My First Visit to The Trans-cultural Health Improvement Center
A few hours ago, in the middle of doing the laundry, I get a call from my friend Damien. He’s on the edge of death again and needs help getting to a methadone clinic in Wilmington. Since I prefer not to have dead people on my conscience I decide to hop on a bus to his apartment in Long Beach and help him. Besides, I’m curious to see what a methadone clinic looks like.
Imagine two white boys in the middle of Wilmington, CA trying to find a methadone clinic. The place is hard to track down. They certainly don’t advertise in the phone book. The clinic is a couple of blocks away from a sweat shop, a literal sweat shop, housed in a totally non-descript one-story building with barred windows and a huge intimidating door that’s as colorful as an all-expenses-paid vacation in Garden Grove. The door is gray, very gray. The clinic’s official name is “The Trans-cultural Health Improvement Center,” which is the most clever bit of nonsensical newspeak I’ve ever heard. It means nothing, absolutely nothing. I guess they didn’t want to call it “The Wilmington Methadone Clinic” to make it as difficult as possible for a junkie to get there. According to an almost unreadable sign outside it’s open from 5:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. How the hell can you expect a junkie to get up that early? If they could get up that early, they wouldn’t be junkies in the first place.
Anyway, once you’ve passed the gigantic featureless door, you find yourself in the lobby. I take a seat in a black vinyl sofa. A few feet away from me is the front desk, directly above which hangs various signs that say things like “Information and Registration” and “This Medical Clinic Utilizes Physician Extenders In Accordance With The Laws And Regulations Of This State” and “No Checks/No Coins/No Credit Cards/We Do Not Give Change/We Give Credit Towards Your Next Dose.” From my seat I watch an endless stream of junkies walk through the door, sign in at the front desk, then stroll over to a little window to get their allotted dose of methadone (a bright pink liquid that comes in a tiny plastic cup).
Remember that old TV show called Barney Miller? It was a sit-com that took place in a police station and utilized a single set. The stories would revolve around the endless stream of criminals and nuts who would enter the station. I think I’m going to pitch a similar concept to some television network about a wacky methadone clinic. It’ll be a laff riot and I’ll make millions off other people’s suffering. What, this ain’t America?
Barely two minutes pass without a new “patient” entering the lobby. The first junkie is a middle-aged black dude humming “Get the groove on, I’ve got to get my groove on” over and over again. He saunters on over to the window, slaps his hand on the desk and yells, “Hurry it up! I’ve got people waitin’ on me!”
The second junkie is a white guy in a plaid shirt carrying a tool box. He looks like he’s either just gotten off work from a construction site or is on the way there.
The next junkie is a well-dressed Asian lady who looks like a business woman. She seems very nervous. She downs her shot, then scampers out of that place real quick.
School kids should take field trips to these clinics. They’d soon realize what a junkie looks like: every damn person you could possibly imagine. I’m expecting a clown to cruise in on a unicycle at any moment.
Both the scariest and funniest moment is when a little eight-year-old girl walks through the door. She strolls right past me. I catch Damien’s eye from across the room. I don’t even have to gesture toward her. He spots her right off. Huge grins break out across both our faces. I’m expecting the girl to saunter on over to the window, slap her hand on the desk and yell, “Hurry it up! I’ve got people waitin’ on me!” Instead she walks right by me, then wanders around the clinic. A doctor walks up to her and says, “What’re you doing here?” “I dunno,” she says. Apparently she just wandered inside for the hell of it! What a ballsy kid.
At that moment a real fucked-up woman in her late 30s/early 40s begins yelling at a doctor in the back of the room: “I told my boyfriend and my work about me having AIDS just like you told me and my boyfriend beat me up and my work fired me but I don’t mind! It’s okay! I‘m not upset!”
To get her voice out of my head I pull a pencil and a notebook out of my backpack and start writing about the day’s activities so far. By the time I’m done writing, Damien has gotten his dose and is ready to leave. About a block away from the clinic he grows weak and has to sit down on the curb. Now, imagine these two emaciated white boys sitting on a curb in the middle of Wilmington, surrounded by nothing but various and sundry African-Americans gawking at us with puzzled expressions on their faces, when this cop car cruises by. Both cops study us with the strangest and funniest looks I’ve ever seen. For one second their rigorous academy training has been rendered all for naught. There’s nothing in the rule books about this. This image doesn’t fit with any prior experience. The proper synapses aren’t firing. They’re confused, amused, and bemused all at once. They drive slowly by, then disappear. We remain sitting on this curb for another fifteen minutes, at which point the cops cruise by again. This time their expressions have transformed from mild bemusement to open hostility.
I say to Damien, “Uh, maybe we should get the hell out of here.”
He nods dumbly, then staggers to his feet. We hop on a bus and head out of Wilmington, back into Long Beach. On the bus we run into an “acquaintance” of Damien’s, this heroin dealer named Chino (after the prison?) who’s also a member of the Mexican Mafia. He’s got a 69 tattooed on his lower lip, a prison serial number on the back of his neck, and a musical note on his left ear lobe. I suspect if you hit that note on a keyboard you could control his mind from afar. I’m writing in my notebook (what you’re reading now) when he staggers aboard the bus. He seems slightly drunk or fucked-up on something or other. After Damien introduces us he says, “Hey, you know, Chino thought I was a cop when we first met!” I laugh, wondering if Chino thinks I’m Damien’s contact in the L.A.P.D. Perhaps I’m really taking notes for my superiors back at the station? When Damien first introduced us I had the urge to hold up my pencil and say, “Chino, eh? How do you spell that?” Fortunately, I refrained. Later I learn that this man has killed at least two people but the cops couldn’t prove anything so they let him go.
According to Damien, he and Chino have become something like the Abbott & Costello of crime. They’re very good at shoplifting. For example, they’ll enter a supermarket at the same time. Damien will go one way, Chino the other. Because he’s Latino, naturally all the guards follow him. Meanwhile, Damien’s stuffing sirloin steaks down his pants. At least racism is good for something.
Anyway, that was my first trip to The Trans-cultural Health Improvement Center. Maybe next time I’ll pay a visit as a patient. If so, I’m going to walk right up to that counter, slap my palm down and sing out with all the confidence in the world, “Get the groove on, I’ve got to get my groove on!”
But first I need to finish my laundry.
Robert Guffey is a Guest Writer for Panorama.
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