The doctor Is dead

The sudden passing of a shared confessor

San Diego is small. As I began to see Dr. Johnson in early spring, I began to meet others of his patients.
  • San Diego is small. As I began to see Dr. Johnson in early spring, I began to meet others of his patients.
  • Image by Dan Perkins

Such are the conceits of first-world living — they follow you. A late-night call from San Diego slips through a satellite onto the shore of a beleaguered nation with the news of my psychiatrist’s death. My upbringing hadn’t prepared me for this.

 ”I imagine you’re a little confused, a little tired. But the past few weeks have been hell for me.”

”I imagine you’re a little confused, a little tired. But the past few weeks have been hell for me.”

“How much was he charging before he died?” I asked the caller, a fellow patient.

“One hundred and fifteen bucks for forty-five minutes,” she says.

“My God... ” boomerangs through static. I should feel something, I thought. “My God... ”

I had paid him to know me at a time when my “two projects for adulthood” (as Freud outlined them), work and love, were both in miserable disarray. I was also reeling from calamity to calamity. A causal chain had lead me to his cluttered Pacific Beach office with its moldering terrarium. As I sat before his desk, a black digital clock facing me (each minute being, at that time, two dollars), I talked, and he annotated my misery onto a note pad.

By the time I started seeing him, I was a seasoned traveler. I had, Lord have mercy, been in the storm too long.

Months before I began my sessions with Dr. Johnson, I opted for an evening of bridge. I sat at a red light, off Broadway in Golden Hill, and sang along with the radio. Something slammed into the side of the car. I looked up. A man wearing a ski mask pointed a gun at my face through the half-opened window.

“Get out of the car or I’m gonna fuckin’ kill you,” he screamed. “Excuse me?” I said.

“Get out of the car or I’m gonna’ fuckin’ kill you!” he said it again, wagging oblivion at the space between my eyes. Although he, this criminal, was otherwise undeserving of my trust, I trusted him. Inasmuch as I trusted him, I believed utterly that he would blast the bridge of my nose through the back of my head, spattering the interior of my 74 Datsun with id, ego, superego, anima, animus, and the wise old woman within us all.

I sat planted in my seat, a quivering skin bag of marrow-deep fear. Sniffing the air, I waited for the next directive. He gave it: “Get out of the fuckin’ car!”

I was a mewling, jittery fool. “Oooooooo,” I said. ‘‘Oooooooo. puhleeeeeez dohn't kill meeeeeee.” Never having planned on having to say this, it was difficult to get the intonation right — and intonation, I felt, counted. I sounded pitiful. In fact, I sounded convincing enough that even I felt sure he could not deny me this, my last request, and so I fled.

Golden Hill’s low rents had attracted me. I knew about the crime, but it was a neighborhood in transition. Nice apartments were cheap. Life was cheap. He was cruising around in my car with his gun. I knew he was. Hunting me. I saw a house with the porch light on. I landed, panting, on the welcome mat. Knock knock. A big, strong man in jeans and tank top leaned against his forearm, across the door.

I babbled: “Manwithagun tried to kill me. Call police. Call police.”

My mantra ground to a halt. A trail of needle marks ran along his forearm. Wrong house. Wrong man. Wrong night. Out into the street I went, frantic to find a sympathetic ear.

At Twentieth and Broadway, the corner store, the Christian Arabs from Beirut allowed me to use their phone. They were accustomed to gunplay and its deleterious effect on the psyche. The police dispatcher asked. “Do you know your vehicle identification number?”

I told her, “It is difficult, at this point, to remember my own name.”

Soon I was outside. “Victim is at the corner of Twentieth and Broadway,” the dispatcher announced through five police radios, “Victim is upset.”

“Of course victim is upset!” I shrieked at the officers. “ ‘Victim’ means upset!” Two weeks later, I sit in the blood-spattered shambles of my home. Everything I had was taken. Everything. And the clutter left behind was covered with blood. Clots on the table, smeared on my bedroom ceiling. The bathroom a tabloid photo from the Tate-LaBianca murders. A criminal, desperate for my few possessions, severed an artery as he broke the window.

Again, I wait for the police. I am finishing a second bottle of wine. I see a lop-eared rabbit sitting in my driveway. Behind him, ten feet away, a fat orange tabby. I feel I must somehow get the rabbit inside my house. I stagger outside. Waving my arms, “Here bunny, bunny, bunny ...” I move toward the duo. Bunny goes hop, hop, hop! Tabby follows. “Here bunny, bunny, bunny.’’ Hop, hop, hop. And so the three of us go up the block and around the corner. Suddenly, my shadow is cast before me. Bunny hops beneath a car. The police I called had arrived. Their guns are drawn.

Empty moments. I seemed to be wrestling with existential truths.

Weeks later, at 3:00 a.m., I was wearing something that resembles a large paper napkin with matching blue paper booties. I sat in the gastrointestinal lab of a local Kaiser hospital. Cold sweat sluiced off me. A crescent of pain in my abdomen throbbed. The male nurse-practitioner, who had conducted the initial exam an hour before, told me, “I think you’re constipated.”

Curled up on the table, pale with pain, I doubted his diagnosis. “Where did you get your degree?”

“University of Arizona at Phoenix.” “Well,” I said, “if this is constipation, I can see why people on television complain about it. Get me an M.D.! Get me a Harvard M.D.! I want a doctor! A real doctor! ’ ’

Late in his life, Freud began to explicate human existence as the battlefield for two basic and conflicting drives — Eros and Thanatos. Mister in Black, scythe in hand, shadowed me. The chubby little guy with the quiver full of arrows and the ready laugh, on the other hand, had taken a hike.

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