Friday, July 15, 2005


It was 1976, and I was in New Haven interviewing for an internship. The man in the stiff white coat scrutinized me and remarked, "We're looking for the type of resident who would run up three flights of stairs just to listen to the murmur of aortic regurgitation."

I, on the other hand, was the type of candidate who scheduled interviews at obscure and unlikely hospitals in Paterson, New Jersey just to have an excuse to visit the Passaic Falls and the hometown of William Carlos Williams and Alan Ginsberg. There was an important lesson in all this house staff typology that I failed to heed. I was always failing to heed lessons in those days.

I remember that visit to Paterson and the falls. It was November, and cold. The grass above the falls was coated with ice from the mist off the crashing water, each blade so thickly sheathed that it resembled a stubby finger. There was a jumble of trash -- shopping carts and tires -- heaped in the water below. That's about all I remembered. So I pulled out an old journal to flesh out the details.

I discovered that, as was my wont in those overwrought, isolated, miserable, fin-de-medical school days, I'd invested the trip with a heavy dose of symbolic significance. It was to be a pilgrimage. A quest. Something surely awaited me in Paterson that would elucidate the whole messy, unsatisfactory course of my life. Back in Worcester, histrionic as ever, I wrote --

What could I have expected of Paterson that made my first acquaintance with it an experience of acid flung in my eyeballs by a hideously transformed father ? What wing of Dr Williams did I expect to nestle under, finding instead twigs and malnourished arms all bent, oblique and bristling with hostility and strangeness ? Unredeemable ugliness does exist. I had an uncanny feeling of unreality, transitoriness as I moved in the slow, crammed traffic into the city: how could this ugliness be anything more than a dream, a nightmare that some certain sun will soon surely abolish.

Above the falls thick grass blades, still green, were crusted with ice: these were no delicate slips of rime arching gracefully -- thick stumps of white ice like fingers thrust at all angles, like the fingers of interred supplicants: upthrust, erect, the pitiful supplication of phalloi; women's supplication, subterranean, cloistered, surrounded, dark, cavernous: the sexual landscape grows bizarre...

The peppy nephrologist who interviewd me yesterday said: we are interested in you. It was like a voice floating spectral from the cesspool depths of the Passaic. He seemed bent on proving St. Joseph's a veritable museum of pathology: pheochromocytoma, lupus, two cases of amyloidosis, not to mention the pitiful young man with neurofibromatosis he displayed to me, skin like the rock strewn surface of the moon, unshaven, unkempt, one leg amputated, writhing in bed whining about his weakness. His sisters, fat & silent as mute, paralyzed furies, stared as the doctor forced him to drink water unaided from a cup. A dwarf rambled outside in the corridor.

Outside, Paterson sprawled, sprawled inwardly, concentric, its poverty densening into the central despair. Across from the hospital, the Paterson Limb And Brace Store. Haphazard, dilapidated, its buildings lean and seem to prop each other up: patched, makeshift, fragile, filthy -- neatly a shanty town -- plastered with advertisement, garish lights, signs, countersigns, signals, strange symbols of a dead still born alchemy.

I've edited this David Lynch like scenario, leaving out a gnomic disquisition on my "emasculation, defeminization and reverse transvestitism," and a shrill evocation of The Dead, including my grandparents, a high school classmate, and my "mythical daughter," that builds to the bizarre crescendo, "Walter Piston, chicken Billy, Dmitri Shostakovich, Thomas Merton, all dead, dead, dead !" I recall no particular fondness for the music of the late, American serialist, and please don't ask me about Chicken Billy. I really haven't a clue who or what he is, may he rest in peace.

I remembered the "type of resident who would run up three flights of stairs" the other day as I dashed down the river walk after work, trying to outrace the sinking afternoon sun. I was propelled by a strange sort of love, desire even. I was elated, enthused, certainly not in my usual slightly detached, slightly phlegmatic state. Was this the passionate curiosity that that residency director in New Haven was describing ?

Late the day before I'd spotted a new plant, a whole stand of them, in a shady little nook right next to the path. The tall stalks were densely packed with small, green orchid-like flowers. It was easy to find in Peterson's Field Guide: it, I discovered, is called helleborine. The afternoon I found them had been dark and windy, not the ideal conditions for a tripod-less, rank amateur macro photographer. I'd tried to train the admiring eye of my little lens on the wonderful plant. It had declined, for the most part, to hold still. Then retreated, coy, into shadows, and recoiled, appalled as a deer-in-the-headlights, at the Powershot's unsubtle little flash.

So I returned to try again. And there it was, stiller, brighter, waiting for me. I stood there before the beautiful plant, breathless, as if I'd just run up three flights. It murmured. I closed my eyes and listened carefully with my whole heart. Finally, I'd become that type of resident.

No comments: