Tuesday, January 28, 1986. While the world was reeling from the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, I was feeling dismayed from just having been told that I could not complete my schooling to become a Registered Nurse. Officially, I was only in my second semester of the program. But after having spent the past ten months being tested at the Reading Rehabilitation Hospital for learning disabilities without there being any conclusive diagnosis, St. Joseph Hospital School of Nursing decided it couldn't deal with the slow connection between my brain and my physical aptitude. Despite having aced all my bookwork, I was a bumbling idiot in the practical field. Enough was finally enough.
Autism was not a spectrum back then. What I displayed didn't fit into any diagnostic category. Yes, I had difficulty learning. But since it couldn't be identified, their answer was to kick me out of school. I was too much for them to handle. Although I still liked being in health care very much because of my volunteer work with the Governor Mifflin Area Ambulance Association and working for the Berks Visiting Nurse Association, I figured it was a matter of time before I find something I could do. In June of that year, I thought I found it when I was hired to be a paid ambulance attendant with the Valley Transport Ambulance Service in Easton, PA.
I talk about my time working for the ambulance service in my book The Doctor Is In, so I won't rehash it here. What I will mention is the fact that that job finally got me to leave the nest for the first time. I was 23 years old, still quite socially naïve, and impressed by much. For the first week or so, I would take the 55-mile drive every morning to the ambulance garage in downtown Easton. After I saw how exhausting the drive itself was, and also working eight-plus hours a day carrying people around, I decided to look for a place to live somewhere in between. That took me to the YMCA on East Broad Street in the city of Bethlehem. Now I had only eleven miles to travel with plenty of time to stop for breakfast in the morning.
Although the job lasted only three and a half months, thanks to bullying and early-morning burnout, I had some good memories of traveling the Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton area and of what it was like to live on my own for the first time. Yesterday, I finally got the chance to revisit the area, to remember, and to reflect. Although the circumstances that brought me back to the area are now very different, I started noticing the shift in my conscience two nights ago when I went to the adults-with-autism support group hosted by Unending Promise, a nonprofit organization that offers support services to people with autism and their families in Berks County. Of the auties, I was the oldest one there. I think I was older than all the parents as well. When they saw that I had a copy of my book there, I suddenly became a respected source of information and inspiration. It was eerie and uplifting at the same time. That led me to the conclusion, though, that I have outgrown the group and that it was now finally time for me to have a place in the world.
Things do change in 27 years. New highways, new shopping centers, and new developments left the Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton area barely recognizable. The parts that I remember are now considered the "historic" districts. That certainly made me feel old! I never did have much of a connection with Allentown, and with the new I-78 highway, I didn't see much of it anyway. It did feel odd, though, to be driving right past the Lehigh Valley Hospital Center on a freeway. My main focus was to revisit the YMCA and the old ambulance station. I never did know much of Bethlehem. I only knew the streets leading from highway 22 to the YMCA and Freemansburg Avenue, which is the road that I drove every day to work. Simply passing by the YMCA wasn't enough. I wanted to see my old room and reflect.
I went inside, and I asked if I could talk to the housing director. In a few minutes, she came out to greet me. She was a lady named Jan who was nice enough to show me around. Walking into the housing unit again definitely brought back memories, although the place looked nothing like it did in 1986. I recalled where the old elevator was. I talked about what my room looked like and how dark and dingy the hallways were. I reminisced about the nights I would return home from work and look out my window to see the blue flames rising from the smokestacks at the Bethlehem Steel factory. It all came rushing back to me. My room had only a cot, a rinkydink dresser, a chair, and a lamp. The shower room used to be one big open cave. Everything was different now. They even house women, and visitors are also allowed. This was unheard of way back then. As I left the building, I contemplated how far I've come from those young and naive years.
My next stop was the waterfront area in the city of Easton. There used to be a Perkins Restaurant that looked out over the Delaware River there. That was one of my regular breakfast stops before I'd go to work. The restaurant closed its doors in 2007, and the building is no longer there. Passing through the area, seeing the old open grate Northampton Street bridge that crosses the river into Phillipsburg, New Jersey, and driving through the circle in downtown with the Soldier & Sailor monument and fountain in the middle brought back memories. Then it was on to North 6th Street to see what was left of the old ambulance station. Lo and behold, it was still there, standing across from the new Central Fire Station.
The building was now a big old empty eyesore that had the sign "Valley Ambulance Service" above the garage bay doors. The ambulance service had changed its name from Valley Transport Ambulance Service to Valley Ambulance Service In 1988 after it started providing Advanced Life Support emergency service to the area. There were some street repairs going on alongside the building, therefore I didn't get the chance to park and walk around. However, one of the garage doors was open, and I enjoyed an eyeful of the inside of the building. I could see myself climbing those steps to go to the office upstairs where I would pick up the paperwork for the day before I and my driver would leave for the day.
If you had read my book, you would recall some of my horror stories of working for that place. The reason they hired me in the first place was because they were in contention with other ambulance companies to become the new provider of emergency services for the city of Reading when the Reading Fire Department eliminated its ambulance squad. Since I was from Reading, they already had a person who knew the city among their crewmembers. Even though they never won the contract, karma got the last laugh when the city of Bethlehem cancelled its contract with Valley in 1989 for providing backup emergency services and went with Bethlehem Township's volunteer squad instead citing, ""Bethlehem Township is a higher class of provider." (Bethlehem's Health Bureau Director Glen Cooper). As far as I know, Valley Ambulance Service ceased to exist shortly afterwards. After quitting that job in September of 1986, I returned back to Reading, and I spent the months of November and December working as a security guard first for Burns Security and then Security Guards Incorporated.
Next it was off to the event that brought me back to the area in the first place -- the first-ever Local Authors Night at the Barnes & Noble just off highway 33 in Easton. Neither that section of highway 33 nor the Southmont Center shopping complex existed in 1986. All of this now sits on what was once the Bethlehem Industrial Park. These additions certainly brought new life and new scenery to an area that seemed to be going by the wayside. It actually felt good to be back in the area again because of this. Although I arrived in the middle of the afternoon, I browsed the bookstore and spent time online in the café at Barnes & Noble. The event wasn't scheduled to start until 7 pm, so I had lots of time to kill.
There were thirty authors from all over southeastern Pennsylvania. Before and during the event, we got to mingle and get to know each other. I didn't feel so alone when many of them shared their stories of rejection and heartache at the hands of the myriad of publishers and literary agents they contacted. This is a very big reason why the indie author movement is so big. Everyone has their story to tell, and thanks to places like Publish-On-Demand publishers and Do-It-Yourself printers such as CreateSpace and Lulu (the publisher of my book), we are succeeding in our own way. The downside to that is that we have to spend our own money and time to promote our work. In the end, it's the publicity that counts, and this event was the perfect opportunity for all of us to be heard.
Although the event seemed like a great idea, and this was the first time that this Barnes & Noble was trying such a thing, it didn't go as well as planned. People were hoping to sell lots of books, and Barnes & Noble was hoping for a major turnout. But none of that happened. There was definitely a draw of people, but not the crowd that was expected. The people that came were all there to browse. I don't think that even a third of the authors there sold a single book. Some left early. All in all, I was glad for the happenings of the entire day. And as I drove back home to Lancaster County, I felt as though I came to a sense of closure in regards to that awful year of 1986. Closure is always a good thing, especially when you know that great things lie just ahead in the not-too-far-off future.