In the Seventies gender was pretty much fixed. Not like now where it can be dialed in, changed up and altered. Back in the Seventies men were men and women were women and there were very few who could not distinguish the difference. A transgender person was simply NOT seen very often and especially not in Skidrow.
Alan was pretty messed up. Drugs, schizophrenia, malnutrition and an ongoing conversation with someone not evident to me or others. It later turned out that Alan also had AIDS. We’d never even heard of that disease in those days. When Doctor Daniel and I went to see him in his room, there was a crucifix on the wall, a bottle of hard liquor, a recently burnt mattress and a small bar fridge filled with plastic bags containing feces, presumably his own.
Over time, with regular street nurse visits and regularly administered medications, Alan stabilized and it was then that he admitted that he was really a woman trapped in a man’s body. His real name was Alena. I was surprised to say the least. “How does that happen, Alan, uh, Alena? By the way, which name do you want me to use?”
“I am still adjusting to the news myself, Dave. Have been for a long time. So, if I am dressed like Alan, then please use his name and, of course, if I have something prettier on, I am Alena that day. I am not so sure it just happened, Dave. I think I have always known. I’m on drug therapy and counseling now and I hope to be a woman soon.”
“It takes more than drugs and counseling to be a woman, Alan. There are some fundamental plumbing issues and other weird stuff to get familiar with. Frankly, I think this may be just another bad life choice you are making. What’s wrong with being both for awhile? Why commit?”
“I’m glad you feel that way, Dave, because that is exactly what my counselor is saying and we have decided that I need to spend more time as a woman to be sure of my decision before I remove my options, if you know what I mean? I will be living as Alena more and more. And I need a job. I want to work here at the Clinic. I want to be a receptionist.”
“Sounds like a good idea. You do need a job. I agree with that. But, I cannot see you being a receptionist here, Alan. We have the big unit and she is probably the best receptionist Skidrow has ever had. And I don’t have room in the budget for two.”
“That’s okay. I could volunteer. I need the work experience. And I was thinking that I could volunteer as support for the street nurses. They need someone to take their messages and keep their supplies up, right?”
As crazy as it sounded, I thought it might work. The nurses could use the help, Alan/Alena would not have to deal with the general public and I could see no valid reason to say no. So, I said yes.
After a while I thought things were working out pretty well. No initial complaints. The street nurses really appreciated having help with their kits and having someone take messages was a Godsend. Mostly.
“Dave, you may have to have a word with Alena. She’s kind of getting into the role and making it more than it is. She’s getting weird and it’s freaking us out.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, imagine a very skinny, sick man in his late thirties dressed in an old Forties style low cut cocktail dress and heavily made up, but with short hair and stubble. He swings his high heels off the end of his feet, fer Gawd’s sake. That’s more than a bit odd, but that is not the worst part. The worst part is that Alena thinks a receptionist speaks like an exaggerated drag queen sucking helium and making extreme female gestures while doing so. And her phone voice is completely insane. Seriously crazy. I’m telling you, it’s just getting weird up there.”
So, I called Alena down.
“So, Alena, how are you doing? It’s been two weeks now. I notice that you are always on time and never leave until the end of the day. You OK?”
Squealing and hand gesturing like an epileptic in mid seizure Alena gushed, “I love this job, Dave. I just love it!”
“Well, I’m glad to hear that. But, you know, part of learning a new job is learning how to get along with others and that includes the telephone public. I feel that I have to teach you a few things if you are going to do well in this line of work. You know, careers have been lost for minor faux pas. Ya gotta fit in, right? Like the counselor said?”
“Absolutely (squeal, giggle, shoulder roll). I’m all ears, Dave.” This was followed with an extremely wide smile and then a rapid and lengthy batting of eyelids and a forward tilt of her head. It was weirder than weird.
“Well, it is hard for you. I know that. You are also learning how to be a woman. Two big challenges. Female-ness. Receptionist. Tall order. I admit that the two functions are compatible but the easiest way to fail at both is to lay it on too thick in either role. Real femininity is subtle. The gestures, the smiling, the eyes…all that stuff. That has to be doled out in very small doses or it loses it’s effect. Same with being a receptionist. You have to speak on the phone in almost a neutral voice. Less is more. Still feminine, of course, but like a female accountant rather than a girly-girl hostess, ya know? This is a medical clinic. We are professional. You are not a waitress. You are not a cheerleader. We just don’t squeal with delight or giggle all the time. That would be weird in any office, Alena, but little Miss Sunshine is completely out of place in Skidrow, you understand? She shouldn’t even be in the neighbourhood.”
“Much too much.”
“Thanks, Dave. I’ll tone it down. Thanks for the input.”
Much to my surprise, and to the absolute amazement of the rest of the staff, Alena not only toned it down but became a somewhat good receptionist. She was working well by our standards which were not entirely normal, I admit. But she was dependable and, after almost a year, I managed to find some money so the Clinic could afford to pay her a small stipend. Alan dropped away, so to speak, and Alena took over full time.
Soon after the change Alena weakened and died. The last time I saw her I was helping a walking bag of bones get into a cab at the front door to the clinic. She was headed for St. Paul’s hospice. AIDS took all of it’s victims back then.