It was two in the morning and I was dry-heaving alone on the Upper East Side. As I lurched about, my body in a state of Ukraine-circa-2004 revolt, I realized two things. One: passersby were busy engaging in my favorite activity, which is ignoring people. Two: had anyone noticed me, I would have been greeted — despite being completely sober and very ill — by a disgusted sneer and a “Take it inside, Drunky.” The best part is, I myself had employed similar impatience (and a similar nickname) with an inebriated young man the previous night, a night I had spent in the emergency room with a brutal case of the North American Terrestrial People Flu.
“The nurse wants to give you your water, Drunky McGee.” That’s what I’d said. He’d employed my favorite activity and ignored me — which was just as well, as he’d spent the previous four hours passed out in a pile of his own yarf. However, I could have used the company, as it was going on my sixth hour in the ER, my 104-degree fever was finally abating, and the hospital staff was demonstrating with admirable perfection my favorite activity, ignoring me with such precision that I might actually have ceased to exist.
On Law & Order, when someone falls ill (or is shot, or stabbed, or poisoned) in the middle of the night, his plight fades to black before he reappears, with an authoritative Law & Order BONG BONG sound, in a peaceful single hospital room, surrounded by bleepy machines and medical professionals, both equally serious-looking. Alas, though, like apartment sizes on Friends or a writer’s salary on Sex & the City, private quarters in a New York ER are a television myth. Just as America’s viewing public would be horrified at a walkup studio for $2,000 a month, Minnesotan housewives might cringe at the actual scene in one of our emergency rooms, which consists of dozens of stretchers wedged into a hallway, five or six medical professionals who strip the adjective “overworked” of all previous meaning and then don’t even have the time to re-define it, and a whole bunch of people who could snuff it at any minute. Your only hope is that someone might have time to pay attention to you before you actually die.
The only reading material I’d managed to bring was a copy of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, which was so boring that it might have sent me into convulsions even if my fever didn’t. I didn’t want to risk it, so I devoted my attention to my co-patients. The elderly woman on the stretcher behind me claimed the year was 1905 and became violent when the staff refused to comply with her request of $20 in exchange for her blood. The even more elderly lady behind her kept trying to make a break for it, clad only in a paper gown and an adult diaper. When the staff revealed displeasure at this activity, she wished a pox upon them and was summarily tied to her stretcher. And then, of course, there was the young man wheeled in by paramedics, his expensive-looking white shirt stained with the telltale pinky-orange of partially digested party snacks. Being otherwise occupied, he hadn’t filled out his paperwork and thus had to provide his age and spell his name for the staff, which he did so loudly and slowly that I still have it memorized (“Karl,” 23). To queries of what had brought him to the ER that fine evening, he replied: “I GOT DRUNK.” Even in my fever haze, I smirked.
Eventually I got my discharge papers and a diagnosis I probably could have given myself. I forgot all about “Karl” until about 20 hours later, when a failed journey for nausea medicine left me dry-heaving in public. As I convulsed and stumbled, I couldn’t help but think to myself: That Drunky McGee in the — BLAARGH — in the ER was horribly, horribly — BLARGH oh God let it end — horribly misunderstood.