Categories
Nonfiction

Stairwell.

Originally posted in 2005:


I lingered in the stairwell for a few moments—just a few—today.

The entire stairwell is composed of concrete. The walls are off-white and the floor is now that dingy copper-grey-brown color from years of feet tromping up and down and up and down again on those tired steps. The ceilings are probably close to fourteen feet high and a slim, scratched, rectangular window starts about six feet from the floor. One has to be standing on step two or three from the ground to actually look out the window.

The liquid orange light of the dying sun—and it dies so early these days!—poured through the small gaps between the thick wall of charcoal clouds surrounding the city. A shiny white ribbon of car headlights rippled far below; to its right was a parallel ribbon of shimmering red tail-lights.

It’s cool in that stairwell; the vents that allow the chilly air flow in aren’t visible. Very few people use that stairwell, partially due to its distant location from the rest of the hospital, partially due to the low temperature of the ambient air. It has been completely empty every single time I have set foot in there.

And those few moments of respite are necessary. The ambient noise of the hospital—the malfunctioning IVs, the flushing toilets, the retching or crying or moaning or snoring or yelling patients, the ringing telephones, the beeping pagers, the tapping of keyboards, the thuds of dropped charts, the clatter of dropped silverware, the weird syncopated tonal rhythms of the ventilators, the sobbing of family members, the murmuring of the teams rounding, the sighs of the housestaff and medical students, the uneven rumbling of the cafeteria carts rolling past, the quiet Christmas music floating from the guitar in the performer’s arms—can be too much.

Sometimes it seems like the suffering that surrounds us all never ends. Even though miracles may be happening in every single room—the birth of a baby, the healing of a wound, the deaths of millions of bacteria in the blood, the sealing of fractured bones, the clotting of a wound in the esophagus…

… and for those few moments in the stairwell, everything is quiet and still.

And when my right hand turns the handle and I fling the door open back into the hospital, I am ready to jump right back into the fray.

Categories
Fiction

Just a Little.

Originally written in 2004.


It’s just a little after five o’ clock in the morning and I’ve come to see you. I ask if I can perform a pelvic exam on you; you reluctantly say yes. I try not to think about it too much as I insert my gloved fingers into your vagina, feeling your body tense with pain as I try to hasten my examination. I withdraw my hand from you, the fingers glistening with millions of particles of HIV.

It’s just a little after five o’ clock in the evening and I’ve come to see you. You’re not in the room, but your vomit is. Bright, chunky, thick red stuff that has splattered all over the white tiles of the floor. You didn’t even have to stick a finger down your throat. You’re 19 with a variant of anorexia and bulimia. All you have to do is think about it and you can make yourself throw up. You’re thin, almost too thin, but you think you’re terribly fat. You’re also terribly lonely, terribly empty, and terribly beautiful, but never beautiful enough.

It’s just a little after one o’clock in the morning and I’ve come to see you. You’re ignoring me but you roar to life when I dig my knuckles into your chest. You shout at me that you f—ing have respiratory problems and that you have a f—ing difficult time breathing and that you f—ing just want me to leave you alone, goddammit, because you’re in the f—ing hospital and why can’t you just f—ing be left alone in the f—ing hospital because you just don’t feel like you can f—ing breathe, goddammit. So why don’t you f—ing just go away, goddammit. And then you ignore me completely, pretending you are asleep.

And then you assault the nurses and we put you in three-point restraints.

It’s just a little after two o’ clock in the afternoon and I’ve come to see you. There is only one thing left to do before we can send you home. You’re doped up on morphine because your back is killing you. Your mother died last year, your wife died this year, and you live alone with your seventeen-year old daughter. Alcohol helps take the pain (which pain?) away. Neither you nor I are pleased about what I need to do, but we get it done quickly: You roll over, I pull down your pants, you shift slightly, I put on the glove, you breathe in, I insert my finger, you tense up, I withdraw my finger, and we both exhale in relief.

No blood in your stool, sir. Now we can send you home.

It’s just a little after two o’ clock in the afternoon and I’ve come to see you. Your feet are purple, your face is red. Chocolate brownie is in your hair and tears stream down your face. You lean forward, I try to sit you up. You keep leaning forward, choking on your tears, drowning in your love for methadone. If you don’t have it, surely your heart will break. You’re acting weird, why? Your body is acting weird, why? I want you to get better now, now, NOW, because I want to go home. I’m tired and I can’t think straight. And yet you look sicker and sicker and sicker.

It’s just a little after four o’clock in the morning and I’ve come to see you. The water reflects the slightly orange lights of the city. Layers of grey clouds coat the horizon. I see the trails of lights of the city streets. It is a different world, a silent world, a world where people aren’t sick. It seems so far away, even though the realms are separated only by a plate of thick glass.

Categories
Fiction

The Illustrious Dr. Vane.

I originally wrote the following in 2006. The character of Dr. Vane is based on two physicians at the medical school I attended. One evening, a good friend of mine, now a radiologist, saw one of the physicians walk out of the hospital. Struck by what she saw, she uttered the last line of the story. That line inspired me to write this tale.


Once upon a time, in a hospital far, far, away, there was an aging man. His name was Dr. Vane.

Dr. Vane was a senior attending surgeon and tenured as a professor. His fellow surgical colleagues viewed him with great admiration; the surgery residents deferred to him with great reverence; the medical students shied away from him with quivering fear.

The pate of his balding head, ringed with neatly-trimmed grey hair, gleamed underneath the fluorescent lights of the hospital. Deep-set eyes of liquid jade, an aquiline nose, and a strong jawline created a profile that commanded respect and communicated confidence. Time had left multiple wrinkles in his face and the looser skin gently dangled from the scaffolding of his skull. A sharp dresser, he always wore crisp, long-sleeved dress shirts of muted, solid colors; dark, pleated slacks that fell perfectly along his legs, such that the one-inch cuff stopped only one-half inch from the floor; a brightly patterned (but tasteful) necktie in a Windsor knot; and black leather loafers without any scuffs. Over this ensemble was his long, white coat that lacked any blemishes or loose threads. Christopher Vane, MD was embroidered upon the left chest of his coat with royal blue thread. One single pen, encased in a shell of polished silver, was clipped inside his pocket.

(When he wasn’t in the operating room, of course.)

He shuffled quickly. Although he was only leaning forward from the waist, people often thought that his entire body was tilted forward as he walked through the hallways. It was as if his body was trying to keep up with his head, that cranium that held the brain that knew so, so much.

Everyone—everyone—gave him a wide berth when they saw him approaching. It mattered not if he was in the cafeteria, purchasing a small cup of coffee—”no cream or sugar”—during the morning rush or if he was leading rounds in the intensive care unit (ICU) with the sixteen-member surgical team; the sea of people parted around him upon sensing his presence.

“Good morning, Dr. Vane,” everyone breathed, hushing their voices a bit as they greeted him. Sometimes people would try to hold his piercing gaze, but most failed. They had to look away—down to the floor, specifically.

Sometimes Dr. Vane offered a terse reply with his solid, tenor voice: “Morning.” Other times, he simply continued walking, the slight breeze from his rapid ambulation the only evidence that he was present.

“GET OUT OF MY OPERATING ROOM!” he occasionally roared, hurling the Kelly scissors across the room. They landed with an unsettling clatter on the drab green tiles. The scrub nurses simply turned to the steel table covered with sterile blue cloths and plucked another pair of Kelly scissors from the smorgasbord of surgical instruments before them. The medical students pulled on the retractors a little harder. And the stunned resident paused, still clutching the Mathieu needleholder.

“YOU HEARD ME! LEAVE!” he gruffly shouted. “UNTIL YOU KNOW THE ANATOMY, DON’T COME BACK!”

The resident, shunned, plodded from the operating room. Dr. Vane muttered obscenities under his breath.

“What is a reducible hernia?”

Dr. Vane believed in, practiced, and was well-versed in the art of pimping.

“And an incarcerated hernia?”

Medical students never felt at ease around him.

“And strangulated?”

At least one of them burst into tears in front of the entire team during each rotation.

“How about a pantaloon hernia?”

Everyone said, though, that Dr. Vane was incredibly smart and talented. Everyone could learn something from him and that encyclopedic brain of his.

“What? You don’t know? Have you even opened a book since you’ve started this rotation? You must be one of the laziest medical students on rotation right now. How about Littre’s hernia?”

“No? Then go home. You’re useless. Don’t come back until you know the different hernias.”

Dr. Vane seemed to always be in the hospital. Some of the residents (privately) joked that he never left. “He’s dedicated to his work,” they remarked. “When he’s not operating, he’s writing journal articles and book chapters. Have you seen his CV? It goes on for pages and pages!”

And there was some truth to their words: Residents had witnessed him breezing through the ICU while they were frantically pre-rounding before twilight had melted into dawn. Medical students attempted (and failed) to discreetly walk past his office, the door usually ajar, after their morning lectures. He was invariably the first person present for morning report. The on-call residents noted that he frequently answered their pages from a hospital telephone. Even if it was well past 11:00pm.

Dr. Vane, however, did leave the hospital, although he always longed to return. He did not enjoy shopping for groceries, getting gasoline for his car, standing in line at baseball games, or dining with his family at restaurants.

Other people never gave him any respect. The young lady at the grocer accidentally hit him in the right hip with her cart and she did not even notice (let alone apologize) for her error. The attendant at the gas station didn’t say anything; he just took his money and crassly chewed on gum with his mouth open while Dr. Vane sat in the leather seat of his luxury sedan, waiting for the time to pass. The people sitting in front of him at the baseball game frequently stood up (thus obstructing his view) and the crush of people frequently wobbled into him, jostling him much more often than he liked. Some of the teenagers looked at him and smiled in apology—always with a somewhat pitiful expression on their faces. Waiters and waitresses brought the cheque too early and did little to mask their impatience while he pored over the menu.

Outside of the hospital, he was not the illustrious Dr. Vane.

He was just another old man.

Categories
Nonfiction NYC

Visiting Rikers Island (IV).

The people operating the sally port were not vigilant. They opened the first door and permitted us to walk in. Before the first door, now behind us, completely closed, the second door, in front of us, opened. We could not see the officers who were monitoring the doors. They were located above us and hidden behind a darkened window. We only heard them knock on the glass and saw one shady hand point at the black light on the wall. They wanted us to put our hands there so they could see the stamp that was placed on them earlier.

Two officers greeted us on the other side.

“Who are you here to see?”

“The Person,” we said.

“Go to Table 14, over there in the corner,” an officer instructed, pointing over a group of inmates seated near them. They were in grey jumpsuits, wearing flip-flops on their bare feet, and examining us.

The top of each table was about knee-height. Three grey chairs were on one side of the table. One red chair was on the other side of the table. All the red chairs faced the single point of entry to the room.

The Person strolled in and sat in a chair, looking around.

“The Person?” the officers called. “The Person? Go to Table 14! Over there!”

Fellow inmates laughed as The Person jumped up and looked at Table 14. The Person had no idea who we were. I hadn’t seen The Person in over six months and didn’t recognize The Person, either.

Our conversation was short. The Person didn’t have much to say to us and it was noisy room. Many of the tables in the room were occupied, some by couples who were holding hands (above the table), others by family and friends, everyone leaning in over the table. People laughed, chatted, and murmured.

No one in the room was white.

My companion and I got up to leave. We had only spent about fifteen minutes in the room.

“SIT DOWN!” the officers shouted at us. “The Person needs to leave first.”

We immediately sat back down. The Person nonchalantly got up and walked back into the jail block. Rooted in our chairs, we looked at the officers, waiting our turn to go.

“Okay, now you can leave,” they said. They handed us back the notecards that documented our times of entry at the various checkpoints in our trip.

Back out the sally port we went—they were more vigilant about our exit—and we rejoined the crowd of over 20 people in the waiting area. The officer who opened my locker said out loud to no one in particular, “Why did people spend so little time in there?”

Buses reportedly only came around once an hour. This meant that the officers had to monitor us until a bus arrived to take us back to the main gate.

Everyone had put their earrings back into their earlobes, rings back onto their fingers, necklaces around their necks, and belts through the loops. Overall, everyone seemed more relaxed; people talked to each other and were leaning casually against the wall. One woman, though, appeared sad and on the verge of tears. She stared blankly out the far window.

Buses rumbled past and people expectedly crowded near the exit, hoping to get out of the jail first. They sighed audibly with disappointment and irritation when the buses didn’t stop.

Ah, New York, I thought.

A bus finally pulled up about fifteen minutes later and the driver honked the horn. The police officer was still big and burly, but no longer bilious: He smiled broadly at us as he collected our notecards. His teeth were straight and white.

The bus was completely full. People stood in the middle aisle and gripped the vinyl seats for stability. I was the last person to get on the bus and balanced myself on the steps leading into the vehicle.

“Lean back,” he barked at me when he began to turn a tight corner. “I can’t see the mirror.”

I bit my tongue and leaned back. Don’t complain, don’t explain.

After stopping at another cell block to let people off and other people on, we finally arrived at the main gate. People pushed their way off of the bus and walked quickly through the gated chain fence. A city bus, the Q100, was at the stop and people were boarding.

“Wait wait wait,” people breathlessly said as they raced up to the Q100.

“Hey, there’s the bus,” I said to my companion, bracing my bag as I picked up my legs to run.

“Wait—we still have to get our stuff from the locker,” he called out to me. I immediately halted, starting to smile at myself.

“Right,” I said. “Right. I am so ready to get out of here that I completely forgot about all of my stuff.”

“Yeah,” he said. “I almost did, too.”

I think he was just being nice. We hastily walked back to the lockers as a steady stream of people walked in the opposite direction, many of them picking up speed as they noticed the city bus.

There wasn’t a single white person in the crowd.

(Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. Part 3 is here.)

Categories
Nonfiction NYC

Visiting Rikers Island (III).

We were seated over a rear wheel. The bus was probably older than me and any shock absorption it may have had in the past was now completely gone.

The bus pulled away from the building and lurched onto the main road on the expansive grounds of the jail. We passed open fields surrounded by tall chain-linked fences that were wrapped in concertina wire. Canadian geese sat on the grass, their necks tucked into their bodies. There were structures that looked like mobile homes on the outer perimeter; some of them had signs that suggested that they were legal centers. Most of the cars in the parking lots were neither fancy nor wrecks: trucks, vans, sedans, and coupes. An identical bus, half filled with people, roared past us in the opposite direction.

There was the view of Laguardia again, and then a view of the island of Manhattan. The skyscrapers looked like dollhouse structures from that distance.

The bus halted in front of a cement building and some people began to get up. We glanced at the stamped initials on our notecards, then at the name of the building. They matched.

A police officer, big, burly, and bilious, opened the door of the structure as we walked up. An automated voice—that of a young woman—filled the small foyer. She repeated instructions about what items were permitted in the jail and what were not. The police officer then began to talk over the automated voice, barking instructions to remove your shoes, no jewelry is allowed, take our your ID, put everything in a bin, put your items in a locker, the other officer will write the number on the back….

In the window were Polaroid photographs. Several were of men whose hands were handcuffed together, dark rectangular bars over their eyes. “THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS IF YOU TRY TO BRING ILLEGAL ITEMS INTO THE JAIL.” In other photographs were men seated on examining tables, their torsos, arms, and legs severed open and oozing blood. “THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS IF YOU GIVE RAZOR BLADES TO INMATES.”

Most of us quietly took a plastic bin and began to remove our jewelry. A man—tall, older, with dark skin—began to vent his frustration: “We pay taxes, you know. They can’t treat us like this. We’re citizens. We’re not under arrest. We have rights.”

“Put your stuff in a bin,” the police officer sternly said to him.

The man sighed irritably, pulled off his belt, and tried to shove it quickly into the bin. He began to walk through the metal detector with shoes still on his feet.

“TAKE YOUR SHOES OFF,” the police officer shouted. “I said that before. You need to listen.”

The man walked backwards, pulled off his sneakers, put them on the conveyor belt, and walked through the metal detector. Another officer, a woman with her hair tightly pulled back away from her face, looked at the screen attached to the conveyor belt. She nodded once.

The man retrieved his shoes and began to put them on.

“Take the bin off of the machine,” the police officer ordered. The man stifled a comment and grabbed the bin.

The metal detector beeped when I walked through. The disgruntled police officer took a wand. We stood, arms at our sides, facing each other.

“Move your—” he said, clearly annoyed, moving his arms apart. Realizing what I was supposed to do, I lifted my arms. He floated the wand over my chest and abdomen.

“Turn around,” he muttered. After finishing the task, he mumbled, “You’re fine. Take your bin.”

I slid my feet back into my shoes and then put my bag inside a locker. My companion and I had our IDs in our hands. The female officer saw us clutching our IDs and sighed impatiently. “You gotta put your IDs in the lockers. None of y’all are listening today.”

My companion blurted, “I thought that’s what he said—” I shook my head. Don’t complain, don’t explain.

We had only our clothes and shoes on after we stowed our IDs. The female officer scanned the group and then began pointing at several women.

“You, you, you, and you,” she said, pointing at me last. “Come with me, ladies.”


We were directed behind a curtain. I was probably the oldest person there. The youngest looked like she was in her late teens. She was flicking the rod in her tongue piercing over her teeth.

The cops allow that…?

“Sit down,” the officer ordered. We immediately settled down into the hard plastic chairs.

“Take off your shoes and socks.”

Standing with her arms crossed in front of her chest, she scanned our bare feet. She and I were about the same height, though I had no doubt that she could throw me into a wall. Maybe I could run faster than her. Maybe.

“Put them back on.”

“Stand up.”

“Put your hands in your pockets and then turn them inside out.”

Her eyes looked at our pockets. One woman had something glistening in her fingers.

“What is that?”

“Candy wrapper.”

“Throw that away.”

The officer nodded, tacitly instructing us to put our pockets back into our pants.

“Put your thumbs inside the waist of your pants and run them around your entire waist.”

A woman in the group clearly had gone through this routine before. Unsure of what the officer wanted, I sneaked a glance at this woman before following the instructions. She pulled the waistband away from her skin. If anything was lodged there, it would have fallen to the floor.

We all pulled our pants away from our waists.

“Turn around.”

The officer walked to the other side of the spontaneous circle we had formed.

“Lift up your shirts, lean forward, and shake.”

What?

I again sneaked a glance at the returning visitor. Through her shirt, she had hooked her fingers underneath her bra, leaned forward, and shimmied. This was meant to dislodge anything we might have hidden in our bras.

“Mouth.”

We all opened our mouths. The officer looked.

“Why do you have that in there?” the officer asked the young woman with the tongue piercing. “You can’t have that here. You either go out and remove it or give it up.”

The young woman frowned, indecision on her face.

“You either go out or give it up. Ladies, the rest of you can go.”

We were directed to a second waiting room outside of the sally port. I waited for my companion to undergo his inspection. He and I exchanged wordless glances of relief when he joined me.

Over two hours had passed since we had first arrived at the jail. We now looked at the sally port, wondering when it would open.

(Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here.)