When I had been living in San Francisco in my late teens, I remember being destitute and walking around San Francisco with only 25 cents to my name. I ate at the “missions” sometimes where you would get soup and a sermon. There were a couple of times that I was desperate enough for a few dollars that I would sell my body for a few bucks to eat. I would go to the unemployment office but could only get sporadic, temporary, minimum wage jobs. On one of those visits, I saw a flyer about a training program that would pay you while you attend classes to become a Licensed Psychiatric Technician. It wasn’t long after Kenny had drank drano and killed himself and immediately after Jim Archiquette sent me and Louise suicide notes, that I fled back to Washington State. I worked for my dad at the Brunswick in Toppenish until my mom called or sent a letter to ask if I wanted to come to Upland to participate in a vocation program to become a Licensed Psychiatric Technician. I jumped at the opportunity, feeling like it might be my last opportunity to do something to get on my feet and finally have some independence and security.
After the year long program, I passed the California State board and got my license to work as a Licensed Psychiatric Technician. I had missed San Francisco so much during that year of Southern California suburban freeways. I would spend my weekends driving an hour to West Hollywood where there was a gay community and went to the bars and baths there but it was not the same as San Francisco at all. Gay people in San Francisco had seemed like an extension of the Haight Ashbury hippies, while the gay scene in West Hollywood seemed scattered and plastic by comparison. I returned to San Francisco as soon as I could.
I lived in the hotel over the Rainbow Cattle Company at the corner of Valencia and Duboce streets. I had a $10/week room with a bathroom down the hall and everyone on my floor shared a kitchen and a pay phone. I went out to all the hospitals in the area that had psychiatric units and even hitchhiked down to Agnew’s State Hospital, about an hour South of San Francisco, which would eventually become the campus for Sun Microsystems. Then, one day, someone came to get me in my room to say that I had a call on the pay phone. It was Saint Francis Hospital.
Initially, when I first started working at Saint Francis, I would tuck my long pony tail, which went to the middle of my back, up under a synthetic short haired wig. I think I had purchased it at Macy’s with Louise one day. I can not fathom why Macy’s would have been selling short haired wigs at the time but it looked real enough that I could pass as someone much more conservative. The Director of Nursing at Saint Francis at the time, Doris Weber, was very conservative. I wore that short haired wig for the first six months or so that I worked at Saint Francis.
Since I was 6’4″ and male, I was often called upon to manage out of control patients. Registered Nurses were the ones that were in charge and the ones who gave out the assignments and that would direct the activities of the staff. It often felt like I was put into tenuous situations by the R.N.’s. They seemed to have all the power. I wanted some of that.
I started taking pre-requisites at City College of San Francisco and it wasn’t long until I had accumulated quite a few credits. It was difficult but I was determined to get through these classes. I had been derailed too many times by drama in my late teens and twenties and I was determined not to be derailed again. Along the way, I met Ron Greene.
Ron was gay and around the same as me but almost entirely bald. He was outgoing and friendly while I was more shy and reticent. Ron initiated our friendship and it was very lucky for me that he did. I had never had the best study skills and had never been one to create study groups. Ron had great study skills and had no problem pulling others into study groups. I really don’t know that I would have ever made it through the pre-requisites and nursing school without Ron. When it came to cutting up a frog in Biology, Ron took the knife. I took notes. When it came to handling cadavers in Anatomy, Ron would pull them out of storage. I would observe.
It was the early eighties and gay men had been dying in droves from AIDS. In some of our clinical rotations, we were giving care to those dying of the disease. There were many times that I thought I couldn’t do something and then it turned out I could. I always hated needles and giving shots but I had learned to do that as a Psychiatric Technician. Now, there were many other things that were extremely difficult to do that would raise my anxiety, but I found I could overcome my anxiety and actually do these things that seemed so impossible. One night before I clinical rotation where I knew I would have to, I couldn’t imagine myself giving stoma care for a patients colostomy. Yet, the next day when confronted with the situation, I was able to step up and do what was necessary. We really are capable of so much more than many of us think!!
We had some great instructors at San Francisco City College. Down through the years, I would hear the misnomer “two year nurse.” The fact is, there is no such thing as far as I have ever been able to find. The real fact is that most four year nursing programs include most of the general education courses and the pre-requisites in their “four years.” There are some higher level courses of course, but generally geared toward management. For front line nursing, there is no more rigorous a program than what City College offered. The “two year” nursing program was on top of two years of pre-requisites.
On either a summer break or a semester break, as we approached the last semesters of the nursing program, Ron took a vacation to Mexico. He came back sick, complaining of open sewers that drained onto the beaches of Acapulco. He had also traveled on buses into remote regions of Mexico and had drank the water. He received treatment but just seemed to get sicker and sicker. Finally, he was diagnosed with AIDS and would never return to the nursing program. He would die at the V.A. hospital in San Francisco shortly before the rest of us graduated. I owe so much to him but he continued to give and left me his old car, which Milton and i continued to drive for another year or so after that.