Face Value

What do we remember?

What do we forget?

I worked my way through both of my degrees, working as a temporary secretary in the summers and then, during the school year, working other jobs with odd hours that fit around daytime classes. For a time I worked a job at Mount Sinai Hospital on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. There, I worked as an administrative minion in the medical school’s office of continuing professional education.

I originally thought I’d been hired because I could type close to 100 words per minute relatively error free. I was also willing to work on the weekends sometimes. The fact that I was an art student had seemed to score some points with my interviewer and eventual boss, an avuncular, cultured man in his fifties named Dennis. But over time I’d eventually come to realize that I was hired for more subtle reasons.

There were three of us working for Dennis: me and two sisters who were very close and, although they were not twins, sometimes hard to tell apart. They were transplants from Puerto Rico and they lived about a block away from one another in Rego Park, Queens. They did not get me and I did not get them. They were everything I wasn’t: loud, fun-loving, assertive. I want to say that they were “warm,” but that’s not the right word. While I didn’t feel exactly welcomed, they did joke around with me a lot and even may have viewed the act of penetrating my shy exterior as some sort of challenge.

The sisters were knock-knock joke kind of people. My deadpan humor baffled them, although it sometimes made Dennis laugh. The three of us were professional and competent. We worked well as his team. Dennis knew what to do with us all. If he needed to strong-arm or otherwise persuade, then he’d send one of the sisters. If he had a task that required patience or diligence, then he’d assign it to me.

Over the few months that I worked there Dennis began to exhibit a kind of protectiveness toward me. Mount Sinai is on the southern border of Spanish Harlem. This was a neighborhood that at the time had a “chalk line” quality to it in terms of which blocks could be considered safe vs. unsafe. Everyone I talked to at Mount Sinai, but Dennis especially, was adamant that I never, ever go above 101st Street.

At least not outside. I did have that option. The hospital campus featured an intricate series of underground passages whose purpose wasn’t to protect young administrative assistants from street crime per se, although that was a welcome bonus. They were there for another reason entirely.

So I’d sometimes use the rat maze, as I thought of it, to get around. But not without some hesitation. I was always conflicted when it came to choosing one potentially ugly encounter over another. I could use the street and risk a run-in with gangs, drug dealers, crazies or other miscreants. Or I could use the rat maze and risk another kind of danger.

White linoleum bordered by white walls, the maze featured hallways that would extend a hundred feet before reaching a corner. They were long enough to temper any sound in a connecting hallway. This meant that I could walk down a hall, alone, hearing nothing but my own footsteps and seeing nothing but the occasional disposal container bearing the four-circled “bio hazard” symbol, perhaps with the tip of a surgical glove poking out, as the only clue that I was in a hospital. Approaching a corner, I might hear something – a squeaking wheel, or voices – and within seconds have a full-blown crisis heading straight toward me – gurney, IV bags, rattling clipboards and barking orderlies. Sometimes blood. Usually great distress. That was the worst of it, seeing a stranger’s suffering – here he comes, there he is, there he goes – and then trying to get back to the rest of my day, my evening, my week, my weekend after that.

Sometimes when I wanted a reprieve from the hubbub of our little office, a few private minutes away from the sisters’ incessant chatter and high energy, I’d go take a walk in the rat maze, despite the risks. But I wasn’t always able to escape from other people. Part of my job involved helping to run registration for the medical school’s continuing professional education courses. These took place on either a Saturday or a Sunday and usually started at an ungodly hour. So I’d be up at around 4:30am some weekends, slogging my way to the Upper East Side from my apartment in Astoria, Queens, in order to arrive in time for our 6:45am setup for a 7:15 registration start. I usually served as administrative organizer during this process, letting the sisters act as front men. But if things got very busy I’d be pressed into service on the receiving line as well.

Doctors can be assholes. You knew that already. Not all of them. But many of the ones I met were. They were impatient, entitled and grabby. There was literally no free lunch at Mount Sinai; if you took a course there and you wanted food then you were expected to pay for it. I’d make this as clear as I could during check-in. But then at lunch time I’d find myself acting as spotter, waving at the sisters, pointing out one freeloading doctor or another who was attempting to crash the lunch cart. The loud girls would move in, our operation’s muscle, fearlessly and righteously laying down the law while I side-glanced, straightening papers.

Those weekend assignments were difficult for me not just on a social level, but also on a spiritual and humanistic one. I wanted to believe the best about people, but that faith in the goodness and fairness of others was constantly being shattered during these registrations. “I always said I’d avoid getting a job that deals with the public,” I muttered one morning, after a particularly appalling exchange with an anesthesiologist. “Well, you’re dealing with them now,” one of the sisters replied. Buck up, buttercup. So buck up I did. This was my job, like it or not. It was harder than typing and running errands, that was for sure.

The commute, and losing one half of my weekend, was starting to get to me. I was thinking of leaving anyway, had started to peruse the want ads in search of a replacement gig. Then, one weekend, the decision was made for me during one of those registration sessions. I wasn’t fired, though. I quit.

What’s interesting is that it wasn’t for reasons you’d think. That weekend was a course like no other I’d worked on. We were not receiving doctors that weekend. Instead, I was told, we were going to be receiving patients. I was also told that I would be working registration alone. The sisters were there solely for my support, to remain in the background. I was going to be on my own. The three of us were confused by this abrupt redistribution of roles. My confusion did not last, however. Not after a short conversation with Dennis in his office.

“Julie,” he said. “You need to prepare yourself for tomorrow. These are people who have been devastated. They are self-conscious. You need to not register any shock when talking to them. You need to make them feel welcome and normal. Do you understand?”

I did understand. I understood that the aspects of myself that I disliked the most, the interpersonal ticks that I felt were among my most glaring weaknesses – being so quiet; my impulse to let others set the tone; the way a stranger’s vulnerability could make me vibrate with empathy – these were the qualities that Dennis recognized in me and wanted at the registration table that day. He wanted from me a non-judgmental acknowledgment, a sincere but respectfully distant kind of embrace. I could do that.

And I did prepare myself. I went home and thought about what the next day was actually going to be like.

The next morning arrived and I was there, ready. People approached, people who were afflicted by today’s topic: partial facial paralysis. They’d experienced strokes, botched surgeries or, if they were lucky, a long-term (but probably temporary) loss of facial control through viral infection. I tried to see each person as they truly were, by focusing on the side of the face that was still working. The drool, the slackened muscles, the slurred speech, the eye that wouldn’t stop watering; I didn’t betray an awareness of any of it.

These were people who were suffering in a way that I could scarcely fathom. They had come to our event looking for answers, for hope. They’d lost something essential, the removal of which had an impact that was impossible to quantify. The face is what all others see first. The face is our instrument for communicating ourselves. The face is what we use to connect with others, extending our gazes and words in invitation and recognition. Imagine having a broken face. I couldn’t imagine it. I didn’t have to. I saw so many of them that day.

So I said good morning, signed them up, took their checks, told them where to sit. The sisters hung back. I suspected that they, watching me, might have found me cold.

We wrapped up registration. Then I rode the subway home, where I curled up in a ball and cried for several hours. On Monday I called in and quit.

I hate hospitals. But then who doesn’t? They’re inherently inhumane places, a mixture of sterile surroundings, harsh lighting, impossibly complex devices and a rotating circus of harried professionals. I won’t work in one again.

But staying away from hospitals, at least when I can, hasn’t shielded me from more moments of sudden and intensely unsettling intimacy with strangers.

Walking through Edinburgh earlier this month, I passed by a medical emergency unfolding on the sidewalk: a woman, on her back, her midriff in some kind of spasm, red-faced and laboring to breathe through a mask. Serious, serious shit happening. But it wasn’t her that I saw and felt for. It was the girl. A girl of about eight, a few feet away, two policemen at her side. She was staring straight ahead, stricken, a frail figure surrounded by huge men in thick, lime green reflective coats. In her field of vision, if she looked up, were fireworks. An entire city was celebrating around her while she was having the worst night of her life.

I’ve got images and sounds burned into my memory, from moments both wonderful and terrible. What would be burned into hers? The sirens; the sidewalk; her prone mother; the men’s coats; the fireworks’ flash and boom? Me, walking past? Me, unable to help.

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