Today I was driven to the hospital--an hour south from my B&B in Pawling, NY-- by Joe Greco, who owns a limo service in town. Mr. Greco wore black pants, ironed to perfection, a starched white shirt, and a vest; with his small mustache, Italian good looks and dapper apparel, he looked a lot like Tony Bennett. I slept in the back of his limo most of the way; it was seven-thirty in the morning and my lumbar puncture was scheduled for ten o'clock. We arrived with an hour to spare, and as he helped me out of the limo, he looked me up and down as if about to send me off to the first grade. "You look fine. You look fine," he said. "Just your hair."
Always it has been "just my hair." Always a wild, tangled mess. Many times others have suggested I comb it, but the most memorable person was Willy, my Italian super at the building on Hawthorne Street, in Houston. He suggested I might be "more lucky in love if you'd comb that hair."
Today, forty years later, another Italian tried to comb it out with his fingers.
"You just need a comb," he said. "You gotta comb?"
No, I muttered. No comb. Nope.
"You gotta have a comb," he said, and gave up with the hands and went into his glove compartment, grabbed his own black hair comb—I hadn’t seen one like it in years—and handed it to me. I combed out my hair.
I looked at him for the okay. "That’s it. Girl. You look fine," he said, giving me a small directional pat on the back in the direction of the hospital door.
Still dull from the limo nap, I went to the reception area of Radiology where a young olive-skinned woman with thick, curly, chestnut hair sat before a computer with her command center behind her of plastic trays, printer and copy machine. She asked my name without looking up at me. Then typed it into the computer, her burgundy nails making a clatter, then there was quiet as she moved her head closer to the screen for a laser-like look at the information. She'd seen something she sure didn't like.
You didn’t preregister, she said-- not a question, an accusation. She was pissed. She began the registration process-- barked out questions, typed the answers, rolled her chair to the printer, rolled it back, her wheels on the floor rough and loud, accompanying the buzz of the printer, the whoosh of the copier; she folded the papers, pressed so hard on the yellow marker that it squeaked as she drew the lines where I was to sign.
All of this done with the aura of trying desperately to make a deadline. As if there was a line down the hallway..
The place was empty.
As I signed the form, she'd stared down at her bracelets, arranging the gold charms. Twenty minutes later, two other women came in, one poor soul bent over a walker, simpering a plea to her to please schedule both of her procedures on the same day so she didn’t have to come back the next day.
She fixed the schedule, without looking up, without saying yes she would do it, just again the flurry of angry activity. I thought she imagined herself the Wizard of Oz. A perpetually exasperated Wizard.
A nurse came for me, and soon I was in the surgical OR where a doctor walked in, washing his hands on a towel; it was as if he was my mechanic who was talking to me while looking under my hood, telling me what he was doing all along the way, teasing Orlando, the young tech who was so kind, very worried I was going to fall off the table—since it was turned to tilt me so the fluid would flow out of my back. At one point, the doctor said, You are going to have to loosen your grip on young Orlando so he can come around here and take this vial.
"That doctor of yours wants a lot of fluid. It's going to take awhile," he said. "Drip by drip," he said, exhaling a sigh. My back was too him, the small of my back. the most vulnerable spot on my body, where I've had two laminectomies, from where the pain had radiated for five years before the laser surgeries.
I'd looked at the "live" picture of my spine with the bright white thread of the needle on a screen near my head.
I decided to try to think some good thoughts and then the image appeared to me of the line of maples along the road of Hopkins Forest, each with a tag and a bucket.
"It's like I'm a maple tree," I said. Orlando laughed and I gave his forearm a squeeze. The doctor said, "I like the plain old bad for you fructose syrup myself."
He took four large vials of my spinal fluid.
"She wants to see it" he told Orlando, as he snapped off his latex gloves. Orlando held a vial up to my face as I held onto the tilted table. The fluid was so clear that I thought it was empty.
After the hour-long procedure, Orlando wheeled me into a room—not a recovery room, more like an examination room. Blood pressure velcro arm bands and stethoscopes hung from hooks on the tiled wall. I knew I was suppose to remain still and lying down for an hour before I left. This is essential so that no spinal fluid leaks through the hole in your back into the rest of your body, which causes a VERY HORRIBLE HEADACHE.
After awhile, I knew no one had remembered I was in the room—no one had looked in on me for forty-five minutes. So when the clock hit the ten minutes before-I-could-get-up mark, I'd struggled to retrieve my clothes, item by item, from under the bed. I'd hung almost upside down with my head part way, sideways through the railings, stretching my arm and hand down blindly to feel for my purse, my ruffled skirts, my blouse. I'd dressed while managing to keep prone. My phone was dead so I couldn’t call Joe Greco.
I'd watched the clock and when it had been a full hour, I'd gotten up, tested my legs, and checked out my balance before I stepped into a large central room with signs reading: Medical Personnel Only.
There was not a soul around.
It was lunchtime.
I'd pushed open a door beneath a red exit sign, and there was the reception desk. There sat the same brusque, bitchy woman who’d checked me in. I wasn’t surprised that she didn’t recognize me from the check in. Honest-to-god, she’d not looked up at me the entire time she checked me in. When I'd appeared four and a half hours later, I was a complete stranger to her.
I'd stood before her--sheet white and unsteady--and asked her to please call the number on the business card for my ride. She said, There’s a phone in the waiting room, pointing in the direction as she looked down and arranged papers on the desk.
To throw her off her game, I'd said, “I just got off the table in there after the procedure.”
THEN she'd looked up at me.
She'd asked in a huff--“Do they KNOW you’ve gone?” as if I were escaping without permission from the sixth grade class.
“I don’t know,” I'd said, “but I kind of doubt it.”
I'd walked to the waiting room, called my driver, and during the call, the nurse came in with a bottle of water in her hand, looking both sheepish and puzzled. Drink two quarts today, she'd advised.
Of course, when I left, I'd walked out of the wrong door. I was at the back door and my driver was at the front entrance. I had to walk around the building to find Joe Greco, who had his ass in the air as he searched for his sunglasses under the seat of his car.
I'd cried out as if I’d been wandering for hours--Joe. Joe. It’s me.
He shouted, Good God, my dear. What are you doing? Where did you come from?
I'd gotten situated on my back in the limo, and we'd begun to chat. He'd said he had a life worthy of a book. This was after he'd asked what I'd taught at Rice. I'd said creative writing.
Tell me the story, I'd said to him.
He'd said, I'll give you the synopsis.
No, tell me the whole story. Why not, I'd said. We have two hours. TELL IT, I'd commanded in my teacher voice.
I was nauseated, dizzy and my back was stinging. I wasn't even allowed to have my head raised by a pillow
He told me he’d played in a band with John Hallyday (the French Elvis!) in France in the late 60s and throughout the 70s.
He’d been a poor boy from the Bronx –with “heart mummurs”--- whose mother worked in a seamstress factory.
He’d heard Chuck Barry on his grandmother’s transistor radio and decided he wanted to play guitar. It took a couple of years before his mom let him take lessons--"They thought my heart was too weak," he said. Although he wasn't allowed to play sports in school or take horn or guitar lessons, he raced through the Bronx parks and streets on his bike with ten kids every day after school until dark.
But he got those lessons and was a natural.
He told me all about the big concerts he played in the Bronx as a teenage band leader.
Night after night, he said, the kids came, the line circling around two, three, four blocks, waiting to hear Joey and the Falcons.
An agent saw him, signed him, sent him to France to be in Johnny Hallyday’s band.
He’d handed over the car seat a bunch of pictures and programs secured in plastic. One was a black and white photo of Paul McCartney, the youngest photo of him ever!, who is holding Joey's forty-five record in his hands while talking to Johnny Hallyday. The Beatles had come to hear a black band and stayed to hear Joey's band, then stayed to talk and have drinks. He'd sat with John Lennon in an alcove.
Joey's band member friend, Ralph, puked on Ringo's knee and Ringo wouldn't let the manager of the palace throw him out, instead ordered coffee for them all, saying, "He's a good lad. He's just missing Mary Anne."
Ralph had moaned all night about missing his American girlfriend Mary Anne.
You Americans, Ringo had said. Your girlfriends. Your beer. You should try whiskey. He’d ordered an aged whiskey and when it came he sipped it. Ralph chugged it. The result was the puking.
I'd asked Joe if Ralph and Mary Anne had stayed together. Yes, they had, he said. Had children, divorced, but were still close friends!
Then I recognized the top of the trees on the lane to the B&B. We’d arrived at my inn. That's what a good story can do for you. Make you forget you had a spinal tap. Make you wonder where the time went. Make an unpleasant receptionist fade as if you'd never laid eyes on her. In the whole wide world there was only Joey Greco and his band.