|LIFE AS A LOSER #188: "DR. SHIPMAN'S OFFICE, THIS IS WILL."|
|By Will Leitch||
Anyone who has ever been forced to seek temporary work in their lives knows that it's not the quality of an assignment that matters; it's the quantity. When I first started temping, in the spring of 2001, I would get these three-or-four-day gigs, which just killed you; they were long enough to take precious time away from looking for a more permanent job and short enough to leave you scrambling when they were over, with just a couple of hundred bucks to show for your time. I once worked in four different offices in two weeks, two days apiece. I would call the temp agency in the morning, seeing if they had anything, wondering if today would be a day worth getting out of bed for. Most often, they had nothing. In the spring of 2001, everybody needed a temp job.
The assignments ranged from the mundane to the ridiculous. I once stuffed direct mail envelopes for eight straight hours. It was supposed to be a three-day job, but, feeling stupidly diligent, I finished in one day, costing me two-days pay. The most surreal was a three-day post answering phones for Telemundo, the Spanish language television station. Apparently, the employers had neglected to mention that the assignment required a Spanish speaker, but once I was there, nobody seemed to mind. I would just answer the phone, say "Welcome to Telemundo, how may I direct your call?" and then, helpless, just sputter, "Uh, um, no hablo espanol." This went on for three days. Not a single caller spoke English. One day, bored, I decided to go ahead and try to help them anyway.
Welcome to Telemundo. How may I direct your call?
Fortunately, they didn't pay me in pesos. But after three weeks of sporadic, degrading work, my parents' couch in Mattoon was starting to look awfully tempting. And then, late one Sunday night, the temp agency called. They were offering me the holy grail: a two-week assignment, working in a doctor's office on the Upper East Side, which happened to be where I was living at the time. It was a five-minute walk to work, and they paid 13 bucks an hour, the most lucrative gig I'd have so far. "Show up tomorrow morning," they said. "You have Internet skills, don't you?" I wasn't sure what they meant by "Internet skills," but I was sure, whatever it was, I could do it better than I could speak Spanish.
I showed up wearing a tie, which I always did the first day of any temp assignment. The office was in the basement depths of I was greeted by a flaming gay man named Michael. He was the assistant to Dr. Lewis Shipman, an oncology specialist at Mt. Sinai, and he was going away for a week. ("To MIAMI!!!!" he giggled.) Michael explained to me that about 50 percent of the job was clerical; answering the phones, making appointments, typing up patient reports, pulling charts for the next day's examinations. "The other 50 percent is dealing with the patients," he said, "but you won't have to worry about for the next couple of weeks. I'll train you this week, and next week you're on your own."
Michael's idea of "training" was telling me which nurses were slutty, openly speculating on the sexual orientation of Dr. Shipman and pointing out that I "have pretty hair." He was a nice enough guy, and every time a patient would come in, they always had some sort of gift for him. "It's tough here," he told me. "These are sad, dying people, and their families. It's best not to get too close to them." I told him that I'd be out in two weeks, that I was a Serious Writer with Difficulty Finding Gainful Employment, and to have a good time in Miami.
That second week, with Michael gone, the doctor wasn't very busy, so we just kind sat around and shot the shit. He was a pleasant enough fellow, if a bit of a dandy; he always wore corny, Tucker Carlson bowties and left early on Fridays for his place on Martha's Vineyard. (He wondered how it was that I'd never been to The Vineyard; I explained to him I currently didn't have enough money to afford a grape.)
Friday morning, ostensibly my last day, the office phone rang. "Dr. Shipman's office, this is Will." It was Michael. He was having a glorious time in Miami. So glorious, in fact, that he decided he wasn't coming back. I transferred him to Dr. Shipman, who, after a few minutes, came out of his office, ghastly pale.
"Michael just quit. He's staying in Miami. Can you come back next week?"
I could barely contain my glee. A steady gig! With reliable Internet access! I could use the office as my home base, doing the brainless temp work while searching for journalism jobs. I told Dr. Shipman I'd be happy to fill in for a couple of more weeks until they found a more steady replacement. He thanked me.
Six months later, I was still Dr. Shipman's assistant.
The clerical stuff was easy. Everyone who called the office just adored me. How I loved to make them laugh! Whether it was another doctor calling for a referral, or a nurse calling from across the hospital, or just a family member checking in on test results, I always gave them something to giggle about. I was the standup comic receptionist, a whirling dervish of irreverence. Worried about your MRI? Here's a poop joke! Need those samples back from the lab? Knock-knock! Who's there? Comic gold, that's who! I loved it when the phone rang.
I also became a typing monster. Years of writing had honed my digits into weapons of mass destruction; I could give you back a three-page report in 15 minutes, without any errors, with every page numbered correctly and every patient's name spelled perfect. At the end of the day, I'd put on a pair of headphones and just plow through that shit; it certainly beat stuffing envelopes.
But as Michael had pointed out, the job was only 50 percent clerical. Dr. Shipman explained this to me when it became clear that I wasn't going anywhere. Dr. Shipman, I must make it clear, was an incredible doctor. He was a young guy and a bit of a whiz kid; patients from all across the Tri-State area braved Manhattan traffic to come see him. (His office was littered with gifts, accolades and commendations; like any doctor, his strength lay in a field other than modesty.) The problem, Dr. Shipman said, was that patients had a difficult time relating to him. In his words: "They think I care more about the blood counts than I do about them as a patient." This couldn't be further from the truth; I both admired and pitied Dr. Shipman for his attachment to his patients. He would often visit them on the weekends and constantly fretted about their well-being. But for some reason, that didn't come across to the patients. Which was where I came in.
"People like you, Will," he told me. "You're a warm presence. You make people feel comfortable. And when people have cancer, they need comfort almost as much as they need treatment." And thus was the other half of my job. I was the conduit between doctor and patient; I explained what chemotherapy was going to be like, I held their hand when they cried, I delivered the drugs to patients' apartments. I was the human face with them as they went through the struggle of their lives, the struggle for their lives. For 13 bucks an hour.
And so it went. I would receive phone calls at all hours of the night, from panicked relatives, Mom's nose is bleeding, do you think it's a bad reaction to the chemo? The job was anything but an eight-hour-a-day vessel for job searching. It became my entire life.
It began draining me immediately. I had no training for such a position in people's life. I tried to remain upbeat, and I tried to make everyone feel like everything was going to be OK, that this was a normal process, that we were trying to make them better. But it was so hard. And there were so many of them, so many dying.
I remember one patient in particular; let's call him Barry. Barry was a successful reporter for a national financial newspaper, and when he came in for his first set of tests, shortly after I started, we talked about the rough job market for journalists, and annoying public relations people, and frustrating editors who always took out our best stuff. He was young, mid-thirties, handsome and friendly. He told me how he devoted his life to his work, remaining single, and he had climbed up the ranks of the newspaper to an exceptionally high-ranking position at such a young age.
Barry had brain cancer. He was referred to Dr. Shipman by his family doctor, and he came in with his mother. After his first session, one where we'd laughed and commiserated for an hour longer than we had to, I asked Dr. Shipman about his condition.
"Oh, it's so sad," Dr. Shipman said. "He's too far gone. The cancer has spread too far. He's going to start losing his faculties in the next couple of months, and he'll probably be gone in six months. It's horrible; such a nice man."
Barry visited the office every couple of weeks. I watched as his condition deteriorated rapidly. The first month, we would still chat about the newspaper business. By his fifth or sixth visit, though, his hair was gone, he could not walk and he would forget, mid-sentence, who he was talking to and why he was there. His mother, an elegant Connecticut woman whose husband had died three years earlier, looked more gaunt every time she came in. She tried so hard to be strong, but you could see a little bit of the life sucked out of her every time. Once Barry forgot who she was, right there in the office, and she grabbed a hold of me, screaming and clawing at my shirt.
I was visiting my girlfriend in New Jersey one weekend when my cell phone rang about 2:30 in the morning. It was Barry's home nurse. "Mr. Goldblatt's mother wanted me to call you. Barry just passed on, and she wanted me to thank you for being there. She says she couldn't have made it through this without you."
This went on and on, for months and months, patient by patient, as I lost sight of any life I'd had before, any pretensions of being a writer, a little bit of me dying with each one of them. My temp job had become something much bigger, and something that I was becoming increasingly aware was outside of my capacity. I could not do this much longer.
One morning, I came into the office a little late and received an email from CNN Breaking News Alerts. A plane had crashed into the World Trade Center in downtown New York. I thought little of it. Small plane, big building, people fly too close to that thing all the time. We had no television or radio in the office; the Internet was my only tool of communication with the outside world, and I had no idea what was going on. I sent an instant message to a friend of mine who worked on Wall Street. Not understanding anything, I joked, "Hey, hope you're not under any airplanes over there." My friend told me I was an asshole, and that he was getting out of there. Ten minutes later, the first tower collapsed. It took me hours to learn my friend had escaped.
Dr. Shipman, who usually didn't come in until about 10 on Tuesdays, a day when he rarely had patients, came sprinting into the room. He was calm, and focused. "I just heard what happened on the drive in. There are going to be hundreds of thousands people hurt; we're need to mobilize and get ready for the wounded." He then looked to me. He was wearing a suit. "I can't work on patients in this. Can I borrow your pants and shoes? We're going to have to do some real doctoring today."
People always ask me where I was on September 11, 2001. I always tell them I was far uptown, away from the destruction in lower Manhattan. After that, they never ask what I was doing. But that's what I was doing. I was giving Dr. Shipman my shoes and pants.
He didn't need them, obviously. There were very few wounded, and none made it up to Upper East Side.
I applied for a job at a fledgling magazine in November, and sneaked out over my lunch hour to interview. It took them a couple of weeks to get back to me. The managing editor, clearly under much pressure, told me on a Friday, around 4 p.m., that I had the job but that they needed me to start on Monday. I asked him if I could give him a week. He said no. They needed someone now.
I couldn't just leave those patients like that. Could I? No. I couldn't. I told him I had to refuse the job. I called my father for advice.
"Will, you're a goddamned temp. If they dropped you, they wouldn't give you a second's notice. You'd just be out on your ass. You don't have benefits or anything. You owe them nothing. Call him back, right now, and tell him you want the job."
He was right, of course. But Dr. Shipman had left for the day. What about Monday's appointments? What about Sandra Bartony, who was getting a CAT scan with contrast at 8 a.m.? Whom would her daughter talk to if I were not there? How could I leave them?
It was an impossible situation but I had to get back to my life. This was not me. I could not do this. Not anymore. I was not worthy of such an important assignment. I left a message on Dr. Shipman's pager. It was very simple.
FOUND NEW JOB. HAVE TO START MONDAY. I'M VERY SORRY. THIS HAS BEEN AN INCREDIBLE EXPERIENCE. YOU HAVE MY NUMBER. I'M SORRY.
And then I left, and I never spoke with Dr. Shipman, or any of our patients, or Barry's mother, again, ever, it was gone, it was over, and off I went.
I think about them all, every day. I will not let this life I have now, so far away from all the death, make me forget. I must not only not forget what I experienced those months, what they all experienced, I must also not forget my abandonment of it for a life that, in comparison, is one of vacant, empty leisure.
I wonder if I should ask for forgiveness. I feel that I should.