Discretion Grove: Life in a Medical Ghetto



E 74th St and York Ave., new york, ny 10028

Neighborhood: Upper East Side

I live in a medical ghetto. Within my zip code there are 12 hospitals, one famous medical school, one re-known cancer center, one biomedical research institution, 18 medical laboratories and 1,866 doctor‚s practices. Vamps, a shoe emporium two blocks away from my apartment, stocks Danish clogs popular with area nurses. The mission of the Roman Catholic parish around the corner is “to serve those who serve the sick.” Local excitement is limited to the nearby emergency rooms. Friends who live downtown tend to visit me only when they have doctor’s appointments. I have not persuaded them that my far-eastern patch of Manhattan’s east 70‚s is more than a medical outpost – that beneath the death, disease and decay, there is a faint but steady pulse here.

Indeed my particular block is nearly lively. Whenever I slink out of my dim rear apartment and onto my forlorn stretch of E. 74th Street, I am enchanted by its small wonders. If enchantment is akin to magic, my block is an illusion. David Copperfield’s, a pub at the corner of 74th and York Avenue, is a warning shot that things here are not as they seem. With its plaits of exposed fire escapes, my block appears sullen and dowdy. On closer inspection, there is a hint that still waters run deeply beneath it. Give it time and it sheds the wallflower disguise it dons for Manhattan’s costume ball.

In scale, 74th Street between 1st and York Avenues is a standard upper-Manhattan side street. Each end is anchored by bland apartment high-rises resembling long-term care facilities. Fortunately they blend in well with the area hospitals and one hardly notices them at all. Only their doormen – or, in the case of one, an ill-fitting moniker better suited for a New England prep school – gives them away. It is impossible not to notice, however, how these impassive behemoths greedily hog the quickly passing and low-lying Northern light. Or how the rest of the block’s residents dwelling in a hodgepodge of 20th-Century walk-ups – wallow in a perpetual ‘heure blue’. By a wintry Noon, the street’s deceptive cocktail hour hue beckons the sober.

Thankfully the dusky corridor lacks a decent gin joint. The block is, however, serviced by no less than two dry-cleaners, two delis, and three parking structures. Choosing one’s allegiance to one establishment is no easy decision. One environmentally friendly dry-cleaner tugs at my conscience. Another is operated by a hardworking Korean lady with a shy smile and a keen memory for my personal items. Her stamp-size storefront bellows with Korean sermons and Christian battle hymns blaring from a cheap radio. She and her Mexican assistant labor six days a week from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., sorting socks, folding t-shirts, and clinging to their American Dreams. I cannot help but betray the macro Environment for the zeal of their hopeful microenvironment.

I soothe my conscience with the reminder that I do not own an emission-spewing automobile. If I did, I’d be torn between where to park it. I could go ten paces across the street to the lackluster 24-Hour Parking, or hike halfway up the block to the sensuous-sounding Tamir Garage. Tamir’s slogan to “experience the difference” sways me. I am tempted to rent a car just to discover the secrets of its mysterious “difference”. Perhaps deep inside subterranean Tamir there is car-side beverage service delivered by sari-clad lovelies offering sweet milky assam tea in winter and icy kewra essence in summer. Anglophiles with less colonial appetites can opt instead for the crusty-sounding Stratford Garage.

All-day parking is just one of this stretch of 74th St.’s attractions. For the footloose and car-free there are plenty more. My favorite is the daily changing of the window display at Creative Cakes Bakery. This ritual joy allows me to discreetly peek into the lives of strangers. Each day, baker Bill Schutz magically transforms flour, sugar, eggs and a secret ingredient into every imaginable shape to mark a birthday, bat-mitzvah, retirement, or anniversary. If someone can think of it, Bill can bake it. He forms cake into Speedo!=-clad, paunchy retirees idly sipping rum punches in Paradise, a Bronx Cheer Whoopee Cushion blurting out an engagement announcement, or a newspaper‚s front page heralding the major life events of an aging baby-boomer. Everyday we passers-by get to crash the party.

There is also the possibility that Mostly Memories antique shop will open for business. The shop’s schedule is as unpredictable as its merchandise. As its name implies, the goods sold there are more likely faded memories than genuine antiques. If the weather or his mood permits, the lanky Hungarian owner drags his wares out onto the sidewalk for public perusal. People flock to the clutter like witnesses to an eviction. Until its time to drag it back inside, the Hungarian spends his day stripping varnish and chain smoking. Whenever I stop to check out a faux Empire coffee table, a Nixon-era dining set, or an 80‚s computer desk, his kinetic, stiletto-heeled wife springs out of their shop like a cuckoo from a clock, barking her prices with exacting precision.

While it may lack café‚s in which to sip a mid-day pastis, boutiques that stock imported Brazilian panties or cabarets with Cole Porter-cooing sirens, my block is not without it‚s sensual pleasures. Sitting demurely in its middle, is the Gladys Monroe Eastside Day Spa. When I get up my nerve to have another bikini wax, Gladys Monroe is where I will go. At the moment, I am still recovering from my first and last bikini wax two years ago. I denuded myself in preparation for my honeymoon and still recall the pain of each pubic hair as it was wrenched from my crotch. It hurt like hell. Afterwards, I collapsed into the Romanian beauty technician’s ample bosom and whimpered like a baby. She was a wise old woman and knew my tears were just pre-wedding jitters. I, on the other hand, still associate my breakdown with the pouring of hot wax on my pubic area. With its Nagle-ish wall décor, worn furnishings, and proximity to my apartment, Gladys Monroe Eastside Day Spa looks like a suit! able sanctuary for another breakdown. At least I can easily flee home and cry like a baby in my own bed. At the York Avenue end of the block is a sanctuary of a different sort ‘The Church of the Epiphany’. Like the Tamir Garage, it lures its customers with a motto that beckons discovery. Epiphany hails itself as “the right sized church.” The modest redbrick exterior of the church was designed in the simple vernacular of Anglican parish churches. It does not impose itself on the block. Its transept tower politely reaches heavenward while its long, low nave stretches back along 74th Street, allowing morning light to stream down the block.

Inside, the church is strikingly bare. Narrow stained-glass windows punctuate its Gothic Revival stone walls. The vaulted roof is wooden and unadorned. The eye‚s focus is intentionally brought forward to the altar where a high cross hangs, framed by a simple curtain of celadon-green cloth. Sometimes when I am agitated and cannot manage to arrange either my thoughts or the alphabet, I leave my home office, cross the street and slip into the doors of Epiphany. There I find my way to peace. Sometimes I sit and pray. Sometimes I just sit quietly and savor the still. Or sometimes I practice listening. I listen to the organist rehearse on the historic Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ, to the birds singing in the church‚s hidden garden or to my own thoughts. There is one constant at Epiphany – no one ever disturbs me.

Refreshed, I then return to my desk to wrestle with my own minor epiphanies. Self-absorbed in my insular rear apartment, it is easy to forget that I live in a medical ghetto. I rarely hear the sirens through the thick bricks of my 100 year-old walls. But some afternoons I hear the sweet sound of children singing “The Hokey-Pokey” or “Happy Birthday” and then I remember those angelic voices belong to the sick kids staying at the Ronald McDonald House on 73rd Street.

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§ One Response to “Discretion Grove: Life in a Medical Ghetto”

  • Lisa Yashon says:

    I’d love for you to contact me sometime, to talk about a mutual friend/boyfriend, from decades ago (Peter). He and his sister Karen have been in my thoughts lately, and I know you were in his thoughts often. Would like to read more of your writings, too.

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