Monday, December 28, 2009


What a loaded word, impaled.

When I read it I jumped up from the swivel chair in my office. I began to hop around and make little pained noises as if I had just stubbed my bare toe against a brick. The hospital referral said matter-of-factly:

“25 year old female who fell from second story window and was impaled on wrought iron fence.”


It went on – ”…into throat and chest and abdomen… ahhhh… feeding tube… ahhhh … collapsed lung… ahhh… needs teaching…”

Needs teaching? What, about reducing falls prevention risks by not climbing out on a window ledge, or by removing iron spears from below your living room?

I drove there but could not keep myself from repeatedly visualizing the event. Despite my attempts to turn it off, it kept looping through my internal youtube brain site with horrifying detail. However, when I got to the street, and then to the particular door, I could not even look at the aforementioned fence. I averted my eyes and began to whistle, looking down Myrtle Street like some lame shoplifter about to pinch a porterhouse. I rang the bell and slipped into the lobby with a palpable feeling of relief.

Upstairs, Louise was standing inside the room waiting for me. She was Olive Oil tall, and looked even longer because she wore a large flesh colored hard plastic collar. She was loosely dressed like an WNBA player, baggy shorts and shirt, with the bulge of a feeding tube noticeable beneath her silky, purple Lakers jersey.

She was remarkably well, despite the fact that a few weeks ago she had climbed out on a stone window ledge to wash her windows, lost her balance, tumbled through the air for about twenty feet, and then was found by folks on the street, speared like a beast waiting for the rotisserie.

She was fine!

Of course, fine is a relative term.

I mean she will need to be fed through a tube for a while, and will have to wear this bothersome collar, but the fact that Louise was standing there talking to me, and could pour her Ensure and hit the bulls-eye opening in the tube, was a bizarre miracle. But these miracles happen. The opposite is, of course, sadly true.

Louise told me she was not lit the day of her flight, only hung over. I wasn’t buying it. But what does my opinion matter? It seemed my job there was redundant, because I felt Louise was already being shadowed by some benevolent force of nature. Nonetheless, I taught her how to operate the little pump that could deliver her supplements. However, she was not really interested in walking around with a cute little L.L. Bean backpack and a machine humming in her ear. This was just not Louise. Louise preferred the idea of dumping in a few cans at a time, like a college freshman pounding down a couple of Budweisers. She was not at all interested in going outside with tubes mysteriously snaking from a backpack and disappearing under her shirt.

I didn’t argue with Louise.

I left, wishing her good luck, and immediately thought how ridiculous that sounded. Louise needed good luck like the Pope needed another set of rosary beads.

When I walked out the front door I looked to the left at the fence, then up to Louise’s window. She was standing there, framed perfectly within the rectangular sash. I noticed that the glass was very clean. Louise waved and smiled.

I walked away, down Myrtle Street, past rows of wrought iron fences.

Friday, December 18, 2009


Richie says something, but all that comes out is whisper, like wind blowing through a fence.

He frowns, and then he puts his index finger up to the plastic tube that pokes out from his neck.

“I’m just having a beer. Hope you don’t mind,” he says, his voice now sounding like gravel rattling in a can.

It isn’t a request for permission.

Richie lives in a basement. He has lost much to a handful of not so subtle medical interventions – his larynx, his teeth, part of his stomach, his pancreas, one of his legs, his ability to swallow, his comfort, and probably a large part of his self-respect. Viet Nam, alcohol, drugs, abandonment, all have a way of doing that I guess.

I am not going to solve any of that today. I sit in awe, actually. What enfolds in the next few minutes is dark testimony to the fact that man can conquer many obstacles. And that addiction is more powerful than I have before understood.

Richie reaches down to the floor where a thirty-pack of beer is torn open, the silvery cans spilling out like coins from a slot machine. He puts one of them on the dirty kitchen table, pushing a scattering of envelopes and newspapers out of the way. He pulls the tab and the can hisses. A bit of white foam escapes. Richie then pours the golden liquid in a waiting glass, making a beautiful two-inch head that spills perfectly over the rim.

Richie adjusts his greasy cap as if he is readying himself for an important and tricky task. He lifts his sweatshirt to reveal the cream-colored tube that emerges from the center of his caved abdomen. On the table there is a big piston syringe, the size of a toilet paper roll. It has no needle attached, no piston inside. It’s not meant for that. It’s actually more of a funnel, the kind through which men and women (who are fed through tubes) can pour their meals, their supplements, their water, their meds. Richie pours his Labatt’s.

He carefully inserts the tip of the syringe into the end of the tube and clicks open the clamp that crimps the tube when it is not in use. Richie then lifts the glass from the table with his free hand, and like some skilled Bladerunner bartender, pours the beer perfectly into the fat syringe, filling it to the brim. The amber colored nectar drains slowly as Richie watches quietly, almost meditatively. He repeats this twice and then sets the glass on the sticky table.

I hear a little belch as Richie turns to me and smiles.

“Can you taste it?” I ask.

“Hell yes,” he tells me.

He’ll finish the thirty-pack before the day is out.

Thursday, December 10, 2009


The little vestibule is dark, chocolate colored, the wood paneling hinting of a grander time. “PIZZA!” “WINGS’!” “DIM SUM!” shout from the papers scattered on the check-tiled floor. It smells of my grandparents’ home in Brooklyn – a mix of polish and roasting chicken. When the door closes behind me I am caught in a small capsule full of dull echo. Three white marble steps are discolored with age, and the dark mail-slots in the six small brass doors line up like some ominous I-Ching hexagram. The names taped on the little doors could qualify as a six-word short-story:

Ngyen – Morales – Johnson – Gnecco – Mohammed – Murphy

I press the button under Mohammed as I am thinking distractedly of the strings on my tennis racket, the gunshot wound, the stain on my pants… then the buzz makes me jump, rattling the lock in the heavy oak door in front of me. Never having been here before, I am not sure if this is the type of person who buzzes for what seems to be an eternity, or one who seems bent on testing reaction times. I lunge, open, climb, and knock on the raised panel door at Apartment 6. I hear the soft shuffle of feet within, then the door cracks open and I see a bearded man with a fine nose, high forehead, thin lips. He smiles.

“Come in. Come in,” he says.

Shoes are lined up neatly beside the door. I slip mine off, and the man protests.

“No. No. You don’t have to do that.”

My shoes are off, and he shrugs as if to say, “If you wish.”

“In here,” he says, and walks down a hallway.

The apartment is huge, a grand expanse of yesteryear. I pass four closed doors as we walk down the dark hall. The fifth is not quite closed, and I can see the glow of a dim lamp sitting on the floor. I slow and peer within. Women wrapped in multicolored cloth are sitting on the floor around the lamp. I see no furniture, only dark faces in a circle, and an impression of orange and red.

The hall opens into a living room with a defunct but elaborate gas fireplace, and an impressive array of finely crafted built-in drawers and glass cabinets. The paint is chipped, the doors askew. It all has the same feeling as in the hall below, the feeling of a place abandoned and now reoccupied.

Couches and threadbare chairs line the living room walls. A dozen men, old and young, occupy every seat, and some sit on the floor. Children hide behind a half-wall that separates us from what was perhaps an adjoining dining room, when apartment dwellers indeed had dining rooms. A man lies stretched out on the long couch, his right leg raised on pillows.

I’ve read of the war in Somalia. The killings, torture, rapes. Somalia has come to me. An entire family fleeing the madness.

The gunshot wound is through the knee. Ugly. But what’s memorable here is not the wound. The wonder here is that these displaced people have recreated northern African in a place as foreign to them as a tent in Somalia would be to me.

The patriarch sits white haired in the largest chair. All the men have watched me change the dressing, surrounding me as if I were performing surgery in an amphitheater. There is one translator and I am curious and inquisitive.

I learn that the patriarch owns a store in Somalia, and it is his son who has been shot. The entire family fled and now they are making their way here in the United States.

“There are only men here in this room?” I ask.

They all laugh, but offer no explanation, as if laughter is enough to dismiss the question as an American wonder in itself.

The old white haired man in the big chair addresses me in Somali. His eyes are gray-green and I see now that his beard and hair are dyed a shade of red.

“He wants to know if you would like some tea,” the translator tells me.

When I say, “Thank you, that would be nice,” all the men stir, and the old man calls down the dark hallway in Somali.

Soon the door of the darkened room opens and seven women and several young girls, all beautifully swathed head to toe in colored and patterned cloth, cross the edge of the living room and cram into a small kitchen. There is at once laughter and chatter and the sound of gas hissing. The men interrogate me through the single translator. Where do I live? Am I married? How many children do I have? How much money do I make? The children, like puppets, poke their heads above the wall and retreat giggling.

Soon two of the women, both swathed in orange, serve the tea. It is sweet and flavored with cardamom and clove. Just the patriarch and me drink. We continue to talk as the women busy themselves in the kitchen. I can easily see that they have gathered at the doorway and are listening intently.

I feel wildly transported, as if I am in some tent, the crazy dry heat within the apartment mimicking an African afternoon.

We talk on, but soon I must go.

I am reminded of a story within Kazantzaki’s “Zorba the Greek.” An old man is chided for never leaving the confines of his remote village. Yet it was this man who always threw his doors open to travelers.

“Talk, talk,” he would command them.

He would not let them leave until they had told him everything about their journey – where they had been, what they had eaten, where they had slept, what languages they had heard – and on and on until the travelers were exhausted.

“Why should I leave my home,” the old man would ask, “when all the world comes to me?”

That’s the way I feel as I descend the stairs, the taste of cardamom and clove still in my mouth.

Friday, December 4, 2009


It’s a stunning autumn day. Unfortunately, on Fifth Street, there are no trees that have turned electric yellow or bright orange, or even dull brown. On Fifth there is only grey concrete and black asphalt.

I come to a gate that is wrapped with a padlock and chain. The large linked chain looks as if it could haul the anchor of the Queen Elizabeth. Signs are wired haphazardly to the rusting fence, tacked to a battered door, nailed to a post that holds up a porch that angles dangerously. The porch looks like it is a kilo from collapse.

“Beware of Dog,” “Beware of Dog.” “Beware of Dog.”

The door, and any hope of knocking, lies across a wasteland, a concrete moat of cold, urban nothingness.

I call Mr. Murphy on my cell phone.

“It’s D, the Visiting Nurse. I’m at the gate.”

“Jimmy will come an get you.”

“Where’s the dog?”.

“There ain’t no dog.”

Jimmy opens the door to the house and squints into the daylight. He’s wearing a leather jacket and black pants. His frame is stick-like, and he walks loosely, like his joints are barely connected. A key jangles from his right hand and he reaches for the lock, inserts the key, and I watch the lock pop apart. Jimmy holds the gate, looks down Fifth Street, and I walk through into this middle earth, a limbo that exists between the seen and the unseen. Jimmy starts locking the padlock behind me.

“You lock it behind you?” I ask.

“Yeah. It’s bad out here.”

I check the height of the fence and figure I can get over it if I have to. This is feeling a little too weird already, and I am still only in this concrete limbo. I don’t mind locking a door behind me, if the latch is on the inside, the key accessible. But Jimmy’s holding the keys. And who’s Jimmy? And look at the size of that chain.

“He’s upstairs,” Jimmy says to the chain.

“Are you his son?”

“Nah, I just live here, help him out.”

Mr. Murphy lives in a smoke stained room on the second floor. The stairs creak as I climb. The walls are laced with an assortment of cracks and holes. Lathe is exposed like bones in an x-ray, and plaster dust crunches under my feet. The house smells of cheap incense and fuel oil.

He sits on the edge of his bed as I do my various assessments. A picture of him as a young GI hangs at the head of the bed. Across the room there is a framed portrait of Martin Luther King. Otherwise the walls are bare. A sheet covers the window, and filters the incoming light, giving the room a sepia wash. When we get to the part about Mr. Murphy’s medications, he pulls a battered attaché case from beneath the bed, flops it on the crumpled red blanket, and begins to scroll through the tumbler of numbers near the handle. He lines up the correct combination of digits and the lid pops open. Inside, rolling around, are an assortment of brown prescription bottles.

“You keep all your pills locked up?”

“Got to.”

Mr. Murphy begins to show me all his medications, as I check them against the hospital paperwork.

“Jimmy,” Mr. Murphy yells, and I jump.

Jimmy comes to the door, and he looks sheepish now, smaller and thinner than he did in the light of day.

“Not all my pills are here.”

“I don’t know nothing about that.”

Mr. Murphy is scattering the bottles, picking them up, shaking each one, listening to the various rattles as if he can identify them by the noise they make.

“I’m going to kill the motherfucker that took my pills.”

I’m thinking now about the lock on the gate, the key, the height of the fence, and about Jimmy, who may or may not may have reason to worry, My thoughts are careening along like protons in a particle accelerator. They consist of questions that are not answered in the hospital referral. They go something like this:

1. Who is Mr. Murphy, really?
2. Has Jimmy’s been picking the lock?
3. Does Mr. Murphy’s have a gun?
4. Does Jimmy’s have a legitimate reason to worry?
5. If he does, then I certainly do, because I am in between Mr. Murphy and skinny Jimmy.
6. People get shot in this neighborhood.

The argument continues, heatedly, and I am interjecting at every expletive, which is to say, very often.

“I need to go now Mr. Murphy. Jimmy I need you to open the gate for me."

It seems I am being ignored, but then I see clearly how frightened Jimmy seems. He’s not really hearing me. Mr. Murphy pokes around again in his attaché case.

“They all ain’t in here.”

“If you don’t let me out now I’m going to call 911.”

“Where the fuck are the rest of my pills?”

I reach into my pocket and pull out my cell phone.

Jimmy looks at me, at Mr. Murphy, then plunges his hand into his pocket, and turns toward the stairs.

“Someone will call you tomorrow Mr. Murphy. Someone from the Visiting Nurses.”

“That motherfucker stole my pills.”

“Uh, maybe you should call the cops.”


Jimmy opens the lock and pulls at the gate. He is looking down at the cracks in the concrete, and I am at a loss for words. It’s a relief to be across that concrete moat, on the other side of the fence and into the openness of Fifth Street. I start to say something and stumble over my words.

“It’s cool,” Jimmy says as he locks himself in.