Saturday, February 28, 2009

Columbus Circle, 4:30 P.M.

On Central Park West, uniformed doormen stand at attention, quietly awaiting residents and visitors for whom they can open doors and carry packages with well-practiced and graceful aplomb. At Columbus Circle, cars, taxis and buses revolve around the crowded roundabout, the Trump Plaza towering above this magnificent southwestern corner of the park.

The ubiquitous steam rises from sidewalk grates, as harried women amongst the throngs of commuters emerging from the subway straighten stockings and brush hair from sweat-dappled foreheads. At every Starbucks (and, parenthetically speaking, there seems to be more than one at many city intersections---how can that be?) men in rumpled suits desultorily read the Wall Street Journal, type rapid-fire messages into Blackberries, and sip double-skinny-mocha-half-caf-lattes, careful not to spill the cream-colored gold onto company-owned laptop keyboards.

In a corner of the Starbucks at 59th and Broadway, a young woman in Goth attire and black eyeliner writes poetry in an old-fashioned composition book. A man with a seeing-eye dog bumps into the Goth girl’s chair and apologizes. The young woman is so very tempted to pet the dog, but remembers how she was admonished by her mother when she did just that several years ago when they were shopping at Macy’s.

You never touch or speak to a working dog, Jodie”, her mother had said. “You just don’t distract the dog from his job.” Jodie had looked at her mother and defiantly said “His or her job, Mom. His or her.”

Her mother had shot her a glance and replied, “Well, if you were more observant, my dear, you would have noticed the enormous balls on that dog, who is most certainly male. But, yes, I agree, gender-neutral speech is all the rage these days, and it’s most inconvenient.”

Jodie sighed to herself as she remembered that exchange, and rolled her eyes at the thought of her mother’s impending visit to New York.

Meanwhile, the barista with seven earrings and a nose ring contemplates whether grad school is really a good idea after all. Tattoo school sounds like such a better idea, but who knows if people will still want tattoos in this economic climate. They certainly still want their coffee, she thinks to herself, although she has indeed noticed a significant decrease in the number of people ordering the more expensive gourmet drinks.

Nearby at the grocery store on 53rd and 8th, the flower delivery is an hour late. Cellophane-wrapped roses, carnations, lilies and baby’s breath are plucked from boxes and placed in their upright black display containers where fresh water was added just this morning from a green garden hose coiled in the corner for just that purpose.

Inside, the owner, Mr. Li, writes a check to the delivery person, checks his math, places the invoice in a dusty accordion file, and dials his sister’s number on the store phone. She’s halfway through chemo, and he wants to make sure that his nephew is accompanying her to Sloan-Kettering this afternoon for her ultrasound. There’s no answer, but before he can think of his next option, his cell-phone rings and his breathless sister is breathing heavily in his ear.

Can you bring me some kimchee tonight, brother? I need some kimchee. I don’t care what Dr. Slater says about spices.” He breathes a sigh of relief. Kimchee? Is that all? If only it could remain this easy. He hangs up and writes himself a note to bring home the best kimchee in the store. Last week, she was projectile vomiting. And next week?

On the avenue outside, sirens scream and Mr. Li looks up in time to see the ambulance rushing through the red light. “There but for the grace of God....”, he thinks to himself.

Inside the ambulance, Millicent Henry (whose first name means “she with the gentle gait”) looks up at the paramedics leaning over her and wonders what all the fuss is about. She knows that she’s dying, and she regrets ever allowing her husband to dial 911. Her remaining kidney is almost shot, and her liver is nearly kaput. Why won’t they let her be?

Her husband, Jack, insisted that they not transition to hospice just yet, relegating her to these torturous ambulance rides and heroic efforts by earnest and, she admits, frequently handsome EMTs. At 77, she knows handsome, and this face looking down at her most certainly deserves a spot on “ER”. The next George Clooney? Perhaps. No wonder her heart is racing.

Ma’am, do you have any pain?” asks the Clooney clone.

Only when I think about the perfect cup of coffee I left on the kitchen table, dear. It was just the right temperature, with the perfect amount of cream and sugar. What a waste. My husband probably threw it away before he caught a taxi to the hospital.” She waves her hand dismissively in the air.

Sorry about that, ma’am”, the paramedic replies. “There’s no coffee allowed on the ambulance, anyway. Just relax. We’ll be at the emergency room soon.” He turns his back on her and begins to clean up the IV supplies and trash strewn around the compartment.

Millicent notices a sharp and sudden pain on her right side, a searing pain that tears through her like a shot. Stoic, she keeps that information to herself and sinks into the stretcher as she shivers under the thin, white blanket. She breaks out in a quiet sweat and closes her eyes, wincing.

They round the corner to the ER entrance and the ambulance comes to a halt. As the paramedic turns to check on Millicent, he notices the fixed stare and grayish pallor that only moments before had been brimming with defiant humor.

We’ve got another DOA, Paula,” he yells to the driver. “And all she wanted was to finish her coffee.”

(c) 2009, NurseKeith