Poem

Rough Diamond Like charcoal I absorb your poison Acrid smoke And all the attachments you carry Anxiety rides the air on wings Not gossamer, not silk Wings made of plaster Like charcoal I compact, constrict, confine myself To a small corner Sucking air through a … Continue reading Poem

Water in Ketchup 2011

I learned a lot from poverty. As a child it meant not buying new things or learning to make stuff last longer, i.e. the bottle of ketchup. Mom would routinely add a drop or two of water and shake vigorously just to get a few more servings out. I welcomed the last splat of red water and was happy to let my fish sticks swim in it. And in my twenties I smiled when Ronald Reagan, then president of the United States, made an unintended joke about the nutritional value of school lunches, ‘isn’t ketchup a vegetable?’.

Several years ago, long before the economic meltdown, I watched my husband in the kitchen of our middle class home, trying to spoon water into an empty bottle of ketchup. I laughed at first but then told him to stop, “Did you grow up that way too?” Of course he did–there were five boys in his family.

I sometimes think of all the thrifty things I did as a young single mother. Little tricks and ways to get more bang for the buck, and for the first time in many, many years I feel comfortable enough to embrace those practices once again and even share them with friends and co-workers. Just last week I gave a lesson on how to make mascara last longer. The lesson came about after repeated comments on the tube of hand lotion sitting on my desk with the bottom cut off. You see lotion containers—like ketchup bottles– are not really empty when you can no longer squeeze out any product. I routinely cut the bottoms from tubes of lotion, stick my fingers in to reach the two or three more applications before discarding. I do the same thing with toothpaste. A similar technique can be applied to mascara. I stood with three friends at work, and passionately confirmed, “There’s so much mascara inside that you’ll never reach because of packaging. Mascara can cost what, six or seven dollars?”
“Mine cost $26”
 said my colleague with perfectly cut and colored hair that is never allowed to grow out or fade. I work with women who spend $26 dollars on mascara but today they eagerly wait for my demonstration on how to make those costly tubes last a little longer, “You see this little plastic ring that sits on top? Pop it off and you’ll have at least three more months of applications.”
While it’s no secret I’m the queen of thrift store luck, having recently acquired a Stressless chair for $25 dollars and a new pair of European walking shoes for five, I’m not so willing to share all of my secrets and I hope and pray I never again have to steal toilet paper from a public restroom.

I now work for a healthcare organization and earn a decent salary.
 Life as we know it is changing. My mortgage, like the bottle of ketchup from my childhood has too much water associated with it.
 The company I work for is over budget and will have to make difficult decisions. A can of V-8 provides a daily serving of vegetables and Heinz is loaded with anti- oxidants.

While I struggle to keep my sense of humor and make room on my plate for a watered down, burst bubble way of life, the little girl inside me roars, conjuring up her ‘ism’s and her spirit and keeping me hopeful.

Today my co-worker, in the cubicle next to mine, sits two shiny apples on her desk. “Wow, those are beautiful and so big,” I admire and watch her pick one up, seeing the fruit fill her entire hand, 
“What’s up with fruit this year?” I ask, “Aren’t apple prices supposed to dip in the fall?”
“They’re not dipping.” she said, crunching a big bite and catching a bit of juice on her chin.
 Again I feel comfortable enough to share one of my practices. “I have a fruit rule,” I said. “I don’t buy fruit if it’s over a dollar a pound.”
My co-worker stops in mid bite and turns to me, smiling, “That’s noble” She quips. The apple between us gives off the most delicious, sweet, Honey Crisp aroma and I puff up a bit and fire back, “Are you mocking me?” I challenge playfully.
“I would never mock you” was her most sincere reply,
“I’m just eating an apple and you are not.”

copyright2017caceresbg

Dysfunction Junction

By the time I left I could barely breathe. The knowledge of where I had been for the past three and a half years set heavily on my shoulders so that I could no longer stand up straight. It crushed my chest so that I fought to inhale and exhale. The smell of it rose like a river of filth under my nose and the dirty truth clung like shit to my shoes. My work environment was toxic and it would kill me if I didn’t leave.

I didn’t notice much at first. People seemed less friendly than they were in other departments of the same organization. People seemed to be working hard and there was plenty to do; data entry that came in a queue of requests for authorization of medical services and phone calls from healthcare offices across the entire state that rang into a queue sometimes 16 calls deep.

I’d worked in the healthcare field most of my life and by the time I transferred to the referral department I had 12 years under my belt. The training was lackluster at best. I was never given any background information about the department or how its function worked with and complemented other departments in the organization. I sat and watched as one of my new colleagues processed requests from a paper printout of part of the queue. She would sometimes explain what she was doing but it was up to me to ask questions and glean any possible knowledge.

Next I would sit with someone on the phones and listen in. The calls were mostly to check the status of pending requests for authorization. Many of the calls were easy—authorization had been given but the patients and doctors offices had not yet received the approval letter—and the call was simply about providing an authorization number. The requests themselves were also sometimes simple. A request for podiatry or massage therapy could be easily approved. But some requests were for procedures that required clinical review or a kind of review by the person processing the request. One had to know what each specific health plan would allow and also what the limitations of each health plan were (as it pertained to the specific service being requested). Some plans covered services or procedures that others would not and the employee working the queue (either phones or data entry) had to know. We had access to the riders of each health insurance plan and the riders helped identify the plan benefits and limitations.

New employees were told the learning curve would be about six months. For many it was longer than that and many would not even see a sixth month anniversary. Turnover was shocking. I saw at least five people come and go during my first year.

Mandatory overtime was frequent and surprising. I’d never been forced to work on the weekends and I thought the union would be able to help and intervene on behalf of the tired and stressed out workers. I learned that there is no union protection from OT and that (according to my colleagues) the union could claim more in dues based on extra hours worked and higher take home pay of staff.

Granted, some wanted overtime and some made a lot of money working OT, I always thought it best to be given the choice. And….why would a department of thirty people working eight hours of overtime each at least once per month not be able to make any headway on the work itself? We could never get ahead.

Management required at least 100 items of work to be completed by each employee every day. It could be 30 phone calls and 70 pieces of data entry or 83 phone calls and 17 pieces of data entry as long as the quantity by quitting time amounted to 100. Staff were assigned the permanent position of either data or phones. All new staff were placed on phones were it was most stressful but also provided the opportunity to learn the most and learn it quickly—a sink or swim kind of experience.

I actually enjoyed the phones (being the consummate customer service rep) and enjoyed talking to medical teams from Seattle to Spokane and everywhere in between. I learned my job and knew it well and found it incredibly interesting. The knowledge base needed to succeed in the referral department was broad and deep and I considered my education in the department to be equal in depth to what is was when I worked at Fred Hutch.

During my third year, with a new batch, of employees on board, and me feeling pretty well settled into the department, I agreed to help a colleague who was struggling. I would switch places with her and go work the data queue. I thought it might be nice to have a break from the constant talking and being talked to of 100 calls per day.
I had a good friend in the department, someone who transferred in just 30 days after I did. We were both being forced out of our previous jobs in Family Practice due to an organizational restructure. We both lamented and laughed about all the absurdities in our new jobs—from the piss poor training to the soul sucking mandatory overtime—to the most obvious and distressing aspect –the back biting and in fighting among staff. We were working in the most dysfunctional department we’d ever experienced. Our immediate supervisor, Gloria, knew very little of the work. If we went to her with a question she would walk us over the Lead who always had an answer. The second supervisor, Latheena, was knowledgeable but mean and seemed to actually enjoy and perpetuate the ongoing dysfunction.

If rules or processes changed , the staff were frequently the last to know and it was usually during a phone call, with a nurse from a doctors office that we would learn of changes in our own criteria. This was a frequent scenario and it left staff feeling angry and distrustful. Another aspect of the work was that if an error was found we were told to send it to the supervisor with the name of the offender. Those who made errors but were popular or feared were not as subject to this as those of us who were disliked or thought of as trouble makers. It’s funny how people will work hard to preserve homeostasis even if it’s destructive and unjust.

In working the data queue and turning in my tic sheet every day I found that I could not always reach the goal of 100 items worked. Some days I came close and produced 88 or 98 and some days only 79 or 80. I turned in my tic sheet every day and documented honestly. During my first review with my supervisor on the data side I was told that if I didn’t get my numbers up I’d be placed on a PIP (performance improvement plan). I worked harder but my numbers did not reach 100 on enough days to keep me from the threat of a PIP.
I began noticing how some people in the department, and one woman, in particular were so very social. Talking and laughing and stopping to chat and gossip at many desks every day and yet she not only is meeting quota but exceeds it every day. She even boasted that if she drank a red bull she could easily work 200 items! Everyone knew she was full of shit. But it was me—not her who was the subject of a possible performance improvement plan. I turned in my sheet every day and recorded my work honestly and with integrity, but clearly this was not happening with everyone.

Since the phone queue was the least desirable area to work but I enjoyed it and was successful there, I asked to be moved back. I only went to the data queue to help someone anyway and on any given day a current phone worker would gladly trade places and take work in data instead. My request was denied. I was being set up to fail and would indeed fail because I refused to pad my numbers.

A few days before giving notice I logged on to my computer and didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t remember my password and froze. I had to open other applications to but couldn’t remember what they were. Was I having a stroke? Was I going crazy? I was under an enormous amount of stress. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. When I looked at the screen again I was able to proceed and get through the day. In the morning I tendered my resignation and gave six weeks notice. I needed the time to adjust to the idea and to get a jump on job hunting.

I was in free fall. I didn’t care. I could breathe again! The enormous pressure was lifted and I actually enjoyed my remaining six weeks. My former Lead on phones gave me a very nice card and said she’d never known anyone with such exemplary customer service skills and the team gave me going away potluck where almost everyone congratulated me on my “escape.” The supervisor took my company paid transit pass away and I had to ask for enough money from my coworkers to cover the train ride home. The pass could have easily been electronically disabled the next day but it gave Latheena a chance to do something mean and she could never pass up that kind of opportunity.

I enjoyed days of unencumbered freedom. I had enough money to cover my expenses for the month and I knew I’d easily find another healthcare job. What I didn’t expect was to find the job within the organization I’d just left.

I took a two -dollar pay cut and gave up 10 years of seniority. I was now an entry level medical receptionist in a behavioral health clinic. I was no longer subject to mandatory overtime. The work was easy and undemanding. I missed the complexity of my previous job but I was grateful to be out of a toxic and tragic work environment.

My friend remained in the department and has kept me posted on all the sad and ongoing events. The one good thing that came after I left was that staff no longer manually recorded their daily work by using tic sheets. The computer was used to generate a daily report of work completed and the report revealed that no one –not a single person had processed 100 items every day. I felt vindicated at last. Too bad I lost 10 years of seniority and the vacation accrual that goes with it. I’ve reclaimed the two dollar salary loss but cannot shake the memory of what it’s like to work in such dysfunction. I have since witnessed similar evidence of organizational dysfunction in other departments as well. It’s the culture of the company for which I still work. It’s the culture I hope to someday leave and say goodbye to for good. I know it’ll happen soon. I can feel the shit sticking to my boots again. And there’s this odd pressure building on my shoulders….

Copyright2017caceresbg

Poem

Two Little Boys in June

His arms had no knowledge of how to hug
and so he hugged toys
and his heart was carefully guarded
behind a wall of plastic and metal
his sense of security
sealed inside a box of sweet cereal
and solitude.

His friend couldn’t catch a football
knowing only how to cling to stuffed animals
his heart too
protected by isolation
and a wall of soft fatherless kisses
in a bedroom without a bed.

They found each other on a dusty road in June
dirty jeans and hands
playing with rocks and gravel
in a city far, far away
on a lonely street
where two little boys used to live.

copyright2017caceresbg

Pearls and Gravel

I’m working as a telephone operator at the Stouffer Madison Hotel downtown and mom, as usual, watches Michael while I work. Things have been fairly peaceful lately and I’m sure it’s in part due to the fact that we’ve moved into a small rental house. The house sits on a large lot and is a good distance from view of neighbors and the big backyard is private and gives mom a place to sit quietly and watch Michael play. I take the bus to work every morning, trudging through the alley behind the house and out onto Delridge Way where I wait for the number 20 bus. I’ve purchased a few skirts to wear to work but I don’t have a decent coat or nice shoes, and the shoes I’ve been wearing are cheap ballerina flats from K-Mart. I have a black pair and a white pair and the soles are made of some synthetic slippery material that actually caused me to fall down while crossing the street a few days ago. Right in the crosswalk on 6th Avenue in the middle of the afternoon……..Bam! I didn’t get hurt but now I have to keep a layer of masking tape on the soles for traction. I wouldn’t mind if all my clothes were second hand if I could just have some decent leather shoes.

I think one of the bus drivers on the number 20 likes me. He stopped to give me a ride in front of the 7-11 yesterday and even let me bring my coffee on board. We deadheaded to the end of the line and it was just the two of us. He was friendly and seemed like a nice person but I while I would have rather just sat at the back of the bus with my own thoughts, I felt obligated to visit with him since he was kind enough to let me board early. The driver’s name is Danny and by the time I got off the bus at First and Union downtown, I was sure I had just met one of the truly happy people in the world.

Michael started first grade and mom is so proud because he tested above average on almost everything. She walks with him in the morning and picks him up at school in the afternoon. We don’t have any furniture in the house yet and no phone either, but it’s much nicer than living in an apartment. Michael met one of the neighborhood kids his age recently and invited him in. When the little boy asked why we don’t have anything in our house Michael told him firmly, “We like it this way.”

There was a different driver on the bus this week. On Friday he handed me a small piece of paper and said, “Danny asked me to give you this.”
I unfolded the very small note and read, if you’d like to have dinner sometime, call me. I didn’t expect to see him again. But what harm could there be in having dinner? It would be nice to talk with someone. I’m usually nervous about asking mom to watch Michael for me because she usually stiffens up and kind of gets a chip on her shoulder when I do—but not this time. Maybe she can sense my new resolve and no longer feels threatened or worried that she won’t have someone to care for her? Anyway, I’ll meet Danny at the bus barn after work tomorrow.

It was wonderful! Danny is so kind and funny! I found out he’s Filipino. I couldn’t tell because he doesn’t have much of an accent but that’s because he’s been in the US since 1955. He’s 41 and divorced. He has the most beautiful brown eyes I’ve ever seen, they are the color of root beer when it’s held up to the sun. I think he’ll make a perfect friend. We went to the racetrack before dinner and after an impromptu lesson in how to place a bet, he handed me $20.00. I bet two dollars and pocketed the rest–$18 bucks can buy a lot of milk and hamburger. The track is a colorful contrast in sound and emotion. Those who win are boisterous and animated, while the losers sit quietly, slumped in hardback chairs or with heads bowed over racing forms studying the horses statistics and jockeys, strategizing before the next race. The floor is littered with losing tickets, like giant size confetti that falls as hard and fast as horse’s hoofs.

Danny and I have been double dating with his best friend Tom. I don’t want to make too much of it but it’s hard not to get attached. I’m having more fun than I’ve had in years. We have drinks, then dinner and sometimes go dancing and I feel almost like a teenager. I’ve decided to let Michael meet Danny. We went for breakfast and then for a walk at Lincoln Park and Danny gave Michael a piggy back ride uphill and even carried my purse for me.

The summer was special in 1987 and the sun with it’s promise of happiness touched the edge of every day and made one feel that certain things are possible; things that would not ordinarily be considered. And so it was in this hopeful atmosphere that Danny moved in with me, sharing the little pink house on 22nd Avenue. He brought his furniture, installed a phone and parked his silver GTI in the driveway. Within days the trouble started as I should have known it would if I had not been so blinded by my own happiness. Danny was simply talking about his mom’s work at the Bank of America and as he spoke I sensed mom waiting for the right moment to strike. Like a snake she lurked in the background, taking each of his words and rolling it around in her head, examining it the way a snake tests the environment with it’s tongue. She said something mean and shocked Danny. Michael ran to his grandma’s side and pleaded with her to stop, calling her by her pet name, “Mums please don’t say that!” But it was too late. Danny looked at me as if to say ‘what’s going on?’ but I could only stare back dumbly, fear rising like a brick in my throat, bile flooding my stomach. Mom walked to the kitchen and grabbed a steak knife and waved it in Danny’s direction. Michael called 911 and within minutes the police were at the door.

When I rented the house I’d put only my name on the lease. Mom had no legal rights to be in the house and when the police officer asked if I wanted her removed I said, “yes.” Surprisingly, she left without much protest, following the officers down the dark driveway. It was suddenly quiet. I felt as if my insides had been vacuumed out. Michael sat beside me on the couch but I couldn’t look at his face. There was not enough air in the room. I could hear Danny packing his things. He pulled his bulky suitcase off the bed with such force that it hit the door and I thought he was angry. His expression told me otherwise. He was hurt and confused. “Barb, I have to go.” He said. I looked in his direction but said nothing. What right did I have to stop him from leaving? He’d been so good to me and Michael and now he saw what I dreaded he would someday know. I’d been exposed. Michael stood on the couch and leaned over the back cupping his hands against the living room window so he could see Danny leaving. The night was eerily black and quiet and the neighborhood was barely lit by a few dull, yellowish street lights. Danny’s car moved slowly, tires crunching gravel in the driveway. I pulled Michael away from the window and held him next to me. Minutes passed and strangely I didn’t cry. Michael sat still and allowed me to hold him for what seemed like a very long time.

Remembering my resolve to be single, I mentally scolded myself for getting off track. We sat on the couch in silence and I felt as if I had on one of those lead aprons you wear at the dentist during x-rays. I was sorry too that I’d allowed Michael a glimpse of normalcy. What right did I have to expose him to such ordinary happiness if I didn’t have the means or the guts to make it permanent—-to make it real? We remained next to each other, side by side on Danny’s black leather couch, not wanting to speak or move because to do so would take us out of limbo and propel us into the future-—and into a life without the man who’d made such a big difference in such a short time.

Minutes later we heard the sound of keys and turned to see the front door slowly open. I couldn’t keep Michael from running to him. He said he couldn’t leave us. He couldn’t leave us!? We laughed and cried and I said I was sorry. Danny told me not to apologize for anything my mother did, that it wasn’t my fault. This was it. This was an opportunity to break free, to live like people are supposed to live.

***

Life was beautiful in its simplicity. Michael went to school each day, played outside afterwards with his best friend, Josh, and Danny and I went to work and cooked dinner each evening together in the small kitchen. The boys ran through the house laughing and teasing each other, they splashed in a backyard wading pool and shot each other with Super Soaker squirt guns. I learned from my brother, Kenny that mom had gone into inpatient treatment at Cedar Hills, a facility somewhere in Renton. I was relieved but made it clear to my brother– who was 22 at the time– that it was his turn to care for her and that I would no longer provide a place for her to live.

November 1987

A few days before Thanksgiving a stranger knocked at our front door. A woman in business attire stood on the stoop. She identified herself as someone from the coroner’s office and I knew mom had died. The stranger said she was sorry but could not give any details– that I would need to call the office. I called nervously and listened as a man’s voice told me it was my brother. He’d died with a friend –both from an overdose of heroin and cocaine. He’d been identified by a scar he’d received during a wood chopping accident years ago when a piece of the metal axe broke and lodged itself in his sternum. I found the phone number of Lisa, Kenny’s girlfriend and called. She screamed and cried and I listened, unable to provide any comfort. She said she’d drive out to Cedar Hills and tell mom.

The funeral was paid for by the state. I’d never seen a plastic coffin before. It was made of some kind of heavy rubber/plastic combination and had a flat top. The state also provided someone to read a passage from the bible. The woman said she’d read the Lord’s Prayer but she actually read the 23rd Psalm and months later that simple mistake would bother me—-the fact that she’d read the wrong passage, or called it by the wrong name. Did she think we wouldn’t know the difference? The service was held at Riverton Crest on a cold, dreary November afternoon. Several of Kenny’s friends were there and mom was escorted by a few of the staff members from the treatment center. I stood with Michael behind Lisa, who sat in a chair, weeping softly. I watched as her thin fingers nervously caressed the long stem of a single red rose.

Mom was released from treatment just before Christmas and declared that while she was no longer “drunk”, she was still “crazy”. Would she be too ‘crazy’ to actually work the twelve steps and apologize to the people she’d hurt? She was living in a half-way house and would stay there until she could get her own apartment. At least she’d have a small income now as the state provided a stipend for its alcoholic residents who where in (or had gone through) a substance abuse program and were otherwise indigent.

Danny and I made plans to spend Christmas with his family in San Francisco. We decorated a tree before leaving and while I thought it beautiful, it brought a sadness to Danny’s eyes that made me uncomfortable. San Francisco was a strange place; cold, foggy and depressing in the morning but warm and bustling in the afternoon. Michael and I met every member of Danny’s family. I spent hours in the kitchen with his mom, Raymunda, who looked much younger than her 63 years. She had tattooed eyebrows and wore false eyelashes and her nails were painted and decorated to reflect the season or her whim. While she chopped vegetables and rolled Lumpia she told me stories about her family’s early years. Danny laughed with his brothers and sisters, they hugged and talked to each other, not in the guarded, vague way that mom, Kenny and I would communicate, but like a real family, the kind I’d only seen on television.

In the evening the Mah Jong table would come out and Raymunda and Liz, Danny’s sister, would start the game as those who wanted to play converged towards the small card table in the living room and those who wanted to watch found a position behind their favorite player. Brown hands quickly shuffled white tiles and the rhythmic clacking sound would often be overshadowed by a burst of boisterous laughter, “Aye na ko!” someone would exclaim in mock exasperation.

In the morning I’d find Raymunda in the kitchen, and though she’d stayed up late with her children and grandchildren she was the first to rise. I watched curiously as she lit two candles and threw a handful of chopped onion into a hot skillet. The onion sizzled and quickly filled the room with an appetizing aroma. Raymunda smiled and warned me that she’d be cooking tuyok, a small dried fish with a pungent odor, but that the candles and onions should hide the smell. I quickly learned that there aren’t enough candles and onions in the entire city of San Francisco to disguise the smell of tuyok. It was awful, pungent and strong and I listened in amazement as Danny told me how when he was a little boy in the Philippines, the smell would waft along in the warm morning air, stiring up everyone’s appetite and those who weren’t having tuyok felt they were missing out on a feast. The smell would actually wake Michael who’d come into the kitchen with his t-shirt covering his nose looking at me and Danny’s mom with big curious eyes. “Aye good morning my little babaloo!” Raymunda would shout and squeeze Michael and kiss his cheeks.

Back in Seattle we took down the Christmas tree and waited for Spring. There was no snow but the cold dampness kept us house bound for weeks. Michael and Josh were growing close and spent hours together, either at our little house or at Josh’s grandparents across the street. They shared an unspoken commonality; neither had known their biological father. We learned Josh’s dad had passed away from a drug overdose and his mom faced the same struggle, her addiction leaving little room for a relationship with her son. I noticed that Josh would never look me in the eye when I talked to him and Danny commented on how he didn’t know how to hug and his arms just hung stiffly at his side every time Danny embraced him.

One Spring day as the boys rode their bikes up and down the quite street in front of our house, a strange woman knocked pensively at the front door. We’d just gotten home from work and had not yet started dinner, the warm sun teasing us into a comfortable apathy on the living room sofa. I rose to greet the stranger who wore a gray suit and looked overly professional. She said she’s from Child Protective Services and is following up on a report that Michael is kept locked in his room. I stepped back a few inches from the woman as if an invisible person had just pushed his way between us and felt the air leave my lungs. “What?” I didn’t believe it yet I knew who was behind the allegations. “Well I can see he’s playing outside…” she kept her voice business like but her eyes held sympathy for me. I shook my head back and forth, not wanting to admit that my own mother was capable of such a deed. There was no room in my heart for indignation or anger and I accepted the blow as I had every other painful arrow, thrown from the arms of a mother at her daughter.

A month later we moved to a nice apartment in West Seattle on Fauntleroy Way and while I gave mom our phone number, I didn’t let her know our address. I learned I was pregnant and Danny and I were married in September by a neighbor from the old neighborhood who is a minister. We invited just two friends and had a simple ceremony in the living room. I knew for sure that my baby would be a girl, just as mom and I had known without a doubt that Michael would be a boy.

Mandolin came screaming into the world on February 1, 1990. After visiting me in the hospital, Danny took Michael and Josh across the street to eat hamburgers at Kidd Valley. The next day mom showed up with her Native American boyfriend, Leif. She brought me a framed picture of Michael as a newborn and an empty frame for my new baby girl. Mom stayed only for a few minutes and before she left, she said she loved me. It was only the second time I can remember her saying those words.

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