Ol' Blue Jay sittin' on his perch
He sure do want to fly
Peckin' an' poutin' on his perch
That bird sure do want to fly
Perch got bars all 'round it
He just sit there and cry
Figure I a lifer here myself. Come here May 17, 1930, twenty five year old and hocked to my gizzard. Called it the County Farm then. Might could blame it on the Great Depression, but that pure hogshit. More like my itty bitty depression, stoked with the numbers and the hootch. So there I be: a deadbeat. Judge say you now an official debtor son, got to pay it all back, then we set you free. I ast the judge very respectful, since I know he got my privates in a vice, Sir how I suppose pay off my debts while sitting in a jail cell? Well son you in luck, say Judge Sir. This ain't exactly a prison. More like a farm with a tall fence around it, you work there and pay off those debts. When you all paid up, you can go. Work hard and you be a free man in no time.
Go figure, a farm smack the middle of L.A. Close to thousand acres, oranges, lemons, avocados, truck garden for feeding the inmates. Shit son my daddy say when the judge send me over here, no way I quit my sharecroppin' in Arkansas and drag your skinny ass to California so's you end up on a county poor farm, we already done enough poor farming. He hand me some cornbread and honey. Yes sir, I say, but pickin' oranges beat pickin' cotton any day.
'Sides, I don't pick too long. Made me Chief of Irrigation. Yessir: Chief. Trenches, dikes, pipes, valves, the whole operation. Keep the trees water just right. Come winter I done run the smudge pot crew, fuel the flames with oil, hold that frost at bay.
Twenty-eight years down the road I still doin' time, in my own way.
My real name James John Johnson. After my daddy (James) and my granddaddy (John). Family call me JJ. Way back when my friend call me 3-J. When I come to the Rancho, they call me Blue-J. Blue, like blues, because I sing 'em, sorta. Nothing special: know maybe six chords, can work my way 'bout half way down the neck, little hammer-on here, little pull-off there, little bottle-neckin'. Simple lickin'. Mostly I like making verses. J ain't for James or John or Johnson neither. J for Jailbird. Blue-J: the blues singing jailbird. Yessir.
Man march ten days in Ba-Taan
Leave piece his brain there too
Yes lose his arm in Ja-Pan
Leave half his heart there too
Got hisself a medal
For what he didn't do
Bataan Bed 12
1st Lt. Arnold Evers reporting for night patrol. AKA Bataan: I marched there and lived to tell about it. Bataan, where a boy half my age caved in my head with his rifle butt: BAM! That's how I got this metal plate in my brain. Yes sir, my badge of honor.
There're two kinds of patients here: what they call the FOBs -- flat on their backs -- and the SAW's -- self-ambulating with wheels. The Cyclops and I are the only SAWs, have the run of this place. Keep it ship-shape. Yes sir. The rest of the crew on A-West are FOBs-for-life. Nobody adds the for-life bit, but we all know it. It's not like they're lifers like folks up at San Quentin, they're free to walk out anytime. But they sure aren't walking and nobody's coming to haul them outta here. So we all know we're in this together, forever, doing our time in Camp Rancho. This is the last stop before the Big Stop.
For a long time I liked to think of me, the SAW with the Bronze Star Medal, as different from all these FOBs. Somehow, someday, shipping out. Like how we all kept up hope in the POW camp in Japan. I told my buddy Arenas the first day I touch Home Sweet Home, I'm downing a beer and a vanilla Mr. Softee, both at the same time -- my beer in one hand, the cone in the other, first a chug, then a lick, then a chug, now a lick. That's disgusting man, says Arenas, who made it out with me. No, man, that's heaven. But only one in three of us got stateside. Which is better odds then we have here at Rancho. The only discharges here are orders home with the Medical Examiner.
Rancho reminds me of the prison where we were guests over at San Fernando Pampanga, on the tip of Bataan, waiting for the ships to take us to Japan. Same Spanish stucco, tiled roof, courtyard. Except we didn't have beds there. Or water. Or latrines. If you got the runs you filled your pants, the Japs made target practice out of soldiers who made a run for the shithouse when it wasn't their number. Most of us didn't worry much about peeing -- too dehydrated. I remember the first day I peed when I got liberated, all refueled with IVs. Oh, Man, I peed, I peed! Damn! I shouted to Arenas. Shaking the last drop out of my floppy, I knew I was going to live. That gives you perspective, when pissing makes you cry from happiness.
Take me two years, all pay up and sober. Graduation time: home free. 'Cept, where I goin' go? This the real Depression, 'member? No jobs back then, especially for a colored man done time. I maybe fixing to head back to Arkansas -- down there being a jailbird ain't so likely catch up with me, always got the cotton. As luck have it, they change the sign on the Poor Farm to Rancho los Amigos. Final rest stop for invalids and crips, folks what stroked out or got the multiple sclerosis, suicides what gone wrong, guy pick up a bullet in his back in East LA, some waiting for the cancer finish them off. Too sick to care for they selves, nobody around to help out, and taking they fine time dying. Watanabe over in bed 34 and Irwin Cohen in 19 -- they call him D-Cube -- they in that pack of first guests. Oldest members of the club, and still kicking twenty-six years later.
They change the four cell blocks to eight wards, four for the womenfolks and two for the mens. 260 beds around a courtyard, red tile roofs. Like the olden Spanish days. Down B South they make one special ward, with three beds set a ways apart, a closet for storing body bags and gurneys. And a back door what open out on a loading bay. B South: the last station on the line. The one you wave good-bye from.
Then the nurses and orderlies and housekeepers all march in, dress in white. The new guards.
Come find out they needing a good man to run tubes up the pricks of the poor bastards who can't pee they selves. They like me here, knowing my way 'round Rancho, seeing me pay my debts, how I mingle ok with white folks. So that how they make me the first catheter man in all the Rancho. Started workin' A West -- 36 beds in one room, eighteen each side. And ain't left yet. Got a reservation down bed 33 -- looking out over the orange grove, where I can see the sun set through the trees.
Larkin coming 'round the mountain
And the sun get in his eyes
Yes, Larkin coming 'round the mountain
The sun done blind his eyes
Wake up the next morning
And that poor boy paralyze
Larkin Wray Bed 27
Rhymed words floating around my head grabbing memories of who I am where I've been I try not to make rhymes for where I'm going. My history is what's alive my future is what? Predictable? Unbearably.
I start with word lists, beginning with a then b all the way to z. Then tinker with my a's or b's or t's let's let them rhyme. At night the dark awakens me, just me and my letters and rhymes, memorizing the encyclopedia of the life and times of Larkin Wray. Unfortunately abridged. Nonsense rhymes storing my story in my brain and then finally. Finally sometime after the third bed-check, enough light for shadows now, my eyes close just give up I sleep.
Steep incline Let's dine
Wrong time Red line Oozing mind
Don't mind Break down Brake Break up
Supine. Nurse introduces the new orderly to me we nod. Larkin seems to be most comfortable on his back see the sign SUPINE at the head of his bed each patient has their individual quirks and desires even if they can't communicate them to you verbally you really do learn to read them and develop your own language don't we Larkin? Recline: taking your rest before rising. Supine: flat on your back. Forever. Arise! Arise! Too late. My fate: supinate. The ceiling is my world.
You think it easy being the catheter man, but you got to be careful. No man want 'nother man grabbing his ding-dong-dandy, scrubbing it down with soap and rinsin' it, then jamming ten inches of plastic tube up there. And I ain't done yet. Next I take this syringe and blow up a balloon inside the guy bladder with air, so it don't pull out. Then I irrigate his bladder, making sure all systems go. When you think of it, every day I handlin' these men's private parts, only other person done been touching down there was they mama way back when and whatever womens they been with. And they mamas and womens is history. So I got to handle them with respect. But not too gentle, if you know what I mean. No way the cath-man better play hanky-panky with they most precious thing. Being a real professional -- they appreciate that.
Infection the main thing you got to watch out for. Sometime you catch it, see pus oozing out his hole. Sometime fever the first sign. Ninety percent time if a guy got fever, he got a bladder infection gone to the kidneys. I just tell nurse time to call the doc get some IV Gantrisin drippin' in this guy vein. How about that? -- a colored man what can't read telling some physician time to hook up the IV. Like I got respect 'round here. An' damn if every year I ain't got the lowest infection rate.
A while back my buddy Bataan in bed 12 do the math for me: thirty six pricks a day time two hundred days a year time twenty six year -- that 187,200 pricks, give or take. And still counting.
Now that something to think about. Beats hauling cotton.
Ol' Boxer Man he got Parky's
Parky's rattlin' 'round his brain
Yes, the Boxer Man got Parky's
Rattling 'round his brain
Down for the count at Rancho
Never put on his gloves again
El Conquistador , Bed 27
BIP! BAP! BAM! Mano a mano, man. In Bed 27 ladies and gentleman, dressed in his fine silky hospital gown -- the Streakin' 'Rican -- El CON-QUIS-TA-DOR! And in the other corner? The four faggot orderlies of A. West. I kiss the Saint Michael's metal hanging around my neck -- ain't no losing with the patron saint of warriors in my corner. OK, bring it on mother fuckers, show me what you got. Two chumps jump on my right arm. Hey cabrón you forgot my left hook. POW! Upside your white ass head pendejo! Somebody get his left arm! Oh yeah, now we got a fight! Una lucha! The whole ward goes wild, chanting HER-NAN-DEZ! HER-NAN-DEZ! Two more jump on my right arm and hold it down. I grab one guy's hand and give him a bone-crusher, wanna hold hands with me? Shit! My hand! Oh, oh, maricón, you're in big trouble with nurse, saying shit ain't professional. Nurse straps my arm down with canvas, ties it to the side bars. I can still take you bastards with one hand tied down. Three orderlies jump on my left arm and the nurse straps it. There he is ladies and gentleman, spread eagle. Like Saint Michael staked in the desert.
The crowd is still screaming and whistling. HER-NAN-DEZ! HER-NAN-DEZ! Hands together for their main man, The Contender. They'd all be up on their feet, if they could. A minute and forty-five seconds shouts Stevens in bed 29. He's the official timer. Got this lights-in-the-dark stop watch on his wrist for such occasions. Everybody shouting ONE-FORTY-FIVE! ONE-FORTY-FIVE!
Coño! I gave them their money's worth. Still got it, know what I mean?
Lights out, says nurse.
All this 'cause I jerk off. Pathetic, man. Like they got nothing else better to do 'sides keep a man's hands away from his prick. Code 27! Code 27! All the orderlies know the drill. Gives them something exciting to do on the night shift. They oughtta thank me.
I been flat on my back ten years now. Ever since the Parkinson's put me down for the count. Youngest case he'd ever seen, said the neurologist guy, must've been the boxing. Too bad, strong kid, too. The Boxing Commission doctors in New York said I couldn't box no more. They seen the tremors start and the speech slow, and knew I wasn't just some dumb-ass strung-out Spic. So I went West, fought in Nevada, Montana, California, you know, where they didn't know me from Pancho Villa and didn't watch too close. It happened fast. By the time I was twenty-nine I was wobblin' like a fightin' cock what just caught a spur in his eye. I celebrated my thirty-fifth birthday here in the Rancho, flat on my back, jerking off in the middle of the night. Watching boxin' re-runs with the sound turned off on the overhead TV. Feliz cumpleaños a mi...
Alpine. Following the cracks on the ceiling they crisscross and head for the horizon on the other side of the ward. Like a roadmap how they curve and twist and hair-pin. We're here and we want to get over the mountain to St. Martins where the inn is our honeymoon in Switzerland Mara and me, the summer before I'm off to law school. Divine. After four years I still can remember love we had no idea we had just spent our last night together. What about wanting the chance to know, then what? Knowing it's our last night. Make love like it's our last breath? Hold on, no prying us apart? Candle-lit toasts to what we have, what we will never have? Refusing to believe: never! Blind. There just over the edge of my bed above my left foot the road takes a nasty switchback right into the sun for just a second we're blinded just a second not any more. Just around the switchback a dairy truck parked a flat tire so they told me what are the odds of a flat tire around the switchback at exactly three-thirty-one Alpine Time in the afternoon? A million to one or better maybe a billion. I didn't see it. I didn't feel it.
Wrong time. Looking at that one particular hairline crack that one peculiar curve on the ceiling. To be there at three-thirty-one p.m. Alpine Time the exact moment that the sun dips below the clouds and shoots up the valley one minute even five seconds difference in time and I see the truck. If we don't have an extra coffee for the road (12 minutes) I go back to our room to check for things under the bed (ninety seconds) we buy a new map with more details (two minutes). Redline -- It's the redline on the map, the one-laner, that will take us to our inn of blissful romance on the other side of the mountain (four minutes reading our new map -- we love maps). I check the air in the tires (one is a bit low, total time: two-point-five minutes). We make love one more time after all it is our honeymoon (a quickie thank you, undressed from the bottom down we feel a little wild). I ask a local what wax would be best for our skis and he (pardon the pun) waxes poetic for twelve minutes merci monsieur but we have to go have to get over the mountain before the sun sets. Allons y. Any one of those things -- what if we don't do just one of these things? Or do one more thing Mara wants to fill up the tank let's wait until we get over the mountain I say we've got enough gas (there: eight extra minutes). So many opportunities to miss the appointed time with the dairy truck. To be late. Or early.
Biker man he got one eye
Ugliest man you never seen
Harley man got scar for eye
Like to make you think he mean
Take that 'electric shaver
Make sure the FOBs look clean
Cyclops Bed 8
My bike was a Harley '53 Sportster XL straight-up four speed bobber. Stripped nude, none of that fancy fairy chopped crap, stretched and lowered with their raked front forks and high-rider handlebars. I kept the frame pretty and simple, her natural original self, runnin' smooth on hydraulic shocks. She was loaded with a air cooled ironhead 45 degree V twin engine, overhead valves, 1000 cc of pure step-aside-mother-fucker guts. 'Cause of her single pin crank she didn't exactly purr -- more like chortled: potatopotatopotato. Whispering love songs in my ear. I pulled the baffles out of her straight-on chromed pipes, when I rapped 'em she screamed like a banshee. I ain't no chromaholic like the gangsters -- other than the pipes and handles, she was a blackie. I only made two changes on her. I dumped the tinny metal saddle bags and strapped on two leather saddles from the '40's that I picked up at a flea market. Then I replaced the foot plate with pegs. They gave me more balance on the curves, just turning with a lean. A fine horse responding to its rider.
In the biker world I was a real outlaw. Not your face-breaking low-class like the one-per-centers who give bikers a bad rep. No man, I was an outlaw because no way was I joining any of the wheelie gangs here in L.A. Just leave me be and don't dick with me. And no tats, neither, -- none of that painting my skin with naked women and swastikas and names of my ex's 4-ever next to Mom. You know all that ink will turn butt ugly when you grow old and flabby. Nothin' more pathetic than an old biker with tattoos hangin off his belly and man titties, all covered with ape hair. So I kept my skin smooth and shiny, shaved and greased, just like my bike.
One day a bunch a Ridge Riders rode into the A & W over in Alhambra where I was juicing up on a root beer float after cruising down from Lake Arrowhead. Hey man, you interested in riding with us? No thanks man, I'm cool. Then they huddled, and I knew something was coming down, that I should blow. But, shit, it was 95 degrees and I'd ordered a Double Xtra-Large float and wanted to sip it dry. Take my fine time. So they figured I was with another gang, left my colors back home when I crossed the line into their turf. That's what they said, no waiting for explanations.
Four guys proceeded to hold me down while Numero Uno gouged out my left eye with a crowbar. A lesson for the Trespasser. If you still want to join us, you know where to find us. Otherwise stay the other side of Rosemead Boulevard. After I came to, the docs wanted to give me a glass eye. But something made me want to just let the hole scar over, like that's who I was. The uglier the better.
After that nobody messed with me. The Cyclops, he must be a bad ass mother fucker, a serious outlaw. Monster Man. People wouldn't look me in the eye -- maybe because of the ugliness, but I know there was a boxcar of fear. That was the best: dismounting from my Sportie, scraping my ass-kicking biker boots on the curb, singing to myself When you see me coming, better step aside... And you can be damn sure they did.
Divin' off the cliff
His back against the sky
White swan up in the clouds
Should seen that poor boy fly
Fold his wings and crash
Enough to make you cry
D-Cube Bed 16
Way back when my back was my best side. One hundred degree angle between my neck and shoulders. Scapulas perfect triangles. A spine like a lodge pole pine. The back of a diver. Region III high school champ, three year-letterman. This back drew perfect lines against the clouds when I did my straights and pikes and tucks, spiced with somersaults and twists. Arcs and torques of a skywriter. The lines are what they looked for, that and the entry -- a perfect vertical, no splash. My backside, from my neck to my buns, was a real package. You know how some people are uglier than a rhinoceros, but they have perfect hands, so they pay them big bucks to model ads for wedding ring and hand lotion ads? Well, I had the perfect back, modeled for swimsuits, beach scenes, pool scenes. California Sunshine Wear. They always kept my head angled away from the camera My nose was alright, but my face was too pocky for straight-ons. I dare say, my face never got anyone in bed with me, though it didn't scare anyone away either. It was my back they loved. One girl in my art class said it looked like that statue of David with his sling. David: one could do worse.
When they're orienting the new orderlies they save me for last. I never get to see what they look like. They all wear a mask over their nose and mouth. Like panda bears. What's that smell! -- I mean odor? one of the new ones says. The nurse shushes him. They pull back the curtain. Nurse explains this is a decubitus ulcer, it's caused by pressure, by lying on your back 24/7. The pressure cuts off the circulation, so the tissue breaks down. She loves acting the teacher, my back her model. That's necrotic tissue there, causing the odor. We turn him every two hours, but after twenty-five years, there's no good side.
After twenty-five years there's no good side. No where to turn. Twenty-six, actually.
And now the part that separates the men from the boys: when they roll me over and the skin falls away from my back. You can see the spine from butt to shoulder. I'm turned away from him, the new recruit, so I can't see his eyes, but I can feel them open like they're going to explode, then turn away. Silence for a good twenty seconds. Somebody say something.
Tomorrow you can watch me debride the wound, says nurse. Today we'll just wash him up. They roll me onto the canvas sling, chain the sling to the hydraulic lift. Phoop, phoop phoop, The chains tighten, I'm suspended above my bed. They walk the lift away from the bed, like a truck pulling away from a loading bay, then roll me down the corridor of A West.
Holy Mary and Joseph, what's that stink? says Hernandez. Oh, sorry, my man -- how you doin?
They roll me down to the washroom, maneuver the lift over to the wash-down, a long granite basin, like what they must embalm people on or do autopsies on. Shooop, shooop, Let him down easy now, easy does it. There. The granite is cold. Let's roll him over on his side now. Can you turn on the fan over there, it's a little close in here. Then they turn on the water and check the temperature -- tepid is the word they use for just right. Now pull down the hose suspended by a spring from the ceiling, adjust the nozzle. Like watering flowers in a garden. The stench of who I have become goes down the drain. We all breathe a little easier. They dry me off and hoist me up again. As they roll me back to my bed I tell the new orderly he'll do OK.
I remember the dive, off the cliffs at Laguna Beach. I was twenty-five, still using my back to attract the women. Too caught up in the hunt of a blond strutting her stuff to check the tide table. It was a good dive -- a swan dive -- nothing difficult. But my back looked great against the sky; then straighten her out and enter the surf clean. I was sure I nailed it.
To be continued ...