Bring on the clowns


A middle-aged pharmacist contemplates intimations of mortality.

Key Points

I paused and gave them a look. Their eyes were on me. I had their attention. "Ten o'clock is past my bedtime. My window has closed when I get to bed that late. I can't sleep, and that is bad for a guy my age."

The looks on their faces were so serious that I laughed. "Don't worry, I'll make it. I just need some help."

I told them that I am great at multitasking. I usually know what is happening all around me. "Today," I said, "I'd better just pay attention to what is in front of me."

"We'll handle it, Jim," the lead tech said, and I knew that she was good for it.

I went on, "You guys will have to manage me today." Now that was an unusual proposition, so I had to explain to them what managing the pharmacist looks like.

We all went back to work, and I took inventory. The shoulder and neck pain was Atlas-level. Too much caffeine and my mouth was parched. That caused glossitis, which caused me to lisp. My hips hurt, and I walked funny. I had gabapentin-breakthrough fire-ants-on-my-left-leg neuropathic discomfort. It had finally happened. I was old!

I recovered, but the experience made it very clear that my once-a-week Friday ten o'clock is enough. Today showed me just how I am perceived. "Why do you dress so young?"

I turned to the tech. "Is it bad?"

"I like it, but other old men don't dress like you."

I told her it was for comfort. IZOD golf khakis. A short-sleeved, pastel-green plaid Dockers shirt and a pastel tie. I wore my shirt out because it was like air-conditioning. My white jacket is longish. I felt 30 until I got a doctor with a bad accent on the line. She talked like she wrote.

"Please, doctor," I implored. "Please slow down."

"I am talking slow."

"Doctor, I have ears that are damaged from too much loud, electric, whacka-whacka, thump-thump, zang-zang, zeeow rock 'n' roll in 1967 in San Francisco."

That got her. "I matriculated at UCSF. I love The City. What groups did you see?"

"The Dead, Airplane, Cream. One Saturday night at the Carousel Ballroom, it was Janis Joplin and The Holding Company. People were asking, 'Who is she?'"

"They didn't know Janis?"

"All it took was 'Piece of my Heart' and they would never forget her."

Two years ago, a store owner wrote that she and her husband were not pharmacists, and they were desperate. Her question was "Where can we find a good pharmacist we can depend on?" She was worried. "Is our nest egg lost?"

I wrote back. I told her to find two or three older part-time pharmacists and forget about one full-time young one. That young pharmacist would soon be seduced by another 20 grand sign-on and would be gone. She wrote me back, asking whether I was sure. "Trust me," I said.

Six months later, she called. "You were right," she said. "And they don't even want medical."

Older pharmacists are valuable resources if handled properly. When I was hired, I said, "I am a terrific relief pitcher if you don't use me too much." It has been good. When I am called on, it is usually for one extra day that week, three days total.

Most mature pharmacists are old-fashioned drugstore merchants, and this is a resource that is rare and underused. We teach by example. Younger pharmacists often don't realize that helping the woman in the feminine hygiene aisle with an embarrassing female problem is practicing pharmacy. The prescription mill is necessary bean-counting. My first drugstore job was at age 16, in 1956. I have never done anything else. For me, working in a drugstore is what dancing is for Travolta. When asked why I still work, I answer, "How can you take the clown out of the circus?"

JIM PLAGAKIS is a community pharmacist in Galveston, Texas. You can e-mail him at
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