I graduated college with a BA in English, so of course my first full-time gig was in the hospitality industry. I got a job as a recreational therapy assistant at the state hospital in my hometown, though when asked what my new position was, I always said, “I’m a teacher.”
I did this for two reasons: 1.) I didn’t like having the word “assistant” slapped onto the end of my job title; and 2.) That’s essentially what I was as a recreational therapy assistant—a teacher.
My weekly education curriculum was far from academic though; it consisted of lessons in papermaking, speed-walking, painting, cooking, Yahtzee—activities into which I could slyly incorporate social and life skills: “Now it’s Bob’s turn to roll the Yahtzee dice, George. Please pass him the dice. And Bob, say ‘thank you’.”
Of course, I didn’t go about talking to patients in the condescendingly sweet tone of a preschool teacher. I knew most of them were just as smart as me, if not smarter. I also knew that they could perform the same everyday tasks that people not in a mental institution could—say “please” and “thank you,” open doors for others, brush their teeth, apply deodorant or apologize for, say, passing gas in a small, enclosed classroom—were it not for their illnesses. I mean, would you take the time to say “Thanks for the mashed potatoes” to the cook in the cafeteria when the voice in your head is telling you it was Satan who mashed them?
So, that’s where I came in. I reeled patients back to reality when I could and did my best to improve the quality of their lives.
During my first few months of work, my friends asked a lot of questions. “Is it just like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest?” they’d ask. “Or Girl, Interrupted?” My answer was always “No, not really.” While there certainly were strange moments at work, my basis of comparison was a little different than most.
Sure, there were patients who shuffled, who rocked, who yelled, who mumbled into the crooks of their arms. But it wasn’t like I hadn’t seen, or even exhibited, these kinds of behaviors at the bar on the weekends. Sometimes patients got rowdy and tried to fight, throwing a couple punches here and there. Again, nothing I wasn’t guilty of myself.
“You know,” I’d say to my friends, “my job as a state hospital teacher is not as crazy as you’d imagine.”
Not long after I started the gig, I was asked to run the weekly bingo game. Thinking I’d be calling out numbers to a couple dozen patients in the cafeteria once a week, I’d said, “Oh, sure, no problem” and gave it nary a second thought. Until I came across a green handwritten poster hanging in the hallway a few days later: “Live TV Bingo! Wednesdays at 4:30! Channel 2!”
Turned out the hospital had its own television channel. And a tiny studio to go with it—across the service road from the main building in an otherwise nondescript brick cottage—what I had assumed to be a storage unit of some kind. But nope, it was a television studio, where I’d soon be hosting Live TV Bingo! every Wednesday afternoon at 4:30. Just me, Reg the Cameraman, and a patient of my choosing as cohost.
I got to “trial run” my game show hosting skills for the first few weeks using a colleague as cohost. This was my time to get acclimated to the pace of the show, the feel of the set.
The set itself consisted of two wooden armchairs between which stood the brass ball-rolling cage. To me, the cage looked more like some kind of steampunk apparatus for generating energy than it did for yielding little white orbs stamped with letters and numbers.
To the patients, however, those little white orbs were magical. In the rec rooms of all six units, they sat every Wednesday afternoon with their eyes fixed to the screen, red chips in hand, mouths agape, watching those orbs go round and round. There were about 30 beds to a unit, which made the size of the Live TV Bingo! audience anywhere from 150 to 170 patients. All watching those little white orbs—the spherical keys to riches aplenty, or a “bingo buck.” At the end of the game, the winners of each round were issued a “bingo buck,” good toward any purchase at the hospital commissary except cigarettes.
Before we “went live,” Reg the Cameraman would push a couple buttons from where he sat behind the camera. Then he’d count down from five with his big, meaty fingers before mouthing the word “go.” That was my cue to start talking.
As game show host, my job basically consisted of televised yammering. First, I’d explain the rules: “No cheating, no calling in without having your bingo card appraised by a staff member. No cigarettes can be purchased with ‘bingo bucks.’ Don’t even try. And, most importantly, be a good sport. If you don’t win a round, say ‘Aw, shucks’ and hope for the best next time. Now’s let’s get started!”
That was my cohost’s cue to crank the ball cage, after which he’d select a ball and show me whatever was printed on it. I found that repeating the letter and number three times seemed to do the trick: “B nine. B nine. Again, B nine.” Then: crank, select, show, call, repeat, crank, select, show, call, repeat.
Also on set was a telephone. It sat on a table to my left. Patients would call in their bingos and I’d verify either their win or loss on the air. As you can imagine, the hospital lines were clogged on Wednesday afternoons.
While all this went down onscreen, Reg the Cameraman recorded each letter and number I’d called out, quietly typing them into a computer. A second later, they’d materialize on the bottom of the screen, blinking below my face: B-9, B-9, B-9
Really, the show was simple to put on. But that still didn’t mitigate the fact that I was terrified of picking a patient cohost. I constantly concocted wacked-out scenarios in my head of what would happen when I did: me, live on television, yelling into the camera lens, so close that all you can see is the inside of my mouth. “Help! Help!” I’d yell. “Send all the orderlies to the nondescript brick cottage across the street! It’s not a storage unit!” Behind me, the patient cohost would have the roller cage hoisted over his head like one of Donkey Kong’s barrels. Then… total darkness.
(You know, my new job as a state hospital teacher is not as crazy as you’d imagine.)
“I can’t do it,” I told Reg the Cameraman one Tuesday afternoon. I’d found him in the hallway, hanging up a brand-new yellow Live TV Bingo! advertisement. This one had a hand-drawn cartoon of a cat waving the American flag.
Earlier in the day, I was told via email that I must select a patient cohost for tomorrow’s taping; the orders came from the higher-ups, the people who didn’t have the word “assistant” annexed to the end of their job titles. Also known as my bosses.
I leaned against the wall next to Reg, who was concentrating on a piece of tape stuck to his huge index finger. “I’m scared the patient I choose will freak out,” I said. “You and I could be taken as hostages, you know. The entire hospital could witness our demise.”
Reg chuckled, which irritated me. “It’s a legit concern,” I added.
“That’s a bit hyperbolic,” he said, successfully removing the piece of tape on and transferring it to the wall. “You do know there’s a reason you were asked to host the show in the first place?”
I looked solemnly at the cat on the poster board, waving its American flag. “Torture.”
Another chuckle. “Nooooo. It’s because you’re good with the patients. Apparently, the bosses have been observing how you facilitate groups. They thought you’d be a good host because patients seem relaxed around you.”
I chewed on the compliment.
Reg continued. “So go find someone who’s had good behavior lately and ask him to be your cohost.”
I nodded my head and said that I would.
During my first few months of gameshow hosting, my friends asked a lot of questions. “Has anyone ever gone crazy on air?” they’d ask. “Has anyone completely flipped out?”
“Well,” I’d say, “one patient fell out of his chair. Thankfully he wasn’t hurt and got back up smiling. But that’s something I do almost every night. Another time a patient started giggling and didn’t stop for six minutes straight. But that only made Reg the Cameraman and me giggle and probably a lot of other patients too. Honestly, my job as a state hospital game show host is not as crazy as you’d imagine.”