Nonfiction Observations


Few people are walking the streets at 5am. Some are rolling old suitcases or holding overstuffed bags as they wander away from the shelter. Their eyes are often downcast. Sometimes they shout obscenities at no one and everyone; no one responds.

People who drive the produce trucks haul crates of fruits and vegetables into cafes. There’s a heap of oranges in the middle of the sidewalk. The driver will pick up all the oranges when he gets back.

The fragrance of organic, fair trade coffee mingles with aromas of pastries made with genetically modified flour, eggs from caged chickens, and sugar from saccharine grasses sprayed with pesticide.

The guys waiting to start their construction work are loitering by the loading dock. A man in a yellow reflective vest inhales and the end of his cigarette glows orange. His hair is the same color as the plume wafting from his lips.

She’s not wearing any shoes and the soles of her feet are nearly black. Her heather grey sweatshirt is covered with stains and there is a tear in the left shoulder. She’s not wearing a bra. Her torn jeans stop above her ankles and the button is missing from the fly. There are tangles in her light brown hair.

She walks on her toes towards the man in the reflective vest, then turns away. She shrugs her slender shoulders, the sweater falling further down her arm. She walks back towards him, this time on her heels, while making waves out of her arms. After stopping, she tilts her head from side to side, then stands on one leg.

He watches her. His eyes show interest, his face shows boredom.

He pulls the cigarette from his lips.

“You want this?” he asks, holding the cigarette out.

She nods. She stands on her other leg.

“Take it,” he responds. The breeze pushes wisps of nicotine smoke towards her.

He doesn’t move. After gazing at the cigarette for a few moments, she hops forward and plucks it from his fingers. In one smooth motion, she takes a drag from the cigarette and then flicks the ashes away.

She walks away, quickly, quietly, her left arm extended. He watches her until she disappears around the corner.

Education Medicine Nonfiction Observations Systems

A Day in Jail.

Three of us are waiting for the elevator. A few moments earlier I had walked into the jail for the day, so I have not yet donned a white coat. The other two are wearing their standard uniforms: The inmate is in red and the officer is in black.

“I have to take my seizure medicine while I’m here, you remember, right?” the inmate says, clutching a clear bag holding several pill bottles, a pair of jeans, and a dark jacket.

“Yes,” the officer says, her voice warm and firm at the same time. “You told the nurse, right?”

“I always do, ma’am.” A shy smile crosses his face. She smiles back at him as the elevator doors open. She motions for him to enter first.

The hem of the white coat hits the back of my calves as I climb the stairs. My habits from my intern year remain: I still fold papers in half lengthwise and the first stack will go into the left pocket. I never button my coat.

When I reach the top of the staircase, one of the standing inmates glances at me, then returns his gaze to the inmate seated in front of him. The standing inmate looks like he’s in his 20s. The seated inmate might be in his late 30s. Twenty-something guides the electric razor along the contour of Thirty-something’s head; clumps of light brown hair tumble onto the black cape and the concrete floor.

There are two barbers on duty. They volunteered their services; they will probably get extra food as compensation. The men in the chairs bow their heads, their eyes open, their bodies still. No one says anything.

Everyone gets the same haircut.

The floor officer is worried about an inmate: “He didn’t eat breakfast this morning and wouldn’t come out to take a shower.” While I scribble this information down on my paper folded lengthwise, I hear the deck officer raise his voice.

“What are you looking at?” the deck officer barks at two inmates. They are trustees, which means that they have demonstrated good behavior while in jail and are allowed to participate in chores. In exchange for doing tasks such as preparing meals and cleaning floors (which also gets them out of their units), they can receive more food .

A trustee mumbles something in response.

“I asked you, what are you looking at?” the deck officer barks again.

“Nothing, sir.”

“Okay. If I see you looking at ‘nothing’ again, I’m sending you back. Do you understand me?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Get back to work.”

The floor officer and I ask the deck officer what happened.

“They saw you,” he says, pointing at me, “and started grinning, elbowing each other, all that stuff.”

While wrapping my coat tighter around me, I glance at the two trustees. One of them happens to look at me at the same time; he turns away and takes a sudden interest in the mop in his hands.

“Thank you, Officer.”

“Just looking out for the doctor.”

It’s been a few years since I’ve talked to God.

Perhaps I meet God more frequently, but s/he chooses not to reveal that to me. More often I talk to angels or the Anti-Christ.

“Psychiatry is sorcery,” God tells me. “If you only had more faith, you would see the error in your ways. Turn towards faith and away from your analytical ways of thinking.”

God is charged with criminal trespass. God is a young man. His bail amount isn’t that high. Is there no one in God’s life who could post his bail so he could get out?

“One of the best things about being God,” he tells me, “is that I can see the true intentions of people. I know their thoughts.”

He pauses and looks at me.

“Although you practice witchcraft, I can tell that you’ve got a good heart. I will pray for you that you will have more faith, that you will believe in me.”

I will pray for you, too.

When I’m finished talking with God, the floor officer comes by and gives God a second lunch.

“Thank you! I bless you!” he calls out.

The brown paper sack contains one sandwich (two slices of wheat bread, one slice of bologna), one mayonnaise packet, one slice of American cheese wrapped in plastic, a small baggie of baby carrot sticks, and one apple the size of a tennis ball.

“He’s still growing,” the floor officer murmurs.

The day has ended. I’ve already stuffed my white coat into a laundry bag, but I’m still making my way through all the doors to physically get out of jail. When I exit the elevators near where inmates are booked into jail, I see an officer wincing and grasping his leg. One medic is kneeling by him; the other is on the phone.

I pass by a bank of holding cells. Two women knock on the wall and beckon me towards them. The one with tattoos all over her young face and anxiety in her eyes asks, “Can you tell them to let us out? We’ve been waiting a long time.”

“An officer looks hurt,” I say, raising my voice. We’re talking through a thick pane of plexiglass. “The medics are here. It might be a while before they will get to you.”

“Oh,” she says. They take a step back and their shoulders slump. “I hope they’re okay. Thanks.”

Most people look either relieved or thrilled when they leave jail. They throw their shoulders back as they cross the threshold from the jail lobby into the fresh air. How much more comfortable they appear in their own clothes! The red uniforms incarcerated them just as much as the concrete block. Sometimes they give each other high fives; their voices are light and bright as they tell each other to take it easy.

A few will look up and around, confused and forlorn. They squint at the numbers at the bus stop. After taking a few steps heading south, they pause, turn around, and head north. They finally decide to cross the street to get away from the jail. It seems like the best idea.