A Professor with a Love for Writing

By David Ford

In a dystopian future, everyone in New York City must carry a gun.

Mari Alschuler, a social work associate professor at Youngstown State University, predicted a dangerous future for New York in her story, “Revealed,” recently published in “Lock n Load: Armed Fiction,” by the University of New Mexico Press.

“The characters are faced with the reality of the city’s new policy, which was if you want to live anywhere in New York City, you had to carry a gun,” Alschuler said. “In this future society, the guns were issued to you through the mail, just like a simple voter registration card, or a jury duty notice.”

Alschuler said as a young college student she walked through the city, rode the subways every day and experienced “the dangerous aspects of it, including the rampant drugs and prostitution.”

Her other story, “Patsy Cline Rolls Around in Her Grave,” took place in the town of Gulfport, off the coast of Florida.

The story was published in 2017 in the anthology “Dispatches from Lesbian America.”

According to Alschuler, it follows a single woman who visits her two friends, a lesbian couple, on Valentine’s Day. The friends attend a show put on by a Patsy Cline impersonator, which is based somewhat on Alschuler’s real-life experiences.

“I really did go to this Patsy Cline impersonator with two friends of mine, and the impersonator was horrible, so I built that into the story,” she said. “Most everything else about the story is entirely fictional.”

Last week, Alschuler read her two stories to an audience at the YSU Barnes and Noble. She said the audience really enjoyed both stories and “laughed at all the right points.”

“It was a totally different mood for each story, almost an entirely different atmosphere, like night and day,” she said.

Alschuler said there was much more discussion following “Revealed” since much of the audience felt the themes were still relevant.

“The point the audience got that I agreed with was that, considering I wrote the story more than 30 years ago, how prescient the story was,” Alschuler said.

Alschuler said one audience member mentioned there would be a much different reaction had she published the story back then rather than today.

“We just had another shooting in Florida where I’m from,” Alschuler said. “It’s like I wrote this story around 1982 or 1983, and yeah it wasn’t published until 2017, but it’s still relevant today.”

She said she developed a passion for writing at around eight years old. She grew up in a “household full of literature” and loved to write poetry.

Alschuler said she became more serious about writing in junior high and high school, where she began to publish in the school paper.

“I decided to do my MFA after my bachelor’s degree, and at that point, I spent nearly two years doing nothing but writing. Those were probably the best years of my life.”

While finishing her Master of Fine Arts program, Alschuler worked in publishing, but could not stay.

“Publishing pays worse than almost every profession; it’s amazing how poorly paid you are,” Alschuler said. “At that point, I said to myself ‘I can’t live in Manhattan and work in publishing.’”

She then worked for a management consulting firm as a “glorified secretary,” until going back to school to get another master’s degree.

“At this time, I went back to school and got a master’s in organizational psychology,” Alschuler said. “One year after, I added a counseling psychology degree to complete my double major.”

During this time, the only job she could get was in a methadone clinic. Alschuler said she worked at the clinic in the mid 1980s, when New York was becoming a center for heroin and crack use.

Alschuler said has seen things in her life most people couldn’t stomach.

Upon completing her master’s at Fordham University in 1990, the AIDS epidemic was affecting New York City. Alschuler was an AIDS social worker at Bellevue Hospital, which she said was “emotionally and spiritually jarring.”

“I was an AIDS activist leading up to getting hired. I was involved with Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT UP,” she said. “Working with the patients in the hospital was a totally different thing, because at that point, it was a terminal diagnosis. If you tested positive for HIV, you were dead.”

Alschuler said Bellevue was most notable as a psychiatric hospital, but opened an inpatient AIDS clinic around 1989. At the height of the AIDS epidemic, almost all patients were gay men, she said, with a number of other patients contracting HIV through drug use.

“The hospital made you wear Hazmat suits to go into the patient’s room. You were not allowed to touch the patients, and when patients died, they would go straight to the morgue, where funeral homes would refuse to go pick them up,” Alschuler said. “The parents disowned their children who died.”

After three months at Bellevue, Alschuler said 90 percent of her patients died.

“That was especially hard to deal with. At the time, I was drawn to working in hospitals and hospice care,” Alschuler said. “But I was not prepared for that much death that quickly, especially of such young men.”

Following those three months, Alschuler worked primarily in psychiatric social work, where most of her clients dealt with severe and persistent mental illnesses, she said.

“I became comfortable working with people with schizophrenia,”Alschuler said. “I specialized in poetry therapy and I was able to use creative arts and expressive therapy with all my patients.”

Theresa Swindler, the internship coordinator for the social work department, said it is common for social work students to get jobs or internships working with adults and kids in hospitals, mental health facilities, and drug and alcohol abuse facilities.

Alschuler said she continued her career as a social worker in New York for about 10 more years before moving to South Florida, where she had grown up. She then obtained her doctorate and worked as an adjunct English professor for about eight years.

During her time in Florida, Alschuler said she never lost her writing passion.