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Columbia Journal of Literature and Art, #43, Summer 2006


The David B. Kriser Division of Emergency Medical Services at Beth Israel is located on Sixteenth Street between First Avenue and Stuyvesant Square. Its emergency room is dirty white and contains, on this night, about thirty or so patients lolling about on chairs as if they are midway through a cross-country bus trip. A television set is playing the local news with the sound turned low. The top story concerns Alonzo Mourning, who is about to undergo a kidney transplant operation. There is stock footage of him fiercely dunking a basketball against the Knicks, followed by him sitting meekly at a press conference, dressed in a bulky suit and surrounded by concerned doctors. It seems to be a parable of sorts. Two Coke machines stand against the back wall and across from them is an ominous blue door that says, “Do Not Enter.” There are three windows — numbered one, two, and three — where the sick are summoned to process their forms by a needlessly loud and garbled loudspeaker that sounds like the subway PA. On the wall above the windows is a clock whose hands read 9:05.

A very friendly nurse greets us as we enter the emergency room and briefly examines my girlfriend’s bleeding finger. “Oh, that’s a shame, honey,” she says, like a loving elementary school nurse. “You’re going to need sutures.” She gives my girlfriend some gauze and instructs her to keep the finger above her heart. “Make sure you fill out the form, honey.” And then she exits through the blue door that says “Do Not Enter.”

“What are sutures?” my girlfriend asks. “Are they the same as stitches?”

“It’s a simpler procedure,” I say paternally, but the truth is I don’t really know.

My girlfriend can’t fill out the form, so I do it for her. It takes her half a minute to get her precious insurance card out of her pocket, and another half a minute to sign her name, which she does in wonderfully precise cursive, leaving beside it a small dramatic drop of blood.

We hand the form to the woman behind window number three.

“Take a seat and we’ll call you,” the woman says.

We take a seat. “They’ll call us soon,” I say confidently.

Ten minutes later no one has called us.

“When will they call us?” my girlfriend asks.

The clock reads 9:21. Sixteen minutes have passed.

One can’t help but notice that the emergency room on this particular winter evening is filled completely with black, Hispanic and Asian patients. Of the thirty or so patients, there are only three exceptions to this rule: the first being my white girlfriend; the second being a white man with an enormous, Three-Stooges lump on his baldhead; and the third being myself — a bizarre amalgam of Iranian and Jewish parentage that leaves me somewhere between white and non-white. A number of the patients are holding small dozing children on their laps who wake from time to time from their restless slumbers to produce prolonged adult-like coughs which indicate that it is they, and not their parents, who are the patients. A piece of paper taped to the wall exclaims, “Stop the Germs!” And it asks all coughing and sneezing patients to cover their noses and mouths. The children viciously hack away, taking no note of these instructions. Nor do their parents. After one little four-year-old girl has finished emitting a cough worthy of the Black Plague, a woman next to me in a large floral dress shifts aggressively in her uncomfortable chair, sighs obviously and says under her breath, “Cover your mouth, bitch!”

There is no ventilation in the waiting room. I remember that I have not eaten dinner yet and I worry that the illness percolating in my feet will commence its northward journey. I feel hot and sweaty and slightly nauseous. It is now 10:03 p.m. and it occurs to me that we have been waiting patiently for nearly an hour. A short Hispanic man enters holding his small feverish daughter in his arms, followed by an apologetic-looking mother. I watch with trepidation as they choose seats dangerously close to us.

When I was sick as a little boy my mother would leave me home alone while she went off to her secretarial job, so frightened was she of missing a day of work and falling out of the good graces of her boss.

“Call if you need anything,” she’d say before shutting the door. It was a meaningless offer, because what I needed was her companionship. I would lie in bed and imagine that my illness was a hurricane making its way through my body and for some odd reason I found this soothing. When lunchtime arrived I would rise, eat my brown bag lunch that had been packed as if I were going off to school, and watch “Magilla Gorilla,” followed by “The Price is Right,” followed by hours and hours of soap operas that both bored and frightened me. All day long, interspersed throughout the commercial breaks was the peppy station identification jingle that sang out: “Channel 53, come in from the cold.”

It’s 10:33 p.m.

“I’m so hungry,” I say, thinking aloud.

“Why don’t you go get something to eat,” my girlfriend says, now apparently fully composed and acclimated to her surroundings.

It’s a tempting offer and I contemplate it until the image appears of me happily stuffing my face in a diner while she sits here alone, staring straight ahead, finger above heart.

“I would never do that,” I say.

At 10:43 an obscenely loud voice calls over the loudspeaker, “Sanchez. Window Three. Sanchez. Window Three.” An old Asian man — could this actually be Sanchez? — attempts to bring himself to a standing position with the help of an empty shopping cart.

“Too slow, he’s missed his chance,” I think shamelessly. “Call the next name, Window Three! Call the next name!” The old man slowly shuffles past me using his cart as a walker.

At 10:51 the blue door opens and a doctor sticks his head out and calls a name. A mother and father rise with their flu-ridden son and disappear behind the door. I envy them and their access to that blue door.

©2006 Excerpted by permission of Columbia Journal.