Robert Gonzalez in his house on a Sunday. Photo by Yvonne Chow.
Robert Gonzalez, 75, enlisted in the U.S. army when he was 19 years old, right after graduating from Grady Vocational High School. After stationing in Germany for two and a half years, he worked as a rehab counselor from 1968-1975 at the Narcotics Addiction Control Commission and then as a nurse at the Brooklyn Developmental Center for 25 years. He got his Associates degree at New York City Tech in 1970, Bachelor of Science at Brooklyn College in 1975 where he studied health science, and graduated from Cornell in 1982. His parents were born in Puerto Rico, he has two sons and four granddaughters, and he lives in Brooklyn, where he was born and raised.
Y: What was your college experience like?
R: I went to school nights, so it was not much of college life because I went to school with people who, like myself, worked during the day.
Y: Were there any challenges along the way?
R: The challenge was that I had to work, raise a family and go to school. That was a real challenge. I got divorced 13 years after we were married, so then I was a single dad from there on.
Y: What was it like working as a rehab counselor?
R: It was very interesting. I was part of one of the first drug addiction programs in the country. There were mostly young men who had become addicted to heroin drug use. At that time, it was heroin via needles and some of them had come out of prison in lieu of a lesser sentence if they took a rehab program. It’s a terrible thing to see people addicted to drugs, especially when they’re so young.
Y: Why was it interesting?
R: I was never familiar with IV drug use. I had just come back from the army and I had never seen that before. What interested me was that it was the first in the whole country. No state of the union had ever implemented a program like this and here we are 50 years later with a worse problem than ever. Today, drug use is an epidemic and too many young people are dying from overdoses, so it’s actually worse than back in the 60s.
Y: What was it like in the army?
R: I was stationed in Germany. It was interesting, being the first time I had ever been in another country. I speak German too. I’m rusty, but I WAS very fluent when I came out of the army. I didn’t want to wait to be drafted so I enlisted for three years, and I was lucky because I didn’t have to go to Vietnam. which started just shortly after I was discharged. I missed out on the war. Thank god.
Y: So you were a nurse for the developmentally disabled?
R: There was 6,000 patients in Willowbrook State School at the time. Our job was to bring three to four thousand back to Brooklyn. I thought deinstitutionalization was the greatest thing that could happen to those people. Institutions do not breed good things.
I got promoted to community mental health nurse, and worked with developmentally disabled people in family care homes. I would interview people who were interested in opening up their homes, I’d interview the client, follow their medical histories, write nursing plans. When they were placed in the homes I would visit them periodically – usually once a month, once every two months. I’d follow patients throughout hospitalizations, get the family involved, explain what medications they needed to take, their histories, medical follow-up, take them to doctor’s appointments, if god forbid there was an emergency I would be right there. I also taught medication administration to the family providers. I traveled all over Brooklyn. I was free. I went into a lot of bad neighborhoods – Brownsville, East New York – dangerous places. That was the nicest job I ever had. I loved it.
Y: Do you have any hopes for the future?
R: I hope we never have war.
Y: Do you have anything to add?
R: I’m hoping my grandchildren will go to college. I live in a very mixed neighborhood like when I grew up, which I’m very pleased about. I just hope for the very best for the country and for New York. New York is a great state. Too many taxes but, still, a great state. Progressive. So that’s basically my life in a capsule.