LONGTIME music journalist Steve Mirkin has been, like a lot of us in the creative class, though a series ups and downs since the Internet remade journalism and the recession undercut the middle class. He appears briefly in my book Culture Crash. Here is an update, which begins around January 1.
It was not going to be a happy new year for me. After more than two decades as a music journalist writing for Rolling Stone, Spin, Entertainment Weekly, Variety, Billboard, and others, the freelance assignments were drying up; TV work—writing and researching game and reality shows, which I used to subsidize my writing—was experiencing a drought as well. And I was getting tired of hearing the same comment at the end of job interviews: “You’re highly qualified for the job, but we’re looking for someone who’s more of a digital native.” (Translation: we’re looking for someone younger, but legal won’t let us say that.) It had reached the point that I had decided to do transcriptions, or the literary equivalent of taking in laundry.
That wasn’t going too well, either. It wasn’t the work. As much as I hate doing my own transcriptions, not having to hear my own voice, or cringe at wan attempts at humor and missed opportunities for follow-up questions made the work relatively painless white-collar drudgery. But my first client, a guy I connected with on Craigslist, who offered to pay a premium for a rush job, had gone missing after I sent him the files and my invoice, leaving me without money for rent.
With my savings depleted, I had no choice but to leave the room I was renting in Sherman Oaks. The owners, a performer and employee at an insurance company, needed the income from the room to cover their own mortgage. That night, after dragging my stuff to my brother’s, I felt a twinge in my lower lip, as if I had been given a stealth shot of novacaine. It quickly passed, so I thought nothing of it. Until about two hours later, sitting in a Starbucks trying to figure out where I was going to sleep that night, when my entire left side went dead. My arm felt like a noodle, my hand lacked the dexterity to dial 911, and I couldn’t move my leg. Before I could figure out how to get an ambulance, this passed as well. But unlike my lip, this was scary enough to send me to the emergency room.
The diagnosis at Cedars Sinai was TIA—Transient Ischemic Attack, or a mini-stroke. Serious, to be sure (especially given the lingering weakness in my left arm which, thankfully, has dissipated), but not so serious that, given my bargain-basement insurance, I would be admitted. Instead, I was to be transferred to Los Angeles Community Hospital, in East Los Angeles.
After a 20-minute ambulance ride, I was wheeled into two-story cinderblock structure off Olympic Boulevard, and going by the designs on the tile floor, one that had not been renovated since the 1970s. The halls of LA Community were perfumed by disinfectant, human waste, and mold, with water stains on the ceilings and gaping holes in the bathroom walls. It felt less like a hospital than a warehouse, or a shelter with medical staff.
Not that there was much medical staff to be seen. The unit where I was placed felt severely under-staffed. Over my four days in their care, I saw a doctor once. And after that visit, without any warning, the dosages of my medications—including an antidepressant and a drug that helped control my blood pressure—were reduced. When I asked a nurse why, I was simply told, “doctor’s orders.” Questions about why my personal doctor’s orders were ignored were met with a shrug.
I don’t mean to belittle the nurses; they were, for the most part, caring under impossible demands, responding to a babel of complaints. In my room alone, there was one man who had a stroke, diabetes, and a gangrenous leg. And bedsores. The man in the bed next to mine was so frail he practically melted into his mattress, holding up one friable arm, his fingers as gnarled as a joshua tree, his elbow a fleshy, ringed stump. He was beyond language; every problem—from discomfort, to hunger, to the TV reception—was announced by a wordless complaint: “Gnu-WAAH!”. Attempts to figure out what he needed were met with louder and more emphatic moans. On New Year’s Eve, as I watched Mariah Carey stumble her way through her appearance in Times Square, I thought, at least I’m having a better holiday than her…
Then again, she still has her reality show to fall back on. In that world, the drama of falling on your face in public is good for ratings. As someone who is more comfortable working where reality equals facts and expertise, I’m not sure what the future holds for me.