Sunday, May 10, 2009

I'M MUCH TOO YOUNG TO BE FEELIN' THIS DAMN OLD (or Part One of a sick-funny look at one of America's most notorious hospitals from the inside)

There are certain things you wouldn't mind hearing when you go to a doctor: "Your AIDS test was negative," "No, you're not pregnant," or "Just head on home. Today's Patient Appreciation Day, and your new heart is on us." Conversely, there are things you don't want to hear: "You need to head down to the county hospital's emergency room. Now."

Just my luck, on Sept. 13 I was told just that - along with, "We're calling you a cab to take you to the emergency room. Either take it for free now or pay for your own ambulance a few hours later."

Worry, cry, scream - I apparently didn't even have time for that. I had come in because my calves were swollen and discolored and had a wound that hadn't quite healed despite being visible for a month. I was utterly terrified, and I was caught between the cracks since my insurance eligibility at PW wasn’t until Nov. 1st. As the cab's horn honked outside, I leaped up, grabbed my backpack and bolted out of the office like I was starring in "The Fugitive."

Now I was living a movie cliché: I was literally racing against time to save my life, for the doctor had also told me if I had waited five more days to see her on my scheduled appointment, .I would have wound up in the Intensive Care Unit or dead.

Even more terrifying, at that moment, was the fact that I was hurtling towards LA County/USC General Hospital – the iconic building that served as the image and inspiration for ABC’s perennial daytime soap opera, and therefore the most famous hospital in America. Anytime someone mentions they're "going to County", people assume they're either headed to prison or to a medical experience that would make them wish they were behind bars instead.

“Oh my God! Why are you there?!” was the number one reaction I received even after clarifying I was headed to be healed rather than arrested.

Well, there’s any number of reasons a person can wind up there: a) they’re uninsured, b) they’re broke, or c) they’re batshit crazy. In my case I was neither broke nor crazy, but had slipped through the cracks as my new employer was about to rant me insurance in just two more weeks. My body always has the worst timing.

I’ve never been too scared of hospitals. I grew up living at one, since my dad was a VA doctor who was a rehab specialist, picking and prescribing which prosthetic arms and legs our veteran patient needed after they’d had their limbs blown off in battle.

We lived for our first two years of his job in a rented mansion-style house on a street of homes set aside for doctors new to the area. We kids adapted easily, only wondering on occasion why we had to cover our eyes in the morning as a mental patient peed on our lawn, or wondering why none of our friends’ parents let THEM come visit us, instead insisting we come play in their bland suburban neighborhoods.

Sure, you could say it was strange to ride my bike to my dad’s office after school and hang out with old soldiers missing parts of their mind or body. But I was friends with them, especially because of the hospital chapel’s Sunday Mass, which is what my dad dragged us to because he was too lazy to drive down the mountain from the hospital into town. I was glad we were at the hospital’s Mass, because where else could I meet a man like James Keever, who was in charge of the Scripture readings but would forget to wear a belt and his pants would fall to the floor in the middle of reading Jesus parables. He’d freeze as if wondering whether the throng before him noticed – of course we had! – and then kept reading, finished, hiked his pants back up from his ankles and sat down as if nothing had happened. Or Russell Houda, a polite little man in a suit who constantly drove my dad nuts by insisting he had to let me watch “The Beverly Hillbillies,” which my dad had declared off limits to me due to Elly Mae’s ample charms.

But my adult visit to LA County Hospital was a whole other world.

During my 14-hour wait to enter the County ER, I encountered a tattooed, mohawked Nine Inch Nails fan who was awaiting emergency dental surgery to remove a stray incisor which had somehow grown in upside down, rendered the left side of his face immobile by pinching the nerves within, and was now about a half-inch away from affecting the blood vessels leading to his eyeball. At least he was nonchalant about it, noting, "I'm used to pain."

Among the dozens of oddball examples of humanity I experienced there was an ancient Asian man who looked like he was about to drop dead in his plastic chair before anyone noticed him. And an angry African-American man who said he'd been waiting 10 hours just to pick up a refill on his blood pressure medication and now felt his heart beating so hard he thought it would burst right out of his chest.

Worst of all was the young Hispanic guy in a wheelchair, who had what appeared to be a gaping split in his skin along the top of his foot. When I asked him what happened, he replied, "Lawnmower accident." As I nearly retched, he further explained that he had originally cut the foot clean off, but the doctors at LAC/USC had miraculously reattached it and tried to make it work over six months of inpatient therapy. He went home, and even without having stood on it, had managed to reopen one of the major fault lines in his flesh.

The cost of his bill was $1 million and growing by the day. But all he could do was laugh in frustrated amazement: "Hey, at least I don't have to pay for it! Thank God for ATP!"

I didn't know it yet, but ATP stands for "Ability To Pay," and it is the program that makes care for all possible, yet puts the county health system's financial stability at risk.
The idea is that, after returning home, patients are asked to set an appointment with a billing department worker in which they are to bring in proof of income and bank statement for the month in which they were hospitalized. The ultimate bill is rendered as a percentage of the funds they had available in that particular month.

For instance, my official bill for a five-day, four-night stay was an "all-inclusive" $20,828. After looking at my less than Trump-worthy financial information, my ATP payment was declared around $1600.

And if my description of my stay as a "five-day, four-night, all-inclusive" experience makes LAC/USC sound suspiciously like a resort, consider the following. While I had a severe leg infection, it did not give me pain and wasn't contagious, so I was free to walk around the hospital at will anytime I wasn't strapped to an IV or sleeping. The food was actually pretty good, and the smart guys in my wing quickly caught on to the fact they could stash extra sandwiches, snacks and sodas to use anytime they wanted.

The hospital really was like a combination of resort and "Hogan's Heroes"-style prison - lights out at 11, TV off from 1030 p.m. to 6 a.m. If you're gone from the wing more than four hours, you start over in the hell of the ER waiting room. The patio for smoking was like a prison yard for a downtown max penitentiary, on a high floor and all fenced in, but the shower was described by Paul, the guy in the next bed over, as a "monsoon" and its warm mist was indeed the best I'd ever experienced. And I don't know whether I was just easily impressed after expecting less than nothing, but the ice water was pretty damn good too.

For the four of us men who shared a big room in the orthopedics ward, it indeed seemed a shelter from the storm. Paul was a Caucasian, 50-year-old gay personal chef who had months of therapy awaiting him, since the hospital had to replace a shattered shoulder with one made of plastic. He spoke like the wizened veteran of the place, able to define another patient within seconds.

"I can always tell the ones who just did time," he'd chuckle. "It's an ultra-masculine thing going on in their air."

The other two guys were Latinos, one who had simply broken his leg in a normal fashion, the other one recovering from the agonizing removal of a leg brace that had been held in place via a seemingly endless series of screws that left his leg looking like pummeled ground beef while gasping, seemingly 24 hours a day: “Oh, Dios mio! Aye Maria!”

And then there was me: the guy with a mysterious infection the doctors never quite defined, but who was able to wander with aplomb except for the four times a day IV drips sent medicine to save my legs.

BEHIND THE BOOKS AT BARNES & NOBLE (Yes, we hate you all. All of you customers asking where the Da Vinci Code is - or the bathroom...argh)

I started reading books way beyond my age level when I was 4 years old, so I’ve had a nearly lifelong love-hate relationship with them. My mom says I started reading sixth-grade science books because I watched “Sesame Street” three times a day and picked up all the phonics in them.

Other kids thought I was weird, I wound up getting glasses at an insanely early age because I strained them from sneaking books under my covers with a flashlight, and I eventually got more hooked on writing my own stories than reading those of others. So that’s why it was kind of ironic that when I was desperate five years ago and really needed a job, I got hired by a giant Barnes & Noble store.

You might think that if you’re gonna work retail, a bookstore would be a pretty cool dignified place to do it. After all, you’re not constantly having to tell people they’re not fat in clothing stores, or insisting they Supersize their fries. Instead, you’re opening their eyes and minds to great literature – or so you’d think.

Probably because I’m 6 foot 3 and 300 pounds and hard to miss in a lineup, my managers forced me to work as the Information Guy for the store. At my branch, the manager took it way too literally and had me really wear signs around my neck saying shit like “Information,” or “How Can I Help You?” What I really should have worn was a sign saying “Down the aisle and to the left,” because that’s where the bathrooms were and because we were the only place in Old Pasadena’s shopping district dumb enough to have public bathrooms, I had to repeat that phrase about 500 times a day. I got so used to doing it that the moment someone made that “uncomfortable” or “embarrassed” face people always use when seeking a bathroom, I’d just save them the hot air from their mouths, point and say “Down and to the left.”

What was more annoying is when these same people returned from the bathroom with a horrified look on their faces, asking if there was going to be any “janitorial services rendered” on the premises anytime soon. Look, you want 5000 people to be able to use the bathroom, you’re gonna get a mess – and my job title ain’t janitor. I fantasized about losing it and spewing those very same words to someone, but never got the chance. And though I led an employee-wide push to seal off the toilets from the public, the bosses refused – until they put up the Berlin Wall of Bathrooms two weeks after I left.

Instead, I came to hate people so much through that job that I played other tricks on them. Like if I knew I was about to leave for the night or had a break coming up, and there was no way anyone could have a chance to complain about me, I’d tell them the bathrooms were in the back part of the store and up the staircase. We had a single-story store, but that didn’t stop about 18 people a day from looking for the spiral steps to Bathroomland.
I also liked to wear other employee’s name tags for an hour or two per shift and give the surliest customer service imaginable, so that they’d get yelled at or have a report written up and not even know what hit them.

My favorite questions came from people who clearly didn’t know what they were looking for: people looking for “The Adventures of Don Quixote” came up as a frequent request from people who just couldn’t’ find it – because they were looking in the biography section. Yeah, for a story about an old man who fights windmills while riding a horse around the country – find his true-life autobiography. Parents who didn’t know they just bought the sluttiest teen fiction imaginable for their daughters were also fun to serve. But my favorite was an old lady in her 80s who came in on multiple occasions seeking my advice on which book about S&M or bondage was the best one to buy. Come on! I thought grandmas are supposed to spank you, not GET spanked!! My co-workers would just stand and laugh, saying that I was the only info guy – unless a hot girl walked in with a question, of course.

In fact, it was the fact that I wanted to kill customers – fantasizing about the funniest ways to perform a massacre – that drove me to quit the store. But before I got to that point, I encountered the truly crazy people in the store – whom we called “The Regulars” yet were anything BUT regular people. It was as if our store had been taken over by Skid Row as an additional day shelter for the homeless. Some of the grossest people in LA – make that ANYwhere – thought nothing of blocking our customers by lying in the aisles and conducting their personal hygiene rituals – which were time-consuming yet, judging by the results, extremely limited at BEST – in our bathrooms. One guy had the gracious timing to have a heroin overdose on the toilet during a Christmas season rush hour, yelling out as he was pushed out on a stretcher that he had hepatitis, causing everyone in sight to run for the doors.

You might ask, Where was security in this store? Well, we didn’t have even hidden security cameras like EVRY OTHER STORE ON THE PLANET because our managers said customer surveys showed they made people “uncomfortable.” Meanwhile, we lost 8 percent of our inventory each year – 1000s of books! – to theft and then were asked why it was happening.

My final straw with the world of retail books came when one of the regulars talked me into letting him stay on my couch because he was between homes. He seemed decent and cleancut, just a regular guy with some hard luck. He didn’t fully explain that he was between HALFWAY homes for his coke addiction, and waited until the fourth night on my couch he decided to tell me the story of how he did some time in prison for the time he accidentally killed a man. I realized this was his my way of telling me I’d better not EVER ask him to leave. But thankfully, I convinced someone to MOVE IN three days later and Mr. Regular was on his way out of my apartment.

On then rare occasions I set foot in that Barnes & Noble again, my former co-workers ask why I don’t drop by and visit more often. To which I say, do you think to o many Guantanamo Bay prisoners are gonna visit again for the sun and the ocean view? It’s against human nature to go anywhere NEAR where you’ve been traumatized.

IN THE BLOOD - the story a reformed Blood gangbanger caught between the cops and the streets

There are some stories you do because you have to, not because of an assignment but a burning need to help someone get their story out to the world. This was one of those stories. I'm likely going to be doing more about and with Shaka in the near future. Stay tuned. And see the great movie "Crips & Bloods: Made in America," when it's out on DVD (soon).

In the blood
Staying straight in a crooked world

Shaka walks up to the security guard’s table at Fremont High School in South Los Angeles and signs in as a visitor. He then flows smoothly through the halls of his alma mater and enters a small room that serves as a campus police center, complete with three LAPD officers — one white, one Latino, one African-American — who spend each day trying to ensure that the school’s tinderbox mix of races and ethnicities doesn’t erupt into gang violence.
On the wall behind the Latino officer is a crisply hung poster of the 1993 cult classic Western, “Tombstone,” with several badass actors sporting shotguns and pistols under the tagline “Justice Is Coming.” And with the arrival of Shaka, a tall and trim 29-year-old African American who’s also a reformed member of the Family Swans Bloods, an affiliate group of the notorious Bloods gang, that statement has just been bolstered. He comes in daily to help the cops reach the kids who are seemingly unreachable, and to talk them into one last shot at avoiding the court system and prison by doing the right thing in a world where they’re surrounded by wrong.
Shaka is the man’s street name — he prefers not to divulge his legal name, due partly to the street cred he’s established with his adopted moniker, and partly out of concern that harm could come if people know too much about his “real” self. Elaborately decorated Ed Hardy jeans and a navy-blue camouflage-style dress shirt mask an array of tattoos not quite faded into his complexion, the contrast revealing the dual worlds he’s trapped between — his gangbanging past, which earned him three trips to the pen for slinging dope before he went straight five years ago, and his present as a voluntary gang interventionist seeking to atone for his past evils as a violent drug hustler.
In his old life, the money flowed fast and easy; in his new one, he is unpaid by the LAPD or the schools, despite the fact they can’t operate nearly as well without the dozens like him throughout LA County who have seen the light and are trying to light a path for others to follow.
With the recent release of the incisive new documentary “Crips & Bloods: Made in America,” which recently played for a week at the Laemmele Playhouse 7 and will soon be released on DVD, Shaka has found validation as one of the primary interview subjects in the film, taking pride in showing that there’s a better way to live than thugging while also inspiring his own dreams of publishing a memoir of life on the streets, creating hip-hop CDs and designing his own clothing line.
Some might scoff at those ambitions as shallow and stereotypical of young people whose lives in the ’hoods of LA and other cities expose them to few examples of growing up to be doctors or engineers. But whether displaying his surprisingly striking shirt designs or pouring his soul out while gently reading the opening passage of his eloquently written memoir, Shaka shows he’s a man of surprises who just needs a chance to succeed — and he says there are countless more young African Americans just like him. For now, he’s blessed with the funds to survive and pursue his interests by also working with his childhood friend, Los Angeles Clippers star Baron Davis, who initiated the funding for “Crips & Bloods.”
“It feels like we’re not even American citizens, we’re just ‘blacks’ to most of America,” he says, while pointing out that the very same white cop who just consulted with him inside the school was now detaining a group of black male students after school for the apparent offense of talking in numbers. “People don’t think of us in the same way, that we have the same rights. Yes, having the police around does make us safer sometimes, but how are you supposed to stay positive when you’re afraid to walk anywhere alone because someone may attack you, yet you get questioned or detained when you walk anywhere with a group? That’s the whole cycle of gangs — you join for safety, to make friends and have some male companionship when most fathers are out of the picture. The officers don’t really know us, they don’t rest their heads in our neighborhoods at night or know what our dreams and concerns and families are like.” Side by sideThe words spill out from Shaka in a torrent, his eyes riveted on his listener, but, as he himself notes, he is just one man attempting to fight an epidemic of violence that has plagued Los Angeles for the past 60 years and seems to grow worse each decade. According to Father Greg Boyle, a Catholic priest who founded Homeboy Industries, a series of businesses that train ex-gang members to develop skills that will pay their bills legitimately, there are more than 86,000 ’bangers in more than 1,100 gangs in Los Angeles County alone.
“We’re the largest gang intervention program in the USA, with members of nearly 600 gangs walking through our doors here,” says Boyle, who started his ministry in 1988. “We locate jobs for them, and we have five businesses where enemies work side by side with each other: a bakery, restaurants, a silk-screening plant, maintenance and landscaping. It just sort of evolved over the years, with first a school and then a jobs program, opened a bakery, and now we also offer tattoo removal with two machines and ten rotating doctors.”
Boyle started Homeboy while stationed as a pastor at Dolores Mission in Boyle Heights from 1986 to 1992. His parish, one of the poorest the city, had eight gangs and LA’s highest level of gang activity.
“You could either keep your head in the sand or do something about it. There were mostly Latinos and only one African-American gang in the area,” says Boyle. “It’s still primarily Latinos that come here, merely because I hand out my card at masses and only Catholics come to the masses.”
Boyle recalls that his parishioners were skeptical and unhappy in the beginning of his gang efforts, when ex-members started attending church and receiving other services there. But, he notes, “The gang members were never the problem. They never are. It’s more the people demonizing them from the outside.”
Operating on a $3.5 million annual budget, raised not from church funds but from foundations, fundraising and the profits of the Homeboy businesses themselves, Boyle has been able to help thousands of ex-bangers over the years. Far from depending on charity from the diocese, Boyle and his young staffers are proud that parishes are now frequent customers, comprising a large portion of their 1,900-strong customer base.
“There’s no defined period of time that folks stay here, but it helps them when they get out of prison or when they immediately decide to redirect their lives,” says Boyle. “I don’t know many people that do all the stuff we do. It’s a rehab center for people who wanna redirect themselves.” Don’t disappearShaka decided to redirect himself while undergoing a harrowing crisis of conscience that nearly drove him mad five years ago. While he grew up in a stable home with both parents in which he said he acted perfect inside the house but “turned into an animal on the streets, changing every day like a chameleon,” Shaka went deep into the dealing lifestyle once he finished high school.
“There was so much violence I got caught up in, and it never seemed to go away, whether I was doing it or being around it and seeing it everywhere,” he says, his wide eyes welling with pain from the memories. “I finally started going crazy because I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and for like five days I was having my life flash before me without physically being in danger of dying.”
He finally emerged from the darkness, due to turning to God and his girlfriend Chrystal, a vibrant presence who has been with Shaka for six years and shares with him two young sons — Jaiden, 4, and Jaison, five months — and a small but well-kept pink stucco house.
“Jaiden was a result of that madness, because my girl kept calming me down by telling me she loved me and making love,” he recalls. “We’ve been together a long time. I want to set a good example to younger guys in the neighborhood that you stick with your kids and be there for them. When I came out of that madness, I started going to church, when I’d never been religious before.”
As he works tirelessly to quell tensions and set standards for the younger black men coming up through Fremont and other area schools, Shaka has to be fluid in his interactions. As a Latino student sits forlornly in the school police room after being busted for actually rolling marijuana in class, the LAPD officers are threatening the juvenile joint-maker with a trip through the courts, probation and community service — or, if he’s lucky, settling the incident with just a hefty dose of community service without marks on his criminal record.
The student plays nonchalant, but worry is clearly etched in his eyes. Shaka steps in, describing the terms of the deal with a little more slang and the forceful concern of an older brother.
“I know what I’d do if I was you,” he says, as the kid looks at him inquisitively. “I’d take the community service, no strings attached.”
The kid complies; negotiations have ended, problem solved. Stepping outside afterward, Shaka says he makes that kind of quick impact on youths because they know he’s been down the long road to prison over and over. Before he leaves for the day, the LAPD officers ask him to negotiate a meeting between them and a particularly troubled young man and his mother because the school had just pulled his file for a last-chance expulsion warning.
When he sees Michael, the student in jeopardy, smoking with friends outside after school, Shaka pulls Michael out of the pack and warns him how close he has come to expulsion and the courts, saying “It doesn’t have to be something specific. It’s a ton of little things adding up, and they don’t want you there anymore unless you shape up.”
Michael agrees to a meeting with his mom and the officials, and Shaka’s back rolling in his cousin’s car. It’s a stark drive through the neighborhood. He points out a house where a young man on a college basketball scholarship just got shot in the legs nine times by a gang simply for sitting outside in his car. These are the things that never seem to get better.
And yet the only way they can get better is if the residents of neighborhoods like this can be treated like everyone else, and seen as everyday people. Shaka pulls up on another block to introduce a reporter to “other hard-working honest people, and the moms that look out for the kids of the neighborhood.” One man is hooking up an elaborate stereo system for a client’s car, two moms come by and shake hands with a visitor, surprised and glad to see a white face taking the time to listen and meet folks in the area. “Don’t forget about us” is a refrain heard repeatedly as people say their goodbyes.
That unexpected warmth and friendliness flies in the face of the violent and dangerous image South LA neighborhoods are often saddled with. “Crips & Bloods” director Stacy Peralta, who first achieved notoriety as a pro skateboarder and director of the skateboarding documentary “Dogtown & Z-Boys,” says he was shaken by the same positive feelings.“It’s not what I had expected. I never had anybody give me a bad time and always had people being forthright and say thanks for making the film,” recalls Peralta. “Then they’d say ‘Don’t just disappear, come back to our community, be a part of it.’ They’re hungry for connection, hungry to be a part of the world, because in a sense they’re not.” An everyday thingEven more striking for Peralta was the effect he had on interviewees when he took them from their neighborhoods to a calm studio for in-depth questioning.
“People who struck me strongly, I’d bring them to another location where they could really sit down in a secure location and have a long talk without having to look over their shoulder,” Peralta explains. “They commented on being somewhere safe, saying ‘it’s nice to be somewhere I don’t have to think about something happening or someone giving me a hard time for being in the wrong place.’
“It’s really a tragedy that’s going on in this country and that, in a sense, it’s going on in secret. People always say after seeing the movie ‘I didn’t know this was still going on’ or ‘that it’s going on so close to us,’ and so it just goes on and on every day.”
Surprisingly, even the election of America’s first African-American president, Barack Obama, hasn’t created a groundswell of hope in the very place where it’s needed most.
“Some people were happy and I was excited on election day and then at the inauguration,” says Shaka, his face lighting up. “But I saw lots of other people just say ‘what the fuck’s this going to change for us? The same shit is still everywhere.’”
Pasadena’s got plenty of gang problems of its own, a fact that local gang interventionist Tim Rhambo has seen for more than 20 years — first as a member of the Pasadena Denver Lane Bloods and later as an activist with the local youth organization Day One. Like Shaka, he tries to spend as much time as possible mixing it up with gang members and those likely to join them, all in the hope of convincing them to break or remain free of the groups’ insidious influences.
Rhambo himself turned from gang life when he was 18, realizing that if he kept his wicked ways up he’d be heading to the harsh world of the state penitentiary rather than the simpler lockdowns of juvenile halls. The 40-year-old credits police officers and other community members for keeping on him to stay on a productive path, and is dedicating himself to give others the same influence — although the current economic crisis has forced Day One to cut him loose and he now struggles while working part-time with kids at the Asian Youth Center and as a boxing instructor at the Villa Parke Community Center in Pasadena.
“I do a lot of volunteer work down at Villa Parke, as a boxing instructor. And at my job now at the Asian Youth Center, I go out into the streets even after I’m off the clock,” says Rhambo. “This is real to me, and I think every generation it gets worse. When I was out gangbanging, the generation before me said you guys are doing stupid stuff, and said ‘we only was fighting, sometimes stabbings, but not with gunplay.’ Now there’s no respect for the old guys who been through it, and they don’t want to talk to [the young ones] because they’re afraid they’ll get shot.
“You gotta be out there on them every day for bangers to get it. I can’t see them two days, or one day and expect them to do what I expect. It’s hard. It’s a constant battle.”