Rosezetta Russell, Unhinged and Abusive Tyrant at the New York Department of Health

For the past several months, I have been privileged to work at vaccination centers in various parts of New York City — predominantly at the Aqueduct Racetrack. I was the guy who logged in patients before they got vaccinated. In the early stages of the vaccination process, when the Racetrack was very busy, the table that I would be assigned to would regularly do 5% of the daily numbers (this when there were 25 tables) and a day in which we did 200+ vaccinations was not uncommon. I am a supremely hard worker, but I regularly cracked jokes, kept up a level of Ted Lasso-style positivism and bonhomie, and even danced at times to entertain the patients (as well as my co-workers and the National Guard) and put them at ease. I treated every patient like a special human being, remarking favorably on what they were wearing and relating to them with my charm, my wit, and my social skills. I got many of them to laugh and to feel less nervous and, in some cases, to feel genuinely excited about the prospect of being vaccinated. Largely because I knew that the decision to get vaccinated was an emotionally fraught one. So I tried to do everything in my power to make patients feel as comfortable as possible. In short, I turned them around. I uplifted them. I did so because I very much believed in the noble goal of vaccinating as many New Yorkers as possible.  New York has been very good to me. And I wanted to give back. Because I believe in science. And I remain passionately and resolutely aligned with the mandate and spirit of New York State.  I would often encourage patients to bring in their friends.  And, for this, I was a lively and entertaining draw among the other nurses, the doctors, and Yamil Spreight-Miller — the excellent former head of that site who looked out for patients and staff alike.  Yamil was a top-notch supervisor who ran the Aqueduct like a champ and who took an interest in everyone and who genuinely cared about the work.  I cannot offer enough plaudits about Yamil.

To offer Miss Russell some benefit of the doubt, it’s certainly true that I am an eccentric and exuberant man. Someone who offers quirky energy and heartfelt empathy to help make any job or unpleasant task endurable. As supervisor, Miss Russell is certainly within her rights to deny me work if I don’t fit her exacting standards — never once vocalized to me or anyone — of what it is to be a flow coordinator. But I cannot be anybody other than me. And my track record has abundantly demonstrated that my approach has not been a disastrous one; if anything, quite the reverse.

I was recently called back to serve as scribe.  And today I learned that Yamil had been replaced by Rosezetta Russell, who regrettably seemed to speak in one harsh language rather than three beautiful tongues.  While I love all the people who work at the Racetrack (and they, in turn, were happy to see me back) and I have greatly enjoyed the job and cheering patients up with jokes, vivacity, and positivism, the new supervisor Rosezetta Russell is an abusive, disrespectful, needlessly abrasive, and incredibly rude person who screams at everyone and berates all. 

This afternoon, I was even screamed at (over a microphone) by Miss Russell for no reason at all — as I was attending to a patient (Miss Russell’s behavior was wildly unprofessional and the poor patient — who I believe had PTSD — was already nervous enough about getting his booster shot; Miss Russell’s unhinged verbal assault on me (and, by extension, the patient) made it very difficult for me to do my job) — this when my lunch break was delayed and my blood sugar was low. But I still kept my cool and stayed calm and professional.

Nobody at the site likes Miss Russell.  I cannot understate this.  I had no idea how unhinged she was, but the anecdotes and stories about her are legion. And when she went after me (the “new” guy who had actually been working at the site for a long time), many of my co-workers — including some of the National Guard — checked in to make sure that I was okay.  And they filled me in on Miss Russell’s long history of screaming at and berating workers at the site.  It is my understanding that one nurse left today because of Miss Russell’s obscene antics. It is also my understanding that scribes and vaccinators alike are leaving the site in droves. It is not because they don’t want to work. It is because Miss Russell is a pusillanimous and castigating bully who does not value anyone. While a certain amount of unusual behavior comes with the territory for a job like this (the shifts are long; the breaks are few), the idea that anyone working a twelve hour shift would be subjected to toxic and uncontrolled madness is beyond the pale.

I make it a point of pride to work very hard, stay positive and in good humor, and to treat everyone around me with dignity. (In my early days at the Aqueduct, I would often initiate mock competitive races with other tables to see who could get the most numbers. This resulted in many of my fellow colleagues excelling at their job.) Miss Russell, by contrast, lives to scream at people and to treat them like dirt.  She is a vicious narcissistic tyrant without a shred of empathy. I suspect that she has kept her $79,000/year job for fifteen years at the Department of Health because she is regularly moved around and her supervisors probably figure that any havoc she unleashes at one site will be resolved by her inevitable reassignment. Since many of our patients today were getting booster shots, and I was working at one of only two tables who were handling this, I gently made the suggestion to Miss Russell that we should open up a third table to accommodate a patient influx.  It was a pragmatic idea designed not only to alleviate a scenario in which we could be faced with dozens of patients walking in at one time, but a remedy that would also allow the labor to spread among numerous tables. Miss Russell took my benign suggestion as casus belli.  For this, I was screamed at and berated by Miss Russell.  And I have just learned from the agency that my shifts for this week have been canceled and that I am no longer welcome at the Aqueduct Racetrack.

I understand that the Aqueduct is having difficulty filling up shifts these days.  And that is because of Miss Russell’s toxic behavior, which is driving many good people away.  The people who work the Aqueduct genuinely care about patients and their job.  They work passionately and ardently to sustain a smooth workflow and a friendly camaraderie with patients.

Now something that I very much enjoyed doing in the name of public service has been taken away from me because Miss Russell — a joyless and needlessly irascible bully — apparently despised me — a positive and easygoing man who, for all of his unusual manner, tends to get along with people — because she simply doesn’t possess basic social skills and she resents anyone who can make other people laugh or feel at ease under circumstances that are often difficult for people. Or perhaps because she operates from some unbalanced impulse to demean everyone who surrounds her. Misery, as the old saying goes, loves company.

I am not someone who stays silent when I am abused and disrespected — especially when there is no logical justification. Miss Russsell took one look at me and decided that our relationship would be founded on instant hatred. She has done this with many others. I have sent an email to the Department of Health, asking them if this the kind of vilifying figure who they want to have spearheading a vital vaccination hub.  I can tell you this much. If I screamed at people in the way that Miss Russell regularly bellows at staffers at the Aqueduct, then nobody would want to work with me. And rightly so.  I would never think to treat any co-worker with such wanton disrespect. But the good people who work the Aqueduct stay silent because they believe in the greater mission of vaccination.

I am putting this essay out into the universe to warn people about Rosezetta Russell’s alarmingly toxic and unhinged behavior, to hope (likely in vain) that her bullying will be mollified or corrected by anyone in Albany (do they even exist?) who comprehends that this is no way to run an operation. No professional should act this way. And nobody in charge of an essential vaccination center should be screaming at the hard-working people who work long hours to keep it running.

RIP Gregory Henry

Gregory Henry has passed away and I am in tears. For those who didn’t know him, he was an exuberant publicist with a gleeful spirit and a ferocious wit who worked for Harper Perennial for many years and who had only recently landed a job at independent publisher Melville House. The books world is infinitely lesser without his magnificent presence.

I was deeply fond of him. He was a gentle and giving soul, a beautiful man with a bountiful heart who stuck up for the oddballs and the eccentrics and who went above and beyond to be there for people. I’ll always remember that. Unlike many literary people who wrote me off based on lies and rumors invented by putative “journalists,” Gregory stuck with me when I went through my crackup. When I hit rock bottom, Gregory went well out of his way to make sure that I was okay and to remind me about why I was needed. He offered to send me books when I was living in a homeless shelter. He wanted me to come back. (And I did with my audio drama, which literally saved my life.) He told me that I had been significantly wronged. I suspect that I would not be here, were it not in part because of Gregory’s vast munificence and his heartfelt empathy for the weirdos.

When I felt that my life was over, Gregory regaled me with any number of gossipy stories of authors (tales I will take to the grave) who had done far worse things than I had even conceived. And he got me to laugh through my pain by pointing out the long history of misfits needlessly persecuted by the mainstream. This was because Gregory believed in people and he wanted to see them thrive. He had this amazing instinct for knowing people. Really knowing them. He would notice that one quality that escaped the notice of others and he would always be right.

I met Gregory many years ago when he worked as a publicist and I was producing The Bat Segundo Show. He instantly got who I was and what I did and he did everything in his power to make sure that I could carry on with my journalistic mischief. And here’s the thing: he would wait for you to discover who he was and what he was doing and how he cared. And he would be patient. That was part of the way he believed in others. And then, once you knew who Gregory was, well, brother, you became a loyal soldier for this coruscating soul walking the earth with his gentle radiance and his subtle honesty.

As we got to know each other more over the years, I learned that we shared quite a number of traits: a great empathy for others, an emotional vulnerability, a willingness to put ourselves on the line, a similar disbelief in the people who cared for us. I would likewise check up on him whenever he was going through a tough spot. Like me, he was fighting a few demons of his own. But we both somehow summoned the passion to give our all for other people.

Like me, Gregory was a karaoke enthusiast. And during the early days of the pandemic, Gregory and I had made a pledge to hit the karaoke bars together when all this blew over. We were going to sing wildly ambitious songs that required a great deal of range and that killed with crowds and got us the attention of prospective lovers. And I was really looking forward to this. Now, sadly, I won’t be able to do this.

Gregory Henry, I loved you, my friend. You were truly one of the good ones. And I’m devastated that you’re no longer here. You touched more people than you knew. And you did me more than a solid at a time when I really needed it. I hope that I was able to return the favor.

The Books I’ve Read in 2021

This is a running list of the books I’ve read in 2021 (I will update this over the course of the year):

1. Anka Radakovich, The Wild Girls Club
2. Pat Barker, Regeneration
3. Jane L. Mansbridge, Why We Lost the ERA
4. Michael Azzarad, Our Band Could Be Your Life
5. Renee Rosen, White Collar Girl
6. Anthony Haden-Guest, Studio 54, Disco, and the Culture of the Night
7. Jon Savage, England’s Dreaming
8. V.S. Naipaul, A House for Mr. Biswas
9. Siegfried Sassoon, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer
10. J.G. Ballard, Running Wild
11. J.G. Ballard, Empire of the Sun
12. Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady
13. Flannery O’Connor, The Complete Stories
14. Tim Lawrence, Love Saves the Day
15. Shirley Jackson, The Road Through the Wall
16. Martin Amis, Inside Story
17. Souvankham Thammavongsa, How to Pronounce Knife
18. Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory
19. Bryan Washington, Memorial
20. J.G. Ballard, The Kindness of Women
21. Rebecca West, The Return of the Soldier
22. Harvard Sitkoff, A New Deal for Blacks
23. Robert S. McElvaine, The Great Depression
24. Yaa Gyasi, Transcendent Kingdom
25. Sophie Ward, Love and Other Thought Experiments
26. Amity Shlaes, The Forgotten Man
27. Lynn Steger Strong, Want
28. Raven Leilani, Luster
29. J.G. Ballard, Concrete Island
30. Shirley Jackson, Hangsaman
31. Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath
32. Rachel Devlin, Relative Intimacy
33. Shirley Jackson, The Bird’s Nest
34. Rumaan Alam, Leave the World Behind
35. Mariko Tamaki, Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me
36. Gabrielle Bell, Inappropriate
37. J.G. Ballard, Hello America
38. J.G. Ballad, Millennium People
39. Adam Levin, Hot Pink
40. Catharine Arnold, Pandemic 1918
41. Matt Fraction, Big Hard Sex Criminals Volume 2
42. Bob Rosenthal, Cleaning Up New York
43. Gay Talese, Thy Neighbor’s Wife
44. J.G. Ballard, The Unlimited Dream Company
45. Richard Ford, Let Me Be Frank with You
46. The Best American Short Stories 2020
47. Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth
48. Lydia Millet, Omnivores
49. Peter Shapiro, Turn the Beat Around
50. Lydia Millet, George Bush, Dark Prince of Love
51. Don DeLillo, Great Jones Street
52. Lydia Millet, My Happy Life
53. China Mieville, October
54. Danielle Evans, The Office of Historical Corrections
55. Italo Calvino, The Baron in the Trees
56. Lydia Millet, Everyone Pretty
57. [Literary biography, title omitted for moral reasons]
58. Alison Bechdel, The Secret to Superhuman Strength
59. Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums
60. Tim O’Brien, Going After Cacciato
61. Lysley Tenorio, The Son of Good Fortune
62. Lydia Millet, How the Dead Dream
63. Tim O’Brien, If I Died in a Combat Zone
64. Tim O’Brien, Northern Lights
65. Nelson George, The Death of Rhythm and Blues
66. Richard Ford, Sorry for Your Trouble
67. Nelson George, Hip Hop America
68. Ernest R. May, The World War & American Isolation 1914-1917
69. Kazuo Ishiguro, Klara and the Sun
70. Tim O’Brien, The Nuclear Age
71. Lydia Millet, Love in Infant Monkeys
72. Richard Wright, Black Boy
73. Gay Talese, The Bridge
74. Lydia Millet, Ghost Lights
75. Gay Talese, Fame and Obscurity
76. Gay Talese, The Over Reachers
77. John D’Emilo and Estelle B. Freedman, Intimate Matters
78. Richard Wright, The Outsider
79. Richard Russo, Trajectory
80. Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried
81. Jonathan Ames, A Man Named Doll
82. Gay Talese, Honor Thy Father
83. Lydia Millet, Magnificence
84. Alex Espinoza, Cruising
85. Mary Helen Washington, The Other Blacklist
86. Nelson George, Post-Soul Nation
87. J.G. Ballard, Rushing to Paradise
88. Darin Strauss, The Queen of Tuesday
89. Brett Harvey, The Fifties
90. Gayle E. Pitman, The Stonewall Riots: Coming Out in the Streets
91. Richard Russo, The Destiny Thief
92. Duncan Hannah, Twentieth Century Boy
93. Tove Ditlevsen, The Copenhagen Trilogy
94. Richard Russo, Everybody’s Fool
95. Langston Hughes, Not Without Laughter
96. Matt Fraction, Sex Criminals #5
97. Matt Fraction, Sex Criminals #6
98. Tim O’Brien, In the Lake of the Woods
99. Richard Wright, The Man Who Lived Underground
100. George Scuhlyer, Black No More
101. Paul Wilson, Center Square: The Paul Lynde Story
102. Ishamel Reed, The Terrible Twos
103. Rudolph Fisher, The Conjure-Man Dies
104. Lydia Davis, The Complete Short Stories of Lydia Davis
105. Ann Quin, Berg
106. Arna Bontremps, Black Thunder
107. A. Scott Berg, World War I and America
108. J.G. Ballard, Kingdom Come
109. Anna Kavan, I Am Lazarus
110. Joshua Cohen, The Netanyahus
111. Joshua Cohen, Four New Messages
112. Anna Kavin, Ice
113. Allan Berube, Coming Out Under Fire
114. Anna Kavan, Machines in the Head
115. Irwin Shaw, Five Decades
116. Ishamel Reed, Juice!
117. Martin Duberman, Stonewall
118. Lisa Wade, American Hookup
119. Moa Romanova, Goblin Girl
120. Ana Quin, Passages
121. Ishamael Reed, Mumbo Jumbo
122. Ben Passmore, Sports is Hell
123. Adrian Tomine, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Cartoonist
124. Darin Strauss, Half a Life
125. Adrian Tomine, Killing and Dying
126. Anna Kavan, A Charmed Circle
127. Ishmael Reed, The Last Days of Louisiana Red
128. Joshua Cohen, Moving Kings
129. Ishmael Reed, Yellow Back Radio Brokedown
130. Ishamel Reed, Reckless Eyeballing
131. Anna Kavin, The Parson
132. Ishmael Reed, Flight to Canada
133. Ishmael Reed, The Freelance Pallbearers
134. Ishmael Reed, The Terrible Threes
135. Elizabeth Cobbs, The Hello Girls
136. Matt Fraction, Who Killed Jimmy Olsen?
137. Lindy West, Shit, Actually
138. Lauren Oyler, Fake Accounts
139. William T. Vollmann, No Immediate Danger
140. Ishmael Reed, Japanese by Spring
141. Patricia Lockwood, No One is Talking About This
142. Kristen Radtke, Seek You

(Image: Creative Commons via benuski)

The Man in the Yellow Shirt

I hit a cafe on the edge of Prospect Heights, a place where I knew I would not be bothered. If another writer who knew me entered through the doors, then he would almost certainly ignore me in this cafe. There are some venues in Brooklyn that possess such an innate social code, one that is ideal for introverts and one that was particularly suited to the misanthropic headspace I had willed myself into.

For a good ninety minutes, I occupied my table with unabated joy, reading and writing in blissful peace. I knocked off the remainder of Patricia Lockwood’s No One is Talking About This in one greedy gulp. Then I cracked open my Dell laptop and wrote two pages of the script for a live show I am staging in mid-October. Two pages of moral philosophy cloaked in salacious banter. What fun! This was a first draft that I had nearly finished, but that I was slightly behind on. Still, I wasn’t about to self-flagellate myself. I could leave such lacerations to the online trolls who still pestered me from time to time. And if they got too unruly, I could always block them. I was in a fairly happy place. The script would come from my head and heart, as all scripts inevitably did. The hope was to complete the draft before the end of Labor Day Weekend, a three-day period that most people seemed to agree was the final nail in summer’s coffin. While others would fritter their time away catching the last gasps of the sun, I would be a productive monkey — even if this involved hunkering over like a marsupial while walking up and down Flatbush Avenue and eating an inordinate amount of bananas. There are always madcap methods you can summon to meet your quota.

That’s when the man in the yellow shirt arrived.

Now I know enough about color theory to understand that yellow is considered the color of happiness and the color of jaundice or pestilence. And the man had the aesthetic duality of a coin: cadaverous and gaunt from the back, disheveled and corpulent in the front. One expected some deity to pluck this incongruous man into the air with two giant fingers and flip him over in order to determine which of the two most problematic continents should be decimated first. Would it be the plumper side or the deader side of the man that would seal the deal? This was obviously a question beyond my mortal understanding.

Wispy sideburns crawled down the sides of the man’s face like bushy birthmarks branded by some baleful demon. The man looked somewhere between fifty-five and seventy years old. And he unsettled me. Because he insisted on standing. Standing in a position so that you would never quite see his face, which instinctively escaped all light and disguised his natural and joyless crags within some gentrified penumbra.

There were plentiful tables in the cafe, but he refused to sit. He had the obduracy of a Lovecraftian manservant who was prepared to lead you into some ghastly underworld populated by bestial brutes, who would then proceed to tear your flesh apart with their bare claws. And he stood with his arms constantly behind his back, with his left knuckle clenched in a strange symbol whereby his thumb and forefinger forged a strange circle — almost as if he was part of some secret society responsible for most of the world’s ills.

The man in the yellow shirt stood two feet closer to me than I deemed comfortable. Social distancing has certainly rejiggered the norm of what was acceptably close, but you could usually count on your fellow human beings to intuit what was right. The man in the yellow shirt operated outside of natural instinct and I was forced to conclude that he was a messenger sent by Belphegor.

There was a woman at the table near the window. The woman had spent much of the time sighing stertorously. She resented reading her book and wanted everyone in the cafe to know it. This was, of course, the most passive-aggressive display of narcissism that one sees in cafes.

Meanwhile, the man in the yellow shirt stood in place. He didn’t even sip the coffee that he had ordered. He had placed it on the edge of the cabinet that housed two trash receptacles. He was as frozen and as expressionless as a stone sentinel. As I was to later observe, he had actually ordered three hot beverages. But he only seemed to possess only one beverage at a time. Did he simply order hot beverages as a pretext? He stood as if he was born to wait. A more advanced and rehearsed version of the “fuck my life” look that you see on people over forty who commute to a corporate job that they clearly despise. Perhaps the man in the yellow shirt had arrived as a warning.

The exasperated woman packed up her things. And I seized the table near the window with the legerdemain of a subway commuter snagging the last available subway seat during rush hour. It seemed as if I was in the clear.

But then the man in the yellow shirt adjusted his standing position so that he was exactly two feet too close to me at this new table! And he turned his back to me. The man’s mathematical precision unsettled me further. And I did my best to bury my nose in the next book in my pile.

I wondered if the man in the yellow shirt was some version of me from the future. But he was slightly taller than me. And he had a full head of hair that was a disastrous mop of white. If he had come from the future, I suppose it is possible that scientists fifteen years from now could have corrected my male pattern baldness and extended my height. But I knew myself well enough to know that I would never assent to such cosmetic assaults on my authenticity. I would grow old gracefully, thank you very much.

I considered politely asking the man to back off. But given the way that he seemed to know the exact distance with which to unsettle me, I nixed this option. For all I knew, this was only the beginning of his subtly invasive moves.

I closed my eyes for a second and, when I opened them, the man in the yellow shirt had disappeared without a trace! Had I imagined him? Reader, I had not! As you can see, I did successfully photograph him while sitting at the second table.

I do not know if the man in the yellow shirt is targeting other cafe regulars in Brooklyn. But let my report serve as a warning. Who knows? Perhaps he just wanted to be loved.