Stranger in a Strange Land

Things in the neighborhood changed while John was in the hospital.

It was New Year’s Day in NYC, week-old snow molded over the curbs, and the low January sky looked like a gigantic sheet of brushed aluminum. The doors of St. Vincent’s Hospital opened magically, allowing Marilyn to wheel me into the subzero arctic air, all but scattering rose petals in our path. After two months of medical incarceration, the powers-that-be decided I was ready to face the outside world…or my insurance ran out. Either way I was a free man.

If ever a wheelchair needed a heater it was that morning, but I was so pumped up my metabolism was burning hotter than a nuclear meltdown. I leaned back as if I were in a Barcalounger, closed my eyes and let the idea of never being stabbed again with a syringe at 4 in the morning sink in. Then I turned to Marilyn and said, “We’re outta here.”

On that note we coasted to the corner, hung a left and headed home. As we cruised along I felt like George Bailey running down Main Street in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” savoring all those things he once took for granted. Of course Greenwich Village is slightly different than Bedford Falls.

In my case I was looking forward to seeing Tammy, the transgender manicurist at “Think Pink” who has so many piercings she resembles a walking “connect the dots” game. Or Julio, “Planet Donut’s” barista, with a dozen glazed crullers labeled “Honey-Dip” tattooed on his forearms. And JB, the skeletal owner of “Partners & Crime” mystery bookstore who dresses like Gene Simmons, kabuki makeup and all. Oddballs? Yup. But they were my oddballs. And I knew I’d get a nice homecoming wave as we passed by.

It was as if I had been in a long, Rip Van Winkle-esque sleep and woke up to an unrecognizable world.

Instead, I did a series of theatrical double takes, because my good old West Village ‘hood had turned into a suburban mall littered with “Capital One,” “Starbucks” and “Super Cuts.” All we needed was a “Sunglass Hut” to complete the picture. I looked up at Marilyn and asked, “How long was I in that bed-pan hotel again?” It was as if I had been in a long, Rip Van Winkle-esque sleep and woke up to an unrecognizable world, not to mention an unfamiliar body.

Then I spotted a red illuminated sign that hadn’t morphed into something else. Who would have thought I’d have warm fuzzy feelings about a chain like “CVS.” Still, I knew the cashier with the gold tooth who calls me “doll face” in her husky Lauren Bacall voice would give me that quirky Village flavor I longed for. Silly? Yes. But these were the kind of day-to-day connections I missed in the hospital. I said to Marilyn, “You know what I’m in the mood for? Making change.” Finally, those 60 days of excruciating cognitive math exercises could be put to practical use. So in we went.

But alas, “CVS” had gone DIY. We immediately found ourselves surrounded by a barrage of female robo-voices prissily demanding, “CHOOSE YOUR LANGUAGE... SCAN YOUR REWARDS CARD…PLACE YOUR ITEMS IN THE BAG...PUT THE COUPON IN THE SLOT...TAKE YOUR RECEIPT!” Not a “doll-face” in the bunch. Sure, they prefaced everything with the word “please,” but you know they didn’t mean it. And when did we go from being customers to employees having to do everything ourselves — minus the benefits and 401(k)?

Nevertheless, putting up with this grief is way better than a 4 a.m. syringe-stabbing. Hey, it was January 1 and I was back among the living. A new year, a new world, a new me. I’ll adapt.


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