Thursday, March 14, 2019
A Stab in the Dark - A New York Story
There’s a particular type of grime that accumulates on the soles of your slippers at Kings County Hospital. It’s black with a matted sheen-- no doubt from the accumulated grease and grunge covering the hallways and wards of this large metro hospital. You can’t really see this dirt on the floor but, when you carefully lift up your legs as you fall back into bed, you can see it on the bottom of your slippers. It’s disgusting. I thought they gave me the slippers to keep my toes warm but it was really to keep them clean.
The hospital ward is filled to capacity. Starting at around 6:30 in the morning, four or five TVs click on and compete in a multinational mash-up of languages and programming. One is a ‘house’ television located so high up on a wall it’s impossible to see clearly – and no one seems able to change the channel anyway. The din continues all day.
I’m flanked by two new-found friends, but we have nothing in common except violence. I am clearly an outsider in this ward. The guy on my left is in his mid-twenties, a little younger than I. He’s here for a minor gunshot wound-- if there is such a thing – sustained when he was mugged for “a quarter and a subway token.” We were together in Kings County for five days, but I never saw anyone visit him.
The guy to my right is slightly more gregarious. I never found out why he was in the hospital but he keeps telling anyone who will listen that he’s convinced he has HIV. There doesn’t appear to be any reason to believe it—it’s the eighties and the doctors and nurses treat him no differently than anyone else. We have some curious conversations over the course of my week-long stay but none I remember clearly. One occasion I do remember: He has the curtain around his bed drawn—possibly because I am attended by an animated nurse telling me a story. In her excitement, she waves her arms around and hits my neighbor through the curtain right across the bridge of his nose. We hear a muted “ouch”. It’s like a scene from the movie Airplane!
It’s relatively rare in life to be completely transported outside your normal, predictable existence. It happens when you travel to countries where you are a true outsider, and that’s what makes travel fun. But to be transported to a completely different world just miles from your own home is more than disconcerting—it’s scary, confusing and, in my case, very depressing. When I was brought up to this ward at 4 am on a Saturday morning, I was still in Brooklyn but it was a foreign country: There was a gurney parked near the door flanked by cops. On it was a patient handcuffed to the side rails. I started to refer to this as the prison hospital.
The day before had been the end of my first week of work at Macmillan, Inc.--March 17, 1989. It wasn’t late--around 9pm--and I was almost home. Someone grabbed me from behind, stole my briefcase and stabbed me in the leg. He did it deliberately – he stepped in closer to me, reached around and knifed my quad through my coat. He had no need to do this whatsoever. I’d been in New York since late 1988, sleeping on a friend’s couch and looking for a job but I’d finally landed a great position and had moved in to this apartment three weeks earlier. Direct deposit hadn’t yet been set up and my first week’s paycheck was in my wallet--now gone. But that was the least of my worries: I managed to make it to my apartment building and walk up the steps, but collapsed in the lobby as my blood pressure dropped like a rock. Before blacking out, I had time to tell the super to call an ambulance. When he asked why, I just looked down and we both watched my blood pool around my shoes. I recall very little else until I woke up in the ER later that night. I have a sketchy recollection of the EMS crew trying to wake me up in the ambulance but, other than that, nothing. Until I awakened to find myself in a large room with more than 30 gurneys haphazardly pressed together.
By this time it was around 11 pm on a Friday night in an emergency room in Brooklyn—what I suspect is “show time.” In the room near me, one large muscular victim was attended by two overly made-up ladies - one his wife, the other his girlfriend – who spent the time arguing with each other and tending to the stricken guy. I later learned that one of these ladies had aggressively inserted a steak knife into the guy’s chest. I never worked out which one was the perp. But with all of the apologizing going on, I actually think he was enjoying the attention.
On another gurney, accompanied by his wife, was a rotund gent who kept moaning “I’m having a heart attack” over and over again. Occasionally, a nurse came in and disdainfully told him “relax, you’re not having a heart attack”. Other patients (myself included) were getting tired of this.
Around 1 am, I was bandaged up and more than ready to get out of the ER. A friend of mine had been able to make it to the hospital so I was cleared for discharge. Still very light-headed, I knew I wasn’t right but they let me go. As we walked down the hall to the exit, my friend saw I was bleeding down my leg. Later, it transpired that the knife had nicked a blood vessel, which was also why my blood pressure never returned to normal. But they were going to let me out. Back I went to the holding pen where Mr. I’m-Having-a-Heart-Attack was still going strong.
The doctors decided they had to admit me but the hospital was so busy there were no beds. Which is why it wasn’t until 4 am that I made it to the ward. I often wonder what happened to the person who vacated that bed in the middle of the night. Through the central door, the ward extended to the left and right; it was entirely dark except for a single beam of light focused on the prisoner cuffed to the gurney, the two cops keeping watch over him in the night. It was like the baby Jesus in the manger . . . only different.
In addition to my other troubles, I had the misfortune to arrive in Kings Country on a Friday: It was determined I’d need a minor operation to fix the blood vessel (at first they thought it would “fix itself”) but there were no surgeons available until Monday. The weekend came and went. Monday came and went. My slippers got blacker and blacker. But the surgeon finally performed the fix on Tuesday. By this time my parents had flown in from the UK and, boy, were they surprised. The only part of Brooklyn they had ever seen flashed by on the way in from JFK.
I didn’t eat the entire time I was in the hospital. On Saturday, a nurse came by with dinner--the whole offering was an unappetizing shade of brown. The tray, the food, the plates. It looked horrible. I declined and, for some inexplicable reason, the nurse said “I’ll put it over here in case you want it later.” She popped the entire tray full of food in the drawer of the nightstand. On Tuesday, another nurse found it and wondered what the hell it was doing in there. By then, it just looked like a brown sculpture.
Was I happy to get out of there! Violence in NY in the late 1980s was far more common than it is today but, even then, it didn’t seem as if it could possibly affect a white, middle-class, budding corporate exec. There was a sense of unreality about the whole experience, in spite of all the very real, shocking things that happened. My life jolted out of the norm but, within a few weeks of the event, the impact began to dissipate. I found it interesting that my parents heard stories from their friends about similar things happening to their kids. None as extreme as my version, but the casual crime and violence was very prevalent at the time. What I recall most is the arbitrariness of the violence: The guy next to me robbed for a quarter and a subway token . . . stuck in the hospital for weeks.
As I had started at Macmillan just that week I had no health insurance. Someone I knew mentioned an agency called the Crime Victims Review Board which would reimburse victims for lost wages, costs and bills. This turned out to be such a useful resource: My hospital bed cost $825 per day and I was in there for five days. The bill for the ambulance arrived by mail before I was even discharged. But Crime Victims paid for all of it.
After getting out of Kings County, I spent the next five days in a suite at the Barclay Intercontinental (my father’s employer) so it kind of evened out. I had landed the job at Macmillan with the help of a classmate from Georgetown who was already working there. There was a developing relationship and we had been planning to have brunch on the Sunday following the incident. She was unaware of what had happened and had been leaving increasingly obnoxious messages on my answer phone when I didn’t return her calls. That turned out okay though. I remind her occasionally things could have been worse. She edits my stuff now. Not a lot of people know this story. 30 years ago.