by Robert Lanz LCSW
I live in a pretty cool neighborhood called Silver Lake and I worked about fifteen miles away in a hip LA suburb called Pasadena, famous for the Rose Parade and Rose Bowl on New Years Day. It’s an easy trip back and forth between work and home except for one little stretch of funk between the freeway exit and my house by the lake. Of course it’s never scary when I am on the way in to work in the afternoon but on my way home after midnight, transiting the funk zone puts me on high alert.
First I have to cross the LA river. On one side of the bridge is the Toonerville Gang, so named because the old Red Car trolley used to pass by there sixty years ago when the tracks lead from Burbank to downtown LA. On the other side of the bridge is Frogtown turf- when the I-5 freeway cut through and eliminated the Red Car tracks it created the prefect neighborhood for thug life with minimal in and out points and easy to defend. It was right next to the LA river, thus, Frogtown. I knew about these gangs because I went to high-school with a lot of members of both of them. I also knew about the gangs because I was a LA County probation officer for almost ten years. Besides that we sometimes got trauma patients from the area when the county hospital was too busy to take any more and they were diverted to our emergency room.
Just past that danger zone, was the out of place in our neighborhood dive topless joint, the only place to get a beer and some company at one in the morning when I was driving home. Some nights were so bad in the ER that the bar actually looked welcoming and that’s all I’m saying about that out of place place….
After I went under the I-5 bridge and crossed Riverside Drive I was back in Silver Lake and felt safe and sound-well, safe anyway. And the story could end right there but under that bridge, living unmolested on the sidewalk was Mr. Puffy, the homeless guy.
Mr. Puffy didn’t start out with that name but over time it came to fit him, kind of like the clothes he wore. And as far as I could tell and as far as I could smell, he never took them off for any reason and over a several month period he started to look like the guy in the Michelin Tire commercial or maybe the Pillsbury Doughboy- he just kept layering up. I stopped once when he was keeled over at an odd angle and I thought he might have died or been murdered. I put on my ever present rubber gloves and mask and approached him and gave him a good shake like I was taught to do in EMT school. He woke up quite abruptly so obviously he wasn’t dead. With that smell he could have been.
“My name is Bob and I’m a social worker. I thought maybe you could use some help.”
“Fuck you” he yelled. “I hate social workers.”
Hey, I thought. He’s not my patient and not my responsibility. He wasn’t acting suicidal or homicidal- although my assessment of that was pretty brief. I left Mr. Puffy there and that was the end of my intervention-almost. Between Mr. Puffy and the topless place it was always interesting to go home and while it wasn’t too hard to resist the topless temptation it was always difficult to zip by the schizophrenic with a load in his pants and a bad attitude about social workers. A “Fuck you” response has never dissuaded me from trying to help someone in need.
In the mid-eighties or so, psychotropic medications began to improve and the days of Thorazine cocktails were waning. New anti-psychotic medications with a more benign side effect profile became a staple in the ER. It was a good sign and we all hoped that better medications would lead to better compliance with chronic thought disorder patients like Mr. Puffy. The feeling was, if we could get psychiatric patients started on the new medications they would clear their thinking and that clarity would result in a desire to continue with the medications. Made sense to us, but we weren’t the ones that needed the medications and that was just a group fantasy we all had. Chronic thought disorder patients remained, uh, chronic, but I still had a dream for the sidewalk schizophrenic.
Along with the new meds was a new way of administrating the meds, my all time favorite being the time release, inject-able Haldol that worked for a month-so before it wore off, the patient, while still thinking clearly, comes to the clinic at the three week point and gets another shot. Not perfect by any means but a lot closer than we ever got before.
About the third time we used the injection type Haldol in the ER I noticed there was enough left over in the little bottle for another shot. And that’s when the Mr. Puffy moral quandary came over me. Not some simple moral quandary like, should I stop at the topless bar and get a couple of margaritas and a naked lap dance after a hard night of death and destruction in the ER, but a true existential moral dilemma of epic proportions.
The dilemma would involve multiple felonies. First I would have to boost the drugs and syringe from the ER where I was a trusted employee. Second I’d have transport the medications with the intent to misuse them and then third, I’d have to sneak up on the social work hating Mr. Puffy and needle hug him and hope to hell he wasn’t allergic to phenothiazines. And I’d be doing it on a busy street not far from the North East Division headquarters of the Los Angeles Police Department where I knew a few cops. And I would be almost directly across the street from that topless bar with a lot of foot traffic. Pretty risky. But I was growing tired of the total inability of anybody to do anything to alter the course of Mr. Puffy’s life. I hated my helplessness as much as he probably hated his own.
Of course, I never did steal the Haldol, that was just a dream too. But I did drop food once in a while and sometimes a blanket or more clothes to layer into. Then one night, he was gone and I never saw him again. The out of place topless bar disappeared a few months later although I doubt if there was a connection. No more temptations on the ride home. No more moral quandaries in the early morning hours of my own desperation.
There is a medical marijuana dispensary and a musicians rehearsal studio in the building where the topless joint was but they’re locked up by the time I come home. Sometimes I swing by the Burrito King at Sunset and Alvarado and get a beer and some tacos. I don’t pay any attention to the homeless guys nearby or the junkies that Linda Ronstadt sang about in of one her songs called Carmalita so many years ago.
Just saving myself now…