Who is Face-Down and Naked in America?

We can’t breathe. (Photo: Julio Cortez/AP)

I used to be a cop — not in the traditional sense, of course. My uniform was a short-sleeved collared shirt — an ID badge clipped to one collar-point — tucked neatly into a pair of Dockers, with a silver-colored Parker pen in my breast pocket, and my beat was the cinder-block walls and flecked floors of a locked, inpatient psychiatric hospital. Those floors were polished a couple days before inspectors would arrive to give us a look-over. We knew when they were coming. Plant the flowers outside. Clean the windows. Put on airs.

Make sure “Jerry Springer” wasn’t playing on the TV in the Activities Room.

In those days, I wore my keys on the outside of my pants instead of inside my pocket. I didn’t think much about why I did that — I just didn’t like the feeling of them poking against the inside of my left leg, so I got myself a cheap little carabiner and I hooked my keys to my belt loop. When I would walk down the halls of my beat, my keys would jangle gently against my hip, and I probably sounded like a cop as I patrolled my beat, peering into the square of plexiglas of each patient’s room to make sure they were still alive, knocking against the door of each bathroom, announcing, “Rounds; male staff!”.

Like good old Constable Warren of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, checkin’ all the doors of the shops along Main Street.

I don’t think, necessarily, that most of us chose to work in a psychiatric hospital because we were interested in maintaining law-and-order, but that’s what ends up happening when you work in a closed system where there is a radical and necessary imbalance of power. It seems obvious, but, at least to me, it wasn’t. I remember the first time a patient pointed it out to me. I was facilitating a group; I believe it was on Safety — how to “keep yourself safe” while hospitalized, and a young, female patient raised her hand and she said,

“Why does your ID badge just say “Gabriel N.?”

And I looked at her. And she continued, “You have an entire chart on me. You have the 302 petition (involuntary commitment papers) against me with everything I allegedly did, all laid out, you know what meds I’m on, that I was sexually and physically abused in my past, you know my family history and my home address, and my telephone number. You know my last name; but all I know about you is that you’re ‘Gabriel N.’.”

And there I was, conducting a group on safety, with my keys jangling against my hip, and here was a young woman who had her phone, her house keys, her hoodie strings, her shoelaces, her right to privacy all removed from her, by us, very gently and non-confrontationally waking me up to a fundamental problem that made me uncomfortable to sit with.

Well, my last name isn’t on this ID badge in order to protect me.

From you.

I didn’t say that, but everybody in that room, including me, knew that it was the truth. The only person I was really interested in “keeping safe”, at the end of the day, really, was me.

Nobody likes feeling uncomfortable. We sure like Thanksgiving dinner well enough, but that bloated, pressing-against-the-waistband feeling afterward? We could probably stand to avoid that part. Ditto the feelings that come if we allow our minds and hearts to consider, however fleetingly, the ways in which the Thanksgiving mythology has perverted or ignored the bloody, racist, colonial history surrounding the trappings of turkey and tapioca.

We could do without those feelings, too. Now be a dear and pass the creamed corn, if you please, Jane.

We are uncomfortable now with our feelings in America. Our bellies are pushing up against the waistbands of our Dockers and we can hear keys jangling and glass shattering and hearts breaking in cities all across this country. And we don’t like that. And we don’t know what to do. There are fine road-maps and history lessons, but we’re too uncomfortable to look at them, because they involve shadows swinging from tree limbs and moonlit pools of blood on Harlem sidewalks and we don’t want to think about that because the candied yams and ambrosia are up next and “Jerry Springer” is on in the Activities Room and I can’t tell if it’s the guests on the show who are throwing chairs or the patients.

One afternoon, there was a patient yelling and screaming in the bathroom and a weary nurse came into the Chart Room, slipped his quad-color pen behind is ear and said, “Okay, guys, glove up.”

I was sitting at my table documenting a group. I never really knew for sure whether the directive to “glove up” meant for me, too, because I was never really sure if I was one of the “guys” or not, but I dutifully put my Parker pen down on the table and dug into my trouser pocket for a pair of Nitrile gloves. The “cops” had been called. Time to take care of business. Time to go into battle.

With a patient. Us vs Them.

So we strolled out onto the unit, seven or eight or nine of us, and we made a semi-circle outside of the bathroom entrance way. Some of us had our hands clasped in front of us, some at our sides. And we stood there while this patient, a man, maybe in his late forties, yelled and screamed. He emerged from the bathroom to face all of us, and he was completely naked which, working in this environment, you get used to quickly. I don’t remember what he was saying, but I do remember that he was paranoid, and scared, and hurt, and angry. And trapped.

Where was he going to go? He was a naked, psychotic man inside a locked facility. And we were all standing there, looking at him, gloved up, ready to do… something. We hadn’t discussed, exactly, what. There wasn’t a game-plan or a strategy. There wasn’t a Defensive Coordinator with a playbook with little x’s and o’s and arrows. The play-clock was ticking down, and there was no coach. No referees. Just a lot of ID badges with first names and last initials.

We knew the outcome as well as he did; he would be tackled, subdued, restrained, and injected with medication that would make him sleep for a while. Then there’d be dinner, and a smoke break, and bed. Just another dust-up to be documented and filed away, to be lazily looked at by some inept inspector a year from then who would walk step onto our polished floor and thumb through pages looking for check marks and signatures on our paperwork.

And we did tackle him. He was incredibly strong, but there were seven or eight or nine of us. Some days one of us would get a fist in the face, or a head against the floor, even a broken arm or briefly choked out but, eventually, the house won. He was face-down on the un-polished hospital floor — its pattern of flecked blacks and browns and tans not unlike the floor of your elementary school, or mine — and I was holding down his torso and his left leg while other colleagues of mine had his arms, shoulders, back, and other leg.

And he farted.

He farted — very, very forcefully — in all of our faces.

There are all kinds of protests in this world; some are protests of yore where the black men wore skinny ties and suit jackets with three buttons, locked arm-in-arm with white folks in shirt-sleeves with horn-rimmed glasses and buzz cuts; some spill over in rage, desperation, and anger and are hoarse from the throats of those who can’t breathe. This particular protest came in the form of hydrogen, carbon-dioxide, and methane gas expelled from the anus of a dis-empowered, naked man face-down on our floor.

Because that’s the sound and fury we had allowed him to have.

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