I have a new audio piece today, combined with a continuation of my Parlando Project influences-as-episodic-memoir series. The audio piece uses text from Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons — worthy in itself — but what suggested it was a question that reading about Stein brought to my mind during The Seventies when I started to look into her life and work a bit.
Despite being nothing like an expert on Stein, I could fill this post with stuff about what she did and how she went about doing it. I’m going to make a summary of that a footnote, though that’s worth reading if you know even less about her than I do.* There’s one detail from Stein’s life that hooks into my story as I entered The Seventies. I’ll come back to that. Watch for it.
In the last post I’d left college in 1970, disconnected in the aftermath of the political activism post Kent State and my failure as a young editor of my college’s student newspaper. I wrote of some musical and poetry experiences in the early Seventies there. Another thing was both continuous and changed at this point: I needed to find a job. This was continuous because I’d most always worked from my middle teens. I’d had paper routes, did odd jobs for the local bank, and besides my work in my second year with the school paper, I’d been what was called a “work-study” student working most days in the college cafeteria. Although it didn’t occur to me then, I suspect the more well-off students may have noticed that I was doing kitchen work while they were only concerned with regular college life, but this continuousness of work was ever more complete from the time I was 20 until I was past the age of 65. Another way to say that was that I worked full-time hours all those year with no more of a break than a worker’s vacation. After leaving college I worked frying hamburgers at a fast-food restaurant and on a factory floor making vertical blinds, but in 1971 I was back in my small Iowa college town looking for work. I went to a nursing home in the town, thinking they might have kitchen work. Instead, they asked if I wanted to work as an orderly/nurses aide.** I took that job.
So, if work was continuous for me, what was changed? In some expectations one is supposed to find one’s career in their 20s. I had decided earlier that I wanted to write. In some other lifetimes perhaps I would have found an entry-level writing job, in another I might have wandered into something with politics. I’m not sure however if those alternative livelihoods would have suited me, for reasons I may discuss later in this series.
My job in the nursing home was in the Extended Care Facility, the wing for those patients who needed more-or-less complete bodily care for the rest of their lives. Many were completely bedridden, and many of that portion also unable to communicate. I worked the overnight 11-7 shift with one RN. I’m guessing we had around 20 patients in the unit. Our night work was turning the incapacitated every four hours to prevent bed sores, to clean up the incontinent and their bed linen, and to occasionally minister to those who awakened, often with some level of anxiety and agitation. It was hard physical work, and I will confess that I let the physical work deaden me somewhat at first to the Sisyphean nature of their lives and my tasks with them.
If one has a lot of triangles to move from Iowa to New York…
I moved to New York state to stay after a few months of that, carrying everything my wife and I owned in the bed of a rusty 1960 Chevy pickup truck that I’d purchased for $200 from my wages. The truck was so rusty that I could see the tires through holes in its floorboard, but other than a hydraulic clutch that would reengage itself if depressed too long, it ran OK in its rattly way. Back in New York I was living in a poor, mostly Black section of Westchester, renting a room from an elderly Mrs. Whitted who had a framed life-time membership certificate to the NAACP on her living room wall. I worked there first in another nursing home, a much fancier one in upscale Westchester, on the day shift this time. There were more staff there, but some elements of the care bothered me.*** Being low on the care system org chart I chose not to try to remedy that, and left for a job working on a med-surg floor at a Catholic hospital on the overnight shift again. The regular charge nurse on my floor was Miss Watson, a young highly competent Black Anglo-Jamaican with an impeccable English accent that would match a Sidney Poitier. We worked along with an LPN and at least one female aid (usually one of several Afro-Americans with a Great Migration southern-American accent) to complement my coverage of the male side of the patient census. I fully enjoyed working with Miss Watson. The most peculiar absurdity of her life that I got to observe was when patient relatives came in around the change to the morning shift after talking on the phone with Miss Watson. They’d assumed a starched-white Englishwoman, and so the recognition scenes when they arrived and saw her dark black skin always had me stifling a laugh. How much humor Miss Watson could consistently find in this might be another matter.
These orderly/nurse’s aide jobs paid a dime or so over minimum wage. The work was physically hard and even at its most basic levels it involved deep responsibilities all out of proportion to what it paid. Around this time, I came to embrace this necessary and underpaid work. It provided an inescapable, palpable, meaning to my life, something that struggling over a poem or prose draft could not demonstrate objectively. It allowed me access to all kinds of people in a wide range of economic classes and backgrounds. Occasionally, I thought of the members of my generation who served in the military, some drafted, and I told myself this was my service.
Eventually I moved up to Newburgh, New York, which will need to be another post. I worked my last overnight shift at the hospital and then I hitchhiked up to Newburgh at the end of my shift. I’d already gotten a job at St. Luke’s Hospital there in the Emergency Room. I’d work the 3-11 shift there the next day.
Are you waiting for Gertrude Stein to return? Here’s the connection. I can remember reading about the little Paris apartment she and her partner, edibles pioneer Alice B. Toklas, shared with Stein’s brother and a wall-smothering collection of Modernist art bought directly from artists that she knew, and the world would know later. It was there Stein lived from 1903 after leaving Johns Hopkins Medical School short of a medical degree.
As a time-travel destination that place is five-star. Artists, writers, critics, composers who once needed only to travel geographically to go there, wrote of it in their memoirs. A famous place.
Gertrude Stein in front of some of the Modernist paintings collected in her Paris apartment.
You know what I thought reading of that apartment? Yes, there was wonder. How did they figure which artists to collect? He, she, they, all of them were there, people before the pronouns. So and so met so and so there? Hemmingway finding part of his prose style in this small apartment — and from a woman? But my most nagging thought? Something else, another question: “Who paid the rent?”****
Many (most?) writers have the ability to be motivated by that experience, though in reading I can tell some are, and others are not. I myself am inconsistent. I have written and performed poems here that the richest and most comfortable person in my time might have written or could easily relate to. And then again, I may overselect poems whose speakers are in extremis.
Some take a commercial-first approach to their art, making sure it earns the rent money. My nursing work from age 20 to nearly 40 illustrated a variety of life to me, but it also allowed me (with worries) to pay the rent.***** Others take a cause-first approach, advocating with their art resolutely for remedies to what they see. Could my nursing work have reduced that aspect of my writing? That has just occurred to me. I’m not sure, though looking back I’m more at glad I didn’t have to point to my writing, and later my music, as what justified my life. And “Other People’s Stories?” Each day in the Emergency Room you’d meet up with other people’s stories. If your own were limited, or intractable, you could move their stories forward.
I had found a job that in those days allowed one to pay the rent. Inside that conceptual room, paid for by working with the sick and injured, I worked on the writing. And those years of unbroken work, of clock-in every working day, and rotating shifts? I suspect a habit retained as this Project approaches 700 pieces this year.
Today’s audio piece is from Gertrude Stein’s still controversial, still avant-garde, collection of “Cubist poems” Tender Buttons. That book is divided up into three sections: People, Objects, and Rooms. I performed the opening to the final section, Rooms today. Tender Buttons remains gnomic. Though the words themselves are plainspoken, a straightforward meaning is most often hard to make out. My performer’s working theory during the recording was that she’s making a statement about Modern Art and Cubism. Rather than a center and conventional panorama, Stein holds for more perspectives at once. She seems to be advocating for something not just decorative or the easy dessert of sentiment (“silver and sweet”). She sounds a “Life is real, Life is earnest” almost Longfellowean note when she says “A preparation is given to the ones preparing.” She perhaps compares a conventional painting with a center and a border to an empty dress, flat on a hanger. The final paragraph/stanza moves, synesthesia-wise, to music where the flowing facets of a Cubist painting may show a sequence of time.
Though printed as prose, the musical rhythm and rhyme of this poem arises with any earnest effort to read it aloud. If one was to modify it to conventional lineation, parts might almost pass as Emily Dickinson, albeit the more obscure and compressed Dickinson.
You can hear my performance with a drums, bass, piano, and electric guitar quartet with the player gadget below. No graphical gadget? This highlighted link is an alternative way to hear it.
*These footnotes are going to be long, and are for the more curious. They’re not necessary to enjoy the audio piece. Stein is easily classifiable as equal to Apollinaire and Ezra Pound (both of which she knew and interacted with) for influence on the emerging Modernist movement in the first quarter of the 20th century. Her influence on English language Modernist writing is not consistently admitted or admired, but her influence also extends to Modernist music — and along with her brother Leo, she’s absolutely central to the development and appreciation of Modern art.
The most amazing thing about her pre-Paris youth is that in a 19th century when women’s education and careers were constrained, she attended Radcliff (meeting, being mentored by, and admired by, William James) and then sought to become a medical doctor through graduate work at Johns Hopkins Medical School. Her center of interest was how the mind and its perceptions work, something she was studying at a time when Sigmund Freud had just started publishing. She dropped out of Johns Hopkins before graduating however.
**Job titles and even jobs listings were routinely gendered in 1970. Orderly was a male job, nurses’ aide the woman’s. Training for either was generally informal and on the job. Later in the Seventies I barely started an academic RN program, but affording the classes and especially the time and automotive costs of traveling to the nursing school put the brakes on that. Since I worked in teaching hospitals for over a decade after this as an aide hand-in-hand with nurses, interns, residents, and staff doctors, I learned a great deal of practical knowledge along the way. Administering medicine was not legally allowed, but I eventually did much of everything else the LPNs and RNs did. Afterwards, I always called what I did nursing, as it was a better description of my role for most of that decade-plus. In the middle 70s I helped in a small way to train early EMTs and given how much I liked the pace and variety of work in Emergency Rooms, I might have gotten into that line of work if I had come along a few years later.
The gendered job titles may have faded out as the Seventies progressed, but some of the work remained gendered. Despite having a poet’s level of athleticism and large muscle development, I was often called on to move or lift heavier patients, or to help restrain out-of-control people. Given how many stories there have been in recent years of people killed while being restrained (one in the news this month) I have wondered retrospectively if a different fate could have involved me in such a case. As things worked out, I never injured anyone while restraining them, though besides wear and tear I got a couple of minor injuries.
***I suspected a co-worker of patient abuse. I was new — they’d been there for some time. I had nothing concrete, and other longer-tenured coworkers thought they’d seen more, and that was part of my unease. A better person would have tried to organize a complaint and urge an investigation.
****Did you go to this footnote to find the answer? I’m not enough of a scholar to know all the details. Paris was dirt cheap then, there was some Stein family wealth, and the idea of artistically curious Americans of some means being gifted with broadening time abroad was common. Another Stein sibling, Michael, who also lived in Paris, has been cited as the man who handled the family finances there. The Stein bought-cheap-then paintings eventually became capital gains. At one later point someone noted a missing painting from the crowded apartment walls and Stein explained “We are eating the Cézanne.”
*****I’m no economist, but it’s my understanding that rent and housing costs have risen compared to the wages that of job earns now. It’s not my intent to engage in a walk-uphill-both-ways misery Olympics, just to explain some things that led to making this Project. Has any economist explained how jobs like the ones I held then, which are physically hard, unpleasant in some elements, demanding of all-shifts work, are at least mildly dangerous, have a chronic shortage of workers (much less good ones), and can have a life-and-death level of need and responsibility, yet pay less than much easier jobs for which there is a surplus of applicants? In my last few years of hospital work I moved to being a ward-clerk: typing, paperwork, general workflow organization and support (all of which I did as a nurses aide, as well as patient care) —and I then got a small raise.