Knafta Knees (August 13, 1997)

A fat man in a pin-striped Yankees t-shirt comes out of the Podiatrist's office across the street. He stops on the sidewalk, takes out a pack of cigarettes and lights up. He fills his lungs with smoke, holds it in for a three-count, then exhales.

You can barely make out the plume of smoke because it's the same color and thickness as the grey water-soaked air. The sky is on top of us, sweating.

There must be imperceptible currents in the air because by the time the man is half-way to the filter I can smell the smoke. It's moving sluggishly up and across the street into this apartment, and then the sick warm candied smell of it just hangs here, nowhere for it to go.

The fat guy checks his watch. He takes another drag, then with his smoking hand pushes his glasses up his nose.

He glances at the foyer of the Podiatrist's office. It's a square room done up in asbestos siding (fake-brick style) with a rusty air-conditioner hanging out of one of the windows, spitting on the sidewalk.

The man sucks on the cigarette then goes for the glasses again.

Sound carries easily in the thick air, and I can hear his quick, puffy breathing.

The door to the Podiatrist's office swings open and a woman in a white smock leans out and says, "Okay, Gordy." He tosses the cigarette to the pavement, hoists a foot two inches off the ground and drops it on the butt. He turns and grapples up the astro-turf stairs and into the office.

A few times a day I lift myself up and crutch my way over to the window and watch the Podiatrist's patients come and go. I try not to imagine their feet.

It's much easier to give into voyeuristic urges when you've been hobbled and don't have a t.v. But the closest I've gotten to Rear Window was last Saturday morning at about six o'clock. I had been dozing in a musty armchair - falling deeper and deeper into its soft embrace as the Percodan turned the pain into golden buttery clouds of pure contentment - when I was awakened by the scrambling of feet on gravel down below and shouts of "Halt, you fuck!" I craned my neck and peered over the window sill just in time to see my landlord form-tackle a skinhead who was trying to steal his wheel barrow.

I find myself in this predicament because a couple of years back I blew out my knee during a pick-up basketball game against a squad of homeless all-stars in Santa Monica's Lincoln Park. Afterwards a couple of the guys set me on a large piece of plywood, lifted me on two shopping carts and wheeled me home. So did an obscure basketball career come to an end.

Some two years later I find myself in an Upstate New York operating room, anesthetized from the waist down. The interior of my left knee is up on a t.v. screen and a steel shaft moves past lunar bones and bands of meniscus like some kind of space probe exploring an extra-terrestrial landscape. The device is called a trimmer and as it moves into the center of the knee its teeth spin into action and remnants of the wasted ligament are sucked away.

Down beyond the sheet shielding my direct view of the action, three, sometimes four, people in light green surgical rig work on my knee

If I rotate my head a little I can follow my vital signs moving across another monitor to my right. The anesthesiologist sits just out of sight to my left. We're both observers, detached from the action, watching the operation progress.

He's a talker, and he certainly has a captive audience in me - I'm slightly sedated and my arms strapped to the operating table.

What looks like a drill bit moves onto the screen. The surgeon says: "I'm going to make the holes to secure the new ligament."

Meanwhile the anesthesiologist continues his homsepun monologue on the benefits of free trade. Every sentence is in the conditional mode: "… so maybe you've got some people who are just, you know, living by a river. And maybe they want to get some goods, like, say, refigerators, or they want to put in some roads so they can get the goods they want. Well, then it looks like they'll just have to start competing - and I'm talking globally now - if they're going to get access to those goods which would improve their standard of living …"

At regular intervals I grunt in a tone that could be construed as affirmative. Now is perhaps not the time to share with this free-market gas man my sedative-induced free assocations, which if they were to come true, would right-size him right out of his Bavarian limo and his lakeside mansion. For, as he rattles on, I imagine a scenario in which surgical procedures like the one I am now undergoing have become fully roboticized and are executed via satellite hook-up by low-wage technicians hunched over control panels at crowded medical sweatshops in an American Commercial Zone in the Northern Marianas. The Pacific Rim Medical Group: "The People Who Dare to Care. We're always there - way the hell over there - when we're needed."

There is, of course, a Pacific Rim factory outlet service center at a regional shopping mall in your area. And inside the operating theatre the patient is alone, though in compliance with recent federal patients' rights legislation aimed at deflecting criticism that medicine has lost its human element, a minimum wage orderly pushes through the double doors every hour on the hour and calls out "How you doing, dude?" then disappears again …

The new ligament is pulled through and screwed into place. The anesthesiologist bangs on: " … and maybe then they acquire the necessary goods and begin competing - hey, that's a nice looking graft, you're going to have a real good knee now - well, then they would have to start making goods of their own that other people would want and that means their own wages would begin to rise …"

When I hobble through the sliding doors of the hospital and to my car late that afternoon I am on a brand new pair of crutches. A few minutes earlier a nurse had pulled the crutches from the vacuum-sealed plastic wrap and then adjusted them to the proper height. You don't return the crutches, they're yours to keep. The sensible idea of taking them out on loan and then returning them when you're done has been rendered obsolete by the New World Order. Everything is disposable. To conserve in such an obvious way would be bad for business, bad for trade, bad for international relations.

The nurse has me read a pamphlet on "Safe Walking with Crutches" featuring Gus the Lion, a moronic muscle-beast (he looks like a Mr. Universe wearing a goofy lion's head) who appears to have broken his leg. According to the pamphlet the crutches are manufactured by Guardian, a division of Sunrise Medical in Simi Valley, California.

But as we drive away from the hospital I notice the fine print on the aluminum shaft of the crutches: "Assembled in Mexico." For now its the crutches. How long before it's the knee?

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