Visit to the Free Clinic

After our quick move to the Wallaby Hotel, we settled in for domestic life. I worked at the magazine Monday through Friday, and Steph looked for work, a process we expected might take weeks or even months.
Steph was generally an easy-going woman, but she could be methodical when she had her mind set on something, and her mind was set on finding a job. She got a mobile phone, and updated her resume with its number. She spent her days looking through job openings listed in The Chronicle and The Examiner, and took no days off from job-hunting. She went to the library to scan the internet for more leads. She had a solid resume as an office worker, and she mailed it around the city.
Day to day, she continued looking for work, and prepared sumptuous meals for us without a kitchen, using only a microwave, a toaster oven, and a hot plate. Good thing she could cook, because money was tight, and even fast-food was beyond our budget.
One afternoon, Stephanie called me at work, and told me she needed to see a doctor. This posed a dilemma — my workplace didn't offer health coverage, and Stephanie was unemployed, so neither of us had medical insurance. She called a couple of doctor's offices, and got bad news from both; one said they simply wouldn't see patients without insurance; the other estimated that it would cost several hundred dollars, not including lab charges for any tests.
Fortunately, in the Bay Area, if you're poor but need medical attention there's a place that can help. I phoned for an appointment at the Berkeley Free Clinic, which is exactly that — a medical clinic that's free. "Health care for people, not profit," is their motto. Blessed with good health, I had never been there, but I had heard good things. Still, we weren't sure what to expect as we BARTed to Berkeley, then walked several blocks to the clinic.
The place was completely jam-packed with people, waiting for medical care. The waiting room was clean but not luxurious, the chairs were plastic, and Steph sat in the last one that was unoccupied. I stood. There were old folks who looked flat-out destitute, homeless people, and punks in tatters. There were people who looked like college kids, and mothers with small children, and children not much older who seemed to be by themselves. And there were scruffy types that you might not have wanted to meet elsewhere, but they weren't feeling well and certainly weren't making trouble. Everyone seemed poor. Nobody comes to the Free Clinic unless they're poor.
The clinic is staffed not by doctors but by medically-trained volunteers. The volunteers take your temperature and blood pressure, and ask the same questions a doctor might ask, and then they'll phone a doctor and describe the patient's symptoms and status, and the doctor will tell the volunteer what advice or medications to give. Or, for all I know, the doctor they're calling might be just a medical student.
You could argue that this sounds like half-baked medicine, and maybe it is, but it's better than nothing — and nothing is the only other option, for a lot of people. Steph and I had no other option, realistically. To our thinking, the Berkeley Free Clinic is run by saints.
They diagnosed her with a urinary tract infection, and gave her the medication she needed. No questions asked, except medical questions. Steph was awfully scared walking in, very relieved walking out, and she was feeling fine within a few days. We left a donation of $40, and sent more money when we could afford it, over the years. But there was no requirement, not even a suggestion really, that we pay a nickel.
And again, all these years later, I want to say thank you to the Berkeley Free Clinic. Remembering that afternoon and writing about it today, I've just signed up to send them a small monthly donation, something I should've done years ago. If you believe poor people should have access to health care, and if you can afford it and you're feeling generous, you can donate at this webpage. Or don't. No pressure from me.
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It was early days for us in San Francisco, and there was plenty of stress. The Wallaby was welcoming, but it was only a residential hotel, not really a respite from the worries of the world. Steph's only friends within a thousand miles were my friends, and I've never had many. Once in a while we had dinner with Joe and Shawna, and that was our social life. Mostly, Stephanie spent her days looking for work, and her nights and weekends being a homebody, in a city and a building that didn't feel like home. Christmas was coming soon, but my attitude was "Who cares about Christmas?," and we weren't planning much to mark the occasion.
The magazine where I worked was preparing its next quarterly issue, which had always meant extra hours at the office — proofreading every article, helping with layout, lots of last-minute nagging phone calls to and from our writers and photographers and advertisers, and finally, tediously stuffing fresh-printed magazines into envelopes until my arms ached. Several consecutive nights I worked late, leaving Steph alone in our small room at the Wallaby. She didn't complain, but on her third night alone, she called me at work at about 9:00. "When are you coming home?" she asked, quietly.
Until that moment, it hadn't quite sunk in to my head just how alone and lonely she was, but when I heard her voice cracking, tears suppressed over the phone, I knew I'd been a fool again.
"I'll be home in fifteen minutes," I said. I promptly made my apologies to the boss, then walked eleven blocks to the Wallaby and made my apologies to my wife. Kissed her long and hard, and promised her that it wouldn't happen again.
A lot of things had changed in my world now that Steph was with me, and virtually every change was for the better, but there were certain habits I needed to break. Living by myself, I could work late-night shifts or even overnight shifts, and it affected nobody but me — but I wasn't living by myself any more. Someone who loved me was waiting in our tiny room, and keeping her waiting three nights in a row was just bastard behavior.
Those were my words, I should add, not Stephanie's. She hadn't raised her voice or told me I'd been inconsiderate. She hadn't cried or cursed or scolded me in any way. All she'd done was call me at my workplace, and ask "When are you coming home?" That was enough to kick my brain into gear. I ain't very smart, but I'm not terribly stupid either.
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Steph never asked much of me; she accepted me the way I was, and didn't ask me to change — with one small exception. I'd been sporting a crew-cut for many years, just because it's the easiest thing to do with a man's hair. You don't have to comb it in the morning, or part it just so, manage it with mousse or whatever; you just pop out of bed and the hair on top of your head already looks as good as it's going to look. So I'd had a crew-cut and a sloppy beard for years.
Well, Steph told me that the crew-cut made me look intimidating, especially in combination with my jumbo size belly and body. She asked me to put away my clippers, let my hair accumulate a little length, and start combing it like a normal man. "You're a big guy with a crew-cut, and I know you're lovable, but anyone else who looks at you would think you're gruff and mean."
Of course, looking gruff and mean was an advantage of the crew-cut, not a drawback, in my opinion. But it's only hair, so why not? When it grew a few inches, it turned out Steph was right — it softened my appearance. Strangers on the sidewalk were a little more likely to say hello. It was another change that I rather liked, and Stephanie liked it too. When I was able to start combing my hair, she thanked me, and occasionally ran her fingers romantically through it.
And from that day to this, I've had normal looking hair on my head. It's thinning and graying now, and a bit sloppy because I trim it myself, badly, with scissors.
Stephanie is gone, and I'm alone again, for the rest of my life. I could plug in the clippers and give myself a crew-cut tonight, but — absolutely not. All those years ago, she asked me to let my hair grow, and I said "Sure." Shearing it now would be as if I'd lied.