. Suddenly, it seemed important, when it never seemed important before. At last, the elevator arrived and they stepped in, Izzy among them.
The group quieted in that confined space as they all turned to the door and posed, like actors waiting for the curtain to open. Out of their individual headsets pulsed beats far heavier than any elevator music he’d ever heard. At last, they reached the basement and the door released them. The group bopped out into the waiting area of the outpatient clinic, necks craning and heads bobbing to their beats.
A disapproving, rotund office manager received them as they emerged from the elevator. She ordered the men into the smoking room. “Get a smoke and wait there till your group starts. And hitch up your pants and don’t cause no trouble.” As for Izzy, when he told her he was the new intern, she peered over her glasses and sighed. “You gunna be working with Craig Creek. He not in now. We don’t got no office for you, so I’m gunna have to be squeezing you in with him. You wait a minute, now. I’ll get maintenance to move a desk.”
“No, don’t do that. I’ll wait for him,” said Izzy. No one likes to share an office, he thought, especially when he’s had one to himself. Even married couples that’ve shared a bed, a bathroom, and a supper table, will fight only when they have to share their home office. And people like to be private when they’re counseling. The clients certainly do. No one would want to pour out their troubles with this Craig Creek, or whatever his name was, listening in a few feet away. And, what’s more, any intern would be terribly self-conscious, knowing his nascent attempts at counseling were being monitored by another. Furthermore, it would seem presumptuous to move right into his office on the questionable authority of this office manager. What if he thought it was all Izzy’s idea? That would hardly be a good foot to step off on when introducing himself to a new supervisor.
“It’s a big office and you’ll have lots of room, but suit yourself. He be a minute. Just get some coffee and settle down a bit.”
A call came in then and she answered it, so Izzy looked around for the coffee pot. He figured it would be in the smoking room, so he headed for the door that the jive patrol had passed through. A stinging cloud engulfed him when he opened it. Did the room catch fire from some stray ash? He glanced around for an extinguisher and considered the exit, but the other inhabitants didn’t seem alarmed. One of the black men was chanting hip hop, pants still drooping, while the others draped themselves across chairs and held cigarettes in front of their grins. Overhead, an air purifier ran for dear life.
He found the coffee urn. Sitting near it, a lone ruminating man rolled cigarettes from a yellow pouch he kept on his lap. His fingers were stained the same color as the pouch. Stacked next to him was already a cord or so of rollups and one balanced on his lips.
Izzy was intrigued by the idea of drug addicts and alcoholics. He was a ditherer, he was all about dithering. He spent his whole life orbiting earth, looking for a place to land, whereas these folks shot for the stars. They missed, of course, and many burned up on re-entry, but he admired the addicts’ chutzpah. He, like many, was drawn to wild and mysterious marvels. He thought, the man who wakes up every morning, sick, homeless, and broke and, somehow, finds a way to raise hundreds of dollars for smack should be teaching MBAs at Harvard. While so many others cringe at imagined, never-materializing dangers, the crack whore, against all reason, braves the hazards of the street for a moment of pleasure. Medal of Honor winners should be saluting her. Like many, Izzy loved the very thing that he couldn’t do. Whatever was most unreachable was most desirable. Many would counsel that we accept things as they are. Indeed, recovering addicts make a career out of that saying; abandoning their true nature just as West Indians brought to Spain by Columbus affected Spanish airs.
“How’s the coffee?” Izzy asked the cigarette-rolling man, trying to be sociable, although the man didn’t have a cup.
“It’ll give you nightmares,” he said. Izzy drew a cup anyway, thinking the man looked like he hadn’t slept for a week, and couldn’t know anything about nightmares. With his first sip, he knew the man was right. He clenched his teeth at him to show his agreement. “You come here often?” Izzy asked.
“I have group three days a week, three hours a day.” After a pause, he sniggered, “And I got my three month coin the other day; three days ago. I’m Lawrence.”
It might have been the most beat up room in the medical center, that smoking room. The chairs were battered; the tables rickety and ornamented with coffee rings. Yellowed posters thumb tacked to the wall proclaimed sayings as ill used as the room.
A DRUG IS A DRUG IS A DRUG
YOU CAN’T SAVE YOUR FACE AND YOUR ASS AT THE SAME TIME
EASY DOES IT
ONE DAY AT A TIME
FIRST THINGS FIRST
LET GO AND LET GOD
A man with a plastic badge and a face full of wrinkles came in, pumped some nicotine into his lungs, snuffed out his cigarette, and called the hip-hop club to group. Izzy asked, “Is that Craig Creek?
“No, that’s Pellegrino. Craig’s got a shit load of tattoos.”
Izzy went out with them and returned to the office manager. He was beginning to feel suspicious of this Craig Creek with a shit load of tattoos. When was he going to be in?
“He be here any minute,” said the office manager. “He called this morning and said he’d be late. He was picking his bike up from repairs.”
His supervisor was a tattooed biker tooling around on his machine in the autumn cold. Izzy thought, he might be prone to hocking up loogies and spitting them in the wastebasket, Izzy could get his head smashed in with a tire iron if his chair squeaked too much.
This was no place for him, he thought. Many drug and alcohol counselors were former addicts themselves, coming in as full-fledged professionals with far less education than he, with ten years of college, already had as an intern. Most chemical dependency clinics preferred to hire their recent graduates, transferring from Hard Knocks University, majors in pill popping, bottle tipping, and stem sucking; to those from more conventional institutions. Izzy was a mere dilettante when it came to fucking himself up.
“Do you have a phone? I’d like to call my professor,” he said to the office manager.
“Sure enough.” She picked up an old dial phone and placed it in front of him. The bell rang when she moved it. They weren’t big on privacy here, he could see.
It took some doing to get his professor on the phone. He had to call three places and they paged him out of class. Izzy said to the phone, “Are there any other internships…. Yeah, I already knew that…. I know, I didn’t make the deadline … It was all you could do to get me this placement…. Yeah, I know I was lucky they took me without having to go on an interview…No I don’t want to wait for next semester…I know; it isn’t too late to take an incomplete…Thank you very much. I’m sorry to, like, bother you. I won’t call again like this…. Yes, I know you have office hours…. I’m sorry I told them I was your son in the emergency room and you almost had a heart attack when they paged you out of class…. Do you have your pills on you?… I’m sure your son is just fine, he’ll, like, live a long life and you’ll have many grandchildren…. No, I didn’t know he just told you he was gay…. I’m sorry, I won’t bother you again, professor. That was totally uncool…. I’m sorry… Yes, I will…. I’m sorry, professor…. Goodbye.”
The office manager was trying to look as though she wasn’t listening when he hung up the phone. He said, “Don’t you have, like, a closet, or something, you could put me in?”
“You come back here with me. I got a room I can put you up in. It’s not big, but it be all yours. “
With that, the good woman went to a door down the hall and vigorously began to haul out reams of paper and boxes of pens while talking non-stop. The supplies, staked up in the hall outside, began to teeter and tumble across the hall. She came near slipping a disk trying to move a heavy shredding machine by herself. Izzy told her to quit, for heaven’s sake; he’d finish clearing it out. He didn’t want her to be hurting herself on his account. So, after grabbing a fistful of post-it notes, she returned, grinning, to her desk and left him imagining his floor plan.
After getting all the supplies out and piling them by the copier, Izzy found that the light was poor, but that could be mended by bringing a desk lamp from home. It could fit a small desk, but he had to put the chair up on the desk to shut the door. There was no room for someone else to sit with him, of course, but he figured he could always steal into an empty room somewhere for an interview or therapy session. However, there was no phone, no computer, and no air circulation to speak of, so he began to think he might be harboring unwarranted preconceptions against this Craig Creek. Consequently, Izzy abandoned the scheme and hauled the supplies back in.
“Ma’am,” he said to the office manager, “I’ve thought this over. I’d like to see Mr Creek’s office.” He had an idea that inspecting his space might give him an idea what to expect from him.
“I can do that. You just follow me, now; I’ll have you there in a minute. And don’t call me ma’am, my name’s Melvina. Craig’s not usually late. He comes right on time, every day, even when he’s sick or it’s snowing like crazy outside. The only time he ever misses work is for his bike. That’s his baby.” She ushered him into a large office, big enough for four biker counselors to fit in with their desks. “You see, it’s a big room. Craig won’t mind.” By the time Izzy turned around from scanning it, she had already disappeared.
There was nothing remarkable at all about the room, except for its unremarkableness. In fact it had the look of an inhabitant that lived so exclusively within his head that he seldom looked around to see where he was or how untidy it had become. Like a bachelor’s apartment that only needs a john to piss in, an armchair to watch the game in, and a refrigerator to keep the beer in, this space was nothing more than space: a spot to write charts and sit in. It’s true that Craig Creek counseled in this space, but the people he counseled were only one half step removed from the street. They slept on a mattress thrown on the floor without even a sheet to cover its loose buttons. They could feel at home in this office, a basement apartment of an office. The greenish desk bore the same coffee rings as the tables in the smoking room and Craig Creek’s desk chair had a missing screw that caused the arm to rotate out like a wing. A bookcase had no books, but was stuffed with papers and loose-leaf binders and a tall filing cabinet proved when they later moved it to make room for his desk, to contain nothing more than a can of coffee. Two dog-eared posters squared off on opposite walls: a twelve-step poster on one wall and Harley-Davidson on the other.
Izzy sat on a side chair in this dingy, windowless office for some time thinking about this bike riding chemical dependency counselor who was assigned to be his role model and his mentor. After thinking some time on that chair, he got up and took off his coat and thought some more. This room was a far cry from the glitz and forced cheerfulness of the medical center lobby, yet both were in the same building. In one wing of this medical center, cancerous tissue was cut out of patients in bright-lighted operating rooms. In another wing, patients were sent for a regular dose of carcinogens before therapy. In one wing, patents were matched with white coated, overeducated doctors. In another wing, the medical center let tattooed bikers have a go at them. How did he end up here? He had dithered, left it up to fate, and he went where they sent him, thinking it was all his idea in the first place.