THE ELEPHANT’S TALE
An excerpt from BrokeDown Palace
But what was it like, really?
Those wild west, blow-your-head-out times that everyone wishes they were a part of.
Like a pot, like a plow
“There was heroism every night of the week. the patients were so poor, everyone was poor, people were desperately poor. The nurses aides washing patients night after night. The kindness was incredible to me.”
Like a winnowing basket
“What is this little bitty place where everyone knows each other? I’ve lived in the city my whole life and I never heard of it.”
Like a plowshare, a pestle
“I never even met the supervisor who hired me. He was already gone. I just came in and started work. Never had a physical or in interview or anything. I never had to get a TB test the whole time she was there. There was never any administrative stuff. Ever.”
A mortar, a brush . . .
“I felt like I’d joined a crew of pirates.”
Why did I buy that mantraps book? I know I had a reason.
In a flash-bang of color, this is what I remember:
1988 Summer skating up Sixth Avenue dodging the trucks and west on 51st night not yet fallen asphalt radiating heat through the double doors into the smell of baked-on filth past Frank and Otis two skels I know from the street tied into wheelchairs drooling as they sleep off the afternoon’s drunk across the ER in my skates Joe from security growling Maggie how ya doin’ like he always does as I whiz past into the ambulance room supplies stacked every which way and the day guys rumpled and sweaty hand me a pointy hat they bought at the Renaissance Fair on their day off slow it down slow it down
2016. I took a class in field recording in the Sierra Nevada. The instructor told us that birds have a much more acute sense of time than we do. When he slowed down a sparrow song that just sounded like a high-pitched motor at normal speed, it suddenly became an intricate, perfectly timed melody. Crickets are the same; that insect buzz turns into an exquisitely tuned choir if you slow it down enough. We live too long. Maybe I need to slow down events to make sense of them. To see the connections. Find the harmony.
1992. Slow it down. Slow it down./We don’t have to punch in anymore. The time clock’s broken./The bus is overheating. Our supervisor pops in to tell us that/contrary to popular opinion, the A/C is working./We just don’t understand the nature of air-conditioning./It doesn’t necessarily make the air cool, he explains./It only takes the temperature down ten degrees./So if it’s 100 outside, which it is, it will be 90 inside the bus./Such is the nature of air-conditioning./
Then we hit the streets. Driving west into the wide pink sky./Kids play in the rush of an open fire hydrant/spraying the ambulance with a bottomless tin can as we pass./Men slap dominoes onto a card table in front of the Social Club./A viejo sells piraguas from a cart on the corner./You have to order by color. Red. Green. Blue. Yellow./The street is my summer. Spanish music from an open window/Melting tar and fried chicken and a jar full of ice.
We park on 42nd Street./A French tourist stops to pose with us for a picture./A homeless man needs a cup of peroxide for his blistered feet./A jazz band sets up on the corner and starts playing/and half a dozen Chinese portrait artists get ready/for another night of drawing white people from the midwest.
A cop leans agains my door, chatting./He’s stuck on foot post, hot in his uniform/hoping something will happen and hoping it won’t, just like me./Slowly the pink sky goes purple, the commuters vanish/replaced by hustlers and boys looking for fun and trouble./We sit in the bus with the engine off and the windows open/eating grapes, with no idea what this night will bring.
St. Clare’s ER. Ten pm. Jessie the nurse
is triaging our patient, who smoked too much crack.
The phone rings.
“St. Clare’s Hospital, Emergency.”
She balances the handset on her shoulder
as she fills out the triage form.
Yes we do. Fifty-second Street, between 9th and 10th.
Uh-huh. See you soon.”
She hangs up. “They wanted to know if we take Oxford.”
Shakes her head. “Honey, if you have insurance at all
around this place, we’re going to roll out the red carpet.
You’ll be the first paying customer this week.”
From the awning where icicles of broken glass dangled above the ER door
to the meat-department-style strip-curtains stung along the antechamber
From the the orange plastic chairs that served as a waiting room
to the annex filled with equipment
that looked like it came from the Jetson’s skypad
about St. Clare’s
resembled a hospital.
Even the morgue was substandard.
Bodies had to be rolled through an outside alley to get there.
As near as anyone can remember
it wasn’t even air-conditioned. Why would it be?
None of the rest of the hospital had central air.
They were going to put it in for a bunch of dead people?
Me: Well, let’s get you over to this chair and we’ll take you to the hospital.
Man With Emphysema: Which hospital?
Me: Actually, we’re taking you to the Emergency Room.
Man With Emphysema: At which hospital?!
Me: It’s a small neighborhood hospital where you’ll be seen right away. By a real doctor. Not a Resident.
Man With Emphysema: Aha! You think you’re taking me to St. Clare’s!
Me: Yes, it’s a small hospital right around the corner where you’ll be–
Man With Emphysema (gaining strength, it appears): NO! Absolutely not! That hellhole, I know my rights, take me to Roosevelt.
Me: Well . .
Man With Emphysema: I had to lie in that horrible ER for six hours. Someone urinated on me! And then, when I got upstairs, they told me if I wanted a phone, I had to buy this cheap-ass thing they were hustling. ‘You can take it home.’ You can take it home?! Why the hell would I want to take it home? I have a phone, I’m not some derelict.
He was starting to turn blue with all the yelling.
Or maybe it was just the memory of his last visit to our homeland.
We caved in and ferried him north to Roosevelt.
A few days later, I related this incident to our supervisor, Marc
expecting him to be outraged
at this latest slur against the hospital.
“Oh,” was all he said.
He nodded. “It’s more sanitary.” He couldn’t muster
even a trace of conviction in his voice.