Autobiography, Memoir, Personal Essays, travels

GV is for Greenwich Village, Part 2

Part 2 of my ongoing essay: GV is for Greenwich Village. For part 1, click here.

Genesis, Part 2

We left New York in 1966 to live in Chicago where I had been awarded a medical internship at Michel Reese Hospital. It was a dreary workaholic year for me, stuck doing hospital-based duties. On call 36 hours, off 12. Kathy taught elementary school in an under-privileged community in south Chicago and truly enjoyed the work, her fellow workers, and the students. We had little to do with each other but somehow stayed married. Then, in 1967, we moved to San Francisco to live in the Haight-Ashbury District. I had chosen a residency at Mount Zion Hospital in San Francisco Fillmore District out of location and social happenings rather than the anticipated quality of its medical education. Life became very different, very open, very exciting. Our first summer in San Francisco was the “Summer of Love.” We lived two blocks from the epicenter of it all, the panhandle of Golden Gate Park. There, congregants of youths gathered around drummers and guitarists, dancing freely to the music’s passion, some women bare-breasted and unashamed with the aroma of marijuana in the air.

“If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair, if you’re going to San Francisco, you’re gonna meet some gentle people there” – Petula Clark, lyrics; John Phillips, The Mama and the Papas, music, 1967

It was all there at the time: Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, Ken Kesey, Owsley “LSD King” Stanley, Laurence Ferlinghetti, marijuana, Summer of Love, the Peace and Freedom Party, the Sexual Freedom League, anti-war marches, the Black Panthers.

I don’t remember Kathy agreeing to move to San Francisco. I don’t remember any resistance either. In my mind, my medical education, my need to finish my training as a physician, certainly dominated what I—we—had to do. Was Kathy my silent partner in adventure, glad to be hooked to my traveling medical education show? Years later, when we had separated, I wondered if settling down caused our troubles. No matter where my wanderlust took us, she seemed to not only adapt, but find joy.

We packed our hand-me-down V.W. Beetle to the brim, roof included. The Bug was so old it didn’t even have a gas gauge, just a lever that released one gallon of reserve gasoline when the engine stalled out. That gave you 25-30 miles to find a gas station.

The Bug was gifted to me by my sister’s husband, Guenther, who she met through the airlines. He, a German citizen, worked for TWA, she for Mohawk Airlines. Guenther had been a Hitler youth although he was 25% Jewish through a grandmother. He never fought in the war. I was told when it was his turn to do so, he hid out. It seemed like a smart move. Very German Guenther and my very Jewish Polish mother incongruously developed a deep affection for each other, often having the most unabashed banter about holocaust horrors. How could Guenther say such and such, and how could my mother so retort, both speaking in comical fashion, I thought to my astounded self. What did Guenther say to my mother?

“If you don’t stop talking, I am going to throw you in the oven!” he’d joke. And much else!

On our way out of Chicago, I hit another car. The left front fender of the Bug hit some guy’s right rear fender. I went to see where the damage was to the Bug, but I couldn’t tell as there were so many dents from previous accidents. The other guy probably was more at fault than me and damage to his car was negligible. We both agreed to just drive away.

We traveled west from Chicago on a northern tack. When we reached Craters of the Moon National Monument in central Idaho, I felt comfortable enough to dispose, in a Park Department’s trash can, the 23 parking tickets I had accumulated while living in Chicago. Will I eventually be tracked down, like the cold case murderers recently ferreted out by genealogy testing? Will I be billed millions in fines and interest owed, go bust and live the rest of my life in poverty!?

Everything west of Minneapolis was novel, inspiring, exotic to both Kathy and me (the farthest west I had been was when I spent a summer as an extern in St. Paul between my third and fourth year of medical school). We traveled the Dakota’s Bad Lands, the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Coast Highway south from Seattle with the ocean always off to our right. Finally we arrived at the City by the Bay, San Francisco, via the Golden Gate Bridge. Those first few days after arriving, Kathy and I experienced a lot of fright driving up and down the treacherous hills of the city. We both had been flatlanders all our previous lives.

Kathy and I found a two-bedroom apartment in a large, old three-story wooden building on Waller Street in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. We were one block from Ashbury, one block from Haight, one block from Buena Vista Park, and two blocks from Golden Gate Park’s panhandle. We both wanted to live where the action was—the “Hashberry” neighborhood.

Our apartment was on the backside of the building, facing north toward the Golden Gate Bridge and periodic fog. Below us was a large grassy expanse surrounded on four sides by older residential buildings and many glorious Victorians.

Mt. Zion hospital was a mile from the apartment, in the Fillmore District. San Francisco and its Haight-Ashbury district were to the rest of America what Mt. Zion’s doctors in training were to the staid, conservative members of the U.S. Medical Community. Mt. Zion was hippie doctor central. When colleagues living elsewhere asked what it was like at Mt. Zion, I would joke that to get high on marijuana all you had to do was take deep breaths while walking through the hospital wards. I labeled the condition, “Secondary Marijuana Smoke Intoxication.” It was straight out of a Cheech and Chong movie. And marijuana wasn’t all; the interns fortified their special code of ethics with uppers and downers and Owsley LSD.

I was no hippie. There was a fault line between residents and interns. Residents—and I was one of them—were staid, not hippies.

In contrast, interns for the most part were hippies, radicals, did all forms of drugs, held psychedelic parties, did anti-war marches, joined the Peace and Freedom Party, got married by hippie priests in Buena Vista Park and smoked marijuana, hashish and did LSD. I did smoke some marijuana and hashish and wasn’t impressed. I dared not try LSD after having some firsthand experiences of dealing with “freaked out” trippers. I didn’t march either, but I got the message. My 25-year-old quest to achieve my medical doctor degree was now to take a backseat to my need to think of others and participate, even awkwardly, in the social upheavals being spearheaded in San Francisco, in Berkeley, at Mount Zion Hospital. The timing couldn’t have been better for me.

Instead of lapsing into a post-goal achievement depression, I was given a new goal, one that would drive me for the rest of my life. In grandiose terms, it was “service to mankind,” or Tikkun Olam (Hebrew for helping to create a better world).

As a physician in training, a resident physician, I took care of the indigent patients who frequented Mt. Zion, mainly from the Fillmore District. Most were black and underprivileged.

Five days a week, I held an outpatient medical clinic at the hospital. Most of my patients were women. Two stood out. Both were middle-aged, unemployed, overweight, and divorced. Their lives were bleak. One suffered from high blood pressure, the other, diabetes. I saw both weekly because, although their conditions seemed well controlled, they both complained of unremitting symptoms of headache, dizziness, chest pain and over all feeling “lousy.” Try as I could, there was never a happy face on these two women. “Are you sure you’re taking your medicine, getting enough sleep, not taking illegal drugs?” I kept asking them.

Kathy and I went on a two-week car and tent trip to Bacochibampo Bay, Mexico, on the east coast of the Gulf of California. We stayed at an old, worn out southern pacific railroad hotel on the gulf that was overgrown with brilliant blooming bougainvillea. I had one too many tequila margaritas one day and, in a state of extreme exuberance, ran down the cobblestone hotel road shouting my love for life. Kathy and I were in love in Mexico.

On return to my clinic duties at Mt. Zion, now bearded for life, I was informed that my two ladies were hospitalized during my time away. One was paralyzed and the other unable to speak. I was overcome with guilt. I had failed them. I went to the hospital station where both patients were facing their calamities. To my surprise and confusion, the station was the inpatient psych ward!

“What’s up with my two patients?” I asked the psych resident who ran the station.

“You now are forbidden from taking a vacation ever again. Both your ladies decompensated when you were away,” he said.

“What are you saying? There’s no stroke, no hypertensive crisis? What’s going on?”

“Both suffered Zuckerman deficiency syndrome—conversion hysteria. Both are actually a lot better now that they know you’ve returned,” he explained. “You’re powerful medicine, Steve.”

How much of a fool am I? I thought to myself. How did I miss the reality of what was going on with these ladies? Here were two ladies in mid-life with nothing to live for, hopeless, helpless. And here I was, a youthful, good-looking, Jewish doctor who paid attention to them weekly, one-on-one, brightening up their lives. Of course, they dared not get cured, needing to keep complaining of various symptoms, lest I changed our visits to monthly or even worse, discharging them from my care.

“I want to continue seeing you weekly so we can control your blood pressure and your diabetes,” I told them. And when they came to clinic, never missing an appointment (that in itself should have been a clue), and I asked, “How are you doing?” The answer was always the same: “miserable.” My concerned response was also always the same: “I’m sorry to hear that. Let’s see if we can’t find something that will help out. And we’ll definitely need you to come back next week to see how you’re doing.”

I had learned my lesson to never neglect the souls of my patients.

After two years at Mt. Zion Hospital, living in the Hashberry, being socially awakened, I felt unsure of my scientific medical knowledge. I turned down the chief resident job at Mt. Zion, which was enhanced by an opportunity to spend six months doing research at U.C.S.F. Medical Center on lovely Mt. Parnassus. I needed to suffer and knew exactly where to fulfill that need—the University of Minnesota Hospital in Minneapolis. The San Francisco of Siberia!

Something else happened in San Francisco. Kathy and I decided we were a couple and had held our marriage together for three years. “Why don’t we have a child?” I asked her, or something like that. She was agreeable, or must have been. We began having sex with a procreative purpose! Gabrielle, our first child, was released from the confines of Kathy’s womb at Mt. Zion Hospital. I was present and impressed by Gaby. She was taken with animation, legs pumping, arms wiggling. A state she has remained in all her life.

In 1965, Kathy became pregnant unintentionally. At the time, I was overwhelmed with the inconvenience of having a child, the effect it would have on my career ambitions. I prevailed on Kathy to have an abortion. I don’t remember her resisting to any great extent. Through a fellow teacher at her school, Kathy located a gynecologist who agreed to do the then-illegal procedure. He, on occasions, did abortions and did not charge for them, doing them based on his ethical beliefs. The procedure, done after hours in his office, went smoothly.

I also began to perceive how adaptable Kathy was to the various environments my medical education dictated we attend. She thrived on our ever changing world. Looking back, it was a much more compatible relationship, she and I had, than I realized. Would Kathy agree to my appraisal? She complimented my need to explore, even to joining me in a near death experience at the 200-foot bottom of Truk Lagoon, decked out in full scuba gear.

Part 3 of Greenwich Village will be posted next Friday! 

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