Big Apple’s Elmhurst Hospital Remembered

One day in New York City my bike was stolen. I loved that bike. It was stripped-down industrial black with fat tires and no-frills. Nice. But what I really loved, actually more than I loved my girlfriend, certainly more than music or reading or art or basically anything, was riding that baby through New York City traffic. The heavier the better.

Riding a bike down 5th Avenue is as different from riding a bike on the Coastal trail as skateboarding down Mount Everest is from walking to the bathroom. Traffic is dense and relentless. It's like skiing in a herd of raging, honking steel buffalo, suddenly stopping and starting with single-minded contained rage. I cringe slightly to confess it, but the thing to do was to kind of lean into the back of a cab hold on with one arm (there is a technique) and let the acceleration launch you into a few blocks of mad acceleration.

Of course, the cabbies hated it and I know it was irresponsible — but I loved doing it. I was damn good at it and I did it all the time. It was a physical sport and I could make it from the Upper Westside to the Village faster than taking the subway. That’s fast.

I would dismount on Bleeker Street in the neon New York night and knock back a celebratory espresso. It was inexpressibly excellent. Anyway, the bike was stolen, and it took maybe 30 minutes of West Village networking to find someone who would give me another one.

Green-eyed Irish Rosie on east 8th had one in her apartment bedroom. I schlepped over to the East Village and astonishingly the bike turned out to be almost new. Wow. I bought a nick (that’s 5 bucks of pot) in Washington Square from my loyal and beloved guy who was naturally hard at work. I smoked a joint and headed to Queens to visit another person of my acquaintance who was waiting for me, with three compadres. By the time I left the village it was after 1:00 am. All perfectly normal.

I pushed up the Eastside and crossed the river on the Queensborough bridge at, I think it’s 57th? 

You can love any bridge in the city. The Brooklyn Bridge is a mad medieval giant and the Williamsburg Bridge has a very cool subway track running over the traffic and next to the pedestrian walkway so the subway trains blast you with symphonic sound and fury as the E train — was it the E? — thunders past at intervals.

But my personal greatest bridge was the Queensborough. It’s a long long stretch of arching steel achingly high over the east river. It rises in a long slow arch to the first great tower, takes you at bird altitude over Roosevelt Island and falls in gentle majesty to the other great tower and then into the charmingly sleazy donut shops and strip clubs on the doorstep of the projects.

Going up is easy and going down at one in the morning is a long mad swoop. There are occasional speed bumps that never slowed down a serious rider. I was moving at close to top-speed on the downhill stretch with focused competency. When I went over a fateful speed bump and noticed, in sudden slow motion with what would have been alarm had there been time, my front wheel taking off ahead of the bike all on its own.

Whoever had given Rosie the bike had not tightened the lugs on the front wheel. The bike crashed into the grating and I went over the handlebars flying for a considerable distance like Superman — arms outstretched and everything.

You can learn a lot in a moment like that. I now find it entirely credible that a person's life can pass before their eyes at the moment of death. It did not happen to me, but the whole flight must have taken at most one second and yet it was a moment of prolonged clarity. I was aware of comical flight and I saw the hard steel railing coming right at me. I had a moment to turn my head which I did, and the guardrail, instead of splitting my head and killing me instantly, sheered off a large chunk of my forehead and part of my face and then I landed somehow on my back or maybe I rolled over. I lay there for a time, calmly observing that I was not dead and then decided that since I was not dead I would do the next obvious thing and discover if I could move. There was no pain. My power of locomotion was impeded because a large piece of what had recently been my forehead was hanging by a remnant of skin like a pancake not on my head.

I put my hand under it and flopped it back onto my face. I remember the flopping sound quite clearly. Then I got up holding my forehead to my skull and started walking down the bridge. After several hundred feet I passed my bike wheel. Bastard.

In New York, there are neighborhoods and districts for everything. There’s a garment district or there was, before China. There’s a meat market, a financial district of course and a fashion district.

There is a chess club street and there was the bar and music zone in the village where I lived at night. There are zones for everything. At the base of the Queensborough Bridge is one of two hot spots for black transvestite prostitutes. The other is snugged up to the meat market on the lower lower West Side. These denizens of the night are so distinct, so personally powerful and so off the normal human track that they are almost an alien species. They are long, long men, tall and slim, eerily graceful and jet black. They are oddly similar, a particular physical genre. They are without question the toughest bastards in New York, utterly fearless and more than anyone I ever met completely free. They are quite distinct.

I walked off the bridge and approached the gaggle — like a character from the Walking Dead drenched in blood holding my forehead and part of my face firmly against my skull. They kind of stared for a moment and one said “HONEY, what happen to you?” They sat me down on the curb, stuck a much-needed cigarette in my mouth, lit it for me and called the ambulance.

I truly believe that they saved my life.

I must have been in shock. In the warm New York night, they gave me an unremitting beam of immense unspoken sympathy and sustained me with their own ironclad toughness. They were unshakably calm, blessedly undemonstrative and totally loving. They saved me.

The ambulance took me to Elmhurst Hospital in Queens. Elmhurst, to indulge in massive understatement, is a big hospital. A city. Elmhurst is a 24-hour, self-contained metropolitan mega-hospital. It rises out of the cheek-and-jowl density of working-class Queens where a hundred twisting neighborhood streets all inevitably culminate in the behemoth medical center.

Elmhurst is vast and exquisitely competent. New York is where you go if what you seek is world-class preeminence. That’s what the great city produces. There are no words for the excellence of the care that I received at that great hospital. There is Rockefeller, whatever. NYU has a great hospital. There are hospital research centers and dozens of neighborhood hospitals all over Manhattan and Brooklyn — all of them are good.

Elmhurst in working-class Queens is better than any of them. It specializes in the average human being. Every person who walks through the door is the center of an all-hands-on-deck all-out effort.

For all practical purposes, everyone that comes in the door is a generic regular normal working-class person. The rich go elsewhere. Their loss. There is nothing about Elmhurst that is not first-rate. The whole hospital is a monument to superb professionalism and democratic equality. There is nothing quite like it. They patched me up and I spent a pleasant week stoned on morphine slowly reading Dracula. I recommend it to anyone. Now Elmhurst is in the news.

As the greatest city on earth buckles and heaves in the epicenter of the worldwide cataclysm, we are hearing reports that Elmhurst is also straining and perhaps failing. I don’t believe it. The national media says that there is a refrigerated truck parked outside to store bodies. They say that there is a line outside of people trying to get in and resources are stretched to the maximum. People are dying and many will die.

But one thing I know, the men and the women at Elmhurst Hospital are at the center of the fight right where they always have been. They are working with the most profound unselfish love and the most concentrated unrelenting energy.

If the world is ending — and I don’t think it is — Elmhurst Hospital will be right there fighting for every life, right to the bitter end.

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