The first job I could get out of college was working as a night security guard at the hospital where I was born. Sad fact, I know. I escorted nurses to and from their cars in a big open-air parking lot where Berkeley's finest junkies and hasslers lurked (I'd actually had a brief stint patrolling one of the giant cavernous warehouses down near the rail lines in South Oakland, until an enormous steel shelf of Huggies diapers collapsed on me — which sounds funny but is a bit of drama when you're all alone at 4 a.m.).
It seemed to rain a lot more in those days, or nights — but at least the hospital gig was in walking distance of the ant-ridden apartment I shared with my mad girlfriend, which was not far from the New Light Baptist Church, where I'd once sung as a child, and my stepbrother and I later hung out, downing Black Beauties with Colt .45 Malt Liquor (always a fave).
A guy had hidden under one of the nurse's cars, pulled her legs out from underneath her, knocked her cold, driven her up behind the Lawrence Hall of Science and then raped her and set her on fire. I was the reinforced security solution to that problem. My job was to shine my flashlight under cars, stroll the parking aisles, and then make personal escorts when nurses arrived or went home, via radio instructions from the central hospital office.
I was in uniform and unarmed. Often, all I had for company was the red blinking light of Alcatraz off in the distance. Other times weren't so quiet. Homeless people would wander through (I had to keep them moving). Drunks threw bottles at me. Sometimes bad things happened in the street. My girlfriend was going insane, my father in San Leandro was dying an excruciating death before my very eyes, and my stepbrother was facing possible federal charges. Everything was going according to plan, all right.
But every night, a bobbing, approaching light would appear on the far edge of the parking lot and I'd feel better. It was Ern, one of the other guards who spelled me mid-shift. He called himself Ern O'Someone — I never did find out his real last name. But every night I looked forward to the flash of his light.
He was a whip-thin Irishman, who rolled his own cigarettes — from Belfast, maybe 10 years older, who'd somehow managed to haul his wife and four kids out of their life of poverty there to a hovel down in West Oakland where the sodium-orange high-crime-area streetlights hummed in the dark. He was one of the happiest people I've ever met.
The sirens and gunshots at night didn't faze him... the Dobermans behind the chain-link fences. It was all part of the bounty of America and the fulfillment of his dream. His wife worked in a commercial laundry while their twins played on the floor in the back room. He pulled 12-hour shifts to fund his habit of hopping on an AC Transit bus and heading up to Telegraph Avenue, where, in those days, some coffee houses would let you sit and work all day for the price of an espresso.
Ern wanted to be a writer — and not just any writer. He was at work with the fiendish mischief of someone who is on to the Big Idea. His project was nothing less than a Critique of the Modern World.
Oh sure, he was a loon, and many of his ideas were naïve. But he had a rare passion and a joy in his thinking — an absolute faith that if he drank enough coffee and kept reading and writing, he'd leave behind a Magnum Opus of imagination, intellect, and undeniable insight.
Some nights it would be pouring carpet nails and I'd be there shivering, bone cold. But I always took one promenade around the parking lot with Ern before I ran home for hot soup and some respite by our stinking oil heater. I wanted to hear about his new line of thinking — what was the latest development?
Ern doesn't figure directly into the story of my latest novel, Reverend America, but he's there in the background, parading around that lost parking lot in my mind. His spirit infuses many of the key characters.
He's a kind of self-invented individual we need more of in this country today — people who are innocently thrilled to be here no matter what. People who believe in themselves and aren't afraid to have a dream. People who have faith in the promise of America as much because of its problems as in spite of them.
Despair and anger is easy in the end. We need more Ern.
Wherever you are, Mr. O'Someone, I hope you're still writing and drinking coffee — and tackling the Big Questions. Tennessee Williams wrote of a dependence on the kindness of strangers. I've often found my greatest inspiration in them. Like a light moving toward me on nights of ambulances and rain.
Most of us have some shit jobs and misery to deal with, and a lot of people today are grateful for any work at all. It's our fellow strangers that often make our loneliness and the challenges we face bearable and meaningful.
My last night on that job, I didn't take my break — I walked around talking with Ern. I remember watching him walk back to the hospital for the final time. When he got to the end of the lot, he turned and flashed his light twice. That was the last time I saw him, and I've taken that simple goodbye with me everywhere since.