I am a “weird” magnet. This kind of weird can only be attracted in New York, a vortex of concentrated human extremes. Contemplate my odd assortment of vignettes as an ambling film sequence.
Scene One, Take One: Returning home from tap class, I stop into my local wine shop, which I recently recalled used to be the neighborhood bakery when I grew up here. Still the treat corner since fourth grade!
As I left, a very attractive man was standing in the sun against one of the buildings, about thirty feet away. Someone I know, and have avoided since the passing of my beloved dog almost nine months ago. He’s a silver fox from Brazil, gorgeous, gay, and a dog walker. He used to be particularly attached to my dog, even though no one ever walked her but me. He would see her and light up, as many people did since she was such a supremely loving creature. “I love you!” he’d gush with his accent as he scooped her up in his arms, cuddling her to his face and rocking in bliss, eyes closed, while leashes and dogs radiated out from him like a maypole.
He saw me as I walked up the street, and I smiled at him. He mouthed and mimed as I approached, “Where is she?” Shaking my head soberly as I walked closer, his smile diminished as he awaited my explanation. “She’s gone.” I said as I stood in front of him. He was speechless.
Now, I’ve had some pretty hideous reactions upon informing people of Mimi’s passing. “You’re killing me!” screeched a morbid neighbor, a dog-owning matron with black shellacked hair and huge black sunglasses who allegedly poisoned her husband (perhaps she was quoting him?). She offered not one word of comfort to me.
One day a fellow doxie owner approached and I decided not to dodge her and her giant longhaired dachshund, whom my baby used to French kiss. The two dogs were a love match, although it was clear Luigi was seeing other women. Norma adored my baby, joyously exclaiming as vociferously as my girl, who squealed in delight and flopped on her back, tail wagging, upon seeing the tiny old lady and her big dog. Mimi engaged in this super friendly behavior often. My senior neighbor Shirley, who refused to touch her, but clearly delighted in her from afar, called her a slut.
Shirley screamed when I told her Mimi had died. “But I never let her into my apartment!” No, she hadn’t. She missed out on having her home sniffed and searched by a very low, loopy dog who hopped and skipped due to her deformities.
Back to Norma. I thought Norma, who reveled in all things Mimi, would be devastated when I told her about Mimi’s passing. I sobbed as I choked out the sad tale. Norma was unmoved and said simply that I had to get another dog.
The next time I saw her was months later, and I was ready for her. I was better, less frail. She said, “Where’s the puppy?” Norma’s old, and I thought she was losing it. I sighed, patiently, “She passed, Norma.” “I know,” she retorted. “Where’s the new puppy?” Not senile. Pushy. “I’m not getting a new puppy Norma,” I spoke quietly. “Why not?” she barked. “Because I’m not ready.” “Why not?” She barked again. “Because I don’t want another dog. I’m not ready” I defended. “Why aren’t you ready?” She needled. “I’m just not. I want other change in my life, not another dog,” I tried to explain, but she persisted in pressing her dog dictate, “Well, you can have other things and a dog, too. You’re just stubborn, that’s what you are!” Suddenly, this heretofore cute little old lady I adored had become my prosecutor, while the Black Widow (who still has her dog) had acted as if my loss had been hers. That’s why I don’t talk about it.
But my Brazilian friend, the silver fox standing in the sun, just looked and listened earnestly as I spoke. “She became paralyzed, and I couldn’t put her through surgery with all her other health issues. I know you loved her”. As I teared up he reached into his pocket for a soft, neatly folded white paper towel, obviously a backup maintenance tool for his line of work. I demurred, used to wiping my fairly frequent tears on a sleeve. But he insisted and put it in my hand. I dabbed the folded rectangle to my eyes and continued, “I haven’t been able to talk about it. She was only five and she was the world to me. It’s just too sad.”
Sergio did the kindest thing a person can do when one is distraught. He offered no comfort (beyond "the quicker picker upper") and no counsel. He just listened, beholding me while absorbing my story, a witness to my pain. It was the purest expression of love. Hugging him, I offered. “She loved you”. He looked me in the eye and blurted, “Be careful,” his Brazilian attempt at saying “take care”, I suppose. As I walked away he blurted, “I love you”, just like he used to say to my little baby. “I love you, too.” I said.
Since I was now all weepy and in need of succor, I clutched the just purchased chilled sauvignon blanc and headed over to my old stomping ground, the Catholic Church across the street. While not Catholic, I like the sanctuary to contemplate and regroup. Before Mimi, I used to sit there and weep when my mother was dying. With Mimi, I’d sneak her in her bag and we’d bask in the chill air on blisteringly hot days, or thaw and re-heat on the freezing ones. It is a modern church and usually quite empty, which is just the way I like it. A respite from the noisy world outside.
On this day it wasn’t empty at all. There was no mass in progress, but a dispersed and disparate “crowd” of six were praying in earnest. I could discern the energy of their prayers, providing a very Wings of Desire air. A white woman to the right in corduroy jeans kneeled in front of a statue. A white woman to my left kneeled in front of St. Francis (a personal favorite of mine). A black woman in a powder blue suit and hat sat in front of me. A black man was to the left. Human pieces spread out on an invisible Catholic chess board.
The black lady in the blue suit started waving her right hand before her face, silently “testifying”. This went on for a while and I took in the spectacle, one I’d never seen at this church, concluding that she was conversing with Jesus. She dropped her hand briefly but waved it again for a stretch. To my far left was a very old, tall white priest who always sits in the same chair. He’s friendly but quiet and has a bum foot, his bones and bunions exploding out of his dirty, black, velcrow-trussed sneakers. His eyes were fixed on the bible in his lap, the same book he’s read over and over for decades. Doesn’t that get dull after a while?
An attractive young Asian business woman was in church only to text, eyes glued to her glowing appliance in a back pew. Her phone rang. This was a first for me, and I was appalled that she’d add insult to injury by making noise on top of being so textfully disrespectful. She left the main area to turn it off, I supposed, but wouldn’t you just know it, she took the freaking call in the outer hall. I departed, leaving the Six Characters In Search Of An Author behind.
Speaking of crass, I ventured boldly into an institution I’d spent my entire life near, but had never been in. Central Synagogue is the oldest synagogue in New York City, established in1846, with the building dedicated in 1872. While I venture freely into churches because they have open doors and people coming in and out, I had never done so in a synagogue. But a young lady in business attire climbed the steps toward the entrance, which made me think it was open. In all my life it had never seemed open or active. It was a mysterious, impenetrable fortress. I seized the opportunity.
On my way to physical therapy, I was wearing shorts, sneakers and a tee shirt. Now, I know God doesn’t mind about that kind of stuff cause God Is Everything, however, the people who run the synagogue might mind. That person that day was a big guy in a beige suit. He looked a bit like a Jewish bouncer. Given how he was dressed, I thought he might give me some tsuris for my getup. The pretty Israeli girl (she had an accent) kept him busy with questions while I slipped in and sat. I explored the right to left, back to front reading material in my Jewish pew and took in the décor. It looked just like a church. Throw in a Jesus here and a couple of crosses there, and you could house a whole other crowd.
Now, the physical therapy. I have a new insurance plan. I was very excited about this new insurance plan until I started using it. Don’t get me wrong. I’m very grateful for it. My audio book work through my union entitled me to pay for the privilege of having this insurance. I was thrilled to find out that they covered both chiropractic and acupuncture, both of which I rely on. I’m an alternative therapies type and don’t count on M.D.s for my well-being. I prefer preventative, holistic care and use M.D.s on an “as needed” basis only.
In the midst of enjoying my chiropractic and acupuncture benefits, I discovered that I was entitled to only half the number of treatments I thought I was. A real pity, for the healthier I am, the less actual medical treatment I need (the old "ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" thing). Getting weekly acu and chiro was putting me in fine form and spirits. But I was also entitled to four physical therapy treatments, so I decided to cash in on that benefit, since I have wrist pain from my audio recording and editing work, and knee pain from an old injury.
I needed a referral for it, so I selected the G.P. closest to me, which wasn’t all that close. But she was a girl, which I wanted, and had a cushy address just opposite Tavern On The Green in Central Park. And they could take me immediately, so I could start my P.T. immediately, with only a month left to this insurance quarter to cash in on those four sessions. Strangely, they were open for walk-in appointments only. I was advised there usually wasn’t a long wait, and appointments lasted only about 20 minutes.
Her office was on the main floor of a classic Central Park West building. The front door was on the sidewalk. I crossed the threshold and was suddenly in The Wizard of Oz. In reverse. All the Technicolor drained from my day as I entered her desiccated den from another time period altogether — somewhere between the 1940s and the 1960s. This joint was untouched by time, money, renovations or a cleaning crew. Everything was brown. The miniscule bathroom, which I needed to use, abutted the sidewalk. The toilet was right by the thin window so I could hear footsteps inches away from me as I sat, pants down. My need to relieve myself vanished. I saddled up and went to the sink, which looked distinctly…unclean. I’ve seen cleaner bathrooms in fast food restaurants. What kind of a doctor’s office was this?
The shop was run by three old women. A black woman so large it proved difficult for her to get out of her chair. She remained seated against the wall in the anteroom for the duration of my visit. A petite Latina woman was friendly, efficient and ran the desk and phone. She’d been with the doctor for 30 years (she told me this on the phone when I’d asked if the doctor was nice). And then there was the old battle axe herself, a white gal who’d graduated from medical school in 1943. Now, I knew that little tidbit going in, the insurance site listed her stats. But I was not prepared for the full Grey Gardens effect created by her and her medical practice.
A 90 year old former show-girl stood before me. The good doctor was rail thin, sporting bright red lipstick and long blonde hair coiffed to Barbie doll perfection. Her breasts were reminiscent of Carol Burnett’s Charro’s mother costume as they were thin, long, low, and, it seemed, irregular. Her colorful polyester shirt and pencil skirt were a throwback to the 1970’s, when they were undoubtedly purchased. She wore her purse around her neck in the front, like the sporrans that Highland Scotsmen sport over their kilt. The rectangular shoulder bag hung from a long, thin gold chain and was as thin and two dimensional as she was. The edges were totally frayed, and I could not tell whether it was made of decomposing black patent leather faux “alligator” or authentic cardboard and plastic. In addition to assorted jewelry her final accessory was a vintage stethoscope. My face registered the same shock exhibited in the countenances of the Broadway audience in Mel Brooks’ 1968 masterpiece, The Producers, upon realizing that they were watching a musical homage to Hitler.
I was frozen in an episode of The Twilight Zone, a David Lynch film, or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Take your pick. I was on set.
I signed a few forms, my uneasy smile trying to mask my mortification. What would happen to me in this geriatric house of horrors? There were piles of paper everywhere, on top of army green metal filing cabinets and card-holders from the 40s, 50s and 60s. Labels were hand scrawled “Medicaid” and “Medicare”. There was no computer to be seen, but a fax machine collected dust. My eyes scanned the joint from top to bottom. It was a museum exhibit. A total time warp to the 1960s New York City of my childhood.
“The doctor will see you now.” The receptionist jarred me out of my reverie. I entered the examining room. This equipment was from the 1930s and 1940s, including a vintage baby scale and examination table. Young Frankenstein’s lab now came to mind. The antediluvian table had stirrups for gynecological use, and musty mechanical cranks beneath. Scalpels, tweezers and antiquated metal tools were scattered about, mixed in with rubber bands, vaccines, needles and pens. More file cabinets were piled haphazardly on top of each other.
“What’s wrong with you?” blurted the old woman as she entered the room. “Uh, nothing. I need a referral to see a physical therapist.” She sat down across from me on one of her mismatched chairs. “I told you to sit on the other chair, it’s more comfortable,” she directed me. She’d told me to “sit on the round chair” so I'd sat on the round wooden stool. Apparently she’d said “sit on the brown chair”, which was 1970s padded pleather and chrome. My stool was white and the cleanest, newest thing in the room. I stayed put.
“Do you have any illnesses?” “No,” I replied. “Family history.” I gave her a brief rundown of how everyone died, including my mother’s death from cancer. She took laborious longhand notes on an oversized index card, then looked up at me abruptly, “Breast cancer?” “No,” I replied. She didn’t bother to find out what kind of cancer my mother actually had. She asked me my weight and height without bothering to verify my claims. I grew a couple inches and lost a couple pounds. If she was living in a dream world, then so could I.
Dr. Norma Desmond instructed me to me hop up on the edge of the gruesome table. If ever a piece of equipment was haunted, this was it. I could feel the fear from myriad patients emanating from the frayed pad and rusted metal. She listened to my heart with her trusty stethoscope. She felt my left breast then got distracted when I told her I had fibroids. She briefly palpated my lower abdomen. So much for my right breast.
She looked in my ears with her ear thingie, then tried to get her flashlight to turn on so she could look down my throat. She fiddled with it, but it didn’t work, so she banged it on the stirrup. Bam. It was on.
That over, we discussed my wrist pain, the very reason I was there. She placed my wrist on the stirrup. I kid you not. Maybe this contraption did double duty back in the day, but to me, now, it was a gynecological stirrup, and my wrist was on it. Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers leered from the side of the room.
She asked if I wanted blood work, and had she been a real doctor, I would have accepted it. But not trusting her to hit a forearm let alone a vein, I declined. Perhaps this was where the large black woman came in. It’s possible she was a nurse. But drawing my blood would necessitate her getting up, and this seemed unlikely.
Norma Desmond hand scrawled my referral for the physical therapy, said “anything else?” then suggested I take two more, one for a gynecologist and another for an orthopedist. This then, was her specialty. Penning referrals.
Relieved to be done, I was shocked to find other people in the waiting room. All women. All older. What were they doing here? What did this doctor do all day? Right. She handed out referrals. It was clear neither she nor her staff were in any condition to treat anyone for anything.
I approached the front desk with $20 for my $10 co-pay. “Doctor,” her receptionist ventured, it seemed to me, with trepidation. “Do you have $10 change for this lady’s co-pay?” Here was the meaning of the shiny, dilapidated purse swinging from doc’s neck. She was the bank. She didn’t trust her employee of thirty years to hold the $10s? Well, just add that to the pile of crazy.
I walked to nearby Sheep’s Meadow on this glorious May day to regroup as I slowly adjusted to 2014. An iced coffee from Tavern’s pleasant take-out window aided in my recovery, and a Garage Band workshop at the Apple store on Fifth Avenue completed my reentry into today’s time space coordinates.
Cut to me, medium shot, walking the streets the next day wearing shorts, tee shirt and sneakers, clutching my hard-won P.T. referral as I exit Central Synagogue. From there I went to my new physical therapy office in a very respectable office building, only to find that this operation had not been renovated since the early 1980s. This is not encouraging in a medical establishment. One wants the latest, the newest and the best. I was having medical disappointment déjà vu.
I was hoping for some nurturing medical massage as part of the package, but all I saw were boring weights and machines. Looked like I’d have to do all the work. Sigh.
My therapist was a tall, no nonsense gal, and her very basic equipment also seemed, well, quite old. She measured my wrist with a glorified tape measure from a plastic box of supplies that could once have housed a Lego set. The joint was uninspired. Even Norma Desmond had some freaky flair.
I tried to crack a joke but my therapist was a tough customer. She alternately boiled and froze my wrist with very hot and very cold things, then sono-waved it. She showed me a few stretches and the proper way to sit at my computer. Snore.
While she was taking my carpal deposition we were seated inches away from each other, face to face in a little cubicle. At one point she sighed and said, “You have to take better care of yourself.”
Tears started rolling down my face. This threw her totally off her game when she finally looked up from my wrist. She was offering physical therapy, not therapy therapy. She tossed some paper towels at me so I could clean up my emotional mess. Her turf was repairing tendons and muscles, not the tender buttons she was pressing. I needed nurturing, not needling.
That being said, she gave me some good advice about posture, and her seminal “you have to take better care of yourself” had struck a nerve. I thought I already was. But there’s always farther to go.
My journey is about taking better care of myself, emotionally, financially, physically, spiritually and mentally, the whole shebang. These realms are simply different facets of the same Me.
A day in my life includes smiling, celebrating, crying, napping, pontificating, dancing, cooking, eating well, biking, blading, solitude, more solitude, writing and recording. Day by day, gently, and sometimes more forcefully, I edge toward beautiful new vistas. Sunset. Music swells. Fade to black.
©Valerie Gilbert, 2014, All Rights Reserved.
MEMORIES, DREAMS & DEFLECTIONS: My Odyssey Through Emotional Indigestion is out in print, eBook, and audio (recorded by me!)
RAVING VIOLET the book is available in print, e-book and audio (recorded by me!) both books from Amazon, Audible, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, KOBO, SmashWords, Sony Reader Store, The Book Depository (international print) AllRomanceBooks.com, and Black Opal Books.
SWAMI SOUP! will be released later this year.
Valerie's audiobooks are available at Audible.com and iTunes.
Author Interview http://quietfurybooks.com/bestsellerboundrecommends/getting-to-know-author-valerie-gilbert/