by Robert Lanz LCSW
A good story has a beginning, a middle and a memorable ending, a conclusion that wraps up the ways in which an obstacle is presented in the beginning and how the events in the middle reshape the main character in order to provide that meaningful ending. This is essential Joseph Campbell storytelling with the “hero’s journey” being the most basic structural format.
A good technical writer can use the story structure signposts to guide the story and a technical writer already knows the end of the story when he starts: he just needs to fill in the requisite blanks to complete the formula. A creative writer keeps a vague idea of structure in his mind but lets his characters and the hero find their own voices and they can tell the story themselves. This is more of an artful and unconscious process. With an ER story, sometimes you might think you know the end because you think you’ve heard the beginning from someone who seems reasonable at the time-a friend, a family member, the cops, a neighbor, a nurse or doctor or the paramedics. Of course, you never really know.
On the night this story takes place, a couple obviously in love or one of its variants, probably had some end of story in their minds when they left their board and care facility in San Bernardino, an edge of the desert city about sixty miles to the east of us and not near as glamorous as our town, so maybe there was a honeymoon element to this couples poorly planned departure. Totally dependent on government interventions for food and housing, health care and spending money, they turned their back on security and headed for the great wide open.
Just as their town, know colloquially as Berdoo, was less glamorous than ours the couple’s lives were bound to be less glamorous than Tom Petty’s but what the hell, they were young and in love! Well, they weren’t exactly young in birth years, both in their forties and other than hormonally they most likely had a different idea of love than most of the rest of us. Such human flotsam and jettison soon ends up reuniting with some agency or another and in some manner are returned to the security of their board and care facility. Romeo and Juliet on federal Supplemental Security Income.
I don’t rightly recollect how they got to the ER but my best guess is that one of my cop friends realized the couple were just lost in space, not criminals but they still needed to get out of our town and back to theirs. The cops know there is a social worker in the ER- most likely me, at night- and I’d be able to muster the creative resources to return the errant love-struck couple to their proper living situation, clearing them off the police blotter. It’s the Everything Else list again. In the big picture the ER social worker is on duty for all these difficult situations that roll down hill until they bottom out in our hospital basement, the last stop in town with a conscience.
I rarely call my boss at home for guidance. After all, it’s night and I’m a grown up and she has to get up in the morning and I don’t. Still, the only solution to this problem, at least the only financially and ethically responsible solution, was to get the runaways back to the edge of the desert. The folks at the board and care facility, where they usually live, were sympathetic with my situation but wouldn’t send anyone to get the couple. Even after I strongly suggested it they wouldn’t even front the dough for bus tickets. That’s when I called my boss-not about the dough, I could easily cover that with my credit card, but to pull it off I would have to get them to the bus stop myself and make sure they didn’t cash in the bus tickets and use the refund for a quickie at the Motel Six. Anything short of watching their bus disappear to the east was not OK with me. But neither the hospital, nor me, nor my profession had a legal mandate beyond making sure they didn’t represent an acute danger to themselves or others or were suffering a grave disability. Even though these two were skating around the edge of being able to care for themselves, legally I couldn’t lock them up and they didn’t need to be locked up. This was more of a shepherding maneuver- they were just a goofy couple needing structure and it was my turn to provide it.
“No problem, Bob-make sure the charge nurse and docs are OK with it. Have them call me if they need a social worker when you’re gone.”
This was, and I know you youngsters will find this hard to believe, before cell phones so once I left the hospital grounds I was off tether and it was uncharted territory. I spent thirty years at that fantastic hospital because virtually everyone from my secretary to the CEO was familiar with and entirely comfortable with the outcomes from my previous untethered interventions. Free rein is a great place if you do it right. A good social worker should have no problem with that.
I called a cab and it arrived and would get us to the Greyhound bus stop, actually an old converted gas station, with about ten minutes to spare. I probably could have predicted the bus would be late since I was untethered and pressed for time. It was- by more than an hour- and I had to treat the lovely couple to dinner, junk food from a machine, while we waited. They wanted to smoke so I had them sit outside the cab and I chatted with the taxi driver and that’s where the real story began.
Taxis serve a different function in southern California than they do in most places because this is essentially a car culture unlike big cities on that other coast. I didn’t even realize it until I was in the army in 1967 and met guys from New York and they told me it was common for adults there to not have a car and many of them didn’t even know how to drive. Unbelievable! But they probably think it is equally unbelievable that there are adults in SoCal who hadn’t ever been in a cab. Well, maybe from the airport but not shopping or going to work and certainly not on a date.
And there I was, spending quality taxi time with a displaced Iranian who taught me more about the middle east and America then I ever learned in six years of college.
The driver was about my age and loved America even though he gave up a professional career as a pharmacist in his birth country. He worked seven days a week, twelve hours a day, rarely saw his family members all at the same time but loved them dearly and provided all the security they needed, kind of like the government was doing with our amorous passengers.
But the passengers had every day off and the Iranian cabbie told me he had only taken four days off in the last five years. It wasn’t a complaint, just a statement of fact that described his situation. He wasn’t sure what to make of the eloping lovebirds. I’m not sure my explanation of how they ended up in their situation made any more sense than how he ended up in his.
It was an interesting way to pass an hour. A history lesson, a warm communication between a guy who left everything behind to come to America and get everything he needed, something, on some level he had in common with the runaways from Berdoo. And here he was bonding with a fifth generation, middle class white American who, for the most part had an easy life if I wanted it.
The driver thought I was a good guy and I thought the same of him. The bus came, the lovebirds went home and I rode back to the hospital. Oh yeah. Amir the cabbie refused any payment for the experience.
For years I would see him, in his cab, taking wayward patients home, often with cab vouchers provided by the hospital. And, of curse, when I called for a cab I always asked if Amir was on duty. He probably knew that and sometimes asked if Mr. Bob was working when he got an ER call. And so it went….surely I couldn’t know the end of this story when it started.
One night, years later, there was a big car crash right in front of the fire station and right in front of the Iranian carpet store. A taxi driver had hung a U-turn and got broad sided. I heard the call on the paramedic radio and my heart stopped. I expected the worst.
Luckily, the victim was not Amir. Unluckily, the victim didn’t speak English. When all the local cabbies showed up at the hospital no one would give them any information because they weren’t actually related to the patient. Luckily, one of the secretaries recognized Amir among the concerned drivers as someone connected to me. Amir was a Godsend. He came back to the trauma bay and translated for us and then waited until the victim was able to go home. Everything was all wrapped up and tidy.
“Hey Bob” the chief of trauma services and a family friend for over thirty years yelled out in the crowd, “How did you find a Farsi translator so fast at midnight anyway? That was amazing.”
“Just lucky I guess.”
But it wasn’t luck. It was that off tether thing a good social worker should always look for. Some day it will pay off, you just never know when. And the creative social worker, just like a creative writer, lets the characters find their voices and guide the story to its conclusion.
Horticultural social work. Plant the seed. Tend the soil. Some day the seed will grow into something helpful. Believe in that….