The Shanghai Princess



W 114th St & Amsterdam Ave, New York, NY 10025

Neighborhood: Morningside Heights

Ariel was convulsing. I had been trained in CPR, but couldn’t remember how to do it. The patient telephone was sitting by her side and a loud dial tone rang out. She was a bouncing fish on the stool, spewing foam from her mouth. I held her head so it wouldn’t rap against the wall. Her eyes rolled back. I called out for the other staff member. “Call 911!” I yelled. The staff member’s footsteps were heavy against the stairs. “What should we do?” he asked as he saw me hugging Ariel’s body. Not knowing whether he had called 911, I called again from the payphone. The operator asked me how old she was. “Forty something,” I said. “Is she breathing?” “Yes,” I said. Ariel was gargling her own saliva, gasping for air.

She was suddenly awake. Her pupils were pinpoints.

“Ariel, are you OK?”

She stood up and scanned her environment as if she were about to be attacked.

“Sit down, sweetie,” I said. “You just had a seizure.” She stormed out of the lobby area and into the kitchen.

“Ariel!” we screamed.

The police knocked at the front door. Another patient let them in.

“What’s the problem?” one of them asked.

“She just had a seizure,” I said pointing toward the kitchen.

Ariel was pacing around. “Ariel,” one of the police officers said. “Hey, please have a seat.”

She sat down and stared at a bucket of butter spread. She took out a cigarette.

“Don’t smoke, Ariel,” an officer said.

Her hands were shaking. She glared at me. She dipped the cigarette into the butter spread and ate it.

“Ariel!” I said reaching into her mouth.

“Hey,” an officer said to me. “She may bite you.”

I retracted my hand.

“Holy shit, is she always like this?”

The paramedics arrived. A medic with dreadlocks injected her with something. As the fluid went into her veins, she started to talk. “What happened?” she asked.

“Did you take drugs?” the medic with the dreadlocks asked.


He eyed me. “We’re going to take her to St. Luke’s.” He pulled me aside. “We think she took some opiates because she came out of it when we gave her that medication. That blocks the drugs from working.”

They helped her into the ambulance. “You coming?” they asked me.

I sat next to her.

I had been sitting there for hours. Ariel was dressed in a gown. An IV was hooked to her arm. She slept. She had wanted some coffee, but I didn’t know if that was appropriate. I sipped my coffee, hoping she wouldn’t awaken and see me drinking it. The nurse had asked me if she takes any medication. I told them I gave a copy of her meds to the medic. “She lives in a home for people with schizophrenia,” I told the nurse.

Ariel seemed to have a crush on me. She always asked me, “Do you have a girlfriend?” I told her that I did. “You know,” she said to me once. “I lived in Michigan and we passed through a town called Leland. I remember going to a restaurant in Leland that served French Fries and stuff.”

The nurses brought in an elderly woman next to us. “She can’t seem to make a bowel movement,” a middle-aged woman said to the nurse.

“Hello,” the nurse said loudly to the elderly woman. “When was the last time you had a bowel movement?”

The woman grumbled something. She was small and fragile. She sounded as if she might have been from the Caribbean. A lacy shawl was draped over her head.

“She’s an author, you know,” the middle-aged woman said.

“Oh! What’s the name of a book you’ve written?” the nurse asked.

The woman moaned. “Shanghai Princess,” she said.

I was bored. I wanted out of there and out of this job. I felt depleted, broke, spent. I was outside smoking a cigarette. It was at least my fifth since I had been there with Ariel. Inside the waiting room, the security guard stared out the window, into the distance. A teenager in baggy pants was talking on his cell phone. I had seen him earlier in the waiting room. I was contemplating my next move. In the last few months, I had called 911 several times. An obese woman who always listened to Kiss on her headphones had lit her canvas bag on fire that summer. She ended up taking off on a Greyhound bus for Nevada. Jonathan, a chess master who had defeated Bobby Fisher once in the 1960’s, had erupted into a tirade about another patient. “I’m gonna kill the bastard!” he screamed. He wouldn’t talk to me after I called the police on him. When Ariel went into convulsions, I pictured the fat CPR trainer going through the steps of care. I thanked god that she didn’t stop breathing.

As I finished my cigarette, the kid with cell phone shook hands with a passerby, exchanging something into the guy’s hand. The passerby walked away, checking the small plastic bag.

A man across the street carried a camcorder. He was dressed in a plaid sports coat and blue slacks. He was talking to himself. Three young latinas walked past me on my side of the street. The man with the camera zoomed in on them. “Hey, girls!” he screamed at them. “You could be models on TV! Hey!” They continued down the sidewalk, chuckling. The man screamed, “And that’s a wrap!”

“How are you doing?” I asked Ariel. She was lying on the cot, her legs curled into a ball near her chest.

“OK, “ she said.

The elderly woman moaned. The woman turned toward the nurse. “Please,” she said in a raspy voice. “Don’t torture me.”

The nurse laughed. “Honey,” she said to the woman. “We don’t torture people here. Those are writer’s thoughts.” She turned toward the sheet that partitioned the room. “At least not on my shift,” she muttered.

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§ One Response to “The Shanghai Princess”

  • Judy Meibach says:

    Knowing Leland from the mental health industry makes me appreciate this piece all the more – your combination of writing and emotion is powerful and well written – it gets the reader into the story and almost makes the reader wish they were there.

§ Leave a Reply

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