“If I could get out this bed, I’d come over there and fuck you up, motherfucker, I’m a kill you, nigger, you hear me?”
This proclamation came from my roommate on Seven Garden North, Room 452, Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, 165 Fort Washington, on Wednesday, December 11, at 1:23 AM. We were separated by a curtain. Neither of us could see the other, but I could still smell the shit he had taken upon my arrival, at 3:00 PM the previous day. “Do you have some air freshener,” my girlfriend whispered to the nurse who carried the bedpan at arm’s length, as if he were a priest bearing the host. Her nostrils closed, her eyes widened as the offering passed us; she was breathing through her mouth. The nurse just nodded.
I had had a partial knee replacement at noon on Tuesday; old John had broken his hip in a fall on Sunday, and had had it replaced on Monday. By 8:00 PM, I knew his name and his entire medical history from listening to his continuous phone conversations. More specifically, I knew he was a junkie, and not just because the nurse happily announced she was delivering methadone at 4:10. I also knew he was an alcoholic because at 7:35 he told his sullen daughter that he wasn’t drunk when he fell down his own steps.
At 12:35 AM I had politely asked him to wrap up a conversation that had already lasted over an hour, mainly about how Bill Dee Bee Blazeeo locked up the black vote by trading on his wife’s race. At 12:50, I told him he had to stop talking so that I could get some sleep. At 1:10, I buzzed the nurse and when he arrived at 1:15, I said, “Look, this guy’s been on the phone since 11:15, can you tell him I need some quiet? He won’t listen to me.”
The nurse explained to old John that my position was reasonable—-so, no more phone conversations-—and that the TV would also have be turned off.
Old John said, “I been here since Sunday, he just got here, why he get this, uh, privilege, yeh, privilege? Why he get the morphine and I get this over-the-counter shit? I hear him pushin’ that button all day, what’s that about, huh?”
“Seniority doesn’t count in hospitals,” I said. “It’s your condition that matters.”
“Shut up, nigger, nobody talkin’ to you.”
“Oh for Chrissakes,” I said, “who’s writing your lines, Tarantino? David Mamet?” I was high on morphine.
The nurse diverted the patient by asking if he needed some pain medication, and then fled to fetch the meds; as soon as he was gone, at 1:23, the old man turned his full attention to me. That’s when he said, “If I could get out this bed I’d come over there and fuck you up, motherfucker, I’m a kill you, nigger, you hear me?”
“Well, that’s the thing,” I said, “you can’t move and neither can I. We’re both ‘prisoners of the system, ‘ John. My knee, your hip, these disallow our further engagement. So shut the fuck up and let me sleep.”
“I’m a kill you, motherfucker, I’m a make some phone calls—-“
“Fine, make some calls, just not tonight,” I said. “Go the fuck to sleep.” I was too tired to threaten anybody, too drugged to care about anything except myself. Old John went on for another twenty minutes or so, starting with “Now you a dead nigger, motherfucker,” then ranting creatively about my invasion of his privacy and the larger injustice of the system.
I was almost grateful because his voice overruled the screaming from down the hall, where the Orthodox women stood guard. It hadn’t stopped since I arrived.
At first I thought the screams came from a child in fear or denial, but gradually the voice became recognizable as something an adult was trying out in different registers of despair. I didn’t hear any resignation in these sounds—-instead I heard terror, disgust, and pure desire, enough of each to dissolve any solid beliefs or standing commitments. Not hers, mine. Ours. That explained the guards, anyway.
How could she scream this way all day and all night? What preternatural powers equipped this woman to make these piercing, heartbreaking sounds every ninety seconds, no matter what time of day? Did she sleep between screams? Was she physically restrained, or protesting the more effective constraints we conjure when we say “the system”?
It wasn’t noise she was projecting, it was all signal, as if she were learning to phrase a familiar song but not yet tarrying with the words themselves. And she wasn’t lamenting her own fate, she was performing on behalf of others. That’s what I took the different registers of despair to mean—-she was expressing dread she hadn’t experienced. She was playing emotional scales. She was the vessel of something everyone else had already tasted. But she wasn’t singing. She was screaming.
If I were tied to a mast, or an inmate of a 19th-century insane asylum, or in a theater on 8th Avenue watching a slasher movie, these screams would have sounded normal, even predictable. But there I was in a Columbia University hospital in Washington Heights. This was real life, as they say. At any rate it was my waking life, not “The Odyssey” or “The Snake Pit” or “Nightmare on Elm Street.”
The screaming stopped just as old John was winding down: “You hear me, nigger? I’m a bust a cap in yo ass, or my friends will.” He must be really old to be talking like that, I thought, or really stupid, or really helpless.
He turned the TV back on. And then he said “You white, what color er you?” It was 1:45 AM.
“Yeah, ” I said, “I’m really tired.”