The Doll Hospital

by

09/07/2002

Neighborhood: Upper East Side

We found the doll right there on 16th Street in Brooklyn, outside the Baptist church (now, don’t get too excited, they’re boring white Baptists–no big hats or electric guitars anywhere in sight). The doll was wrapped in a black plastic garbage bag. Only its feet were showing, chubby little feet in high-button boots.

The church folk had been cleaning out their basement for weeks–piles of clothes, chintzy lamps, magazines had all been put out for the garbage persons. We opened the bag and peeked at the doll. It was about three feet high, a Scottish lad or lassie (it was hard to tell) in kilt and tam-o-shanter, with a grossly out of proportion head and simpering blue goggle-eyes.

It smelled moldy.

“It’s worth something,” I said to Josh.

To the horror of our downstairs neighbors, we brought it inside the building and left it in the foyer for about a week.

I finally couldn’t bear the guilt of forcing the perfectly innocent people we share space with to confront this diminutive Hibernian who looked like he/she had stepped off the set of a seventies horror movie.

So I called the Doll Hospital. I couldn’t describe the doll over the phone, so I decided I’d kill two birds with one stone and schedule an appointment with Dr. Novella, the podiatrist so he could check my orthotics, which had been giving me some trouble. Novella is coincidentally around the corner from the Doll Hospital.

The doll was actually kind of heavy, and was more than half my height.

After Novella shaved down my orthotics, I went back to the car and got the doll. On my way to the Doll Hospital, I decided to cut through Bloomingdale’s to get out of the drizzle that had begun.

I found myself in the sunglasses department, clutching the doll in my arms while a trio of aggressive salespeople jammed sunglasses on my face. All the shades had metal security devices on the part that rests on the bridge of your nose, so I couldn’t tell how they looked. And really, one can never tell how one looks in sunglasses until one sees oneself wearing them in a photo.

I finally escaped and exited onto Lexington Avenue.

The Doll Hospital is on Lexington between 60th and 61st, on the second floor. The place has two large dusty rooms, full of cases containing all sorts of doll parts (just like the Hole song!)–hands, legs, tummies; there are bushels of doll outfits; other bushels of stuffing; and cases of very realistic hand-blown eyes. Its proprietor is an elderly, very large man. He wore old pants, too tight in the middle, floppy on the legs, with an open fly. Still, with his cigar and bushy eyebrows, he was an intimidating figure.

A beautiful brunette apprentice was working for him, scraping a bad paint job off an antique baby doll’s face. Another man was squeezed in the corner near a window, also smoking a cigar.

I handed the doll to the big man, and he just laughed.

“This isn’t even a doll,” he scoffed, “Its a–a–I don’t even know what it is.”

“A novelty item,” the apprentice said in a melodious voice.

“Novelty. Yup.” The second man muttered.

They told me they had no use for it. The young lady said, perhaps if there were a holiday for which they could rent it out…

None of us could think of any Scottish-themed holidays.

“Where did you find it,” the old man said, gentler now that he wasn’t going to have to bargain with me.

“My grandmother’s attic,” I said. Then I heard myself starting to tell them about an imaginary grandmother, a sort of amalgam of my two real ones with aspects of Mary Poppins and Eleanor Roosevelt thrown in–she had a collection of miniature golf figurines; she had been an eccentric, loving old lady, encouraging and humorous; she had been a community leader. Who knew, I said, what her attachment to this hideous Scottish…not doll, but novelty item…was.

“Probably the golfing,” said the apprentice.

“You know who’d love this,” the old man said, “Ernie at the antique store.”

They helped me wrap him/her in plastic (it was pouring outside by now) and gave me directions to get to their friend’s store.

As I walked east, I wondered about my grandmother. It wasn’t like her to hold onto something big and ugly like this. And she must have had it in her basement before the attic–yes, that would explain the mildew. I had started to believe in this fictional grandmother. In fact, my eyes were tearing up with the love and loss I was feeling. She was dead, of course.

Ernie’s antique store was a cool place, full of kitschy, gorgeous old American items. He looked surprisingly like Matt Dillon with a slightly shrunken head, and in the back of his tiny store were his assistants: his mom and a voluptuous forty-ish woman in tight leopard skin garments.

Ernie loved the doll (I was allowed to call it that again now that I was far away from the hallowed Doll Hospital), and he was sorry to hear about Granny’s passing. I told him I thought it had come with bagpipes, but perhaps my grandmother had misplaced them. He wanted to haggle, he was all geared up. But I was sick of the thing, my shoulders and arms ached, my newly shorn orthotics felt weird.

“How low will you go?” He asked.

“Uh, eighty?” I said.

“You sure you don’t want more,” he said, disappointed, admiring the doll’s bobbling head. “I’d be stealing from you, and it’s an heirloom and all.”

“No, that’s fine, really,” I said.

And after a little more of this reverse deal-making, I unloaded the doll, and walked out of there with my pocket full of twenties.

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