I stood waiting for the bus on Gratiot Ave, there was a sea of concrete around me. It was New Year’s eve 1975-76 in Detroit and gunshots were going off with some regularity around me, celebratory residents. I could distinguish between fireworks and gunshots. The latter had an eerie echo that distinguishes it from fireworks.
I had transferred from the Grand Boulevard bus to the Gratiot bus on my way to work at Lafayette Clinic. I worked midnights at the clinic, 11 PM to 7 AM as an Attendant Nurse 03. Lafayette Clinic was the research mental health hospital run by the state of Michigan. In the sea of concrete waiting for the bus I began to think and worry about a ricochet bullet hitting me. I saw myself bleeding to death at the bus stop, the concrete running red with blood..
At this intersection of these two wide streets there was a White Castle. A small square building, fake castle towers on each end of the building with square white tiles two by two feet square on the exterior. Even before entering I smelled cooking grease. The White Castle featured small hamburgers on square buns. Often when I had time between my buses I would visit, get up on one of the black naugahyde stools, and order a coffee. Under white neon lights the place smelled of onions, grease, weak coffee, and stale cigarette smoke.
The waitresses were attractive working class black woman in white waitress uniforms. The uniforms had short sleeves and often had a stain or two from a splashed condiment or coffee. The women were behind a stainless steel counter. The not working, and working class men standing and seated at the counter at 10 PM were on the other side of the stainless steel. The counter gave these women some protection, at arms length from the customers.
With my coffee there seemed always to be drama, “Oh baby, how about some more Joe.” “Hey man she’s my baby, don’t you know?” The two men laughed one pulled out a cigarette, the zippo lighter opened, flame jumped out and then snapped shut with a click. Other men sat quietly, staring into coffee cups like they were looking for some very elusive good luck.
Given the clientele, it was easy for me to see that serving coffee at the White Castle at 10 PM was much harder than my job, working in the mental hospital. One evening I spoke to one of the women and suggested that she should consider applying for a job at the clinic, “Attendant Nurse 03”, State of Michigan. Finishing the short conversation I simply said to her, “easier, for better money, benefits and less bull shit.”
Administering electric shock treatments was part of my job description at the clinic. I heard stories, saw photos of these treatments which made me feel thankful that during my time there the new regime was drug therapy. As a struggling student, working nights didn’t interfere with classes. Putting on the rubber gloves for the shock treatments was probably my limit. A few patients, mostly middle aged women, were disappointed that the shock treatments had fallen out of favor for treating mental illness. Drugs were prescribed.
When I got off the bus at the multistory windowless red brick Stroh brewery and crossed the street to the Clinic gunshots and fireworks are mingling, no longer distinguishable to me. I was still a little worried about a stray bullet.
The clinic only had three floors in a new residential area, part of an urban renewal project with single family dwellings. Dilapidated apartments had been cleared away. All the buildings in the area were the same age, about three years old, not more than two stories. The Clinic was landscaped. The first key, at ground level got me into the clinic. I worked on the second floor, a locked ward with male and female patients.
The second key got me safely on the ward. There I saw patients that were a little agitated, concerned, the shots were sounding around them. The head nurse had told everyone to avoid the windows. I joined them.
I was behind two locked doors in a secure mental health unit and the crazies were outside shooting guns in the air. The rest of us were keeping our heads low and away from windows. We awaited the New Year.