Maria, Maria

Maria, Maria

Seventies young physician fresh out of fancy-schmancy Harvard/Stanford/Harvard/Stanford training blew off chief residency and academic career to become the first internist naïve enough to take a position at some migrant worker clinic in Alviso east of San Jose.

Our ramshackle long-neglected prefab building stood between a trailer park, taqueria, chicken farm and Route 237 on a godforsaken patch of baylands.

The good news—and my major perk—was a daily lunch break run on a stunning peninsula that the Audubon Society had designated as a sanctuary for blue herons and snowy egrets.

But multiple-choice bad news turned out to be much more significant.

First, the below-sea level neck of land would flood every rainy season. (My youngest daughter, not born at the time, still flashes Polaroids of me: bearded, pony-tailed, drenched, bedraggled, ecstatic—to get a rise out of her friends. Dad paddling a canoe, rescuing stranded people and livestock. A boom box floating six inches below the ceiling of my examining room.)

One spring when jogging I noticed sandbags (or so I thought) washing up onto the shore. I could barely make out “AR Y         C RPS    OF   ENGIN ERS   ASBES   973   .” Whoa! All that effort to become fit had simply exposed my lungs—and more so, the chain-smoking illegals, squatters and other poor folk and their kids who actually lived in this barrio—to a megadose of asbestos.

Second, abandoned by the good citizens of San Jose, this strip was essentially zoned below the radar with many dwellings without basic services such as water and electricity.

Of course now decades later, as Silicon Valley has extended its tentacles, Alviso has been rehabilitated into primo real estate, making many developers rich while the disenfranchised have been driven off.

Between a blitzkrieg Berlitz course (my boss reluctantly agreed to pay a third) and the pigeon-Spanish I picked up on the job (memorizing thirty rote phrases did the trick for most common problems), I limped through most days without a translator.

On the whole, my clients were rural, monolingual Spanish, Catholic, family-oriented, humble, grateful for the care.  Although their children quickly assimilated to big city ways, the parents were guileless, rarely scamming for drugs or abusing the welfare system.

Still occasionally, I overheard an embarrassed patient whisper to a Family Health Worker, “¿Dice el Doctor Portugués??”

Several times I flew down to Sinaloa Province for a weekend volunteering, possibly caring for relatives of my patients back home.  Before landing in the middle of nowhere, I could see an astonishingly long line of locals who had queued up hours before the four-seater puddle jumper finally set down.  Many literally begged for more Valium that some shortsighted thoughtless idiot health provider like me had previously handed out like M&Ms. We gringos seemed either not to consider—or care—that the pastillas would run out after addicting their recipients, usually long before the next charity runs south of the border.

Eventually frustration set in. I understood only single-visit preventative (vaccines, etc.) and interventional (surgeons/dentists) therapies that didn’t involve an internist’s pill-pushing skills (or lack of) had more plusses than minuses.

I also began to wonder if maybe, just maybe, there was more to these ventures than met my eye.  Something beyond generosity, tax write-offs, Dos Equiis XX and lagostino beach parties that motivated the cardiologist to pilot us into Mexico. (Come to think of it, “Dr. Mary” didn’t seem all that engaged in the nitty-gritty of actual patient care.  Her restaurante Español was superb and charming, but she faded in la clínica; by the end of each session, the Mexican assistants had guided me with my veterinarian Spanish to the central hub, moving Mary gently to the periphery.)

Keeping an extra eye open, during my last two tours, I picked up that Los Medicos Voladores’ planes were NEVER searched by highly deferent customs officials.

I’d heard rumors about drug-running into The States and puzzled over Mary’s down-time rendezvous with unidentified serious men in silk Versace shirts, denim pants with leather-laced edging, Panama hats, lots of bling, snake and iguana-skin boots, driving Ram Chargers blasting corridos about mi perico, mi gallo y mi chiva/ my parakeet, my rooster, and my goat—slang for coke, marijuana, and heroin.

…That final flight home, riding shotgun next to Mary, for some reason I couldn’t get Bob Dylan’s line “to live outside the law you must be honest” from “Absolutely Sweet Marie” out of my mind.


About the Author

Gerard Sarnat has won the Poetry in the Arts First Place Award plus the Dorfman Prize and been nominated for Pushcarts. Gerry’s authored four collections: HOMELESS CHRONICLES from Abraham to Burning Man (2010), Disputes (2012), 17s (2014) and Melting The Ice King (2016) which included work published in magazines and anthologies including Gargoyle, American Journal of Poetry (Margie), Main Street Rag, New Delta Review, OCHO, Brooklyn Review, Lowestoft, Tishman Review plus was featured in New Verse News, Edify, Poetica, Songs of Eretz, Avocet, LEVELER, tNY, StepAway, Bywords and Floor Plan. Among other publications, Deronda Review, San Francisco Magazine, Radius, Foliate Oak, Dark Run, Scarlet Leaf, Good Men Project, Veterans Writing Project, Anti-Heroin Chic, Aois, Poetry Circle, Tipton Review, Creative Truth, Harbor Village, Indian Ruminations, KYSO, Flagler Review, Poets and War, and Ordinary Madness’ debuted feature sets of new poems. Mount Analogue selected Sarnat’s sequence, KADDISH FOR THE COUNTRY, for distribution as a pamphlet in Seattle on Inauguration Day 2017 as well as the next morning as part of the Washington DC and nationwide Women’s Marches. In May “Amber Of Memory” was the single poem chosen for Gerry s 50th college reunion symposium on Bob Dylan; the Harvard Advocate accepted a second plus Oberlin, Brown, Columbia, Johns Hopkins accepted concurrent pieces. In August Failed Haiku presented his work first among over a hundred contributors. In January 2018, among other acceptances, six Sarnat poems were featured in True Living Documented Relentlessly [TL;DR], his work was front page in International Journal Of Modern Poetry, and pieces were accepted by Australian, Israeli, Canadian and Indian publications. In February, two Dadaist publications accepted some of Gerry’s new-styled work: Maintenant, plus a ten-poem sequence is being featured in Outsider Poetry. The UK’s Ink Pantry accepted a spread and will interview Sarnat for a featured run. Beautiful Loser’s main spread was Sarnat’s poetry accompanied by an interview. The Editor’s Note for Rumblefish’s Winter 2018 issue describes Sarnat as “previous reader-favorite.” A set was featured in March’s Surreal Mannequin Haus. The UK’s Winamop will repeat-feature a sequence of Gerry’s work this summer–this time incorporating photos as well as newer concrete poetry. Ditto Ginosko. For Huffington Post/other reviews, readings, publications, interviews; visit Harvard/Stanford educated, Gerry’s worked in jails, built/staffed clinics for the marginalized, been a CEO of healthcare organizations and Stanford Medical School professor. Married since 1969, he has three children, four grandkids.


Photo "Edge of the Levy" by Mike aka crankyinmv