Vertebrate Desire

Yesterday I spent six hours in the American health care system.  It was just a follow-up visit, I thought, to see what was happening with my left knee, which crumpled two weeks ago as I got out of my car on 123rd.  It turned out to be a marathon appointment with Blue Cross, the receptionists, and the radiology techs, who were equally but differently worried about the things I carried—previous conditions, insurance cards, pieces of metal.

After the initial consultation, I came and went for two MRI sessions, one for the knee, one for the lumbar vertebrae, punctuated by social encounters in my old neighborhood, between 168th Street, Broadway, and Fort Washington, where the New York-Presbyterian-Columbia Hospital complex has sprawled so far that everybody you see is either a patient, an employee, or a vendor profiting from the local population explosion (such vendors include the hundreds of cabs that crowd the Milstein Pavilion, waiting to ferry bodies more wearied by grueling tests than later years).

For almost a year I spent a lot of time on this block because there’s an AA meeting at noon, Monday through Friday, in the Armand Hammer—yeah, him—Building at 168th and Fort Washington, where medical students, social workers, hospital employees, and wannabe public health professionals congregate in serious numbers over 12 floors.  I actually ran the Monday meeting for six months, where a junkie named Paul kept telling the same story of driving from White Plains to 163rd Street and Amsterdam (pretty much my address) in a blizzard to score some smack.  He couldn’t tell the streets from the sidewalks, he said, so he kept banging into curbs; by the time he got back the front axle was broken.  At first I thought he was an actor trying out some lines for a play.  After a few times through the story, I figured he was either stupid or still fucked up.

I insulted Chelsea Clinton in the same place—one day she lingered in the back of the classroom where I was setting up for the AA meeting at noon, and I said, Forgive me, you remind me of Chelsea Clinton, but you’re better looking.  She laughed and said, “That’s OK, I am Chelsea Clinton.”  I laughed, too.  That was when she was getting some kind of public heath degree at Columbia.

Yesterday I saw Paul on his way to the noon meeting.  He was walking west on 168th, I was walking east on my way to Coogan’s, the bar at 169th and Broadway, having been sent out to play by the receptionist who was negotiating with her counterparts at Blue Cross.  I said Paul, how you doin’ man, on your way to the meeting?  He looked at me with real panic—recognition outside the rooms is never welcome—and then realized I was no one he had to care about.  “Hey man,” he said, “yeah, where you been, haven’t seen you in a while.”  Yeah, I’m out, I said, a long time now, but I go back now and then.

“Wow, you clean?” he said, “I need the meetings.”  No, I’m not, hell, I’m on my way to Coogan’s, I said, but I’m OK.  He still looked scared, like he’d seen Carmen and the Devil walking side by side.  So I said, Hey I gotta go, say hi to the folks in the meeting.  “Yeah, I will.”  Now he looked bewildered.  Good for him, who the fuck isn’t, I thought as I headed east again.  But then I stopped and said, How’s the music?  When he wasn’t telling the story of driving in the blizzard, he had talked about his life as a DJ.  That’s when he recognized me.  “Jim!”  I laughed and waved as I turned back toward Coogan’s.

I ordered chili minus onions and sour cream, plus two Coronas, one for me and one for the Devil.  The food at Coogan’s isn’t bad, and it’s nowhere near good, either: you can’t order anything fried.  And you can’t drink the beer on tap because it’s room temperature at best.  It looks like a franchise inside—the walls are jammed with memorabilia—but it’s actually a neighborhood hangout, full of construction workers at lunch and after work, then becoming more bohemian as the sun goes down.  (Washington Heights is cheaper than Brooklyn; at least one famous novelist wrote her breakthrough book of 2011 around the corner from here.)

I sat between two beefy guys who wanted to talk, as bar patrons always do, about the current headlines, which in this neighborhood, where the New York Post is the paper of record, meant Carlos Danger and A-Rod, the local masters of self-delusion and destruction.  One was the owner of a construction company who said, “It’s a great day to drink, but I got shit to do.”  I pointed to his glass, full of ice and pale liquid, and said, So that’s what abstention looks like.

“Just wine,” he said, “doesn’t count,” and he drained the glass.  “Fucking Weiner.  The guy hates himself.  Hates his name.  Lived his whole life so he could boil it down to his dick, so he could say, see, this is all I am, a penis, a dick, I’m a weiner.  Like he believed the kids on the playground, for fuck’s sake.”

Yeah, I said, that makes sense.  There’s a word for it.  Synecodoche, metonymy, something like that.  You reduce the whole to a part.  Like when you use a metaphor, except you’re not describing something, you’re doing it to yourself.

The other guy, drinking beer and eating fast, was a restaurant consultant.  “Sounds like Latin,” he said.  Greek, I think, I said.  By way of explaining his interest in Weiner’s transgressions, he said he knows Bill Thompson, the mayoral candidate who has now shot ahead of Mr. Danger in the polls.  “I don’t get it,” he said many times, “what do these guys want, Spitzer, Weiner, A-Rod, fucking Clinton, what is it they don’t have?”

Everything, I said, every time he asked.  They want everything and more, I explained, because their talent is boundless, their ambition has no limit.  And every time he would say, “Yeah, OK, what’s missing?”  Everything, I would say, their self-loathing has no limit, either, you don’t want to be famous, notorious, whatever, unless you know there’s never been enough attention paid to you, and so you feel this bottomless need for more.

Like most such discussions in bars, this one dissolved as each of us realized that we weren’t going to spend the next two or three hours—or days—working it out, coming to some consensus.  We were strangers, we would stay that way, and that was a good thing.  No need to get earnest.  I finished my chili, the restaurant consultant picked at his Caesar’s salad and drank his draft beer, the construction company owner ordered another Chardonnay.  My phone buzzed, time for an MRI.  Or two.

I find the narrow MRI tube calming (I’ve been inside one five times now).  I fall asleep in there, even as the urgent banging and whirring and clanging happens.  I suppose it’s my metaphysical way of denying this clamorous evidence of medical intrusion on my old body.  Also my way of denying the evidence of bodily pain, always rising above it and all.

The techs were funny and fast, way more efficient than you’d expect in such a huge complex.  They did the lumbar scan first, it was about 25 minutes, and then, having slid me out of the tube, quite ceremoniously asked if I wanted to “use the restroom” before the next scan.  Sure, I said, just moving around would be good.

When I got back, there was a small gaggle of techs waiting.  One of them arranged me on the table and positioned my knee for the scan.  Another peered at me, at one point framing my face with his hands, palms out, thumbs together, like some parody of Diane Arbus in an emergency room.  The others looked to him for guidance of some kind; in this case I could be sure it was not moral guidance.  Then they looked at me, very intently, as if I were a corpse awaiting an autopsy.

I was gratified (attention is good) but confused (death is bad).  Finally I looked at Diane and said, Yes, it’s me.  He nodded, he obviously knew something important, and said, “Are you famous?”

I could have said, Aren’t you supposed to know?  Or, Not really.  Or just, No.

I said, Yes.

“Google him!” Diane exclaimed, reading my wristband out loud to the tech at the console behind the glass.

It’s a pseudonym, I said.





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3 responses to “Vertebrate Desire

  1. Paul Wolman

    Good story, Jim. Appreciated it. Walked on Iron Goat Trail on Sunday, among the remnants of where the first Union Pacific RR crossed Stevens Pass. I say first because now there’s a newer, deeper tunnel that bypasses all the switchbacks and collapsed smaller tunnels and amazingly long and high retaining walls and the tracks and trains of folks wiped out by avalanches. A sign up there proclaims this was all built by James J. Hill, whose name shall never be forgotten unto eternity. The Ozymandias complex lives on. No mention of the tens of thousands of Chinese laborers working 12-hour days and sleeping in tents in the –20 cold. Some day may there be a statue to them.

  2. Great Northern Railroad, I should have said, which later merged with the Northern Pacific. …

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