Last night I dropped in on Mount Sinai Emergency. It was unplanned, as such trips tend to be, and turned out to have been necessary only in an unintended way. Because I was coming from the Beaches Jazz Fest, and it was past midnight, I was looking less than fresh. My hair was doing something abstract, and the rest of my appearance was also along the same lines. So, before walking through the sliding doors beyond which three brown beefcakes stood security, I made one adjustment to get myself taken seriously: I put on my thick framed eyeglasses, which I avoid wearing about 98% of the time. While I was being registered, I made sure to speak in a measured tone, in full sentences and using ten dollar words. Was I intoxicated, falling all over the place? Nope. But I always know that, going in certain places, I will get slightly different kind of care simply because all they see is “a black girl”.
It goes back to when I was eighteen or nineteen. I had been referred to some specialist or other, and while I sat waiting in his office (or he stepped out for a moment) I snuck a look at my file on his desk, just because I’m a curious cat like that. And just like that proverbial cat, what I read in there killed something in me in a way I’ll never forget, and in a way that has affected how I deal with people who are responsible for some aspect of my safety, health care people especially (only because to date I haven’t had the mis/fortune of having to deal with their counterpart, the police, in any real way).
In the doctor’s file was a memo, and the first line of the memo read: That black girl you sent me…
I don’t remember what the rest of it said, probably just details of my case. But what I will never forget is that heartbreaking feeling of non-personhood that hit me in that moment. I didn’t do anything about it, partly from shock and partly from not knowing how or what to do. The doctor came back, did his doctor thing, I did my patient thing and, humiliated, never went back for the recommended treatment. And life went on.
Except, ever since that day I have always felt this need to be as presentable as possible when I’m walking into a place where their perception of me could become a matter of life and death. So, I fix my hair, and I stick on my glasses, and I bring out the vocabulary. Sometimes, it can get comical, like when I almost set my kitchen on fire trying to make popcorn, and in the time that the alarm was going off and I could hear the fire trucks screaming down my avenue, I was running around frantically trying to put on something respectable to wear and making sure my hair was in place. Or the other time I put my hand through a window (it was during my weight-training days), a window which it seemed like a good idea to push against in order to gain purchase while getting up off a couch. As blood coursed down the length of my arm from multiple deep gashes, I was trying to put on a bra because no way am I going into emergency without a bra on, and looking for a hat because no way was I going in there with my hair like this. Always, the hair is the main concern. But when isn’t it? Must be a black girl thang.
As far as my actual reason for going to Mount Sinai last night, it turned out to be more or less a non-event, thankfully, but while I lay in the surprisingly comfy bed on my side of the curtain, waiting to be seen, I had ample time to dissect all the conversations going on around me. I was trying to stay awake (by then it was almost 3am) by doing that writerly thing where you try to pick up usable snippets and character quirks. At one point, a woman was brought into the bed on the other side of my curtain (or maybe she had her own set of curtains, the decor wasn’t my focus). As she described her problem to the young female nurse (resident?), I perked up my ears. I could almost see the dialogue. The woman’s voice was high, she said “like” about every five seconds, and her thoughts came out in natural incomplete sentences. Somewhat valley girl, but valley girl about a decade later, with a day job, and at happy hour with her girlfriends. Describing the background to her case, she had started off with, “I’m twenty-nine, and years ago when I was twenty-two…” This tidbit became most relevant some time later when the older male doctor came. Because he accidentally went to my side at first, I saw him briefly, long enough to see that he wasn’t exactly daytime soap material. Just store brand. I perked up my ears once again when he went over to the woman’s side and began taking her history. Then I really came awake. If I hadn’t been there the whole time listening to every sound around me, I would have thought she was a different person. Not only did her voice drop, and all the “like”s disappear, and girlfriend spoke in full sentences, but she started it all off with, “About seven years ago…”. Same woman, same experience, except depending on who is listening to her, it happened when she was twenty-two, or it happened seven years ago.
Perhaps I had mellowed out by then, since I had been treated with utmost professionalism by every member of the ER team since I registered earlier that night, or it had something to do with the impossibly clean sheets and the painkiller and the ever-soothing florescent lighting, but as I lay there chilling, listening to the sub/conscious lengths to which even a young white woman will go to frame herself in a way she believes will get her taken seriously, I couldn’t help but feel a slight healing of that old (but live) wound I gave myself when I read that ign’ant doctor’s memo.
By the time I headed home, it was close to 4am. I decided that just because I hadn’t been out clubbing didn’t mean I wasn’t entitled to a pre-dawn breakfast. That was when, as I passed by a restaurant, squinting and trying to decipher ($10!) whether it was a 24-hour joint or not (by then the glasses were off, you see), I walked right smack into a giant cement flowerpot. Total collision, straight out of Looney Tunes. The me of a few hours ago would have immediately checked around for cop cars, fearing being apprehended for general raggedy-ness aggravated by presumed public intoxication. But because of my little aha moment from the other side of the curtain, I just had a good belly laugh at myself. On an empty belly which I wisely carried on home and placated with some leftover scraps, which turned out to be enough.
I guess sometimes even the optional ER visits are just meant to be.