Sunday, April 17, 2011

My Enigma Of Arrival

1950. I walked up the subway steps right into the four story brick building that would be something like my penal servitude for the next four years. Brooklyn College of Pharmacy, I'm told, is now a mosque. Rules, like bricks, upon rules. A part of my body shut down from day one. It was my brain. If I were conscious I would have turned around. But I set aside my enthusiasm for language, history and geo-politics. 

Instead of following my bliss I walked into a Blitz. A bombardment of memorizations, structural formulas, botanical origins and pre-digested monographs most of which were soon to fall into disrepute. Faraday's Law, Pythagorean theorems, Avogadro's number, the Krebs Cycle... all that's left are the names and scar tissue on that part of my cortex. 

We swallowed a compendium of obsolescence. During those four years pharmacy would change from the rather mystical, arcane compounding of crude drugs into the dispensing of counted and poured pre-packaged preparations. It became deodorized. We were taught about elixirs, excrescences and exudates. The macerated leaves and dried roots, fluidextracts and decoctions, the substances and techniques of past centuries that were largely discarded by 1954. 

 My vocabulary expanded. I now had a set of exotic polysyllabic words to drop at a cocktail party but, alas, belonging to a universe gone by. We learned how to role suppositories, the art of making emulsions from immiscible liquids, and the weights needed for the torsion scale to measure individual powders. During the subsequent 53 years I was never once called upon to use this knowledge. Minim by minim, scruple by scruple the old world gave way. 

Even if I had been prepared for the real world of pharmacy I had only a passing interest in the subject. As if my mind had been pulverized in a mortar with a pestle, my imaginative life was ground into dust. Now I return as an archeologist might return to an excavation site piecing together shards from the rubble and blur. 

Math and science came easily to me in high school. My preoccupation was politics. I was not an avid reader of literature. English composition was my poorest subject. The logic of my grades led me to pharmacy. I should add that my father was a pharmacist and his footsteps marked a path I might well follow. Here is a case of the illogic of logic. What is not factored in is how little I knew of myself, my fears, and my buried passions. In those days one could major in the Humanities at a university. Had I done so I believe I would have found a more congruent place to be creative and open a few more doors in my mansion. 

At the time making a living was not far from the mind of my parents whose head was still haunted by the Depression years. Pharmacy as a profession would always give me something to fall back on. That it did. I fell back on it for over fifty years and paid a price. Enigma of Arrival is the name of a V.S. Naipaul book taken from a painting by Chirico which depicts a mysterious, shadowy port city; the piece of a narrative perhaps. I've tried to capture my passage through a door not meant to be mine.


  1. Thank you for sharing your story as a student embarking into a career. I've often wondered how I will reminisce on these choices I'm currently making. Choosing at a young age to follow a path, particularly one that takes many years of training, is daunting.
    How is one suppose to know their calling? Is it the path your parent's set for you or the path which simply appeals most to you? I think finding peace in whatever you do is part of the answer.

  2. Norm, I believe that we do the work we are supposed to do in our lives. Sometimes it takes us longer than we expect. You are a very creative writer. Maybe you had to play at being a pharmacist in order to be the person you are today. Maybe you were not ready to be a writer when you came out of high school.

    Like you, I was very good at math and I am very analytical, but by the time I graduated I was bored with math, so I took no more math classes. I had committed to being a minister when I was a sophomore. By the time I was a senior I had lost my faith in God. I started college as a religion major, but switched to English. When I came out of college, I wanted to be a writer but did not know how to go about it. It took me four years to find a job as a writer in the health care field. The health care field has been good to me and I know I ended up where I was supposed to be.

    Keep writing. I enjoy your pieces when I get a chance to read them.

  3. Chakurino, do I know you? No matter. I want to thank you for your comments, so open and thoughtful. I have no wisdom about the subject other than having the courage to move on if the first choice isn't a good fit. Perhaps a vision of oneself at an early age is asking too much but at least we can know ourselves by what we are not.

    I should add that during my years as a pharmacist I did find a satisfying niche in the inter-relationships with patients. So maybe there are choices within the choices.

  4. Thanks, Harley. Sounds like you allowed yourself to listen to several voices before you heard the call that answered yours. That takes more awareness and less turmoil than I had at age seventeen.

    I suppose, also, that I'm less inclined to believe in the fates. I doubt if we have a destination; only some volition to work toward a place where our gifts are encouraged to grow.

  5. Like you Norm I was supposed to follow in my father's footsteps and become a ballroom dancer but didn't have his talent so I tried a number of things. Gosh. I've had so many jobs. It's hard to remember them all. At first I wanted to be a nurse and they taught me to roll bandages, and just how splints were made but all his bandages rolled off and my splints splintered. Then for awhile I found something I was good at. I was the man who fans the females when they've fainted. I was known as Fred the fainting females fanner. I then became a poet. Some poems were better but I also wrote some verse. For awhile I was a tattoo artist but got in trouble for having designs on female clients. I was an archaeologist for a while but that career ended in ruins.I tried being an artist but didn't know where to draw the line. I next tried writing sexy novels but soon ran out of steam. As I recall my next job was being an accountant but I kept losing my balance. Then for awhile I got swept up in being a janitor. I was a lawyer for a short period but was embarrassed when I kept losing my briefs. I tried limbo dancing but soon went under. For about a week I was a milkman but I lost my whey. Then I was a professional wrestler for a time but I lost my grip.

    So now I'm retired and seem to have found my niche.

  6. Right....and I was a third base coach until I got a rash with the bases loaded and all 3 runners were thrown out stealing.

  7. That really made me LOL which I rarely do.

  8. Hey, Fred, that was pretty good. Maybe you have a new job. Responding to Norm's blogs. I truly enjoyed you response. It made me smile.