Steamy Nights in the ‘Peg

All this recent muggy, sweaty weather in Edmo has reminded me of the summer of 1967 in my hometown. Mosquito fogging trucks out in the early mornings. Temps between 30 and 35 more often than not. And then those steamy nights without a breeze.

I used to work as an orderly (remember them?) at Winnipeg General that and the following summer. The day shift was a zoo–as today, way too many people–nurses and doctors–too many chiefs constantly telling you what to do. Evening shifts from 3 to 11 were busy, too, in some ways busier what with supper and back care/rubs. I can remember getting off at 11 and then going to my friend’s to listen to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on his impressive stereo, then wandering home 1-2 to fall asleep exhausted; waking up around 9 or 10, having a few hours to do whatever in daylight before gearing up for a non-stop-perspiring-return-bus-ride to the hospital. That shift seemed to have no real life or ample time to it.

Easier was the 11-7 night shift which I ultimately worked the most of. Patients would be ‘down’ or asleep when I came on the ward. The small staff would have a short meeting–there was always one to start a shift to hear the reports on patients–day shifts were fun with meeting rooms crowded and people standing–there were so many people on the floor during the day! Then it was mainly a matter of staying awake all night–often reading, off somewhere by myself in a small tv room at the end of a ward. The head nurses usually left you alone.

In the morning, I would sometimes help putting out early-arriving breakfasts before the day staff hit the floor, though generally, they put out both breakfast and lunch. (Incidentally, what made any shift longer and more exhausting would be working in one of the old original wards, which lacked A/C. Working on a new A/C’d ward was always a break from the long hot day outside.)

I remember walking into the hospital from the side, staff entrance–heat still rising from the sidewalk on a typical oppressive night. In the morning, the air often was as stale or the same, a few degrees lower, though I always felt the freedom of a prisoner moving forth into daylight. Sometimes I would ride that high and do errands or go downtown shopping, staying up till totally exhausted I would fall into a recurring heat-induced sleep, waking up around 7 or 8 for a belated sup. Sometimes, I’d hook up with friends before heading sluggishly for the hospital. (Those fogged, muggy mid-days were a time of great musical learning and freedom. I remember buying songbooks and soaking up folk and folk-rock songs that I would go on to play in public for decades.)

No, there has never been anything quite like those strange sultry Winnipeg summers. Entering the working world, unconventionally–no one else I knew worked evenings or nights–to make some dough for first- and second-year university.

Imagine, though, the great privilege and relevance of reading Blaise Cendrars’ poems or T.S. Eliot’s “Preludes” at 5 a.m., looking out onto the quiet dawn of vacant city streets:

The morning comes to consciousness/Of faint stale smells of beer…

One thinks of all the hands/That are raising dingy shades In a thousand furnished rooms…

And when the world came back/And the light crept up between the shutters/And you heard the sparrows in the gutters,/You had such a vision of the street/As the street hardly understands.

A very formative time, indeed. I will write again of the hospital and my first encounters with death up-close, down the road. Another privileged view which removed any romantic notions of what happens to all of us after death.

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