Thursday, January 13, 2011

All Night in the ER Waiting Room

“Tell the triage nurse if you are having chest pain,” says a red sign. There are grimy green chairs, a row of check-in windows and framed pictures of a park in autumn and a meadow in winter. Lights are bright coiled tubes, yellow vomit is splattered in the corner. I’m in Bellevue Hospital’s ER waiting room. Last year, I spent several hours here as doctors ran tests on a friend who had mysteriously lost vision in one eye. We are equal, I realized, in the face of waiting. And what is waiting?

5:57 p.m. “This is my brother, my mother!” hollers a wiry man with long wet hair plastered to his forehead. A woman in a cocktail dress is led into the ER. “Mom!” cries a kid penciling in a Mead journal. “Let me check your vitals,” a man in scrubs tells an old woman who has walked in alone. “Are you weak?” he asks. “How’d you get here?”

“That little kid is full of energy,” a guard says into a wall phone planted beneath a bug lamp. “That kid is like three kids in one.” He hangs up and approaches me. “You can’t ride the wave. I’ll let you do what you gotta do and I’ll do what I gotta do but you can’t stay here all night, that’s loitering.”

“Why you talking to me like that!?” the wiry man yells at a check-in woman with bright yellow hair and extraordinary nails. She wears a sassy striped suit and has a giant gold purse.

“Why you have more than one name!?” she shouts back.

“I can’t say,” he says.

“What’s your birthday?” she asks.

“8 5 19.”

“Why do you use this guy Tony Montana,” she says, “Who dat?”

“Why nooot..”

Attention all visitors, visiting hour is now over

“He was crossing the street and fell,” says a handsome Mediterranean with a snow white goatee. “He’s 90 years old and all alone.”

An orderly in yellow arrives, an orderly in blue departs. A pack of bewildered students enters the ER and a wolfish man files his nails, putters his lips, flips aggressively through a Sports Illustrated, takes out a New Yorker, flaps it shut, mutters, “Son of a..”, bites his nails then walks out of the waiting room.

“They gotta at least have something in English,” says a chubby gay man with a Mohawk, leafing through a hospital flier. On his shirt is a chocolate gorilla. Beside him, a trim man with pouty lips chews a large wad of gum. The wolfish man stands impatiently at the check-in window. “My wife’s name is Mehlnan,” he says, then spells it out.

A petite lady with spiky hair dyed platinum holds the bottom of her polka dot dress up and looks to be in pain. The man with her looks like he has just gotten out of bed. “Mint tea?” an orderly going on break asks the sassy check-in woman.

“I want to know the condition of Humberto Avemoza, A, V, E, M, O, Z, A,” says a small man with a Central European accent. “I am the only family member. I hear he is in the hospital with pneumonia or something.”

Traumas in the slab, traumas in the slab

A girl in a magenta jumper with a leopard print purse and a lollypop in her mouth strolls swiftly into the waiting room, sits down with her dad then spits her gum behind the seat. The father wears a beret, the mother is sick.

“Excuse me,” says a female cop, “I seen some blood.” She puts on purple latex gloves.

Transport to team one

The woman in polka dot is holding an ice bag to her groin, the girl in magenta’s mother is taken in and she hunches over sobbing, a pot-bellied man in slacks paces, a fan whirrs, a hunched old man enters with a hunched old woman, her coiffed hair is freshly colored and mounded above her head like a large orange egg.

“Something happened to my wife,” says a man who stumbles in with a black hoody. “She got admitted, I got a phone call. Her name is Dolores Avilez.”

The girl in magenta burps loudly. “Exxxcccuusse me.”

“Anyone can die,” says a fat drunk man in line beside a dapper Filipino couple, the husband with a creased and sunburnt face.

“Zow,” cries an attendant. “ZOW!”

“Zhou, yea,” says the Chinese man.

“I ain’t signing shit, how’s that, I’ll hit them, that’s what I’ll sign,” says a man with the build of a midget pro-wrestler.

“Yo!” the father with the beret yells at him and laughs. He’s eating fried pork skins from a green bag.

A large Native American woman walks out of the ER and waddles over to a man who has fallen asleep with his head in his lap. “Paco,” she whispers.

“Yolanda out here,” says an orderly. “Anyone named Yolanda?”

The Chinese guy sticks his hand up.

The father in the beret drinks a Red Bull.

A Russian looking janitor begins swabbing floors.

A woman in shiny black shoes who has been slouched in the same seat for hours bites bits of pastry off a piece of wax paper. A pregnant Russian woman massages her belly. An Indian man pushing a stroller enters with a woman in a rainforest patterned sari holding her tummy. The old woman with hair like an orange egg takes off her sweater, revealing a T-shirt that reads, “Prolonged exposure to 11,212 feet may impair your ability to return to work.”

The guard speaks to someone by the ER door that I can’t see: “Lance, no this way Lance.”

“I just come out to pee,” says Lance, in a backwater Southern accent.

“Lance, I said no.”

“Hey, can you tell her I come out to pee,” says Lance.

There is a scuffle.

“Ahh,” says Lance. “I’m gonna tell my girlfriend about you.”

Lance emerges, a wobbly old black man with a sparse beard and blue cap. He is rail thin and walking slowly.

The wolfish man’s wife has finally appeared, a dreydal shaped woman in hot pink sweat pants.

An orderly fetches the sick Indian woman. The husband tries to follow her in, leaving their stroller unattended. “You can’t leave the baby there,” says the orderly.

A man carrying a duffle bag so big he sways sits beside the old couple. “How are you?” he asks.

“Pretty good,” says the old man.

“Calor?” asks the man with the duffle.


“You know, cold, hot, mucho calor, you prefer cold or hot?”

“Cold,” says the old man. “I have no bones.”

The man with the duffle begins singing Start spreading the news but the old couple is disinterested, they are examining a stack of pamphlets. Suddenly their son emerges from the ER wearing a Calvin and Hobbes shirt with a bald rectangle shaved into his scalp.

“Oh, you’re here,” says the old woman. “Did they do anything, tests, take some blood?”

“They drew some blood,” says the son flatly.

“Well, put yourself together,” says the old woman. She inspects him sadly. He has on gym shorts and white socks with running shoes and is continuously opening and closing a plastic water bottle. A bulky object shaped like a 9-volt battery sticks out from his ankle, veiled by his sock.

“Yo dog, where the bathroom at?” cries a potbellied man in a wife-beater who saunters in laughing hysterically, “he, he, he, he, he, he.” He clutches his crotch and continues laughing. Moments later he emerges from the bathroom, ranting. “You be talking like Calimsus, you niggers be on Broadway, sounds like fact stating, I said stop make that shit in a fucking car, you should see that strong.” The Indian father eyes him nervously, I can see little feet sticking out of the carriage. He tells the guard the baby must be fed. “How’s that gonna work?” asks the guard. “She don’t have any feed around?”

A man with gym shorts and a white T enters. “Emergency Room, hospital,” he says at the window. “You overdose on dem drugs,” asks the check-in man. Moments later a frantic woman in a black dress comes looking for him.

A Mexican with two shiners and his arm in a cast exits the ER and sits beside me. His elbows and forearms are scraped up and both eyes are red and swollen. He is a chef at the Hilton, lives in Washington Heights and has a soft voice. I notice his shoes are off.

“You got someone in there?” he asks.

“Yeah,” I lie. “You?”

I’m in there.”

“What happened?” I ask.

“I got beat up by the cops. Someone was harassing me. They just threw me on the floor, didn’t even read me my rights. I’m gonna sue, get me some money, gonna be my big break...”

“Oh yeah,” I say.

“Damn,” he says, “Something about this hospital...I got a boner man.”

He shakes my hand, pulling his middle finger back to rub the inside of my palm, the secret sign. “I am going to Miami,” he says. “That’s my next stop. I wanna go to Panama City.”

He roots through his bag and pulls out a torn T-shirt. “They fucking rip my shirt,” he says. “My nice shirt.” The shirt is the colorful oversized type sold on the street in Times Square, the tag is still on.

“Dude, I found a box of porn magazines,” he continues. “They were gay magazines, they had like four boxes and I took two, and I sold them, got like $20, then I got some DVDs too, but they’re all male action…”

“You’re straight right?” he asks.

“Yeah,” I reply. “What about yourself?”

“You know,” he says. “Just whatever.”

He is drinking a ginger ale and puts the can down on the table beside me. He breathes real heavy then gets up to go.

1:15 a.m. From somewhere inside the ER horned music is playing, and a vacuum is droning. A woman walks in with her arms tucked inside a large blue T-shirt, making it appear as if she has no arms. A guy with a green and red knit cap shuffles in smelling of cigarettes. “Don’t know where I am,” says a man with a blue bandana around his neck. “Hate it when that happens.”

Housekeeping to trauma…clean up trauma…

The triage nurse is a hefty man in a brown uniform talking about LeBron James. The Indian mother with the rainforest sari returns on the verge of tears. She is holding red and white forms, one says VOID. The man with the knit cap stumbles out of the ER, takes a drink of water from the fountain and walks Frankenstein-like back to his seat. He picks a penny off the floor, pockets it then falls asleep.

On the ground I note a sunflower seed and something like a cheese doodle or French fry. A sweaty man with ratty hair wearing an oversized metal band T-shirt walks quickly out of the ER. “All of this for a cheese sandwich,” he mutters in a raspy voice. “I hope this hospital burns down.” He takes a bite of the sandwich and moans.
There is no end in sight. In a city of millions someone is always sick, someone is stumbling, someone is waiting for the stumbler, or no one is waiting. The hospital is a place within a place, but the waiting room is no place, an antechamber to a sick heart. It doesn’t exist unless you are in it, and once you are in it, it doesn’t exist. A no-man’s land through which you must pass, only to enter another no-man’s land. Might the waiting room itself be the cause of the disease? Perhaps it is the cure.

“How much is a soda?” asks a man with a brace on his left shin and socks that say “USA”. I notice he has blood on his neck and splattered across his shirt.

A woman with an I Love NY shirt and a greying bowl cut walks in. “Hello, I’m Christine,” she says, and tells the triage nurse she’s itchy.

“They eating me dead, they sucking my blood, they in my scalp, they on my legs, my feet, my arms, they’re everywhere,” says an old man with a shock of white hair leaving the ER. He has slacks the color of sweatpants hiked up to the middle of his stomach and uses an umbrella as a cane.

Someone rushes off to get a jacket for him. “Look, they’re eating me under the armpits,” continues the old man. “On the shoulders, everywhere.” A man returns with the jacket, which is wrapped in a clear plastic bag like an airplane blanket. “That’s a nice jacket,” says the guard, “but it’s going to be hot today, 90 degrees, you won’t need it.”

The old man unwraps it, it is black and grey and looks like a varsity football jacket. “I’ll sit on it,” he says, then slowly puts it on. “It’s about 5:30 in the morning?” he asks the guard. “Yup,” says the guard. “Friday morning?” asks the old man. “Yes,” says the guard and leads him out. He walks like a question mark, stooped low over his umbrella. “I’m wanting to hit a pay telephone,” says the old man, “hot shower…”

The man in the knit cap bolts awake. “Officer, do you have the list for detox,” he asks. “There is no list,” says the officer. “A lady will come in in the morning, she’ll tell you how many beds there are, they’ll register you, take you upstairs…” The man listens intently then crashes back to sleep, emitting soft rhythmic snores.

The woman with the I love NY shirt and greying bowl cut exits the ER and asks the guard directions.

“You go straight through to First Avenue,” he says and points her toward the exit.

“I know where I am,” she says. “I have a good father and I had a good mother.”

“Um hm, um hm,” says the guard.

“And my husband,” she continues, “I haven’t spoken to him since 1996…”

“You have two boys, two girls?” asks the guard.

“No, I only have three,” she says. “One baby was lost in pregnancy. I have two sons. One is 26, one is 28.”

“And the bottom line,” she continues, “what they did in Connecticut, locking me in a dungeon for a year, what they did in Soho, the cops beat out my car windows, and the Indian people are filming a movie…”

“Without your consent?” asks the guard.

“Yes,” she says. “Now you understand, I have a place from Yale in 1991.”

“How old are you?” asks the guard.

“I am, uh, 59,” she says.

“You don’t look that old,” he says.

“Yes,” she says, “and the body is not the body of a 50 year old. That’s the problem, now you understand. That’s why I take the bus home.”

“Oh, I see,” says the guard.

“Now you understand,” she says and begins walking out. “You have a nice day, my father was a sightseer in the city, I been on the city boats, I know the city, I had good parents...”

6:45 a.m., the addicts sleep with legs outstretched and hands across their bellies, two guards shoot the shit by the ER entrance, manic laughing comes from inside, sodas clink in vending machines. An orderly in blue arrives, an orderly in yellow departs. My friend’s vision is yet to return.

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