Second shift was my primary shift — and my favorite one, because I could wake up around noon and wander in to work and still be on time. There would only be one meal served on second shift, and by the time it was over, most of the patients would be in bed. On the other hand, I’d pick up any other shifts I could, because we weren’t paid much, and to make ends meet I already had four roommates in a three bedroom apartment. That generally meant a lot of first shifts, especially double-shifts on weekends.
Occasionally, though, there was an opportunity to pick up a coveted third shift. Although there’s not a whole lot creepier than a mental ward in the middle of the night, these were highly desirable because there was a minimum of work and patient interaction. Staff were fewer, but if you happened to be paired with somebody you trusted, you could actually relax and read a book, as you traded off doing rounds and being alert for any trouble.
On the other hand, people either braver or stupider than I took it as an opportunity to sleep. I can’t imagine doing this unless you’re working with somebody you trust with your life, since you are, after all, in a ward full of people judged to be dangers to themselves or others, generally only with one other MHA and no other backup whatsoever.
One evening, I drew a third shift with an MHA whose standout trait was the fact that he was Haitian. I say this mainly because he neither greeted nor acknowledged me in any way, but immediately upon the departure of the second shift, chatted briefly with the custodial staff in French, put a book over his face and fell asleep in the day hall. I checked my watch, almost in disbelief — he’d managed to start snoring exactly five minutes after the shift started.
We had rounds to do and paperwork to fill out, and I was just as happy not to have his help. There was less to do at night, and I preferred to feel busy. I contented myself with making sure the custodians were safe (the wards were cleaned at night) and checking on the patients — mostly asleep, or at least dormant.
After a few hours, my rounds through the male bathroom led me to discover one of the patients, stark naked, posing and walking in front of the mirror and watching himself in a manner best described as “prancing.” He stopped abruptly and exclaimed, “Jesus Christ!” when he saw me.
This wasn’t an expression — it’s what he called me. Patients called me by a number of names, none of them actually my own, in order to fit their own delusions, worldviews, or generally unfiltered impressions of me. “Jimmy” was particularly popular, for reasons I cannot fathom, though there was a small cadre who referred to me as “Paul Revere.” “Cindy” carefully explained that I was Paul Revere from Paul Revere and the Raiders, not the Paul Revere who made his famous ride, because he was obviously long dead and it would be “loopy” to think I were he. Perhaps it was my long hair and occasional beard. I was also referred to as “the Captain,” but with one exception, it was used jokingly.
Some people referred to me as “Jesus Christ,” convinced that I was actually the Son of God, probably due to the same vague resemblance that led people to call me “Paul Revere.” It’s one of the few delusions I attempted to dispel directly, but without any actual results. “I’m not Jesus,” I’d say, as directly and bluntly as I could.
“That’s exactly what Jesus would say,” would be the response.
Rather than engage in another fruitless debate as to whether or not I was the embodiment of a Christian deity, I simply said, “I don’t think you should be walking around naked this late at night. Come to think of it, you probably shouldn’t be walking around naked at all. Aren’t you tired?”
“Sorry, Jesus,” said Naked Man. “Is that in the Bible?”
“It must be in there somewhere,” I said. “At least something about going to bed when it’s dark.”
Naked Man looked momentarily horrified. “Oh no! I didn’t realize I was sinning.”
“Well, let’s let God sort that out, all I’m really asking is that you go to bed, get some sleep, and generally avoid being naked when not absolutely necessary,” I told him, trying not to abuse my position as Lord and Savior.
I walked back to the day hall to find “Ed” standing on the MHA’s neck. The MHA’s chair was lying on its back, and the MHA was lying there with Ed’s foot on his throat, eyes wide, not breathing, unable to move and not getting any air to scream. Ed was clearly bent on murdering the man. It was so quiet and dark, it took me a moment to take this in.
“Ed! What are you doing?” I asked, running closer to rescue the man.
“I’m trying to kill this guy,” Ed stated blandly.
“What for?” I asked, genuinely interested. Ed wasn’t particularly violent.
“He’s a putz,” said Ed, as if that explained everything.
“Well, yeah,” I agreed. “But if you kill him, I’m going to get in trouble.”
“Oh shit!” replied Ed, taking his foot off the MHA’s throat. “I didn’t think of that. Fuck it, I’m going to bed.” With that, Ed walked calmly back to the male dorm.
The MHA lying on the ground wheezed with the first breath he’d probably taken in several minutes. After a moment or two gasping for air, he stood up slowly, set his chair up again, sat down, put the book over his face, and went back to sleep. Not for a single moment did he acknowledge my presence, or in any way acknowledge the fact that somebody intent on killing him was quite literally standing on his throat minutes before.
I’d like to think that every time I faced death, I could be so incredibly blase that I could go right the hell back to sleep seconds later without giving it another thought. On the other hand, it’s deeply ingrained in my psyche that when somebody saves my life, even if it’s their job, I at least say an enthusiastic “thank you!” and experience has borne this out. This was either the coolest man I’d ever met, or, more likely, such an incredible putz that he simply trusted me both to do his work and save his life as the occasion demanded.
At least he was unconcerned that I violated procedure by not restraining Ed, simply letting him go back to bed and not writing up the incident.
Years later, I worked in group homes for the developmentally disabled. Similarly to my time at Metropolitan State, I’d occasionally pick up an extra shift.
Third shift was a little different. Because there was no custodial staff, third shift was a three-person job that involved cleaning the home from top to bottom. With three people, you could get the job done in about six hours, which left enough time to deal with any kids who woke up during the night and needed help or attention.
One third shift, I had two co-workers, “Paul” and “John”. John immediately launched into a cleaning frenzy with an incredible, infectious enthusiasm. He loved the job and loved the kids, and he was great to be around. Paul, on the other hand, announced that he was “really tired” since he had worked the shift before (as both John and I had) and proceeded to go to sleep on the couch.
Near the end of the shift, John and I had gotten all the work done for all three of us. We had briefly talked about waking up Paul to make him help, but decided that he’d probably be pretty useless, and it was kind of a downer to be around people who didn’t really like the work or the kids, and we were better off just letting him sleep. It seemed unfair, however, that his laziness would go entirely unpunished… So I took a permanent marker and wrote “PUTZ” on his forehead in large, neat, block letters.
Our supervisor showed up early in the morning, for a rare surprise inspection. Paul woke up and stood with John and I, taking credit for our excellent work. The supervisor went through every part of the home, giving us perfect marks, but was obviously distracted by Paul’s forehead, still sporting a gigantic, unmistakable “PUTZ.” However, he didn’t say a word about it.
Paul started to notice the supervisor looking at his forehead as well, and surreptitiously peeked in a mirror. In a display of incredible smoothness, the next time he caught the supervisor staring at it, he explained, “I see you’ve noticed my Afrikaan family name. Our rituals require us to have it written on our heads this time of year.”
Our supervisor, a man of Jewish descent (and well acquainted with the word) raised one eyebrow, but otherwise did not comment. At the end of his inspection, he announced, “Excellent job, but I want to see each of you individually in my office today.”
At my individual appointment with him, he explained that he had fired Paul for reasons “that you probably understand” and went on to explain that if somebody falls asleep during a third shift there are procedures for dealing with such things. and that it’s incredibly hard to keep a straight face when telling somebody they’re fired and they have PUTZ written on their heads in huge letters.
I had to admit, it hadn’t occurred to me.
On my next shift (after the night shift where Ed tried to kill the MHA), Ed located me in the day hall.
“Hey, man, I just wanted to say sorry for trying to kill that putz,” said Ed. “I didn’t know you’d get in trouble.”
“Well, even putzes have a right to live, Ed,” I tried to explain.
“That’s just the kind of thing Jesus would say.” said Ed. “And all this time, I thought your name was Jimmy.”