The Promised Land
My studio apartment at 69 West 9th Street in New York has three adjacent windows that face west onto 6th Avenue and a most incongruous sight: a Neuschwanstein-style castle, the Jefferson Market Library and Clock Tower. On the south side of the castle is a lovely gated garden, run by a local non-profit, that is open to the public three seasons a year. It is located on the former site of the notorious women’s prison of New York City (largely housing prostitutes). The architectural complexity of the castle, with its spires, stained-glass windows of various shapes, and clock tower, never fails to bring joy to the eye.
I lived in Greenwich Village for two years, some 50 years ago, but have frequently returned for visits. The Village, SoHo, the East Village, Little Italy, the Lower East Side, China Town, Tribeca—all familiar territory, bringing non-stop entertainment to this curious pedestrian. The buildings are packed with myriads of small, privately owned shops and restaurants charged with the flavor of their owners. Few chain stores (though more and more now) are the rule. Of course, change is not only inevitable but can be exciting. My persona feeds off change, clings only gently to the past, have my “head” into the future—or so I like to think.
The multitude of eclectic men’s and woman’s shoe boutiques that used to populate 8th Street east of 6th Avenue have evaporated with the same rapidity with which they appeared, as though afflicted by some kind of blight. Many have been replaced with ethnic restaurants when it seemed not even one more could survive. The French Roast on 10th Street and 6th Avenue, my old breakfast and coffee house hangout, is now a Mexican restaurant. My son warns me it may be hard to locate a restaurant or coffeehouse tolerating hangers-outs these days. Washington Square Park has had a makeover. The fountain and Monument Arch remain as before. The dog run has been upgraded as have the green areas and the children’s playground. Thankfully, the chess player corners remain a staple cultural tradition of the Village. At 69W, “Failed” management caused a closing of Baldacci’s upscale grocery. Citarella’s Gourmet Market replaced it as the building’s first floor retail space renter. The store’s wares excite, educate. Half the fish and shellfish for sale are unknown to me. These are the raw ingredients for the Haute Cuisine Chef. Exotic and very expensive delicacies find a sufficient number of buyers amongst a rich and sophisticated neighborhood clientele.
“Good Morning Dr. Zuckerman. Long time no see. How long do you plan to stay? How is your daughter, Gabrielle, doing?” Terrell, named after Terrell Davis of NFL fame, the 30ish soft-spoken and handsome daytime doorman inquires when we arrive.
“Gaby is in Chicago, no, L.A., no no, Minneapolis. She gave up her job in Chicago out of restlessness and is now a loose screw. She had a gig in L.A. that fell through but picked up other work helping to put a program together for Facebook in Denver,” I responded in long wind. “I’ll be here for two weeks.” Even though my visits to 69W are sporadic, the help is constant and attuned to Dr. Zuckerman. My daughter’s personality personalizes her relationships with staff and, through her influence; I sense they have “up” vibes for me.
I introduce Pamela, who is feeling sidelined, but who then quirkily regains her composure and jokingly flirts with Terrell and another male maintenance person present, to their and her delight. “New York’s finest,” she chortles.
Pamela biked with me for the first year we dated. Her lithe body did not come with endurance and her mind never participated in disciplined training programs. But walking arouses her. Biking has been my passion, but not my obsession, for the past 15 years. Every opportunity I bike: to work, to shop, to visit friends, to the post office. Most days my car sees little use outside of deep winter when ice made bicycling life threatening. Once a week, my physically matched buddy, Lloyd and I would head out on well-groomed bike trails into the countryside for 30-40 miles, easy as you go, jaunts. We familiarized ourselves with the most tasty, hospitable, laid-back restaurants along our way. Our trips blend the physical with equal time for multiple stops to “chew the fat.”
Lloyd actually overmatches me physically. He is six years younger and works out. But he is most thoughtful and never outpaces me, allows me often to set the pace. I have an edge in banter, especially regarding the always relevant field of medical “conditions” we both have to deal with.
Lloyd is a transplanted Trinidadian of African descent. He has worked as a partner in a small software-related company with four Caucasian partners for twenty years. Most everywhere I go with Lloyd, I sense his uniqueness, his blackness and, at times, his dis-ease with some of our stop offs. Maybe I am bent toward optimism, but when the settings are tense, I assume it is because Lloyd’s identity causes confusion rather than hostility. Lloyd and I are similar in stature and demeanor; his color and the island lilt in his English pronunciation are our only really distinguishing characteristics.
Pamela has helped me keep my walking skills, lest my joy of biking make me a pedestrian invalid. When in New York, we walk three to six miles a day, picking a general direction and heading off to find thrills. But first comes breakfast and after heading west on Greenwich Avenue we come to Rosemary’s at 10th Street. I hesitate. Rosemary’s natural, farm fresh food style, that’s okay, but $$$$. The atmosphere in the large, barn-like dining room with its high-ceiling, totally windowed east and south sides facing on to the street, bright lighting and muted sounds is relaxed, unhurried. The large room is continuously three quarters empty.
As a doctor, the health food, organic grown movement does not impress me. Humans in America live too long as it is, living long enough to develop Alzheimer’s disease. This leads to a financially depleting life in a nursing home as the reward for eating healthy. I tell this to all who will listen, only partially with tongue in cheek. “The warranty on human parts runs out at age 50,” I proclaim. But Rosemary’s pleasantries grow on us. We spend two hours every morning over breakfast, lattes, straight coffee, exotic mixed fruit juices, warm grains, intimate chatter and The New York Times. The woman at the next table has her laptop open for action and has what I assume are clients passing through every half hour.
Our waitress most mornings, Gloria, is the epitome of a Central/South American indigenous native. “Where are you from, Gloria?” I ask one day. “Are you Mayan?”
“No, I am from Columbia.”
“Ah, then you are Inca.”
She lights up. “Something like that.”
I have visited Otavalo Tribal Markets in the Andean Highlands of Ecuador just south of the Columbian border. I guessed Inca as I remember from a course I took about tribes of Central and South America that the Inca dominated the Andean highlands that now lie in various countries, including Columbia.
“Good choice, babe,” I congratulate myself.
Then we walk. It is cool but not cold, and walking keeps us comfortable. The sun is out and the land lies before us. We meet people; we stare at buildings, gawking like tourists, look in stores, and are swept up in the “streets” tempo, the varieties of humans.
Pamela needs to shop. She is a former clotheshorse who is being barraged by boutique upon boutique. Boots, shoes, coats, jeans, hats. Minneapolis is a designer desert—dull, asexual, gray, and functional. Suddenly there is a starburst of design infused with intrigue, sexuality, and Pamela experiences an unquenchable addict’s need to indulge. A shop on Bleecker, just west of 7th Avenue, is all shoes with a sprinkle of woman’s hats. It draws Pamela in, opening the way for the shopkeeper from Morocco to target her with his wares. The Latin music in the background and the fellow’s brown skin make me mistake him for Latin, but I’m quickly corrected. He is from Morocco and so I dub him morocco Joe. He fast talks the already excited Pamela. How well she knows, from years of indulgence, how to adorn her curvaceous 5’6’’ posture-perfect frame. She is not finicky or insecure. Her eyes scan the sea of footwear designs stuffed into the mini shop. Two pair of short boots with buckles, straps and colored leather strips galore stand out, and then one pair quickly wins out. Then its finding the right size as inventory has shrunken due to Amazon. Networked by phone, the right size is tracked down, delivery “guaranteed” in two days. I am hyperventilating: I feel like I’m on the Paul Bunyan log ride at the Mall of America. My log boat is being dragged to the cascading waterfall and I am about to lose control, go “over the edge.” I signal slow, caution, treachery ahead, but only further inflame the alliance between Joe, the fast talking shop keeper, and Pamela. I am being shoved into the rapids, its open warfare, and frenzied buying. Another pair of shoes, two hats. “I’ll pay for the shoes with my own money,” Pamela defiantly proclaims. I catch myself in mid-mouth and squash my usual reflex response.
“You have no money, only our money, and 90% comes from me.” I just clam up and take the fall.
Joe is diminutive in stature, 5’5’’ maybe, 50 or so, modest in all but his spitfire, heavily accented sales spiel. To me, he is con and now that I have regained the voice of the Shmata Maker in me, I let him have it. “Joe, don’t take me for a Shmo, you’re out to get my dough, and I suspect with quality so low.” He squirms, Pamela demands, I state my case—to no avail. Two pairs of shoes, two hats, one with “ears” tacked on with safety pins! I have credit carded them all even though one pair of the shoes are “on the come” to Minneapolis…maybe!
Two days later, with my paranoia index at max, we return to Joe’s store, Tooch on Bleecker—and it is gone! “Just as I predicted, that fly-by-night Joe packed up and disappeared!” Pamela frowns and I go to suck it in—but as we head farther west on Bleecker, there is Tooch, there is talky talk Joe and there is the mailing coupon, shoes on their way, to Minneapolis. I am exposed, chastised.
Joe knows I am a doctor; it’s on my credit card, “M.D.” What follows goes to the heart of the matter. Joe points to his lower left jaw. “I had a tumor here.”
“Cancer?” I ask.
“No, a tumor and they cut it out. They took bone from my left leg to fix up the hole in my jaw. The place they took the bone from never healed, even after two more operations. It’s been six years. It’s a mess. You don’t mind if I show you a picture of my leg?”
“No, I’m curious and I’m sure I have seen worse.”
Joe shows me three pictures on his iPhone taken of his left lower leg. I can easily make out the thickened dark pigmented tissue patch with its telltale redness where skin no longer covers underlying flesh. Joe has an open wound and worse yet in a most vulnerable location, his lower leg. I inquire, “Does the wound weep?”
“Yes, and it hurts so hard I can hardly walk. The student that sewed my leg up screwed me up. It’s been six years. Do you think I should sue?”
Twenty odd years ago, I was brought up on charges of medical negligence by the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice. The board had no lawyers on its staff; rather it used the MN. Attorney General’s legal staff to carry out investigations. The investigation was, in reality, an interrogation, punishment before decision. I cried openly two or three times during the one and a half year ordeal. Was I guilty? No one died or was injured, the one and only “bad” case ever was iffy, the core issue was that I was duped by a drug addict. I received a slap on the wrist but I will not forget the investigation torment. The record is public for anyone who questions my version. Like Joe’s leg, this psychological wound has not completely healed. I advise the use of lawyers to patients only in egregious cases of what I consider malpractice. I don’t like what lawyers can do to doctors.
“Have you talked to a lawyer, a malpractice lawyer?”
“No,” he tells me.
“Well, you need to, and make sure he or she is truly a malpractice specialist and that they will take your case on contingency basis. No money up front! That’s the best way to tell if he thinks you’re a winner.”
“Thank you so much,” Joe blurts out. “I am so afraid, so anxious. Every day I am in pain. Give me your phone number, maybe you know somebody who can help me?”
“I can advise you but I don’t know any malpractice lawyers.” Actually I know one famous one, Bucky Zimmerman, but he up and died recently!”
“Still, you and Pamela are good people. You have helped me and I’ll do as you say.”
Well, all that ended the salesman/customer relationship. It is now me as doctor, and Joe is the patient. It’s Tikkun Olam time. It no longer matters if the shoes fit, or the hats fall apart. I have gotten my monies’ worth. If the shoes fit and the hats last, Pamela will be triumphant, strutting about in her new purchases. She is already gallivanting about on the streets of Greenwich Village, New York, where 10th Street crosses 4th, where the island narrows down as it heads south for SoHo, Tribeca, Wall Street, Battery Park, where a map of the Village deceives as much as its counterpart does of Venice. Men give Pamela the “glad eye.” Women are curious, some openly sneer. Pamela proudly inhales the attention, the envy. I was wrong—Joe and Pamela got it right! Viva GV!