A couple of years after I joined an inner-city hospital in the San Francisco Bay Area as a certified nursing assistant (CNA), my charge nurse, Carmen Sanchez, assigned me to sit with a fifty-nine-year-old male patient who was on a psychiatric 5150 hold because he was bipolar, homicidal, and suicidal. When I entered his room, I was surprised to see a shirtless Tom Petty lookalike with a large dressing covering a stab wound in his chest regarding me from his bed. His name was Randy Richmond.
He laughed at my expression. “This is going to be great,” he said. “I can tell you’re a rock ‘n’ roller ’cause you think I look like Tom Petty, am I right?”
“You nailed it,” I said.
“Hey, I’ve got this sweet little radio here. Tell me what you think.” He cranked the volume, and Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” blasted forth. He waggled his eyebrows.
“Great tunes,” I said.
“Fucking A,” he said. “Let’s rock!”
I love classic rock, so I enjoyed the music with Randy while I charted some basic information about his current status into the computer.
After a while, Randy became bored with the radio and tuned his TV to the Discovery Channel, which he watched in fascination for hours. At first, we took in several episodes of Fast N’ Loud, a Discovery Channel show in which Richard Rawlings and his Gas Monkey Garage compatriots buy beat-up classic cars, fix them up, and attempt to sell them for a profit. Randy knew his classic cars and gave me a running commentary about the automobiles on the show.
“Oh my God,” he said. “That Shelby’s worth way more than that!”
I made a note to mention cars as a topic if Randy and I ran out of things to say. I’m not an auto aficionado, but I knew all I had to do was bring up the subject and Randy would hold forth.
However, I discovered Randy’s true passion as we watched Mike Kennedy on Airplane Repo repossess a jet. At the end of the episode, Randy muted the TV.
“Allen, I’ll tell you,” he said. “If I could only have two things in this world, it would be a pilot’s license and a Cessna 172 Skyhawk. Just thinking about flying through the wild blue yonder brings peace and joy to my heart.”
“I hope you can achieve that dream,” I said.
“I’m working on it, man, but life’s been hard. I’m homeless. My parents are dead from alcohol and drugs, and all of my friends are dead or in jail. And I’m fucking bipolar. And I want to hurt people real bad, which makes me a monster, and then I feel like killing myself. I use hard drugs to live with myself, but they don’t help. The one thing I had going for me was that I was taking online classes at UC Berkeley to get my bachelor’s degree, until someone stabbed me and stole my laptop.”
Just then, Randy’s nurse, Janice, knocked on the door and entered. I liked her—she’s a skilled RN with great bedside manner.
“Good morning, Mr. Richmond,” she said, smiling. “I’ve got several medications for you, and I’ll explain what each one’s for.”
Randy flew into a rage. “You’re not explaining shit to me, you stupid bitch. Can’t you see I’m talking to my friend, Allen? Get the fuck out of my room!” he shouted.
Janice beat a hasty retreat, closing the door a split second before Randy hurled his pitcher of ice water against it.
Randy sat with his head bowed for a silent minute; then he said, “Sorry man, I know that wasn’t cool. It’s just that the doctors and nurses here drive me apeshit. They all look down their noses at me because they think I’m a bipolar junkie who’s never going to amount to anything.”
“Then show them they’re wrong,” I said. “You’ve got great potential. Do whatever you need to stay clear-minded and straight, get your degree from Berkeley, and become a pilot.”
“Man, there’s something about you,” Randy said. “I’ve wanted to hurt every doctor, nurse, and sitter, but you’re different—you have a calming influence on me. I feel normal when it’s just you and me.”
I cleaned up the spilled water, and the rest of my shift passed without incident, except that Randy shouted his doctor out of the room when she looked in on him.
Driving home that evening, I thought about stopping by Barnes & Noble to pick up some small-craft aviation magazines for him, but traffic was snarled, and the store was a significant distance out of my way.
The next morning in our nurses’ huddle, I learned I’d been assigned to sit with Randy again. After the meeting, Carmen took me aside and said, “Allen, you’re absolutely not allowed to leave the patient’s room. Mr. Richmond tried to hang himself last night. Please be careful.”
When I entered Randy’s room, his head was bowed, and he had a glum expression, but he brightened when he saw me. “Man, am I glad to see you!” he said.
“Good to see you,” I said. “What happened last night?”
Randy grinned. “Well, last night my sitter was this big fat mean ugly bitch, and I was trying to think how to fuck her over. And I hate being here, and I hate wanting to hurt people, so I was also thinking about how to off myself. Then I came up with this brilliant plan. I told the bitch I was really thirsty and I sent her to get a bunch of orange juices and a bucket of ice. As soon as she was gone, I tied my bedsheet to the hook on the back of the bathroom door, ran the sheet over the top, and tried to hang myself from the front of the door. I dropped with my knees bent, but I didn’t snap my neck. Then I was just slowly strangling there when the bitch came back, screamed, and saved my life.”
“Well,” I said. “I’m glad you’re still here. How’s your throat?”
“A little sore, not too bad.”
I sat with Randy for a week. He was always delighted to see me and sad when I left. We talked rock and roll and TV shows from the Sixties and Seventies, and we watched the Discovery Channel. There was a close feeling between us, like we were friends or brothers. Although he still screamed at doctors, nurses, and social workers who entered his room, he never had a cross word for me, and he seemed content and frequently mentioned how he was going to stick to the plan we’d made for him.
Here was a bright guy with a mostly pleasant personality who’d had the misfortune to be born into mental illness, poverty, and drug addiction. If he’d stick to his meds, lay off heroin and cocaine, and get his college degree, he just might fulfill his dreams or at least find a modicum of happiness or contentment.
At the end of the week, Randy’s doctor came to visit him several times, and he was cordial and polite toward her. He’d also been taking his psych meds without a fuss for the last few days.
“Randy, I’m so proud of you,” said Dr. Cantrell. She explained she was transferring him to a psychiatric hospital from which she expected him to be quickly discharged.
Randy smiled and stuck out his hand. After a moment’s hesitation, Dr. Cantrell put her hand in his, and Randy gently shook it.
On the day Randy’s ambulance ride was due at 4 p.m., he and I sat in our unit’s sunny lounge a little before 3:30 p.m., my quitting time.
“Shit, Allen, I’m going to miss you,” he said.
“Same here,” I said. I knew Randy faced steep odds in overcoming mental illness and drug addiction, but I had high hopes for him.
“Would you mind giving me your contact information?” he asked. “I’d really like to stay in touch.”
I nodded, thinking hard about whether I wanted to share my coordinates. On one hand, maybe I could be part of Randy’s support system as he improved his life. On the other, his mental illness and violence might ruin mine.
Randy looked at me, having momentarily forgotten his request. “You know,” he said. “I used to have a good time living with my buddies on the streets of San Francisco. I can tell you this now because they’re all dead. We all had these long knives for self-defense, but we’d also get high and stab people for fun. There’s a trick to it. You can hold a finger on each side of the blade with one hand and strike with the other so the blade only goes in as deep as your fingers, not all the way to the hilt. So you can nail someone without making it fatal. It’s really fun.”
I smiled with my best poker face. When the ambulance crew and a Care Management staffer approached a moment later with paperwork for Randy to complete, I slipped away, punched out, and fled home.
Allen Long is the author of Less than Human: A Memoir (Black Rose Writing, 2016). “Learning to Fly” is an excerpt from his forthcoming memoir, Praying for Restraint: Frequent Flying with an Inner-City Hospital CNA. Allen has been an assistant editor at Narrative Magazine since 2007.