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JOHNNY-THE-ORDERLY & other stories photo


At the front desk you signed in, and behind the desk sat people who were very different from, yet the same as, Johnny the orderly from detox. Some of them even kind of looked like Johnny the orderly, if significantly shorter, but complete with the baldness and the spectacles and that look that told you you were on their last nerve. The man I’m referring to, I never learned his name, but he reminded me of a Herman. As in Melville, though he was not white nor bearded, nor a novelist. But he had the bedraggled attitude of a snuffed poet, and if it wasn’t PHP, I could easily picture him suffering through the endless books of a custom house, while his wartime dirges molded in his decrepit notebook and he went to his death unnoticed and uncelebrated. But this Herman, he would make sure that you peed. He also had a snaggle-toothed maw that distinguished him from Johnny the orderly, other than his small stature, you see. He had this tooth that hung out there in the front of his mouth, and you wondered how it had managed to hang on when all of its brethren had abandoned the holler that was his jaw. But you got the sense that you knew exactly how things had ended up that way, and how he had landed this exact job, and otherwise why he was in charge of making sure he got your pee. In other words, Herman was a man who knew the man, if you know what I mean, and if you know what I mean, then you know what I mean. It wasn’t every day that this happened, but your name came up. You’d see it on a chart on the wall on a cheery-looking tiny whiteboard, just inside the little cubby where Herman sat, your name in a colorful orange, so colorful it was menacing, like a biohazard warning. You didn’t have to pee right when you checked in and you saw your name, but you had to do it at some point. Around mid-morning, if you hadn’t yet peed, they chanted out your name over a loudspeaker along with the other delinquents who’d yet to provide their bodily fluids. It was like this: “Urine samples: Taylor, Briggs, Iredell, Simpson….” Etcetera. So even if you knew you still had to do it, so did everyone else. Then you come across someone—Slater, say—and he’d tuck his long hair over his ear and say, “You gotta go pee, dude,” and then you’d have to say “I know. Oh, jeez. oh, man,” like that. In the bathroom, Herman would stand behind me while I stood at the urinal, after he handed me the cup and I’d listen to his breathing as the sound of my stream octaved up as the cup filled. This was a sad symphony, if it wasn’t triumphant—which most of the time—happily—it was. But there were times when it wasn’t. 



I cannot say that I had a positive opinion of folks within this profession prior to these experiences, and I guess I’m sad to say that that opinion has not changed, or has degraded even. If only there was a guild for the sad psychiatrists who are sad about the indifference that their patients feel about their psychiatrists’ indifference. I’m convinced that concentric circles like these are the psychiatrists’ ilk; some mad kind of Dante had to have constructed this thing. I imagine an entire cadre of psychiatrists following round one another, picking up where the last left off, all of them pocketing money, and all of them deeply sad, and all of them unable to feel what they’re asking others to feel, precisely because they cannot feel it themselves. Just imagine this washing machine of clothing that never gets clean! Most psychiatrists, I’m convinced, could never possibly have family or friends or any other kind of relations. Where would they find the time? I have no idea what they do with said time, but it is, apparently, built into schedules that do not include you by any means, or if they do, that all happens on their time, and then we run right into the same problem we started with. What problem was that? Oh god. The psychiatrist's understudy or assistant or whatever one calls such a person—it’s amazing that I myself, with my years of graduate school, and knowledge of graduate student ranks, still have no idea what one calls an apprentice to a psychiatrist—was a fat kid. Let me be fair about the fact that I am myself a fat kid, so there’s that. But he came and sat in front of me as I told him my tale. I’ve already told you that what that is doesn’t really matter here. So, it remains that that fat kid sits there as I talk and he takes no notes and there never is a time that I see the actual psychiatrist though I’m supposed to be paying for that, and still it never happens and there’s no one to talk to and no one to care except to care in myself, and so me, I’m left exactly the same as before I came to this awful awful place. Except the food is ok. 



Three days before the end of detox this little guy got admitted who was–as people like to say, ridiculously–a live wire. I’ve never seen an actual live wire, so I cannot say whether or not they jig all over, but this guy was like a fish on a line. He’d been beaten too, or fallen, or something like that. Whatever had bloodied and bruised up and swollen his face had been hard and direct and dispassionate. Imagine an eggplant exploding, and imagine that explosion, like, arrested, or the video paused at the exact right moment or something. This was this guy’s face. He was led to a room, into which he disappeared, and we didn’t see him again till morning. But breakfast was a depressing sight, and if you ever need conviction to control your urges, go to detox. This poor man had to be fed. It was Jon, I think, who fed him. Jon himself still had the shakes, but they’d subsided to a tremor he could hide. I watched as Jon spooned scrambled eggs to this man’s mouth, and watched the confetti of eggs as it rained down around the table at which they sat. The orange juice–through a straw, no less–wasn’t any different. Listen, I’ve had babies and toddlers to feed, and I know what kind of mess they can make of themselves and their environment. This was a hurricane of devastation, both in the sense of what happened to the breakfast, and the effect of watching the ordeal on one’s emotions. But with this man, the effects of detox, and how substances can turn you into a Picasso of a person, but how you recover from them, made the human body a kind of spiritual thing. By the time I checked out, this man–I never learned his name–was clean and dressed, and his face had healed such that you could see his eyes, and he was feeding himself–gloriously. He hugged me. I don’t think I said a word to him ever, but I can still feel his hug. 



When you peed in the cup, Herman was behind you, watching. Poor Herman, he had a face like an empty cup. It was something, in that his face was a thing, like an empty cup, but it was something mostly useless until something was in it. And when you thought about what filled Herman’s cups, the tragedy of his life was laid out before you, like an endless line to the porta-potties at some concert. What I’m trying to say is: imagine that your job is to collect people’s urine at a rehab and just sit with that for a moment. There’s no Bartleby to prefer not to in this case. When you walked through the swinging glass doors at the entrance, Herman was watching you. As you traversed the halls between sessions, Herman watched as you sauntered past. Sometimes Herman might utter a kind or at the very least a passing word. Sometimes, “alright.” Actually, almost always it was “alright.” I feel that was Herman’s favorite word, an odd choice for someone working where he worked, where almost no one was alright. Sometimes I wonder about Herman or Liz and all of the many upper echelons that made up the Institute. Where do they go when they have their troubles? How do you get help when you’re supposed to be the helper? I often wonder this same thing when it comes to paramedics or firemen. The cops I never worry about. Don’t even get me started on that. But the people of the Institute, I suppose that they hole up in their mansions amid all their good feelings. I know this cannot be literally true, but still. There are only so many hospitals, and at all of them you’re bound to know someone. What if there was a place where you could always find your mother? I guess that is heaven, and that is why when people call out in their death throes they call for their mothers. Those sweet and awful—and I mean this latter in the original definition and use of the word—life bringers, who could kiss every wound away and wipe away tears with the strands of their hair. 



Unlike detox there were people all over PHP. Some you’d never met because they’d been in detox a week or two before you and others because they were on the psych side of things and had been in Cottage C. And unlike detox you were to some degree free. Folks disappeared, and you wondered what happened to the short fat little lady whom you worked out the Ven diagram of your thoughts, feelings, and actions out of your circle of influence and circle of control bullshit last Monday. She’d been painfully shy but sweet, and when she knew you meant nothing but kindness towards her, she opened up—just a sliver of light coming out from where her soul burned within. And that tiny slide of light was about to restore something within you, but then she was gone and you had to wonder if she wasn’t a ghost. There were folks who stuck around and you wonder about them today: the little good-looking alcoholic who onetime said in a meeting that he was amazed at what sobriety has allowed him to see again. Colors, he said. Suddenly he was aware of colors. Imagine that. There was the washed up and destroyed mother, also an alcoholic, who told you that she’d finally gotten sick of waking up on the floor of her laundry room in a pool of her own vomit, her jeans damps from her piss, not knowing how the knot in her head had gotten where it was, and she’d sickened of her kids being wary of just being around her, and as she told you this she was underneath the branches of a painful pine that looked like it wanted to wrap her in the arms of its branches and swallow her whole. But mostly, things escape you, flying off as they do into the outer reaches of your memory, and only coming back the way comets do, after years and years, when you’re a completely different person. But you can almost remember the person you used to be and you knew that man was tainted, polluted, like a Southern river.