The Pink Ladies

Here’s a quiz: which of the following assertions were uttered by chronically mentally ill individuals at a state psychiatric facility, and which were headlines from a nationally distributed periodical, one that enjoyed a circulation of over 1.2M in its heyday and spawned a hit off-Broadway musical?

“There’s a giant mutant hog monster attacking Georgia!”

“Scientists have found an infant dragon preserved in formaldehyde!”

“Bat Boy to be the next Pope!”

“Elvis’ face appeared in my pancakes!”

“The Founding Fathers were all gay!”

While some/ all of this might have been said at some point by patients suffering from psychotic disorders, the above statements were actually front page ‘news’ from a widely read tabloid. The Weekly World News, bastard cousin of The National Enquirer, to be exact.

But allow me to digress for a moment before further explaining.

I was dining with family recently when my foreign-born spouse brought forth a surprise dish we’ve never before enjoyed at our house. Perhaps she thought it was an exotic food worth sharing, one that is absent from both her own memory and her culture’s traditional cuisine. She placed it on the table with a smile and asked, “does anyone know what this is?”

“Yes,” I replied. “That’s pimento cheese spread.”

She looked somewhat surprised that I recognized the edible when she has never seen me eat or talk about it in our decade together. Thus, I felt an explanation to her was in order.

At the University of Virginia, where I completed both medical school and residency, the second half of the 1980s was a period of transition. The drab old hospital, built in the years following WWII, was being replaced by a bright white edifice just across the street. That new building, with an expensive copper roof that shone like jewelry in the sunlight, had a fancy dining facility in keeping with the rest of its aesthetics. The old hospital had a run-down cafeteria in its basement – called The Skylight Inn, even though that was comical since there wasn’t a single window in the place.

And the old hospital had the Pink Ladies.

Most hospitals have a volunteer auxiliary comprised of (usually female) older retired helpers supplemented by bored high-schoolers and those looking to add a few community service brownie points to their upcoming college applications. The former were the Pink Ladies, and the latter were the Candy Stripers.

Both flavors of these volunteers had small carts that they pushed around to patients’ rooms to deliver paperback novels and chocolate bars. But they also served the medical center’s workforce. The Pink Ladies staffed a snackbar, just one flight up from the Skylight Inn in the old hospital. Although its menu was limited – a few simple sandwiches, chips, sodas, candy – it was often preferred by the doctors and nurses to the cafeteria downstairs. Why? Because the Pink Ladies made their sandwiches early each morning en masse, wrapped them in wax paper, and sold them super-cheaply. Plus, you could be in-and-out with your purchase in no time; patronizing the Skylight Inn meant lining up and waiting, and if they didn’t have what you wanted, you’d have to wait longer.

Far from gourmet, Pink Lady sandwiches consisted of nothing more than two pieces of Wonder Bread cut diagonally, usually with some sort of smear on the triangles which were then pressed/ glued together. Tuna. Ham salad. And yes, pimento cheese.

As a medical student and intern, grabbing three or four Pink Lady sandwiches, for the princely sum of approx $2.50 total and then stuffing them, taped wax paper and all, into the huge side pockets of my white coat, could keep me going for the rest of the afternoon and evening, long after the Skylight Inn had closed and the Pink Ladies had gone home to play pinochle and watch Lawrence Welk.

So that was my experience with pimento cheese. But remembering that faux-delicacy soon got me thinking about another long-forgotten aspect of the Pink Ladies, one far more nefarious.

I spent my internship in the main (old) hospital, but as a resident, I moved out to the designated psychiatric facility, Blue Ridge, a freestanding separate complex that was originally a turn-of-the-century TB sanitarium on 100 acres about five miles down Rt 20. The Pink Ladies had an outlet there as well, but it wasn’t their foodstuffs in 1989 that piqued my curiosity.

It’s widely accepted that, when managing patients with disorders of perception and cognition, maintaining predictable routines in structured surroundings with known staff helps reinforce reality-testing. That’s why ward schedules are often the same every day, familiar faces are encouraged to visit, and rooms usually have large windows, bold calendars, seasonal décor, and clocks that are easy to read – it helps those with a tenuous grasp of this dimension keep from further slipping.

Those patients with off-unit privileges were allowed to leave the ward and walk outside to smoke, or else stroll down the hall to the Pink Ladies’ venue for a treat.



Imagine my amazement when, the first time I visited the Pink Ladies’ satellite at Blue Ridge, my eyes were greeted by issues of the Weekly World News trumpeting the exploits of P’lod (an extraterrestrial famed for his affair with the First Lady), Tonya (the world’s fattest cat at 80lbs) and old fallbacks such as Bigfoot and Nessie. All things supernatural and paranormal do not make the psychiatrist’s job any easier, trust me. Patients would see this drivel, and even if they didn’t purchase the rag, they would come back to afternoon group espousing further paranoid delusions and conspiratorial theories despite the epic amounts of Haldol that I dutifully dispensed.

Was this someone’s idea of a joke? Perhaps the lighthearted satire of WWN was amusing for medical-surgical patients at the main hospital, but at Blue Ridge?!?! It only rendered the task of preserving reality all the more difficult, Rx or no Rx.

I finished residency in 1992. Blue Ridge closed its doors in 1996. The Weekly World News folded in 2007 after a 28 year print-run (it now lives online). And if the Pink Ladies’ shop still exists in the main UVa hospital, I suspect that those sandwiches are much more expensive, and the only periodicals on the rack are Time and Newsweek.

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[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

The Rolling Stones!

Age is a cruel taskmaster indeed.

I attended the College of William and Mary for my undergraduate education. Back then, as a Phi Beta Kappa history major with a biology minor, I studied a lot. There were no girls’ schools nearby. I didn’t do drugs or drink to excess. It was difficult to get into too much trouble in that small picturesque tourist-laden town. So opportunities to road-trip and have some ‘real fun’ were not only few and far between, but much desired.

It was December of 1981, my second year in college half-over. Grades were on-track. It was starting to feel more relaxed. I breathed a sigh of relief. Perhaps it was not too late to start having some real fun.

Then the news hit. The Rolling Stones were playing the Hampton Coliseum on the final stop of their ‘Tattoo You’ tour on the 18th and 19th of that month, just after exams were finished. Unfortunately, to get to Hampton required a car… something that I didn’t have in college. One of the fellows across the hall in my dormitory did have a car, though, and the next thing I knew, he had landed six tickets to see the Stones, and I was offered one of them.

I was excited! The Rolling Stones, always the bad boys to the (initially clean cut) Beatles and Elvis, had by then outlasted the Fab Four and the late-King on the live concert circuit by twelve and four years respectively. The Stones were the premier act of the British Invasion still going strong. This was an opportunity not to be missed!

But fate had other ideas. Most college students wind up getting the sniffles around exam period, the effects of long hours, poor diet, and intermittent sleep. Some get it worse than others. I came down with a bad upper respiratory infection in the days prior to the concert. I even had to go to student health, something we all tried to avoid because of the long wait times. Needless to say, I felt awful when the day of the concert rolled around, and with great regret had to let someone else take my coveted place.

Med school and residency. Marriage. Children. Dogs, Relocations. Re-marriages. Jobs. Jobs. Jobs. They all intervened. That missed gig in Tidewater was the only opportunity for me to see the Stones conveniently from that time… until this month.

I was at work three months ago when a fellow psychiatrist texted me that she had gotten tickets to see the Stones at Carter-Finley (the 58,000-seat NCSU football stadium here in Raleigh) in early July, and did I want a pair of the tickets that she had snagged? I had a flashback to 1981, and told my thoughtful friend that my wife and I would be thrilled to go with her and her group!

There was an inauspicious start to this plan, though. I excitedly texted the missus and told her I had tickets to see the Rolling Stones! She texted back that she was happy… and would have to Google ‘Rolling Stones’ to see if she knew any of their music.

Google the Stones?!?!

[sidebar: in her defense, she only emigrated to this country in 1994, but still, the Stones are known the world over. The Iron Curtain wasn’t THAT impermeable, was it?!?]

I planned on taking the day off work so that I wouldn’t have to worry about missing the concert in the early evening commute/ traffic jam. I read all that I could about parking and routes by which to approach the stadium. I had planned on scanning eBay for some Stones’ paraphernalia to wear on the big day. I showed the missus a t-shirt I wanted to buy, one with the large red ‘lips and tongue’ logo that the Stones have been using since at least the mid-1960s. She asked me why I wanted to buy a KISS t-shirt?

[sidebar: this wasn’t looking too good; even my ‘golden oldies’-knowledgeable teenage stepdaughter rolled her eyes when her mother made such comments, and she wasn’t even BORN when I missed the Stones in Tidewater!]

Last night was the event. We left on time, got to the stadium parking without difficulty, and found a decent spot (though it was far from the exit, which, I knew, would make egress a nightmare when the concert was over). Everyone was tailgating. Grills. Cooking meats. Ice chests with libations. Though the youngsters were there in force, there was an equally large contingent of folks who, like myself, sported more than a few grey hair. I kept thinking of that line from Don Henley’s ‘Boys Of Summer’ about having seen a Dead Head sticker on a Cadillac.

I found my friend’s car. She and several others were standing around drinking and eating snacks at the rear hatchback. Talk turned to work. And kids. And our various physical ailments. Really, you had surgery? How much did you lose on that diet? So-and-so retired/ died? I don’t remember you wearing those glasses? Then it was time to head to the stadium entrance.

The hill was long. I was sweating by the time I reached the gate. I was starting to feel sore. I asked my friend about the quality of the seats. She looked sheepish, and said that, though she had been made a special offer through her credit card company to buy these tickets in advance, one of our party had decided to come at the last minute, had bought his ticket only that afternoon, and had apparently scored a much better seat than did the rest of us (he bid us farewell as he veered off for the seats nearer the stage, while we hiked up into the section requiring supplemental oxygen).

The logo, through zoom lens

The logo, through zoom lens

Far removed from the days when big-name acts played small club venues, the organizers of today’s mega-concerts have developed a trick to fool those in the nosebleed seats. By putting up giant Jumbotron video screens around a site, one gets a clear picture of who is on stage, even though this is essentially like watching TV at home, only minus the comfort and nearby refrigerator. That was the case last night. I could clearly see the faces of the ants on the stage. But that was really the least of my concerns. The stadium bleachers were the most infernally uncomfortable seats I have ever experienced. Plus, much like flying coach on domestic airlines, the people were crammed in so tightly that it was a challenge to keep my knees out of the backs of those in front of me, or even stand to stretch (since it would be difficult to wedge myself back in the seat afterward).

It was hot and sticky. The crowd was loud. The wannabe warm up band blared in the background. My butt hurt. The concessions were highway robbery, and the band’s merchandise was outrageously expensive too. My cellphone had no reception. The restroom lines were unspeakable. But hey, I was going to see the Rolling Stones, right?

At 9:30 p.m., the lights dimmed, and then in a technicolor explosion, the Jumbotrons flashed the red ‘lips and tongue’ logo, and onto the stage strolled Ronnie Wood, Charlie Watts, Keith Richards, and Mick Jagger. Or at least that’s who the TV showed me was on the stage.

They launched into their first number. Someone had turned the volume WAY up since the warm-up act. The seats reverberated. My pacemaker vibrated. I strained to figure out the song. Was it ‘Tumbling Dice’? Or perhaps ‘Brown Sugar’? Maybe ‘Midnight Rambler’? After close to a minute, I figured out that it was ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash,’ but only because I recognized features of the beat, not because I could actually understand any of the lyrics.

By 11:00 p.m., the band was still going strong, but I was not. I couldn’t possibly be heard over the din to explain to my group that we were leaving, assuming that I could have even stretched over to yell in their ears. I told my wife we were going to do ‘the English departure’ (a former Soviet term for slipping out without saying goodbye to the hosts). I ‘went to the restroom,’ and she followed five minutes later. We made our way to the car. At least, I thought, we’ll avoid the total jam that will occur when all 58,000 fans head for the parking lot when the concert is finished.

Not exactly. Stiff and palsied, it still took us a while to exit – a lot of those formerly-referenced grey haired fans were making for the doors as well. And sadly, the sound quality was far superior in the parking lot, probably more than half a mile away from the stage. We should have saved the ticket price, paid for parking, and listened to the concert from outside!

Home by midnight, I fell fast asleep like the dead. I have no idea what time the concert ended, or what time those hold-out stalwarts actually made it home. But as I drifted off, I could not have cared less how many encores were played.

Thirty four years after Tidewater, Mick Jagger is right. You can’t always get what you want.

[Have an idea for a post topic? Want to be considered for a guest-author slot? Or better, perhaps you’d like to become a day-sponsor of this blog, and reach thousands of subscribers and Facebook fans? If so, please contact the Alienist at]

[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]