WHITE BOY ON TOP OF THE WORLD
I’m hunched up on the hillside next to our house, fully enclosed by the long, thorny vines of the giant Bougainvillea, their purplish flowers dotting my field of vision. The morning sunlight backlights them, so to my tired, red-rimmed eyes each one appears as a glowing, translucent orb. In my hand is a prescription bottle. I open it, peering inside at the four Ambien tablets resting at the bottom. I lift the bottle and take them all, working my dry mouth to summon enough saliva to swallow them.
My pulse, quickened by the fight with Patrick and subsequent dash out the bedroom door and jump over the retaining wall into the giant bramble, is finally beginning to slow when I hear the first siren. There is no shortage of sirens in my neighborhood, as the Highland Park Fire Department is not far away. This one, however, grows steadily louder as it climbs Mount Washington, until it is wailing not twenty feet below me on the street. It ceases suddenly, and I hear other vehicles pulling up and stopping sharply, doors slamming, voices rising unintelligibly over the crackle of two-way radios. When I hear the herd of footsteps tramping up the cement stairway leading to our front door, I climb to my knees and part the branches. I see a small fire department truck, not the kind to fight fires, but rather the kind that is summoned for medical emergencies. More ominously, two black and white police cruisers are also parked down there, one in front of the fire vehicle and one in back.
I retreat back into the safety of the bushes, and try to think. I have three options, as I see it. I can go back into the house and try to play this off as a misunderstanding, as another overreaction of Patrick to some minor domestic disturbance. This has worked before, with varying degrees of success, but I know how bad I look after several days with no sleep, and it’s unlikely I can pull off the indignant, wronged and totally sane domestic partner defense. My second option is to make a run for it, up the hill and into the wild, undeveloped hills above our home. This idea has it’s advantages, namely the complete avoidance of police officers. However, I’m wearing only a wife-beater and a pair of tight bikini brief underwear, and even in my exhausted state I decide that this is probably not a practical choice. I have just decided to go with option three, to stay silent and hidden in the giant thorny bush, when the French door from our bedroom swings open and I hear Patrick saying:
“He’s in there.”
I hear grunting as someone, or a couple of someones, hoists him or themselves up onto the waist-high retaining wall, and start parting branches.
I’m terrified of cops, primarily because I’m pretty much always in possession of a fair amount of illegal substances, but also because of the clubbing I received from one of them at a protest rally when I was in my early twenties. I know how some of them can turn ugly and mean in a heartbeat, and after that clubbing I carried around on my skull a lemon-sized reminder of that instant capacity for violence for more than a week.
I immediately offer myself up, crawling towards the hands. I emerge from the brush to find two uniformed officers staring at me. I feel like a textbook case of meth addiction, a male version of Margot Kidder, who was pulled from her own set of bushes not far from here. I know these cops have probably seen everything insane there is to see, but I still detect the glance they give each other as they instantaneously recognize what I am. Not who I am, or who I used to be, but what I am: a wide-eyed, jaw-grinding specimen of Tweakus Americanus.
I drop down off the retaining wall and into the garden outside our bedroom. Standing there in my underwear, I give them a half-hearted, “hey there” wave and a “shit happens” look I hope they’ll find disarming. I’m not sure who’s supposed to make the first move, so I just stand there with my hands protectively covering my crotch area, while they stand there looking back, almost bemused.
“Are you going to give us a problem, or are you going to come inside?” one of them asks.
Probably both, I think, but I quietly agree, and all three of us fumble our way down the hill, over the retaining wall, and into my bedroom. They are giving me that look I’ve seen before, from other cops, from emergency room doctors, from mental hospital workers…but can never quite define. Disgust?
curiosity? Amusement? I’m not sure, but I know that it makes me feel very small.
And a little angry. Which isn’t surprising, since meth always makes me quick to rage.
I can hear Patrick out in the living room, talking loudly to someone. His voice is measured, but I can detect a hint of hysteria in the words that spill out just a little too loud and a little too fast. He is recounting the events of this morning, and I want to get out there, fast, to counter his accusations, to present my side of the story. The problem, however, is that the Ambien are starting to take effect, and the room begins to sway and canter crazily, my vision blurring.
Can I get dressed? I ask the cops in the room with me. They look at each other, then one tells me to go ahead, but do it quickly. Trying to maintain balance, I pull on the pair of jeans I wore yesterday, and the day before that, and quite possibly the day before that, followed by my favorite blue t-shirt that is wadded up on the chair in the corner. Breathing slowly and trying not to pass out, I get down on my knees and retrieve a pair of sandals from under the bed.
Once dressed, the two police officers motion me out of the bedroom, and I carefully, keeping one hand on the wall and the other outstretched for balance, shuffle my way out to the living room where Patrick has just ended a sentence with the words “I’m scared for him.”
Patrick, along with three Fire department emergency medical workers, turn to look at me. He looks as stunned as I feel.
I immediately launch into my standard “this is all a big misunderstanding” speech, the one that has worked so many times in the past, but my voice comes out slurred, my tongue thick in my mouth. There is a noise in my head, a great white whir that grows louder, like the whomp, whomp, whomp of an approaching helicopter, that makes it almost impossible to hear my own words, so I stop mid sentence and start again, from the beginning, but am interrupted by one of the EMT’s, who motions for me to sit down.
I do so, and he sits next to me and begins asking me questions, which are almost impossible for me to understand with the whirring noise in my brain. He is fading in and out of my vision, as if he were on a television screen and someone was rapidly rotating the brightness/contrast dial.
I feel a blood pressure cuff being velcro’d onto my right arm, but I don’t even look, reserving all my focus to stay upright, to hear the questions I’m being asked, and god willing, give the right answers to this pop quiz that will decide if I’m staying, or if I’m going.
I must nod off for a moment, because the next thing I’m aware of I’m standing by the front door with my hands behind my back, and I’m being ushered out into the bright morning sun. I’m being supported on either side by the firemen, and they are slowly guiding me down the long stairway towards the street. It is then that I realize my hands are not just behind my back, but are actually cuffed. I struggle through the brain haze that wafts across my consciousness like giant billowing drifts of fog, and voice protest.
“Calm down,” one of the men says sharply, and his grip on my arm tightens painfully. I give up trying to speak, but twist my head around to see Patrick standing in the doorway, stone-faced as an Easter Island statue.
I feel the angry hatred rise up through the fog, and shout back to him “See what you did? You did this! I fucking hate you!”
They walk me to the back of the ambulance-like emergency vehicle, and I am dimly aware of a small crowd of neighbors up the street, watching The Meth Freak of Mount Washington in yet another bravura engagement of his long-running one-man surrealist play.
I want to scream “ What the fuck are you looking at?” but the tight grip on each of my biceps reigns me in, and instead I hang my head as the door swings open and I am roughly, and awkwardly, hoisted into the back of the vehicle, where I am deposited on to a padded bench that runs the length of the inside. My ass lands on my cuffed hands, and I yelp with pain as the metal cuts into my wrists.
“Can you loosen these?” I ask the two EMT’s who have climbed in with me and closed the door behind them.
They ignore me, and begin discussing their lunch plans as they take their seats.
I squirm a little, trying to find some relief from the cuffs, and finally, dazed, turn my head to look out the back window as the small parade of vehicles begins to descend Mount Washington.
I close my eyes, and try to make sense of it all through the thickening haze in my head. How many days had I been up? Three, I think. Maybe four? No, three…because I know I started partying after work on Friday, my plan having been to stop on Saturday night so I could spend Sunday recovering and make it to work this morning in a relatively functional state. I remember that Saturday night came, and the little plastic bag still had some crystal in it. There, of course, was the primary flaw in my plan. I have never been able to stop when there was still some product left in my possession. I should have planned better, should have smoked more of it, so that the binge would have had a clear, delineated ending. Instead, I had kept going, and it had culminated in a huge fight with Patrick, running to the bedroom, grabbing the Ambien, and dashing out the side door and up the hill and under the bush. I had only taken the Ambien in a desperate attempt at sleep, to gain entrance into the only sanctuary from Patrick’s anger and the impending hallucinations. Patrick, not knowing there were only four pills left in the bottle, had called 911. Weary, I let the fog roll in again, aware only of the disembodied voices of the EMT’s and the stinging pinch of the handcuffs.
When I next open my eyes, I see that the verdant greenery of my neighborhood has been replaced by the concrete and steel of an industrial area, and once again the fog clears just long enough to permit a sudden realization.
We’re heading towards downtown. The County Jail is downtown. Even in my ambient-induced, dream-like state, I know there is nothing good waiting for me in that part of Los Angeles. All the other times I’ve been escorted out of my home, either by Patrick or the police, the vehicle I was put into has always headed north, towards Pasadena or Glendale. Memorial Hospital, Huntington Hospital, lockups of a more upscale persuasion, and as I have proven on multiple occasions, extremely easy to escape from.
My eyes close again, and do not open until I feel the vehicle stop. It isn’t until the back door swings open and I see that we have arrived at a hospital emergency room entrance that I feel a sense of relief.
I don’t recognize this hospital, and squint my tired eyes against the bright light to find something to identify my exact location. And there it is:
USC Medical Center.
As I am led, still cuffed, to the admissions desk, I look around me. This place is crowded, and has an air of general disrepair about it. The waiting room is filled with people, almost all of whom are black or latino, sitting on hard plastic chairs. This is a world away from the comparatively posh, upholstered and carpeted emergencies rooms of other hospitals I’ve been taken to. Almost every pair of eyes in the waiting room is fixed on me, and I wonder if it’s because I’m the only white person in the room or if it’s because of the handcuffs, or the combination of the two.
I can barely speak now, can barely hold my head up, but I fight to stay upright. Fortunately, one of the police officers I dimly recognize from our earlier encounter on the hillside is speaking to the clerk behind the big, busy desk, so nothing is required of me besides being upright. And even this is probably voluntary, I assume. I could easily give in and collapse, but even with the Ambien distorting my thoughts and vision, I understand that this is my last chance to argue my way out of this, to prevent being put on a 5150 hold, which will guarantee, at the very least, a three-day stay in the psych ward. I’ve heard stories of the USC psych ward at AA and NA meetings, and none of them have been pleasant. “Snake Pit” is the descriptor most frequently used.
Still, even when I’m escorted to a partitioned area, and given a seat in a molded plastic chair, I immediately fall asleep despite the continued burning pinch of the handcuffs and my desire to work out a plausible, possibly exonerating explanation.
When I come to, I am surprised to find that I am now lying down on and bed, on my back with my now-numb hands still secured behind me. Have they admitted me? My eyes pop open and I scan my surroundings.
I am lying on a hospital gurney and I am surrounded on every side by other people on others. Some are handcuffed, some are not. The large, bright room holds at least twenty of these rolling beds, and they have all been neatly lined up in rows, one against the other, like some bizarre hospital version of a crowded valet parking lot. I am near the center of the room, surrounded by the rolling beds and their human cargo. There is no space between the gurneys, which means that in order to reach a patient in the back the orderlies must first roll out the beds in the closest rows, extract the gurney with the correct patient, and th en fill the space again with the beds that were removed, creating a new space in the front of this parking lot of damaged, fucked up, freaked out paranoids, psychotics, drug addicts and weirdos.
Straining my neck to look around, I see that once again, I am the only white person in this slider-puzzle of human suffering. Some of the others, like me, are handcuffed or have their wrists tied with plastic tie-straps to the low chrome rails of their rolling beds, while the luckier ones are unrestrained, and these I envy for that tiny freedom of being able to clasp their hands to their foreheads or cover their eyes and pretend they’re somewhere else.
There room is filled with a cacophony of moaning, crying and swearing. I turn my head to the right, and look into the face of an elderly black man, who lies with his head thrown back, his mouth wide open. He looks like he might be dead. I swivel my head to the left, and meet the gaze of another black man who seems to be staring at me.
He looks angry.I experience a momentary flashback to 1986, when I was 21 years old, and walking up the steps to my zoology class at California State University Stanislaus. It was a beautiful spring day, and I was feeling good, which was unusual for those pre-coming out, quiet-simmering-anger living-a-lie days. A black man, who I had noticed around campus primarily because he was one of the very few students of color among the almost all-white student population, was sitting on the concrete bench outside the doors of the Science Building.
I was about to say hello to him, something I rarely did because of my almost crippling shyness, when he spoke to me first.
He said, in a tone that sounded half-sarcastic and half-contemptuous:
“Hey white boy. You look like you’re on top of the world. I bet you think you got it made.”
Even though he was making direct eye contact with me, I looked around to see if he could possibly be talking to someone else, but I was the only one in the vicinity. Shocked by the aggression in his tone, I simply put my head down and continued on to class. However, I couldn’t pay attention to the Zoology lecture because all I could think was, “What did he mean?”
In time, I came to understand that with my blonde, preppy appearance, I was a walking embodiment of our society’s racial inequities. But when it happened, it confused me, because I rarely, if ever, felt like I was on top of the world, or that I had it made. I worked at Sears, I sold lawnmowers, I was struggling with my sexuality, and I had to wage a constant battle to not give in to the self-loathing that always seemed on the verge of overtaking me. Though I didn’t know it, I was only two years away from my first serious suicide attempt.
The man’s assessment of me puzzled me for years, wondering if I should feel guilty for being white and for the advantages in life that simple fact provided me with. I wondered, if this man saw a sense of privilege in me, someone so terminally insecure, did the rest of the world see me as confident? Was it that easy to fool people?
I wonder now, staring into the eyes of this different black man, if he too thinks I’ve got it made, even with my four-day beard stubble, sunken cheeks and red puffy eyes, speed-bump riddled arms handcuffed painfully under my back, stacked like so much kindling in the psych ward of a county welfare hospital.
Without warning, I feel laughter rising up from my chest. I can’t stop it, and I turn my eyes away from the man on my left and focus on the fluorescent light panels of the ceiling, trying to repress the building tide of church giggles that are starting to overtake me. The ludicrousness of this entire situation, the animal grunts and screeches, the swearing, the screaming and the crying filling the room is suddenly too much, and the dam breaks. I start laughing hysterically, unable to stop myself, half-frightened of calling attention to myself and half-unable to give a shit.
I can hear the man to my left screaming obscenities at me, but I just close my eyes and keep laughing, tears rolling down my cheeks and dropping down to be sopped up by the thin cotton sheet covering the gurney.
“I’m on top of the world!” I yell between snorts of laughter, to the ceiling, to no one, to everyone. “I got it made!”
“Shut up, faggot!” snarls the black man.
I steal a glance at him, wondering if he can actually tell I’m gay or if this is just his insult of choice, and our eyes catch briefly before he lunges for me, but with his hands and ankles restrained he is unable to do anything but rock and bounce his own gurney as he arches and lurches for mine, his face snarling with rage. He looks ludicrous, like a great, enraged flopping fish. He also looks dangerous, but I am so tired, so caught up in my own hysteria that I only laugh harder at his futile attempt to reach me. Suddenly exhausted, my laughter subsides, yet the obscenities being shouted at me from less than two feet away continues.
A pair of orderlies, noting the commotion, begin frantically pulling gurney after gurney out of the jigsaw puzzle, trying to reach us before someone gets hurt…most likely me….and the whole incident seems so suddenly hilarious and insane and comedic and bizarre that I continue laughing until it feels like I might choke on my own tongue. The flopping angry fish man continues his struggle to reach me, but I’m not worried at all, even with those giant, nicotine-yellowed teeth snapping only inches from my left elbow.
I’m on top of the world, I think. I’m safe. I got it made. No need to worry, here come my white-coated minions to do away with this barbarian presenting a clear and present danger to my super-lucky ‘really got it made’ white-boy self.
Then suddenly, from nowhere, the sleep deprivation overtakes me, and I’m unconscious before the orderlies even reach me.