For several reasons, I wrote this approximately 3 weeks ago, but I haven't been able to post it until now. To be read in the context of mid-to-late August. I'll write soon about the up-to-present. And how I saw the writer from "Stahnding Room Only" (February) again last week.
After a job interview, my new boss suggested I check out St. John the Divine. “Have you been there?” “No .” “It’s the largest cathedral in North America.”
I walked up Amsterdam to 110th . I like cathedrals – it’s a place to commune, to be quiet. I like the stone and cold, windows and dark light. In Paris, it’s Notre Dame (however clichéd) and everywhere else. Here, it’s…
I went in, similar feeling, similar, except not nearly as cold. Quiet. Leaving, I walked up the street to discover more of my new New York. Next to the cathedral, there is a hospital. Pause. Ridiculous – no – nothing to do there – to see whom?
Pause, but there's a small pull and I walk towards the main entrance. It’s unfamiliar (but I’ve worked in 7). It’s private (never done that) and there’s a guard at the desk.
I was planning to try the Hungarian Pastry shop – almost everyone I’ve met has mentioned it, in a week and a half. So many writers have written books there, they said. Covers on the wall. Except – there is a hospital. And if the cafeteria’s anything like that at my home hospitals (ie, tables, chairs, space, half-decent coffee at times) – that’s where I could write a book, too.
I’m not dressed for it. Yes, I was at a job interview, but it’s hot, I’m wearing flip-flops – though, the rest, I have worn to work in pieces. The Cameroonian skirt. Etc.
There is a guard. He asks me “what floor?” and I answer lamely, pointing in the wrong direction, “the gift shop.” (having forgotten my initial coffee idea. It looks alien in here).
I pass people in scrubs – some in the green ones that are my favorites. The yellow cord on that woman means size small. Someone passes me in a white coat. I gravitate. They don’t know I belong.
When I returned from 2 Peace Corps years in Cameroon, I would see groups of West Africans on the street (yes, I can usually tell), in subways, hear African French spoken, see West African clothes, and feel I belonged over there. Once, I chased a woman through a train station to tell her I had a dress of the same women’s day cloth (the bright pink one).
If I dress like that, it’s a little clearer. Or on bush taxis with strangers speaking Bulu, I could surprise and make everyone laugh when I suddenly joined the conversation. Yep, ma wok. I understand. To me: “Ma nye wo!” My reply: “Ma vini wo.” (I love you!/ I hate you. Always good for a laugh). Or…the “marry-mes” (forgetting the Bulu words right now). Me: “Teke djom!” (Never!) Really, anything I said in Bulu was great for laughs. The mintangen (white woman) speaks Bulu! (some, and diminishing).
Back in the States, it was easy enough to blend with Americans (any color) except it felt false. I could look like a visitor at this hospital where I have no patients. They don’t know me. I’m posing.
In my hospitals, no white coat on, hasty ID still in the bag where the iPod earbuds have just disappeared, everyone knows I work there. We’re all obvious to each other and to everyone else. Ownership? Boredom? Concentration? Walking down the hall, checking email, entering stairwells (especially that) without once looking down? We walk faster. We are not, in general, crying (later). We carry no presents, no balloons. And especially in this county hospital (true), we dress differently (it is a level one trauma center, so those patients are undifferentiated – the patient with purposefully (expensive) distressed jeans stood out).
I walked out. I wished I was wearing scrubs, maybe. It’s close to 3 weeks since I’ve been a med student (I’m ____, one of the (a?) student doctors here) (have I forgotten my opening line?) and my stethoscope is on the wall in my apartment. Not stuffed in a bag. Swinging, swinging, swung around my neck. Nameplate facing out. It looks lonely, awkward. It’s only supposed to hang like that on a neck, my neck, and it twists. A stethoscope is never static.
From October 2008 to August 2011, the longest I ever went without seeing patients was 2 weeks.Usually one, usually 3 days. And for a year and a half, five to twelve patients a day, every day. Sometimes for 12 days stretches (or 30 hours). And after this, for the rest of my working life. Same-same.
In the tradition of William Carlos Williams (the one everyone cites to me), I am a poet. “Somewhat writer,” I say. And I only claimed that after the first check came. (First one? $6. But I kept it because in the memo section of this university-generated check is typed “Writer”).
Almost doctor (and I only claim that because, logistically, I have 6 months of classes – by which I mean mostly hospital work – left to graduate). And here I am, many, many miles from the city that’s become home and the hospitals that are home (people, places, patients. In a recent dream, the trope of someone intruding on me at home? Me, scrubs, hospital, waiting for an interminable elevator).
I’m an imposter non-med student, MFA student, and I could walk into a hospital in my scrubs and white coast (both made the packing list) – but I wouldn’t know where to go. No team and no patients. To people who run writing series, lit mags, are published-published-published, I, 7 years out from a literature class (or analysis), very under-read/educated by comparison, published only in lit mags-for-medicine, not knowing poets or literary movements or presses, am going to say I can keep up and have something to contribute? Doctor with a writing hobby? Writer with a doctor hobby? My college degree is in both, I defended a thesis in both, but MD will always precede MFA on the name badge, and I have fewer class hours in a week that I worked in a day. In a city I don’t live in, without any of my hospitals, I’m supposed to sit in cafés and – except for when I’m tutoring med and pre-med students (the aforementioned “job”), writing is not what I do between notecards and medical references. The journal, the poetry book are not what I add to what I carry. They are what’s supposed to be there, this is what I’m paying tuition to do and to learn, and no one expects me to pre-round at 5 and be prepared for rapid fire presentations and invective.
I don’t know what they want or what I can give. This school isn’t a job (paying for the privilege to work, guild system, hierarchy, etc). I call most of my hospital attending by first name anyway, but these poets aren’t doctors (and what, then, is acceptable formal address? Mr/Ms? Seriously?? They’re not all professors). People used to doubt I’d go back to finish med school after this. “I’m more than halfway,” I’d say. “I have to have something to write about.” “Besides, I can’t be a poet with med student-sized debt.” (the joke). It used to annoy me, the: oh, so you write about medicine? Well, when some weeks, months, all of my waking hours except 4 are spent at the hospital, what else might I much write about?
17 days out and I consider communing in hospitals.
This imposter – Franco-American and bilingual, bi-passported, with Cameroon considered a home, grad school nested in grad school, keys for houses in two very different cities on my key chain –
will try to learn to pass.