Lincoln Avenue was a short two-block walk from our apartment on Paulina Street in the Lakeview section of Chicago’s north side, and a twenty minute ride south on the Lincoln Avenue bus brought me to Dickens Avenue and Augustana Hospital where I worked part-time in the Housekeeping Department for two years while a junior and senior at Lane Tech High School. This photo below the original building built in 1880.
Housekeeping was run by Josephine, a jolly, chubby white woman who was kind to me and most of her other employees, although several times I thought I detected a bias against some of the black ladies. One thing I respected about her was how she understood her older employees, which was the vast majority of her male staff since nearly all were of retirement age and working to supplement Social Security. Pay was low and so was their productivity, not because they shirked responsibility but simply due to age related speed issues. They worked steadily and efficiently just at a slower pace.
Housekeeping Department was charged with keeping the entire hospital clean, and to accomplish this immense undertaking, every floor had both a male housekeeper who mopped, emptied baskets, and cleaned washrooms, as well as a female housekeeper to sanitize surfaces and change bedding. Occasionally I would be assigned to cover a floor for an ill male housekeeper, but most often I was assigned special projects such as mopping all the stairwells from the eighth floor to the basement, or carrying and climbing the ladder to remove and re-hang draperies or clean blinds, or stripping wax from floors and re-waxing them, and when I became proficient at the stripping/re-waxing cycle, I even did the same on the stairways. I much preferred these special assignments because every day was different, and since I was an energetic, athletic teenager and far more spry and agile than the older men, I was generally given these other duties, which was much appreciated by my elders since they preferred the easier routine tasks. I’m not sure who dreamed up all the special jobs, but there was generally a long list to keep me busy.
Many of these men came to be my surrogate grandfathers. Two generations older than me, they were friendly and patiently showed me the ropes until I learned the subtleties of the duties, and as we became friends, we joked together and engaged in harmless pranks and games, much as a grandfather would with a grandson. For example, the hospital’s top two floors, seven and eight, contained private rooms, but due to a shortage of wealthier patients, these floors were closed. During our breaks (and sometimes when we were finished with our work and had some goofing-off time available) we would stage wheelchair races down the halls on the eighth floor. I always won but kept the races close to encourage future rematches by my "grandpas."
Another time, three of us were tasked with moving hospital room furniture from a storage area on one of the nursing school floors up to the unused sun-room on the closed eighth floor. We were further directed to set the sun-room up as a large hospital ward to function as an additional classroom for nursing students. So we pushed beds, dressers, room dividers, IV stands, full-size mannequins, and sundry other items from the second floor west wing to the eighth floor east wing sun-room by way of the center building, a five story structure that connected the east and west wings and housed administrative offices and laboratories. The lab that processed urine specimens was on the second floor center hallway, so we placed full-sized mannequins on three of the mobile beds (as seen below)...
... covered each with a sheet so only toes protruded, and solemnly pushed them past outpatients seated with filled specimen jars in hand awaiting testing, and slyly watched the facial expressions as our procession of apparent corpses was slowly, respectfully pushed down the hallway by dour-faced, reverential men. I could swear that several patients got up and headed for the washroom to further contribute to their specimen’s container!
After transporting all the furniture and room accessories to the sun-room, we began arranging the large room as a hospital ward with dividers between beds forming private areas. We brought one of our racing wheelchairs and seated a mannequin in it and placed a second dummy in a bed, and then I had a brainstorm. The third mannequin was put on a chair with a bedpan beneath it, and I completed the vignette with a piece of folded toilet paper in his right hand. We all chuckled and were leaving just as the nursing school supervisor entered to check our progress. We announced that we were finished and left, and as we exited the sun-room she saw our handiwork and began laughing aloud.
I also made friends with the attendant who operated the staff’s service elevator. This was 1962 and elevators were run by operators, not electronics, and Harlan, a self-proclaimed hillbilly from West Virginia with accent and colloquialisms to match, taught me how to run the elevator when no other passengers were aboard. He had busy times, predominantly around the breakfast, lunch, and dinner hours when food service personnel were delivering food trays to patients or dirty dishes back to the dishwashers. But when I had some down time and his calls were infrequent, he’d turn the operator’s handle ((below)..
...over to me and I would attempt to stop the car precisely level with a floor, a complex task since this old elevator did not have an auto-leveling feature and there was always a slight lag between moving the lever to off and the car responding. The lever (bottom of photo) moved through an arc from nine o’clock to three o’clock, with movement to the left making the elevator go down, and to the right, up. I finally got to the point where I could make a perfect stop about 80% of the time, not good enough for professional status but satisfying none-the-less. The operator also had to open and close the door and identify from what floor a call had been made when the annunciator rang in the elevator.
One time Harlan took me to the penthouse where the hospital’s autopsy room was located, and I got a quick look at the corpse of an old, overweight woman cut open. I took my brief peek, noticed the bottles and trays filled with body organs, and we left. He also showed me the sub-basement morgue where bodies awaited pickup by funeral homes. He delivered bodies to both levels on a regular basis and was immune to the sight of corpses, but this 16-year-old high-schooler certainly wasn’t and one trip to each place was enough for me. In case you are wondering – whenever he had a corpse to deliver to either location, it became a priority express run and no other passengers were allowed on the elevator.
The only other time I was somewhat associated with a death while at the hospital was peripherally. A man had died of something contagious so I was assigned to remove the draperies and bedding from his room. I wore gloves, cap, mask, and gown and deposited the drapes in a large bag that was immediately sealed. I’m unsure if they were burned or simply cleaned and re-used. The room was then sanitized before another patient was assigned to it.
While employed there, my girlfriend, Leora, was admitted on a Sunday for spinal fusion surgery on Monday. I felt terrible about her admittance and impending surgery because I was partially responsible. We had been roughhousing in my backyard playing football a few months earlier and I had play-tackled her and exacerbated an existing condition which resulted in the need for surgery. Lee (in photo with me) was not in pain but was understandably nervous about the operation and wanted company that Sunday evening, so I surreptitiously brought eight or ten members of our church youth group up to her room for our weekly meeting. Hospital rules were far more strict then and patients were limited to two guests at a time. Also, some of our Leaguers were under the sixteen-year age minimum for visiting, so I circumvented these rules by escorting them a few at a time through a locked side door and up a little used stairway, for one of the perks of Housekeeping Department was intimate knowledge of the building. Oh yeah, the pizza and pop we brought with us was also against the rules. Her room was the last on the floor, farthest from the nurses’ station and right by the stairwell door, and we stayed quiet so we would neither disturb other patients nor bring attention to our illicit presence. Fortunately, Lee, though in the traditional two-patient semi-private room, did not yet have a roommate.
We were having a wonderful time and were successfully raising her spirits and taking her mind off the looming operation when the door to her room suddenly opened and a nurse entered for some routine task. The white-clad RN’s mouth gaped at the sight of the crowd of teenagers eating pizza and was no doubt about to start ranting when she noticed me, and I swear an imperceptible smile curled her lips a tad upward and she said to me in a strong, no-nonsense voice, “Visiting hours are over, Chuck. I’m going to get something I forgot, and when I come back in five minutes, this room WILL be empty except for the patient,” and she turned and left. What luck for us that it was a nurse I knew. We quickly said goodbye to Lee, wished her well tomorrow, and departed with all our leftovers and the trash, leaving by the back stairs the way we had entered. Though I sweated for the next few days, no untoward ramifications occurred for me job-wise, though whenever I ran into that understanding nurse whose name I have long ago forgotten, a broad smile always beamed from her face as her head simultaneously shook right and left in awed amazement at the memory.
After Lee had been discharged, I asked her if her pre-operative exam had included a breast exam. She indicated it had and I made the mistake of trying to joke that it had been done not by a doctor but by a colleague of mine in the Housekeeping Department whom I had sent in. Lee was not amused and appropriately took umbrage at my insensitivity and I had to work to convince her I had merely been joking and it really had been a doctor, and even after convincing her, I had to work long and hard to get back into her good graces for having attempted the stupid hoax.
One thing I discovered at Augustana was that a person carrying a ladder, or a bucket and mop, or even a clipboard and tape measure could go virtually anywhere in the hospital unchallenged, and on a few occasions while on legitimate assignments, I entered the surgery and maternity wards and even the nursing student’s dorm building, areas generally off-limits to most employees, and never once was my presence questioned. Security protocols today are no doubt far more severe and restrictive and I imagine I would not enjoy the same freedoms as I did back then. Or could I still get away with it?
In hindsight, the hospital job was a wonderful experience. I learned to work and interact with people of different generations and from different ethnic groups. It was my first real job other than a paper route or working at the Herkert's machine shop (my relatives) and it was the first job that required applying, interviewing, and interacting with bosses. The wide range of duties equipped me with new skills, taught me the inner workings of a large enterprise in general and of hospitals in particular, and through contact with a wide variety of people, provided me with social skills which would prove useful the rest of my life. The menial labor bestowed a respect for the dedicated people who work behind the scenes making vital contributions to an undertaking, more often than not completely unappreciated, but without whom the important work of the institution would grind to a halt. The job at Augustana Hospital (and my next job at S&C Electric Company as mail-boy and factory worker) induced and reinforced the importance of excelling in college in order to prepare for a profession that utilized mental abilities instead of manual skills. Finally, the job provided numerous interesting experiences still treasured 40+ years later, for in writing these memoirs, warm recollections of dear friends and fond memories of occurrences brought me back to a formative stage of my life and triggered smiles and chuckles as I typed.