Karen Compassion, R.N.
By Tom Nussbaum
It began with a pair of pastel blue hospital scrubs. How my roommate acquired them, I do not recall. But there we were, Halloween 1982 looming on the horizon and a costume dilemma semi-solved.
“I could go as a doctor,” Mark said.
“And I could go as . . .”
“And you could go as . . . ,” we said in unison.
“A nurse!” we finished the sentence.
So, off to Goodwill Doctor Mark and I went, in search of accessories to complete his outfit and the makings of a nurse more wretched than Ratched.
Mark found a bald-head wig to hide his identifiable golden-brown hair and a novelty item similar to Groucho Marx glasses with mustache. It had, to add to the disguise, a honker of a nose. He also found a toy stethoscope.
I was disappointed, however, in my search for nurses’ paraphernalia when I couldn’t find scrubs to complement his. The frustration, though, was short-lived as I found a white nurse’s dress. And it fit! The cornerstone of my nurse had been laid. White tennis shoes and tights were easily added moments later. But next came a challenge.
“Have you ever gone bra shopping?” I asked rhetorically as we neared a Playtex-infested rack. We stared at a collection of brassieres that ran from grandmotherly to Fredericks of Hollywood. Mark leaped forward.
“What about this one?” he offered, holding a sexy red one. “Or this lacy black number?”
“No. No!” I chided. “It has to be white. I’m wearing a white dress, for God’s sake. Those’ll show through. I can’t have that. I am a professional,” I explained louder than necessary. An audience began to form. “I’m not going as a slutty nurse. That’s been done. And done. And done.”
I grabbed a plain white one, voluminous enough to hold two pairs of balled-up tube sox. “I will not be slutty,” I said, “but I will be voluptuous.”
We laughed as we dashed toward a wall of wigs. “Do you want to be blonde, brunette, or a redhead?” Mark asked.
“I don’t know.” And then I saw it. “Oh, my God!” I lunged at a brown one. “This is perfect.” I grabbed the over-permed, big-hair 1980s-styled coiffure. “If there is a god in heaven, this had better fit,” I prayed. It did.
Before Halloween came and we debuted our costumes, I added a nurse’s hat, complete with a red cross, latex surgical gloves, and women’s glasses that hung around my neck and rested on my ample bosom. To avoid using makeup, I wore a surgical mask that hid the lower half of my face and my strong, masculine jaw. Unless one was familiar with my eyes, I was unrecognizable.
I do not recall much about that Halloween. Perhaps that is because of the marijuana we smoked—I mean the medication Dr. Mark prescribed—before we left. But that was not the nurse’s only appearance. I remember the others clearly.
They occurred at the high school at which I worked and were scheduled for every fourth Halloween in order to reach a totally new audience each time. No medications prescribed by Dr. Mark were used in the school setting. Well, by me, at least.
As I was preparing my first appearance as the nurse at the school, I realized I had never given her a name. And she became Karen Compassion, R.N. She no longer was part of Dr. Mark’s medical team; she now was a school nurse. I fashioned a nameplate and positioned it above my bursting, sock-stuffed, left breast.
Numerous accessories were added over the years. First was a new wig. As much as I loved the frizzy, large ‘80s hair, I found a campier one. It was a black, short flip-styled coif ala Mary Tyler Moore’s 1960s Laura Petrie. Next was a nurse’s kit, again adorned with a red cross. A few years later, a real stethoscope, gifted to me by a medical professional, appeared around my neck, as did a hospital pen on a lanyard. The final addition to the costume was a pink cardigan sweater.
I have countless humorous memories from those Halloweens, but none dearer to my heart than one that took six months to play out.
It began at lunchtime. I, as Karen Compassion, R.N., roamed the school’s halls, making certain as many students saw me as possible. I turned into a short, out-of-the-way hall to discover a boy and girl kissing passionately. I accelerated toward them. “No, no, no, no, no!” I screamed. “That spreads germs, you know. We simply cannot have that.” My voice was exaggeratedly female and shrill, a cross between a coloratura soprano reaching High C and the Wicked Witch of the West. I waved my hands around with comic exasperation, introducing camp humor to the school.
The couple separated. The boy spewed, “What the hell!” and stared. And I turned and walked away, laughter echoing around me from God knows how many hidden make-out crannies.
This incident came to an unexpected conclusion the following spring. I was leading my special-needs students, who were high school age but between four and ten in their cognitive and social development, in their weekly collecting of classroom recyclables, when I had a sudden idea. Since retaining instructions was a challenge for them, I thought I’d repeat the instructions, one more time, in Karen Compassion’s voice; perhaps the unusual tone and comic quality would echo in their ears and help them process the instructions.
“Now, remember, boys and girls, we want the green pails,” I reminded them. “The brown ones are icky. They have germs.” They laughed at my silliness. But over the shoulder of one of my students, I saw a young man staring at me, his jaw hanging in shock.
“Oh, my god,” he said. “You’re the nurse!” His tone was over-dramatic, his demeanor feminine. With those few words, I suspected he was gay.
“Why, yes, I am. You remember that?”
“Yes. You were hella funny.” He paused. “And that took guts.”
I shrugged my shoulders. “I was just being myself,” I said.
He stared at me a moment and then I saw the light in his eyes. He had realized that there was a gay man on the school’s staff. And it was OK.
And, hopefully, he was OK.
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