Dr. Dave's Office by Carlo Quispe
With Illustrations by Carlo Quispe
I don’t go to Dr. Dave for check-ups, just when something goes wrong. And something is wrong today. I suck down the last hit of my cigarette and stub it beside a mural of spray-painted camouflage that covers part of Dr. Dave’s corner office on Clinton and Stanton. A sign—red cross inside a white circle—hovers above the entranceway. All my appointments here begin with me saying something like “Hey Dr. Dave. I’m pretty sure I got bronchitis again.” Or “Hey Dr. Dave. My throat, I think it’s strep, but it might be an STD.” Or “Hey Dr. Dave. You know that lice thing that’s been going around?” Then, typically, Dr. Dave writes me prescriptions, and typically, things get better. But today, I don’t think a prescription will help.
I open the door to Dr. Dave’s clinic, enter the empty waiting room.
I first heard about Dr. Dave after my friend, a train-hopping anarchist who calls a squat on Ninth Street his home base, got surrounded by cops during one of our politically charged street parties. He went out swinging and then went to Dr. Dave to get fixed up. It’s been a year and a half since my friend’s beatdown and almost that long since my first appointment with Dr. Dave, the only doctor I know of who welcomes people even if they don’t have money.
Dr. Dave’s waiting room seats about six, sunlight streams through the generous windows, and on a wall are two paintings with dystopian sci-fi themes, perhaps offered by a patient in exchange for medical services. There’s no receptionist, so Dr. Dave must greet and heal simultaneously. When the sleigh bells on the door ring, he’ll emerge from the exam room to nod at regulars or direct newbies to a stack of admission forms.
I grab a form and then sit. Under “Date,” I write “12/14/01,” under “Payment,” a “0.”
In addition to the paintings, the walls of the waiting room are decorated with several framed news articles. One of them, from the early 90’s, notes that Dr. Dave caters to “anarchists and artists” and administers free health care in sidewalk cafes. The accompanying photo shows him sitting at a table with a cup of espresso and wearing a doctor’s coat, the sleeves ripped off, tattoos coating both of his bare arms. In a more recent photo, he’s older, maybe forty-ish, with a tie, a goatee and doctor’s coat with the sleeves still attached; he stands beside Houston Street with a placard that reads Healthcare Is A Right.
Minutes after my arrival, Dr. Dave escorts a busty transgendered Latina into the waiting room. She thanks him and then struts out into the street, each footfall synchronized to a techno beat that only she hears.
Dr. Dave gestures me into the back room, and I hop up on the examination table, my feet dangling off the edge. He closes the door, thumbs through a file cabinet for my medical records.
“What’s up?” he asks.
“I can’t feel anything down the back of my right leg.”
Last night, lying in bed, suspecting something wasn’t quite right, I’d brushed my fingertips along the back of my right leg, tapped and flicked it, but the hamstring muscles there felt separate from me as they jiggled like Jell-O. I hyperventilated.
“Were you sitting on a hard surface?” Dr. Dave asks.
“Was it a bench?”
“It was like a bench.”
“Was it stairs?”
“Yeah, it was kinda like—”
“What exactly were you sitting on?” His eyes search for mine, which, in turn, are searching the floor. “I need to know,” he says.
My voice couldn’t be lower, and I feel the cheeky burn of humiliation come on.
To his credit, Dr. Dave doesn’t smirk or give any other indication that what I’ve said is the least bit out of the ordinary. And perhaps for him, after years dedicated to the practice of street medicine on the Lower East Side, my admission is simply mundane. In the most routine manner, he asks me how I’d ended up on a toilet for so long that my leg lost all sensation. And I do my best to explain it to him.
My problems began two days earlier, on Saturday, when I’d promised Leigh that she could have the apartment to herself. It’s a studio in the Upper East, the toilet in a closet with no sink, the bathtub elevated behind accordion-folded cabinets. Except for these two nooks and the entranceway, there are no doors in the place, so that means no privacy. It’s our home, but really, it’s hers. She’s the one on the lease, the one with the rent stabilization and the money that, at least for now, her semi-estranged family still sends her way. I’ve had to learn how to shuffle my life around hers, to be there when needed and to disappear, sometimes for months at a time, for the sake of her sanity and mine. The truth is, we’ve maintained our balancing act of communal living and shared responsibilities far longer than either of us initially thought possible, sometimes with a third and even fourth person thrown into the mix. Despite some protracted quarrels, we were friends, maybe even family.
I’d met Leigh in October of 1999, when I first came to New York from western Pennsylvania, to rappel off a six-story building with a banner that decried the city’s use of rainforest wood for benches, boardwalks and subway tracks. She’d worked on the action as well, and, after the arrests, one thing kept leading to the next, until my two-week trip had become five. Then Leigh suggested that I live with her so that we could battle together against earth-raping corporations and their elected enablers. I accepted without hesitation.
Of course I understand why Leigh had wanted me to vacate the premises on Saturday: a night of privacy for her and her girlfriend would be a lovely thing. And so I’d been out that evening until a little after two a.m., when I walked into the foyer of the up-scale co-op on Tenth and University, where my friend Stephen has his apartment. This is my backup home, another place where one-time strangers have become like family.
“Hey Joey,” I said. Joey, who’s Latino and in his late-twenties, sat at the reception desk reading a bible.
He dialed up to Stephen’s place, but no one answered, so he opened a drawer and thumbed through the little manila envelopes that hold back-up keys to each of the apartments. Joey knew the routine. My name is written on Stephen’s envelope, along with six others, which grants us access whenever he’s not there. Stephen’s place writhes with an ever-shifting cast of boys who crash, converse, lounge and copulate. It’s a makeshift community that rapidly ebbs and flows with the tides of time, ambition and tragedy. Stephen loves us all. He loves to film us even more.
“The key’s not in here,” Joey said. He picked through the manila envelopes again, looking for the back-up set. “The extra’s not here either. I don’t know what to tell you.”
What are the odds that not one but two of the others would walk out with the keys on the same night? I didn’t have my address book and couldn’t recall any phone numbers connected to people who might be able help me out of this situation. I thought about how fucked up my friends were, how flaky, and when I saw them again—I reminded myself to smile, to not make a scene.
Cold gusts shoved their way down the streets, and, that time of year, everyone knew the weather would just get worse. I decided to do the ten-minute walk to the Boiler Room, over on Second Avenue and Fourth Street, and use a portion of my last twenty-dollar bill to buy a drink and find someone to go home with. Temporary displacement was providing a perfect rationale for re-labeling as business what I might otherwise have done for kicks. Last call was an hour away.
Inside the Boiler Room, I ordered a glass of red wine and surveyed the crowd—some leather, some queens and way too much Abercrombie and Fitch. But there is a great jukebox. I mean, how many boy bars have an entire Sonic Youth album?
I sat on a couch. I sipped my wine. Two guys beside me were kissing, one sitting in the other’s lap. Men with hungry faces circled the pool table and the bar, searching. Like other people’s luggage on an airport conveyer belt, just when you forgot about them, they came back around again. In the lounge, the crowd moved less. Here, they, we, perched in darkness, and the lit candles and pooling cigarette smoke turned our faces simian.
From a couch ten feet away: a pair of eyes, luminescent like a lit road sign at night. Before they extinguished and I directed my gaze to somewhere less risky, I saw, just barely, the contours of a football-player physique.
I reached for another cigarette. Minutes, maybe only seconds, passed. When I glanced at him again, I caught him staring. Again. He didn’t look away. Neither did I.
In the next half hour, Bill and I drank our second round. We sat on the couch together. From hip to knee, our legs touched.
“I like your dreadlocks,” he said, running his fingers down one of my blonde tendrils.
Bill came from Texas and brought along the vocal twang. He actually did play football in high school—a decade ago by his count. His forehead had some lines, like he’d been weathered from life under open plains or his pack-a-day habit was beginning to show. He’d just moved to New York City and was doing, whatever—it was too boring to remember.
His hand landed in my lap, my lips caressed his face. The bartenders shouted last call at three forty-five.
“What’s next?” I said.
“You, without clothes,” Bill said. “Your place.”
Wrong answer Bill! And only fifteen minutes left until closing time. I told him that half of his proposal wouldn’t work and then listed a couple of the things I’d do with him if we’d go to his place.
“Where I’m stayin’,” Bill said, “we’ve got a problem.”
“See, I’m not on the lease, and the person who’s loft it is, he’s letting another dude hole up there too. Dude just got in last week, and he’s insane, and I mean flipped the fuck out.” Bill looped his forefinger around his temple.
“So’s everyone else in this city. Come on, me and you Bill.”
“Well… don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Whatever, I thought. It was better than the street, better than dead-ended desire. We stepped outside, exhaling December cold like chainsmokers.
During the cab ride, when I again asked Bill for his name, he pronounced it like “Beale”, the infamous good-time street in Memphis. Then he rubbed me so affectionately in the back seat that he morphed from a strategic fuck into a sweet promise. We got out in Chelsea, bought a six-pack at a deli and took an elevator up seven floors.
Bill opened the door, closed it behind him and, after a minute, re-emerged. “He’s taking a shower.” We went inside hand in hand.
“Um, I really gotta piss,” I said. “How much longer you think he’s gonna be?”
Bill knocked, the unwanted roommate behind the bathroom door shrieked, and I jumped. Then he yelled something about how the gates of hell had swallowed the dance floor, before quieting to a murmur, barely audible above the splash of water.
“Told you,” Bill said.
“He’s certifiable,” I said
“You can piss in the back stairwell.”
Bill gave me two thumbs up. “Everybody uses the elevator.”
In the back stairwell, Bill said the friend who leases the loft was returning later that morning, and then the two of them were going to do some kind of intervention, maybe get Certifiable hospitalized, but for sure remove him from the space. To me, Certifiable will never have a history, let alone a face or body. But I’m sure his problems began long before I’d heard his ragged voice. In fact, I think of him as Exhibit A for the argument that who we become, we already are. It’s as if we’ve got these fortune cookies interwoven into our DNA, and our brains are just awaiting their marching orders. I want to believe we make choices, significant, life-altering choices about the future, but sometimes the evidence to the contrary is overwhelming.
I walked down a flight of iron steps, pissed on a concrete landing and hoped Bill was right about the residents and the elevator. On the landing near Bill’s floor, we sat down, cracked open two beers. We talked and talked and when our mouths ran out of words, we filled them with each other. He gulped my neck, unzipped my pants. He raised his arms above his head, so that I would peel off his t-shirt.
His beefcake pecs, their soft down of blondish-brown.
We cocooned. We swayed like prairie grass. But then everything changed when he said, his warm breath on my ear where his tongue had just been, “You like to party?”
“What do you got?”
He reached for his pile of pants, pulled out a baggie. He dipped a key into it and scooped. Along the stem of the key, an anthill of grayish-white.
“Just a little crystal.”
He leaned over, snorted, and maybe it was only the play of shadows from the exposed bulb dangling above, but his blue eyes melted into black sockets.
After I tell Dr. Dave about the drug, he scratches his goatee.
“How often do you use crystal meth?”
“That’s not what you just said.”
Dr. Dave bumps a rubber mallet against my knee, my foot jumps forward, and I’m relieved to see that certain reflexes survived my bout with the toilet.
He asks me what other drugs I’ve taken, and I list mostly psychedelics: MDMA, MDA, marijuana, mushrooms, LSD. A smattering of coke, which is to say I don’t buy, and I don’t say no. Occasional Xanax and Ritalin. PCP, but exactly once. And an over-the-counter speed, which I took for a six-month spell—it seemed like the only solution to waiting tables at an impossibly busy Perkins Family Restaurant in western Pennsylvania.
The jingling sleigh bells on the main door announce the arrival of another patient, and Dr. Dave excuses himself. Through my partially open door, I watch as he hands an admission form to a mohawked squatter I’ve seen around the neighborhood. I remember a rumor I’d heard, that Dr. Dave had had the letters “MD” tattooed across his entire back. When Dr. Dave pivots from the squatter towards me, I quickly begin an inspection of my nails.
He shuts the door. “How often do you use marijuana? Three times a week? Every day?”
“Three times.” I low-ball my consumption.
“How’d you like to drown in your own snot?”
I look away, brace myself for what I know is coming next.
“That’s what emphysema will do to you. You’ve got access to an oven?” I nod. “Bake pot brownies instead.”
He flicks the cigarette box in my front shirt pocket. “Time to quit. Now. There’s a man, forty-two years old, comes here almost every day to get hooked up to oxygen.” I know this story. The guy had begun smoking at fourteen, and now he can barely walk up a flight of stairs but still fiends for cigarettes.
Despite Dr. Dave’s graphic descriptions, I can’t focus on warnings about pulmonary failure, only on what it’d be like to hobble along the avenues with a walker, the boxy aluminum kind favored by senior citizens.
“Take off your shoes and socks,” Dr. Dave says.
When I asked Bill how long he was planning to stay in New York, the question tumbled out, as if I’d spoken one word with many syllables. The zing in my speech also tap-danced through my arteries. I thought about my friends, who maybe weren’t so flaky, who maybe intuitively knew that those two keys would’ve kept me from Bill. And hadn’t Bill just answered my question? About staying in New York to be with me?
In thunderclouds, ions slamdance their way through the sky, searching for displaced protons, searching so intensely that they connect earth and sky in one billion volt-charges that kill more people each year than tornados and hurricanes combined. Your skin may tingle, or hair stand on end as a warning, but typically, you feel nothing until the bolt strikes. And so it is, all too often, with urges.
We were up against a wall of the landing. Or rather Bill was up against me and my back was up against the wall. He thrust his pelvis so that his cock slid along my thighs, caught where they met. I traced the plateaus and ditches of his torso. He buried his face in my armpit, sucking. Then we were down on the floor, a hurricane of limbs ricocheting off walls and knocking over bottles. My cheeks were whisker-burned raw. Our clothes lay crumpled around the landing, soiled by spilled beer and cigarette ashes. We reached for them, untangled pant legs and shirtsleeves. The smell of piss wafted up the stairwell. Bill checked the time on his cell phone. Quarter till eight.
He suggested we get a hotel in the afternoon, after the intervention with Certifiable, and I readily consented. He removed the crinkled baggie from his pants pocket.
“Hang on to this,” he said. “So you can stay awake.”
That hotel would be over six hours away, so drugs or no, I figured I should hop on the uptown train to Leigh’s for at least a little shut-eye. Though dawn had long since bested me to the streets, the sky was still an eye-shadow blue.
Ten subway stops later, I meandered through the Upper East Side—to whittle off another hour, to get the race out of my heart. It was after nine-thirty when I pushed open the apartment door, it’s familiar groan sounding louder than ever.
On the loft bed, Leigh jack-knifed.
“Hey, how are you?” I whispered.
“What the fuck,” she shouted, “are you doing here?” Her girlfriend lay docile beside her, either asleep or doing her best to duck the confrontation.
“I thought it’d be okay to come back now,” I said. “Sorry.”
“I ask for a night. Is that so difficult?”
“I tried, you have no idea how I tried.” The words I spoke skipped ahead of my thoughts.
“One fucking night?” Leigh’s voice got even louder. “You can’t—”
“I don’t have a goddamn home in the world,” I yelled. At least a part of me knew I was being melodramatic, and that, with a little more planning, instead of all this one thing leading to the next to the next, I wouldn’t have been standing in the doorway with all that righteous indignation and what must have been an methamphetamine-tensed jaw.
I tore out of the apartment—but not before grabbing my metal-studded hoody and cramming it into a backpack that already contained a Nalgene bottle, the Village Voice, a couple books and my journal.
I walked the four blocks to Carl Schurz Park. I leaned over the railing there to watch as a tired tugboat pushed cargo up the river towards Hell’s Gate. Then I looked straight down, several stories beneath me, at the four-, five-, six-foot lip of stone that is the last visible layer of Manhattan, a border between solid earth and the churning waters surrounding it. If you fell in, you’d never be able to reach above the sheer stone to save yourself.
I retreated from the railing to a half-circle of semi-secluded benches, and then pulled out the baggie that Bill gave me and the keys to the home I’d claimed not to have. I did another bump.
A forty-year-old man jogged by in a Nike running suit, a German Shepard panting at his side. Morning people. If they weren’t jogging, they were playing hockey on rollerblades. Or sitting on benches, bundled and holding cups of coffee and the Sunday Times. And then there were the families dressed in bright parkas, the mittened hands of parents linked to those of their children like paper doll cutouts.
I smiled, no, I squeezed the sunshine out between my clenched teeth, nodded and waved. Hiya morning people!
My pager vibrated in my left hip pocket, Leigh’s number flashing on the screen. She wanted to get in a last word, maybe, or talk things through, but I wasn’t about to find out. Not anymore, I thought. New York sucks. No porches. No porches means no neighbors, no neighbors means no love.
I had to piss. I approached the one-story building that doubles as a tool shed for park maintenance workers and a bathroom for the rest of us, climbed its half-dozen steps, and walked into the men’s side and up to a urinal. Despite the fact that my bladder was full, I couldn’t empty it, no matter how hard I squeezed my abs. If I felt panic, it was more the general idea of it than the emotion itself. Guys came in, used the urinals on either side of me and left. My legs got wobbly.
I thought I might have better luck sitting, and so I settled myself down onto the seat of a toilet in the corner stall. Before trying to urinate again, I brought the key to my nose and finished the last few bumps and then flushed the baggie, the only evidence of criminal activity, down the drain. I envisioned Bill and me under plush blankets in a downtown hotel. My pants were bunched around my ankles. In the not-cold.
Dr. Dave’s pen makes curlicues above his clipboard as I answer his questions.
“This was the toilet?” he asks.
“And how long were you there for?”
“About five hours.”
“Yeah. And I had my backpack on and it was filled up.” He nods. I congratulate myself for providing Dr Dave with what I believe are the relevant details even as cold perspiration trickles from my armpits.
Personal tragedy in New York City often manifests as public display. At almost any given moment, sirens are screaming through the five boroughs, destined for stabbings and heart attacks and psychotic breaks and car crashes and—I’ll never forget this one—the man whose brain I’d seen scattered in chunks across a sidewalk in Bushwick. He’d been pushed from a fourth-floor window in a drug deal gone bad.
I contributed my own shard to this urban mosaic as I sat on the park toilet throughout that Sunday afternoon, convinced that I would unlock my bladder if I could just perform the right sequence of breath. I sucked in air, slowly and deeply, deeper still until I felt each tendon slide along each rib. Veins slithered. The electricity coursing through synapses—tangible, for the first time.
An eyeball up close in the crack between the stall door and the partition. It blinked and spoke in a black voice: “Dread, how you doin’?”
Listen to the sinews, I thought. Not to the voice. Breathe.
Through breath I could move urine, could move it to different organs, could move it up and out of my bladder into whatever is before the bladder, could move it down, way down, to just about—but never a single drop—out of me.
I developed rigorous breathing patterns. For one variation, I inhaled, air filling belly, lifting balls, expanding bladder; and exhaled, squeezing insides till urine stormed the barricade of brick built across my urethra. In another, I inhaled—“huh”—and exhaled—“ooo”—so fast I sounded like a mating baboon. I cavorted along the cusp of discovery, just as so many other explorers had done: Magellan, Cousteau, Neil Armstrong. Me.
The whooshing flush of a toilet from the adjacent stall seized me, sucked me down into pipes—Breathe, I thought—swirling, ricocheting, “ssshhhh” (sound was a form and it filled my head), shot me out with all the refuse into the East River, far beneath the tugboat I’d seen earlier. Blackness. Breathe in. And out.
“And you know what else,” I say to Dr Dave. “I thought there was an earthquake, that the walls and floors were shaking, but I just kept doing the breathing thing.”
Dr. Dave jots down another line, then tells me my body had been convulsing.
My stomach sours. Close calls have a way of replaying, of haunting your bedside again and again with worst-case scenarios, and I know that Dr. Dave’s revelation won’t be an exception. Perhaps my respiratory fireworks had prevented the blackness from winning that afternoon.
Dr. Dave asks me to pull down my pants and boxers. I lower them and there it is: a ‘U’, my own scarlet letter, emblazoned on my backside.
“I bet that feels good,” he says.
Behind the stall door, the sonorous tones of an old man’s voice began to rouse me from the weakening effects of the drug.
“Time to go,” he said. I went back to breathing.
“You hear me in there? The bathroom is closed.”
“Hey, I been callin’ you for twenty minutes now. I wanna go home.”
I finally sobered enough to do the math, to wonder why this man hadn’t called the cops and, most importantly at that moment, to convince him that he wasn’t going to have to.
“Coming,” I said.
My arms retained full but shaky mobility; however, my legs wouldn’t budge. With a frantic desire to avoid institutionalization of any kind, I clenched the toilet paper dispenser on the left and, on the right, the metal bar that generally serves the elderly and physically challenged. I pulled myself forward with all my strength, vapor pluming from my mouth, a reminder of the cold I still couldn’t feel.
I opened the stall door and there he was, kind enough to be persistent, to not abandon me to the police or worse: a black man with grey hair, garbed in the greens of Parks Department maintenance.
I tried to walk but could only shuffle my feet forward six inches by six inches. He had plenty of time to stare at me as my dumb and debilitated ass attempted to traverse the bathroom, a feat which, at that moment, seemed not unlike a pilgrimage.
“I’m so sorry,” I said to him. “Thank you for not calling the cops. I don’t usually do this.”
“It’s goin’ catch up with you one of these days,” he said. He shook his head.
I hobbled by the maintenance man and outside to the luminous grey of late winter afternoon. He locked the bathroom door behind us, said goodnight, descended the stairs and exited the park. It would take me ten more minutes to navigate those stairs and considerably longer to walk back to Leigh’s. Leigh and I would work things out, I figured, at least for a while longer. As for Bill: flashbacks of our sex in the stairwell got tangled up with lost time on the toilet. That evening, I’d decline his invitation to the hotel. In fact, I’d never see him again.
“Drunkard’s Palsy,” Dr. Dave says as he taps my right hamstring. “Typically happens when someone passes out or nods off on a curb, a bench, a hard surface of some kind, and compresses one of their sciatic nerves—they run from the center of each of your buttocks, here and here, down your legs. The first thing you lose is feeling or motor skills or both. Do it long enough, you lose a lot more.”
Dr. Dave explains that electrical impulses normally rush from one neuron to the next along the sciatic nerve, as the surrounding muscle tissue communicates with the brain. But cinch this nerve, and these impulses are severed. After a period of time—there is no magic number of hours, though surely it depends upon weight and positioning—the sciatic nerve can become so severely damaged that it stops functioning permanently. Consequently, the gluteal muscles around the nerve atrophy.
“You’d be surprised,” Dr. Dave says, “at the number of drunks and junkies who have only half an ass.”
I imagine myself with one full glute and one deflated glute, and know that such a condition will effectively terminate my sex life. I’m beyond words. Tears flood my eyes.
“You’re lucky,” Dr. Dave says. “I think it highly likely that you’ve only sustained temporary nerve damage. If you don’t feel sensations within a week or two, I’ll take another look.”
I wipe at my eyes and feel a jolt of something coursing through me.
“Yeah?” I say.
I battle my cheek and jaw muscles, trying to keep them clenched in a solemn expression, but they liberate themselves all the same and a grin splits my face wide open.
I thank Dr. Dave and realize, with all the tingling nerves I can still feel in my body, that salvation lies in second chances. That’s when you’re between two worlds—catastrophe and the possibility of your life as it was.
Mere minutes after my diagnosis, Dr. Dave is calling in the next patient, the mohawked squatter. And I, I am stepping out into the unseasonably warm weather wearing an ice cream grin. Half a block later, I’m bobbing along to salsa music emanating from a static-y radio on a second story fire escape. And that’s when I promise to never ever do so many things again. But, of course, the hardest part of a promise comes long after it’s made.
Tim Doody’s essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Brooklyn Rail and Brevity. ABC’s Nightline included Tim in a national list of “particularly troublesome, even dangerous, anarchists,” and Rush Limbaugh made fun of him and his last name on the air. He’s online at http://timdoody.me.
Illustrations by Carlo Quispe. Carlo contributes to World War 3 Illustrated, has drawn the Everything Is Okay Comic since 2001 and recently launched the magazine Uranus: Comics from Another Planet (Printed Matter).