The following piece was presented at the Jersey City Writers’ monthly genre event–Reflections: A Reading of Memoir Vignettes. Please enjoy.
First job out of graduate school – a city hospital. My Master’s was in psychology. With that and my training in dance therapy, I got my first job. I was responsible for activities on the locked unit of a New York City hospital.
Years later, after I got my second Master’s, an MSW, I had a supervisor who used to stick new people with the worst cases. He’d introduce this dump on you by saying, “Hey, here’s a great learning case for you.” He’d emphasize learning and he had this leering way of extending the word.
That’s what being on the locked unit of a city hospital is – it’s a whole slew of ‘learning cases.’ You learn never to turn your back on the patients. You learn never to take the wrong people, that is, the strong-willed, irrational people, off the unit. In addition, you learn a deep sense of compassion for the people who have nothing and no one. The people on a locked psychiatric unit of a city hospital are the indigent who have been committed due to their being ‘a danger to self or others.’
One of the activities I ran for the hospitalized patients was a recreational cooking group. I was expected to bring at least a handful from the locked unit. An older nurse from that unit was assigned to ‘help.’ She would take a chair and as far as I could tell, she acted as though it was her time off. This group was open to other patients in the hospital, too.
That assignment prompted me to think hard about how to cook safely. I would do nothing with ‘sharps’ such as knives, forks or anything else I could imagine could be used to stab. And, I would cook nothing that required an open flame.
What did that leave? Cake mixes! Small groups could gather at tables with a bowl and something with which to stir, an egg, some liquid. I did that for a month.
At the end of the month two things happened.
First the nurse said to me, “It looks like you’re going to last, so I’ll tell you about the patients.” She proceeded to tell me about the one who had thrown the last activity therapist up against the wall. That therapist was still hospitalized with brain damage, and, she told me who was in the hospital for violent actions, or stabbing, fighting. Sometimes, everything you need to know, you learn after you’ve proved you can last a month on a job.
Also, at the end of the month, one of the higher functioning patients, a vet in a wheelchair, complained to me. “I’d like to do French Fries,” he said, “haven’t had a good French Fry in a long time.”
The following week I brought a bag of frozen fries that could be spread out on a baking sheet. He was disappointed, “That’s not what I mean…” he whined.
We negotiated. I didn’t want to lose him. One of the requirements of doing groups is to keep your numbers up. He was one of my numbers. I explained the problem with the sharps. He said he was military and he could deal. I believed him. The next week I bought potatoes, but only he was allowed to use the paring and cutting knives which I unlocked and left accessible only one at a time and specifically for him.
One morning I walked into the day room of the locked unit. It was a large expansive room where patients sat in chairs rimming the perimeter against the walls. A new, elderly gentleman, clean, well-dressed, approached me.
“You must be the singer,” he said.
I joked, that if he’d ever heard me sing, he’d never say that again.
He told me he played the piano. He couldn’t remember who he’d played with or where. He couldn’t remember his own name. He was charming. He was sociable and a good conversationalist. I said I’d get back with him.
At the nurse’s station, they told me he’d been brought in with amnesia. No idea of who he was or where he was from. He’d floated the I[‘m a piano player identity but they didn’t really believe him.
A week or so later, there was a hospital-wide birthday party to be held in the auditorium. I brought him and one or two of the other manageable patients from the locked unit to enjoy the music, ice cream and cake.
As we walked into the auditorium, on the stage was a grand piano. He turned to me and smiled, “I know why you brought me, all the girls like to hear me play.”
I protested, “You’re here to enjoy yourself, you don’t need to play.”
“Announce me,” he declared imperiously and strode up to the stage.
I went over to the other worker who was hooking up speakers and held a mic.
“He says he’s going to play for us,” I said about my patient, “and, he wants to be announced, but he’s amnesiac and no one knows his name!”
He was already seated at the piano beaming at the audience. He nodded our way.
“Can he play?” my co-worker asked.
“I have no idea.” I replied.
With sophisticated aplomb, my co-worker spoke into the mic, “One of our residents will now play the piano. Give him a warm welcome.” She began to clap and the rest of the patients followed.
He started to play. He was accomplished. His repertoire included, Bye, Bye Blackbird, Satin Doll and plenty of old jazz standards. The audience of patients and staff listened with gusto. I couldn’t remember the last time there’d been great live music in that auditorium.
As we left the party on the way back to the unit, he turned to me, “Miss, you have to call the Union Hall and tell them I played.”
“I will, as soon as you can tell me your name,” I responded.
It was many weeks until it was discovered that he had an adult daughter. She’d been looking for him, here in New York City where she lived. She’d been looking for him in Buffalo, where he’d come from. The real story was that he’d been mugged while in the City, brought to the hospital by the police with no identification, his wallet had been stolen, and been here ever since.
Some of the older staff began to claim that they’d seen him at the Cotton Club or another classy venue and he’d tell them, yes, that’s where he’d played. The hospitals was where he remained for the rest of his life, like so many of the residents. I moved on. It was the beginning of my career and the last stop for his.