The day I met Anne was also the day I quit smoking.
I was working for the Bridgeport Free Clinic at the time. Well, I wasn’t exactly working. I had managed to conclude a contract with the State of Illinois to do 500 hours of community service, a result of a misunderstanding with my former bank.
For several weeks, I had risen early each day and driven into the city to work eight more hours from my sentence. Bridgeport is a traditionally Irish and Italian neighborhood on the Near South Side of Chicago. For many Hispanic and a smaller number of black people, Bridgeport has been the first step up from the Projects to the east or the dangerous neighborhoods to the south. Though infinitely safer, it nevertheless cuts a wide economic swath, with retirees, office and factory workers, the poor, and the very poor living in close proximity.
I had never been financially comfortable, but this was the first time I’d encountered genuinely poor people up close. Many of the clients of the clinic were uncertain of where their evening’s meal was going to come from, yet the most desperate always seemed to have cigarettes. Carla made them go out on the sidewalk to smoke, even in the most bitter weather. Men staggering with the flu and women crippled by arthritis would drag themselves out the door into blinding sleet and subfreezing cold for a smoke. I’d seen people forfeit their turn to be treated rather than leave a cigarette unfinished.
I understood what drove them. In the beginning, I would go in the staff washroom and turn on the fan whenever there was a break, which wasn’t often. Yesterday, Carla, normally the most tolerant of women, caught the odor of smoke in there and threatened to kick me back to my probation officer for another assignment.
Good idea, I told her, get me out of this festering pool of sickness and misery and into a nice clean food pantry.
“It doesn’t work that way,” Carla had said. Her sharp Italian face crinkled in a lopsided smirk. “They start you off with the good assignments. If you crap out, you get bumped to worse ones. Believe me, there are much worse assignments than here.
“In any case,” she added, “you do have a talent with people. In fact, you might have a future in medicine.”
“Me?” I said. “I’m way too old to start something like that.”
“You’re only 32.”
“And how would I afford medical school? Medicine is for those who are already rich.”
“Tim, you don’t have to be a doctor to put your talents to use.”
I had broken off the conversation. I just wanted to work off my hours and get back to my life.
Today, Carla went out to a meeting at 10 o’clock, and I hadn’t had a smoke since breakfast. I went into the washroom and turned on the fan. But as I took the cigarettes from my pocket, the pack flipped from my fingers and landed in the toilet.
I was about to dive after them before they were all wet, and stopped. How low had I sunk, when I was ready to smoke something that had been floating in a toilet? Sure, it was a toilet I’d cleaned myself, but still…
I went back into the clinic and resumed updating some of the files. Even in a free clinic, there was a ton of paperwork.
On impulse, I asked Freda for the key to the pharmacy cabinet. I had been four weeks on the job, and I was already a fixture. She took the key from the drawer and held it out to me without looking up from her phone. I returned the key a minute later. Concealed in my other hand was a small foil package containing a nicotine patch. I went back into the washroom and put it on my arm.
Why not today? If I managed to succeed, I could look back on today as my day of decision.
In a few minutes, I could feel the first effects of the drug. It was not at all like the satisfaction of a good, long drag, but the urge to light up faded a little. I picked up a file from the ‘IN’ tray and went out to the counter. “Mrs. Espinoza?” I said, raising my voice. “Mrs. Rose Espinoza?” An elderly lady, dressed in a man’s torn overcoat, raised her hand. I led her to a treatment room, and wrote some of her basic information into a chart. My knowledge of Spanish was increasing every day, and I was learning medical jargon, too, an equally separate language. Half of being a doctor, I’d concluded, was in knowing how to say things like meralgia paresthetica or Arndt-Gottron scleromyxoedema with a straight face.
When midday rolled around, the compulsion to smoke was almost overwhelming. But the waiting room was so crowded, there was no time to eat. This was lucky for me, because the act of eating would have toppled my will power for sure.
Carla did not get back until after lunch. She called the staff together, leaving only Freda on the desk. ‘The staff’ may sound impressive, but in fact there were only three that formed the paid, permanent core of the clinic. Carla was the founder and director. Twelve years ago, after she had won a small lottery prize – I guessed around fifty thousand dollars – she quit her job as a nurse and started the clinic. Since then, her life had been a desperate free-for-all. Her days were spent treating patients, stroking city and state officials, chasing funding, and juggling schedules of volunteers and draftees like myself.
Carole was also a registered nurse, but she had done a couple of years of medical school before dropping out. Carole and Freda received stipends that were just large enough to keep them working. I guessed that Carla did, too, although this was nearly moot. Carla and Carole were lovers and shared an apartment two blocks away. Their lives seemed to consist solely of the clinic and each other.
The rest of the staff consisted of one doctor who came in for two half-days a week, and volunteers recruited from local churches and high schools. Without a paycheck, volunteers tended not to hang around very long. Some just drifted away when the altruistic impulse wore off. Some volunteers appeared because they expected to find drugs lying about. They stayed just long enough to discover that Carla kept them under lock and key, accessible only by herself and Freda. My predecessor had been sent back to his probation officer when he was found with Vicodin that was supposed to have been given to a patient.
When Carla called us together, there were only five of us in the room: Carla, Carole, Russell, Nancy, and myself. Russell was a volunteer, a slow and gray retiree, but he was a veteran, as volunteers go. He had been at the clinic nearly three years. Nancy was a high school student. She worked only afternoons, on what she called “work release” from her school. The fact that she would get school credit for her clinic work meant that she would probably stay for at least the semester.
“This morning, I went to a seminar on faith healing…” Carla began.
“Oh, God,” said Russell, rolling his eyes, “our budget’s been cut again.”
“I dunno,” I said. “Do you really think a laying on of hands is cheaper than penicillin? Those healers on TV drive pretty nice cars.” Russell and I laughed.
Carla resumed. “I was saying – it was about the psychology of faith healing. Sometimes if people are convinced that God is healing them, they will recover faster. There are even some double blind studies that show it works.”
“When pigs fly,” I said. I didn’t care much if I made Carla angry.
“Shut up, Tim,” said Carla, without rancor. “Whether God does it or whether it’s self-hypnosis, it doesn’t matter, so long as people get better. There’s plenty of evidence that an optimistic outlook charges up the immune system, and also that people who are overworked or depressed are more likely to get sick.”
Carole spoke up. Her high, scratchy voice must drive Carla crazy. I could go home, but Carla had to listen to it all her waking hours. “What’s the point of this? Are we going to start faith healing here, in the Bridgeport Free Clinic?”
“I don’t think we can do that,” said Carla, over our giggles. “We have donors and a lot of good will, and we have to be seen to be as professional as possible. And I mean ‘professional’ in the worst possible sense of the word.”
“Anyway, what I was working up to, is that this healer is going to come here, to our clinic, but just for a day.”
“What?” whined Carole. “Here? At the beginning of the ’flu season.”
“We’ve got a few tough cases. We can’t help them, and they can’t afford regular medical treatment. Some of them would be out of luck even with the best medical care. I want to give them every chance, no matter how unlikely.”
“Yeah,” I said, “but faith healing…”
“She’s coming tomorrow,” said Carla with finality, “and she will be your responsibility, Tim.”
I laughed and pointed to my own chest. “Me? You’re supposed to be the director here.”
“Politics, Tim. I can’t be seen to be promoting faith healing. If it becomes an issue, I have to be able to say it was your idea, and you did it on your own initiative.”
“Oh, fine, Carla. Hang the convict out to dry. Thanks a bunch.”
“There’s no risk to you, Tim. You won’t get reassigned for doing something constructive. The upside is that she might actually get results.”
“You said ‘she’,” I said, “this healer is a babe?”
“She’s a ‘she’,” said Carla, “but I don’t know whether she’s a babe or not. She might be a wizened hag or a pubescent teenager, for all I know.”
“This healer,” said Carole, “she got a name?”
“Anne Bunsen,” said Carla.
“I’ve heard of her,” said Carole. “They call her Anne the Healer. A few people think there’s something to it. There’s people claim to have been cured of cancers and organ failures and all sorts of things. They can’t all be wrong.”
“Sure they can,” I said. “It’s like mass hysteria. People see other people acting cured, and they feel they have to be cured, too. So it spreads like the flu, with everybody pretending.”
“Tim, I’m asking you to at least act seriously with this healer person. If you can’t take her seriously, at least pretend. It’s only a day.”
“Can’t someone else do it?”
“I can put you down for 8 hours’ overtime, cook the books a little to knock some time off your community service.”
“Hey, I don’t get paid extra for overtime,” said Russell. This made us laugh, since Russell had never been paid a cent for all his work.
“Give me three days overtime,” I said, “and I’ll do it.”
“Two days, Tim. Sixteen hours. And you’ll do it with a good heart? No smart-ass talk?”
“If you insist,” I said. “I’ll put on a show.” That was something I knew how to do.
Carla moved on to the other items on her agenda. She had arranged for donations of amoxicillin, Naproxen, Ceclor, and strep test kits from Mercy Hospital. But we were desperately short of x-ray film, she said, and no more was expected for a week.
There were eight long distance calls on the bill this month, and only five had been logged.
“Please, people, I have to go and beg on my knees for money to pay these bills,” she said, before sweeping on through the rest of her list. I flushed. I had made two of the three unlogged calls myself, and they were not official business.
When the brief meeting had ended, the waiting room was packed to the doors. Some of these people had been here since we opened at nine o’clock. The oncoming winter weather spawned every kind of respiratory infection, and the small room was filled with the echoing rasp of coughing and the occasional unmuffled sneeze. This room was probably the most dangerous place on the South Side.