Many people who have worked at the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center can tell tales about the countless souls plucked, Lazarus-like, from death. A veteran security guard can recall a man who leaped from a ledge of the building in a suicide attempt and crashed through a skylight, only to land on a gurney in the emergency room, where doctors saved him.
My stories are different. I can talk about the potted kumquat trees that used to bloom outside the residents’ housing, about lacing up my synthetic leather “Pro Wings” high tops and shooting hoops on an asphalt court beneath the young doctors’ inelegantly retro apartments. I can summon memories of the ill-tempered homeless man who floated between the hospital and the surrounding neighborhood and who, according to local legend, had a brother who was a famous Hollywood actor.
I can tell a relatively blood-free tale about how an institution is sometimes more than the sum of what it does.
Today the doctors and nurses, the technicians and other occupants of the 1930s Art Deco structure will begin to move across a courtyard to the gleaming new County-USC Medical Center. The old building will be used for office space.
As a boy, then a teenager and then a young adult, I grew up in Boyle Heights near that hulking old building, with its underground tunnels and nooks and various pathways. People were busy living and dying in that place, but for me it was also part of the neighborhood, a playground.
I was reminded of this as I stood at the back of a Ventura County church on a Sunday in September, two days after the doomed Metrolink 111 collided with a Union Pacific freight train. A parishioner had been on that commuter train; he had been taken to County-USC with massive head injuries and died there the next day.
Toward the end of his sermon, the pastor tried to take his flock into the county hospital by way of description.
“If you’ve ever been to County-USC, it’s almost like downtown Detroit,” he said, eliciting chuckles even among the mourners. “There’s a police officer in every corner inside the hospital. You have to go through a metal detector to get in.”
I cracked a smile because I could envision the scene he described. But I also had the momentary feeling that my neighborhood had just been dissed. I’ve never been in the hospital as a patient. But County-USC is part of you -- if you grew up where I did.
For the first seven years of my life, my family lived on Cummings Street across the street from the hospital. That hilly stretch of Cummings no longer exists; the houses were torn down to make room for the new hospital. Our next home, where my parents still live, was on Pomeroy Avenue, just a block from the State Street entrance to County-USC.
I came from a family of six kids, but my older brother and sister were the only ones treated at the facility that was once known as General Hospital. My parents paid the medical bills in installments, the way they might for a refrigerator.
Later, my father made decent money as a machinist and we were insured. That meant that, unless it was a life-or-death situation, we didn’t have to go to County-USC as patients, which is just as well, because it seemed as if you could finish a Russian novel before you saw a doctor. On the other hand, County-USC really excelled in those life-or-death situations.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, Los Angeles was cementing its reputation as the gang capital of the United States. Shootings were at an all-time high, and I can recall the steady whine of ambulances going up and down State Street day and night.
But most of my memories had nothing to do with trauma; they spring from the seemingly endless stories (and the characters that inspired them) associated with a large public hospital.
One window high in the building was dimmer than the rest, and one day a friend and I traveled to that floor by elevator and found amid the gloom a mounted glass display with preserved body parts (or excellent fakes). Other times, I would look out a window and see my mother sweeping the neighbors’ sidewalk.
Gloria Mungaray, a longtime neighbor, remembers taking the elevators to the top of the hospital one night, and crawling with friends to an outdoor ledge to get a view. A solitary chair awaited Mungaray and her friends. Downtown L.A. twinkled and the lights of cars blinked from the East L.A. interchange.
“I was scared, but it was gorgeous,” she recalled.
The hospital and the neighborhood seemed to attract a large population of the homeless and mentally ill, including a man whom everyone called “Bronson.” The rumor was that he was the brother of actor Charles Bronson, the walnut-faced star of “Death Wish.” “Bronson” had a serious drinking problem, and a Los Angeles Police Department officer told my father that the actor would have “his brother” picked up to dry out from time to time.
Mungaray said she once found “Bronson” sleeping in her white Chevette, naked. Another day she saw him walking down the street with her sweat pants, which she had hung out to dry. She decided she didn’t want them back. My own father once caught him trying to break into his beat-up Datsun.
Lt. Mario Bravo, a 76-year-old retired security officer who worked at the hospital from the early 1960s to the 1990s and is still on its advisory board, recently cleared up the “Bronson” mystery.
“His name was Eddie. I think it was Eddie Garcia,” he said, and he wasn’t Charles Bronson’s brother. Bravo gave the homeless man money for food but also kicked him out of the hospital when he became belligerent. “Some people said Charles Bronson picked him up with a limo at the gas station. [But] they weren’t even related.”
When I was growing up in the neighborhood, just about everyone was Mexican or Mexican American. In its own way, County-USC injected some multiculturalism into the neighborhood. The homeless came from everywhere -- a veritable United Colors of Benetton of street people.
They slept on street corners or beneath shrubs beside hospital buildings or hidden inside the building. On rare occasions, a mentally troubled soul might walk into a home and simply sit in a living room with a confounded smile on his face.
Some of them frequented a store just down the block from the hospital known simply as Liquor, Liquor, thanks to a wrap-around marquee that touted the store’s most popular product. Patients would trudge toward the store, still wearing their hospital gowns and foam slippers and clutching their IV poles.
“It was very frustrating,” said Martha Navarro, a nurse at County-USC since the early 1990s. “The nurses were working their behinds off trying to get these patients stabilized, and what would they do? They would go down the hill and come right back up in worse shape than before.
“They would buy liquor, or if they were diabetic, they would go down hill and eat away and come back with their blood sugars sky-high,” Navarro continued, “And you were like, ‘What did I do? Did I forget to give them their medication? Did I forget to do something?’ ”
Nearly 20 years after she arrived at County-USC, Navarro said, some homeless people still call the hospital home. If you walk into the old emergency room waiting room at night, you see them nodding off, trying to stay warm, leaning on hospital-issued bags full of clothes. They also sleep, hidden, in various nooks of the old building, particularly in the increasingly empty floors near the top. In a way, it makes sense. After all, engraved on the entrance to the State Street foyer is a covenant that reads:
“Erected by the Citizens of the County of Los Angeles to provide Hospital care for the acutely ill and suffering . . . in order that no citizens of the County shall be deprived of Health or Life for lack of such care and services.”
The new facility, with 600 in-patient beds, is a lot smaller than the old, prompting debate about whether it’s big enough to carry the burden that comes with being a large county hospital. But it’s a nice-looking hospital, bright and clean and full of up-to-date equipment. And one day, that will be the image that comes to mind when the words “County-USC” are uttered.
But when I hear those words, I find myself thinking about sneaking an elevator ride to the upper floors of that aging castle on a hill and about playing basketball with my friends on the asphalt court on the property and occasionally being clocked by long-limbed residents. One sympathetic security guard even taught us how to turn on the outdoor lights at night. Sometimes, the young doctors had enough of our late night playing and complained.
“The interns worked all night, so they were tired,” said Bravo, the former security officer. “A couple of times I had to go out and kick out kids.”
You probably kicked me and my friends out once or twice, I told Bravo. He arched his eyebrows and said, “Probably.”
Dr. Demetrios Demetriades, the Cyprus-born head of County-USC’s trauma unit, said there was no question the new hospital would be an improvement. The emergency room and the operating room were built too many floors far apart, and the elevators were notoriously slow. It could be a dreary place and there were few private rooms, which is key with patients with infectious diseases. He could rattle off a list of other problems.
But all things being equal, he said, he’d like to keep his office in the old County-USC. And, truth told, he gets a little defensive if someone trash-talks the old hospital.
“Despite the physical problems which we often have, personally I feel offended when someone talks negatively against the hospital, even the smallest thing,” Demetriades said. “I can complain myself, because it’s my house. But I don’t want anyone else to say something.”
Spoken like someone from the neighborhood.