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True Stories by Steve Keely
Hobo Memoirs


‘Yes, I’ll take onions on the dog,’ I requested of the gray server with small ears.

‘Yes, I’d like onions,’ I repeated minutes later.

“Yes, onions!’ on the third dog.

‘I cut them,’ she sobbed. Two hundred plates were served today at the Kitchen food line before mine. ‘Finely diced,’ I thanked her and sat across from one black man at a long table I didn’t know.

‘You can stop the crying with two matches,’ he muttered. I wrinkled a brow. He stuck two white plastic spoons in either corner of his mouth and gazed outward like a walrus. Then a murmur brought forth between them, ‘I worked as a Grade 2 food supervisor at the Patton Hospital for ten years.’

I squirmed. “It’s a mental hospital in San Bernardino,’ he finally said. ‘Or it was through the ‘80’s when I was there.

I recalled being there once myself as a postscript to a Psych Tech certificate. A mile-square with 3000 patients hemmed in like a city.

‘It’s more like a country club… golf course, gym and, of course, a fine kitchen.’

‘How did you get to be there?’ I inquired.

‘That’s the $64,000 Question!’ He raised his face. ‘Before that I was a kid, then school, I was a soldier, got out in the 70’s, went to college, did odd jobs and eventually hired on in 1982 to cut vegetables and sweep floors at the Patton Hospital. I was a Grade 1 food worker. Early on, the garbage disposal plugged up and crap spewed and covered the kitchen floor. The supervisor ordered the Grade 1’s to clean it up but I said shoveling shit wasn’t in the job description. He ordered to grab shovel or be fired. Understand that on a state job one screw-up in the first six months means out you go. I knew about the AFLCIO so called their 800 number. Realize, as I came to discover, that it was run by the mafia. Within an hour I had the job back and, a month later since there was neither Union nor Union Rep at the hospital, they made me the Rep and I signed up members. I was on salary working sides: The state hospital and AFLCIO. The super was summarily fired and I promoted to Grade 2 supervisor of the whole food staff and AFLCIO rep for the entire hospital. These jobs lasted ten years.’

We chewed in silence. ‘We peeled 50 lb. bags of onions with two sulfur matches in each mouth. The tips neutralize the fumes. You can use matches from a book but it takes three. Chilling the onions helps as do sunglasses.’ He smiled.

‘They used to give a ham to anyone who fingered a new patient. People turned in their neighbors right and left for $50 hams. They would be picked up for a ‘50-51’ crazy evaluation at the hospital… there followed a 24-hour or 48-hour hold at Patton. Certainly the neighbor yelled in defiance that their neighbors were crazy, but doctors aren’t dumb. Appreciate how a large state agency runs. The hospital landed a new resident. The dangerous ones were restrained, countless drugged, other’s free to roam the grounds, and many actually grew to prefer it there. Did I mention it was like a country club?’

Hearing no response, he continued. ‘The population jumped to maybe 4000 while I was there. The problem was the Psych Techs. Each with a little office where it was popular to call a dude with bulging muscles in from the gym for an evaluation behind locked doors. I used to arrive at work early each morning with citizens waving Trojans out the windows… I called them oleanders.’

Our plates were spotless. ‘A large hole through the perimeter fence let patrons waltz in and out to malls or bars. San Bernardino was a safe, clean community in those days.’

‘Why did you leave?’ I asked.

His eyes narrowed. ‘You weren’t listening… I told you it was the $64,000 Question. There are no more.’ He stalked off.

‘Why didn’t they make you the psychiatrist?’ I whispered after him, but he just kept on walking.

More than food is served daily at the Kitchen.

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