It was kind of a poem, TNB’s Rich Ferguson cursing about ten times in a row, rattling off “Fucks!” in spoken-word, submachine-gun fashion while at CSU Bakersfield. He knew he wasn’t going to get to cuss at the family-friendly Russo’s Books. So he had to let go.

None of us get to cuss much at Russo’s. And that’s OK. I get it. Bakersfield is a conservative city 110-miles north of Hollywood. The local Barnes & Noble and the now-dead Borders Books are the same way. Rich still wowed a crowd of CSU Bakersfield poets and guests, mashing together a few of his ditties into a twenty-minute performance as his body swayed beneath shadows cast by his dirty straw hat.

The week before, poet Michael Medrano of Fresno wowed the same class while at Russo’s with selections from his 2009 book “Born in the Cavity of Sunsets” (Arizona State University’s Bilingual Press). Michael rode into town on the Amtrak. It’s a nice ride from Fresno. I’ve taken the route. It swings through Central Valley farmland and cuts through little towns like Hanford and Wasco, places where gangs are out of control and mom-and-pop restaurants are still as tasty as ever.

When he stepped off the train he pulled along a black bag filled with his books, notes, an unpublished manuscript for “When You Left to Burn at Sea,” and some pages from a young adult fiction novel.

I pointed at him and we hugged like brothers.

After a Thai food lunch we grabbed some coffee in the sweltering heat and headed to class at the CSUB OLLI Program poetry course I was teaching. He took the reigns and taught about community. In fact, all weekend we spoke about working together, how poetry scenes in towns and across the nation are dead without writers and poets linking arms and digging in.

I was careful to mostly teach from Medrano’s book as well as Bakersfield poet Gary Hill’s works (including “From a Savage City”) and T.Z. Hernandez book, “Skin Tax.” All three poets, I believe, are part of a poetry brotherhood that needs to further help connect the Central Valley to itself, to Hollywood-L.A. (that would be Rich Ferguson and others I know) and even to Colorado. In fact, T.Z. Hernandez is a Central Valley writer now living in Boulder, Colorado. I’m really looking forward to an Oct. 12 gig at Innisfree Poetry Bookstore & Cafe with both Medrano and Hernandez. Hernandez mentioned calling it the “Vagos Locos Tour: Poetry, Stories y Mas.” Fitting for a bunch of crazy wandering Latino poets from California’s Central Valley.

After our gig at Russo’s we all ended up at an old mortuary converted into a mansion home with two basements and enough Chinese artifacts to fill all the secret tunnels supposedly beneath Bakersfield. Poets Philip Derouchie and Terry Telford showed up as I was whipping up some salsa and drinking too much Moscato. Derouchie brought beer. So did Medrano.

Poet-literary writer Jane Hawley was there talking up a storm, telling stories about the house. Melinda Carroll, who is the quietest poet on the planet, hung out (actually a tie with Veronica Madrigal, who brought some carne asada and helped me make some rather forgetful Spanish rice. Medrano later said, “Maybe it’s the mortuary that took your rice mojo”). Poet Sofia Reyes had to be talked into showing up.

I cooked the carne asada and talked poetry under the stars with Medrano. “An epic night of Central Valley poets connecting between cities,” I said. It was about then I dropped a tortilla, picked up and flung over the fence into an alley.

“Looks like a spaceship!” a voice from the darkness said.

Soon enough, everyone was eating, even my terrible rice, and talked it up about mortuary ghosts, including one in the house of a cat named Blackbeard. Don’t believe me? There’s even a painting of the cat hanging in a dark room above a bed. Another animal from the mansion dropped dead of a heart attack just days after our shindig. “Cardiac arrest,” Hawley said. “The trainer tried animal CPR.” Apparently you do that for show dogs named Rudy. You rip their little doggy chests open if you have to. But as I mentioned, the little guy didn’t make it. His owner was in Berlin.


(Photo: Dolls found in mortuary mansion closet)

Maybe there was forewarning at our party, because in the middle of dinner, Hawley, whose gramps owns the mortuary mansion, suddenly ran in an odd sort of gait, away from the rest of the poets and launched herself into the pool fully clothed. I can’t think of any other reason than she was possessed by either Blackbeard the cat, who may have wanted her or Rudy dead, or the spirit of poetry infusing her with vibrant energy for a symbolic journey of renewal.

When she emerged there was a june bug in her hair and she screamed.

The next day I got Medrano to the train station barely five minutes before the Amtrak was scheduled to leave. I watched as he ran and boarded one of the big silver passenger cars.

I think I might have worked off an entire cup of coffee in that lone jog,” he later said, grateful he came to Bakersfield and broke bread with a host of tireless poets.

Never in a million years did I think I would end up in a job like this. Although I had worked in the National Health Service for over a decade, it had been as a health care assistant for people with learning disabilities, a very different life. For the last few months I had been feeling bored and had come to realize that I was never going to make a career out of it. The NHS is a good organization to work for, though; I did not want to leave the pension scheme that I had been paying into for so long and that was mounting up nicely by the year. While I was scanning the intranet pages at work one day, a job caught my eye. It was intriguing and I had to reread it again and again. The vacancy was for a trainee MTO – Medical Technical Officer – at a local Gloucestershire hospital, and I thought that the title alone sounded interesting. It involved working in the hospital mortuary (also known as a morgue). It did not go into too much detail but the word “cadaver” was used a lot. Despite having no experience of working with dead people and no real thought about how I would cope, I decided that I had nothing to lose and would give it a go and apply. I like things that are different, not run of the mill, and this job certainly seemed to fit that bill.

A few weeks passed and I pressed on with my job, putting the MTO (incidentally, MTOs are now called Anatomical Pathology Technicians, or APTs) post to the back of my mind, all the while thinking I’d have no chance because I had no experience whatsoever. I was educated above the standard required, but I’ve always thought that knowledge is nothing over experience. To my surprise, though, I eventually received an invitation to attend one of the mortuaries in Gloucestershire for an informal interview. I figured this would be for a look around while it was quiet to see how I felt in a mortuary environment, but how wrong I was.

On arriving at the pathology department at the hospital, I was asked to take a seat in the reception waiting area as several candidates were attending and we would all be shown around together: this job was obviously more popular than I had thought. On entering the waiting area, I saw a woman dressed from head to toe in black gothic clothing with very long curly straw-like red hair, who was one of the other applicants. She greeted me cautiously; I smiled faintly at her and decided to sit on the other side of the room. She asked me if I was here for the MTO post and I replied, “Yes,” wondering what her next question would be. And then she asked me if I had had any breakfast. I thought this was a very bizarre question to ask someone you did not know, but what the invitation letter had failed to tell me was that I was about to witness a real post-mortem on a dead person, there and then. As the other candidates arrived, it turned out that around half of us had not been told what we were in for. Two people decided to walk out on the spot, and I have to admit I thought twice, but curiosity got the better of me.

Within ten minutes we were in the mortuary and being welcomed, given over-gowns, over-shoes, disposable hats and masks and asked if anyone knew, or was related to, a Mr. Bentley of Pear Tree Close, Gloucestershire. Strange question, I thought, but it turned out that the post-mortem we were about to witness was on Mr. Bentley and it would be neither appropriate nor pleasant to see someone you know being cut from clavicle to pubis for your first experience of dissection. We were handed over to the senior technician, Clive Wilson. All I could see were his eyes under his protective clothing, but they sparkled and looked welcoming. He talked us through the whole postmortem, stopping often to ask how everyone was doing and advising us, “There are no heroes in the mortuary. If anyone feels they cannot cope, then they must leave.” Anyway, to my surprise I found it all absolutely fascinating and spoke to Clive as if we were old friends, and although Clive had clearly been doing it for years, I thought it didn’t actually look that difficult a job.

Meanwhile, I was also aware of what was going on around us. Apart from the other candidates for the job, some of whom had obviously just wanted to see a post-mortem and nothing else, the atmosphere in the post-mortem room was relaxed: two juniors and one senior MTO were busy removing the organs from other bodies (a process which I later learned was called “eviscerating”) and chatting away with the pathologist about daily topics, while weighing body organs and cleaning floors and surfaces around the room, keeping it as clean as possible. I decided then and there that this was definitely the career for me; I wanted to do what they were doing.

A few days later, to my surprise, I was called back for the formal interview and waffled my way through it. I was quite honest when explaining why I wanted the job, as I had no other reason. I replied that I really did not know, but that it just felt right and that the urge to be part of the mortuary team and be able to do such an exclusive, fascinating job was very strong. It paid off, and that afternoon the phone call came through offering me the post; I didn’t really believe it; not until written confirmation arrived a day later.

What I didn’t realize then, was that I was about to start one of the most amazing jobs you can do.


What made you want to work in a mortuary?

The job posting was advertised as working with cadavers. I knew what the word meant and thought it would be interesting. I was invited to attend a post-mortem and decided that this was the job for me. I felt comfortable in the environment and was interested in how the human body works.

 

What is the atmosphere like?

We try to keep the atmosphere upbeat in the mortuary. We talk about everyday issues and behave, I think, in the same way that most people who work in a small environment behave. We have established good working relationships with each other, our pathologists, undertakers, and bereavement services. Obviously, there are times that the atmosphere is not a nice one; this tends to happen if we get a tragic death, such as a child, or a horrific unexpected death such as a multiple road traffic accident.

 

How do you deal with those “bad” days?

Having the ability to be around these situations on a monthly basis does not make us less affected by these horrific events. Yes, we have an ability to “cope”, but we still feel, and dealing with the families of these events can make it more personal for us. As a team, it is important that we speak to each other and look after each other. There may be a situation that is too similar to an event in a technician’s personal life, so these cases would be dealt with a technician that is not as affected by the situation. It’s about teamwork.

 

How do you manage to have a “normal” life?

I am lucky that I have the support of very close family and friends. There are cases that I have been part of over the years that will always stick in my memory because of the tragedy of the case and the grief for the families involved. By seeing death every working day, it makes me realise how lucky I am to have what I have, and the time spent with my family, friends, and pets is important to me. I live a normal life outside of work, and do things most people do. I am lucky that I am able to separate work from home.

 

Why did you decide to write the book?

When I tell people what I do for a living, more often than not, a host of questions arrive. I was amazed at the interest of my job, and how people would want to know the workings of a mortuary but would not be able to do the job. People always say that I don’t look like someone who would work in a mortuary, and I wanted to get across the fact that I have a life outside of my job and I like to look attractive and have nice things, while letting people know what technicians deal with on a daily basis.