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Perdido 

This is a new one for you.

It must be the exact opposite of what an elephant mahout must feel when he first experiences the rank and file of mankind beneath him. Except that here everyone looms over you, who are limited to bed or wheelchair, and that is everyone from Thoracic surgeon to undies distributor.

You are at eye level only with a child.

Welcome to the VA Hospital, Ninth Floor Rehab, 1601 Perdido St., City. I remember reading somewhere that "perdido" translates from the Spanish as "lost."

Lost on Perdido Street.

Reason would of course tell you more intelligent ways to look at things. But this ain't necessarily a reasonable place.

I mean, no one reasonably expects to find competition here, right? You prosper or founder depending on how fast or slow your vertebrae fuse or your ulcers boil or your tongue quickens, and nothing that your neighbor does or does not do adds or subtracts one minute to your stay here.

That would be the reasonable way to see things.

You are in physical therapy and the guy in the class with you is being asked to walk slowly and deliberately between a long row of chrome while you are confined to the unstirring stationary bike. The PT instructor is fulsome in her praise of the walker; he is making fine progress, surely he can see that from last week, can't he?

You know the truth. The walker is a whiner, a neurotic who is prompt and eager to please every authority figure he can see but at rock bottom scared of the outside world. You set your teeth hard and the stationary bike wheel begins to hum along. If only someone would notice!

Six days later, the walker is nowhere to be seen around the ward. One of the more reliable news sources says he's been released.

Everything here is the tug-o-war between feel-good cheerleader motivation ("you're making great progress with that leg -- why, two weeks ago, you couldn't flex that foot even once") and the reality of just how humiliatingly helpless you have become. The reality of roast gravy dripping from your sleeve because you are just not aware enough of your partially dead right side. The reality of pee dripping from the plastic portable urinal at midnight and fouling the pajama bottoms and you biting hard on your lip so you won't sob your frustration and self-pity.

What a transitory thing is this "dignity of man" business!

After lights-out is when this bogeyman has been coming to sit right astride my chest most every night.

The bogeyman is about nothing as all good bogeymen always are, but scarcely less real for all that. On this night he has decided to make his sound-and-light show rather show-offy.

I am the star of course and whether this is a nightmare, fantasy or some entirely new consciousness really doesn't matter all that much. The room is my hospital room, only everything in the room has been painted there. In a highly stylized way, say van der Meer and Picasso and Van Gogh at Arles.

Now I'm trying to remember if I have been painted into the scene or not.

Naturally, none of the night-shift staff must know any of this. Doubtless they keep thick dossiers on each patient and I can't afford to have these late-night bogeymen as part of my permanent record. I may never get out of here.

The old saying is that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

In the land of the diseased, the near-healthy is king.

We have a scattering of the near-healthy among us, men who move surely and without fear of setback. The few that inhabit wheelchairs seem to do so voluntarily and they move on them at high speed and purpose, as imperious as a bird that eats living flesh.

But most of the near-healthy don't even bother with chairs. Like the George Foreman look-alike, slightly scaled back, who breezes the halls, robe open and snapping jauntily. He hardly deigns to converse with other patients, but he has a greeting for every nurse, a quip for every orderly. He carries a cane sometimes but it seems to be more ornament than necessity and yes, the thought crosses the mind sometimes: THROW THIS ABLE-BODIED SONABITCH OFF THIS FLOOR BY SUPPERTIME.

One of these misplaced Adonis types was around for a few days. He was in a wheelchair, though he looked like he could get up any time he wanted. I saw him one day in rehab and he was raising six kinds of vulgar hell. "I'm not stringing some damn colored beads together and I'm not putting all the green clothespins with all the other green clothespins. I came in here with my own wheelchair and as soon as I can get my hands on that wheelchair, I'm outta here!"

And I'm guessing that each and every one of us gave a silent cheer in his heart that too hates colored beads and green clothespins and herds of all kinds.

A week or so later, he was back and much quieter.

Thursday with no bingo. It's right after supper and there's little to choose between sleep and television. Look left and right along the halls and inventory the faces caught in pillowed friezes of pie-crust slumber. Faces done in old wax, twisted and pleading, with sighs and snorts trotting alongside every breath.

This thin sleep, for a large percentage of those on the ward's roster, is as close to ease as they are ever going to know.

The fat guys with the bright blue blazers and VFW overseas caps are shaking hands all around. The teenaged violinist with the Amish haircut is busy practicing chords. The young man in the generic tux keeps going to the speakers to make generic adjustments.

The Christmas party, VA Hospital-style.

The room is slowly filling, along these lines: on one side, those who have come to feel good about making those less fortunate feel good. Let's concede their intentions are beyond reproach. They still are having some difficulties dealing with those less fortunate than themselves.

On the other part of the room are those targeted for an evening of salvation. They hardly act very grateful. They don't try to mix with the able-bodied and may just sit there looking listless and unimpressed.

But Christmas has a will and a way of its own. The acts come and go and wind up with a men's chorale singing "Let It Snow." A few of the ninth-floor regulars clap and smile and this seems more than enough to convince the visitors that they have indeed thrown quite a little Christmas party.

There are, of course, incongruities a-plenty, lurking behind every closed medicine cabinet or dispenser of disposable examination gloves. But the biggest of all, easily, is the smoking garden.

Just outside the dining hall, a sliver of rooftop planning maybe 30 feet wide by 150 feet long. Nicely landscaped, with a cluster of palms with blinky Christmas lights.

Gentlemen, the smoking lamp is lit. É

The ground is pocked with a thousand filter-tips and a hundred packs of Merit, Marlboro and Camels. In all weathers, there are always at least a half-dozen guys puffing away, a floor from their doctors and their doctors' warnings. Guys still hooked up to machines that keep track of their dwindling wellness, guys with gashed windpipes, guys defiantly enslaved.

Smoke 'em if you got 'em.

There is, no matter how close the hell, always a rumor of a worse place nearby, awfully nearby. É

"On the eighth floor here, there's the crazy ward. I mean, I talked to a doctor from Tulane, a head-case doctor, and he flat told me: You do not want to ever get sent to the crazy ward here."

There is a boyhood friend of mine who works here at the VA in a distant department.

He stops to see me when going and coming to work every day. He brings me a newspaper and spends time listening to my many complaints and, when he can, does something about them. He frequently comes on his days off and helps me with the paper snarl of forms and records. Everybody who has to go to the hospital would be very lucky to have such a friend.

There is time to deal with the truth here and the truth is I don't see myself being such a friend to him if fate had chosen opposite roles for us. I like to think that I would be there for him in some way, but no way comparable.

It is wonderful and deeply shameful, this charity debt owed.

Outside at last. For the first time in more than three weeks, people going about some business that has nothing to do with yours, people with no thought for anyone's health, not even their own.

Those people are driving or walking past the VA Hospital and you're on a bench out in front of the building's horseshoe driveway, sitting in the sun like a Gila monster.

It is probably unauthorized, this trip to the sun, and that makes it even better. Between nine and five on weekdays, there's too much happening here for the security guards to keep an eye on. So you have positioned your wheelchair off to the side a bit, reveling in purloined Graham crackers and a machine-vended Diet Dr. Pepper. And here you study your fellow inmates, those of the outpatient variety.

There is no cast of dramatis personae like that of a VA, none. Check out this pair: One guy looking every bit like the tall dude from ZZ Top and his ear is being assaulted by some Axl Rose imitation who is excitedly gesturing and talking about the book in his hand. The book with the large and colorful pictures. The book about Gauguin.

Birds, mostly pigeons and sparrows, gather to beg around the benches. Suddenly, one of the pigeons, big and green, calls out for a closer look. No. No. Yes! He has only one foot, only a right one.

Naturally, all the crumpled Graham crackers begin to go his way. Whoops, he didn't see that one; silver-throated pigeon got that one. Hell, little sparrows were too quick for him there. It went on like this for some time. The footless pigeon never got to a crumb; he seemed way too clumsy for the other pigeons and way too slow for the sparrows.

After a time, you stopped tossing any crackers at the footless bird. You threw them instead at the other birds, the way a guy half-magically lights a smoke so that the tardy cab will show up because you've just lit up a cigarette.

Still, the footless pigeon was very fat and had good color, so there seemed no way he was hungry.

You chose to take this as a very good omen.

This whole ninth-floor ward is probably not that big if you systematically figure out what streets and landmarks are the outside boundaries and what conference rooms, nurses' stations and alcoves are the inside boundaries.

But why put up the bars in your own jail cell any sooner than you have to? For a long time now I have deliberately kept my surroundings obscure to myself, made every interior and exterior as fresh and new as it was the day before. Where am I? Is that next window the one where you can spy a slice of the Dome? Or is it the one window where you can see the fading majesty of Big Charity, that homage to the Kingfish now with each window bleeding turquoise?

You are high here; for a week or so there is not even any bird life in evidence and you begin to wonder if you have indeed been separated from all other life forms.

Yet there are many things all around that are higher than you. Buildings of beautifully irregular lines and curves and angles, smooth or ragged, doubled and redoubled. Brick and glass stacked so cleverly and high.

Light too has its different soul up here and there are silvers and golds and bronzes that never make their way to the sidewalk that can be seen here all through the day.

Yes! This is the one place in the ward where you catch a peek of St. Joseph Catholic, once towering theologically over the landscape and still a majestic reminder of a time when things were to many people both more remote and knowable.

More things outside. In both shadow and steam, the industrial smoke plumes from nearby heating systems drifting ever away, like spirit-steam hurrying to its own Walpurgisnacht. Like all fogs, it carries within itself the strong hint that there is something substantial and unseen within.

The cars that come together, far apart, go over, under, alongside, opposite each other. The cavernous parking lots yawning at one another. There, in the cars, in the lots, certainly not a one who knows a thing of the dwindling livers and gasping lungs and bloody heels and crushed hips and numbed fingers of the ninth floor and certainly not one of those with the livers and lungs and heels and hips and fingers knew anything of these matters a short dozen years ago.

After dark, most back in the ignored arenas of their beds. The wheelchair shuttles along like a crabby thing in the quieted corridors, hurrying to vantage points becoming more familiar by the day. Each pause at a window a kiss to all and other.

Memory does not like to be fooled over and over, so this game of newly discovered perspectives cannot be played indefinitely. What will take its place on these long disinfected days?

The guy sitting across from me at supper has nothing physically wrong with him that I can see, only he talks always in a whisper, like he has some secret photographs in his top pocket.

"I lived in Avondale most of my life. One evening my wife -- she was just 59, had never been sick -- said she couldn't get to sleep, said she was gonna go to the front room and read. She never came to bed.

"After that I was outta my mind half the time. Sometimes I was convinced I owned a Chihuahua and at night he was nibbling my toes off. É Am I gonna try for a pass at Christmas? No, I don't think so. I'm not mentally right, you know. I'm just going to stay here."

That is one of the things that must be different about this hospital. The guy sitting across from me is supposed to have a grown son and daughter, but he has been in here for weeks and I've never seen anybody visit yet.

There are many -- hell, most -- like that on the ninth floor. Some don't speak. Two guys, one white, one black, go from man to man in the lunchroom, each competing to sponge up the extra packs of Cremora, Tabasco and Mrs. Dash's Seasoning. One guy always wears a cap that hawks "Bluebonnet World Famous Game Hen Feed" and features a brilliantly colored gamecock. He eats his dessert first and late at night you can hear him screaming at night nurses: "You answer the phone! You've probably got the phone stuck up your behind!" Or claiming that the amputated stumps of his legs are itching him crazy -- and his legs are as whole as can be.

But most of these that no one calls for on the ninth floor, most of those who couldn't or wouldn't think to even ask for a Christmas pass, wait for what's left of their fate with a rough, rural patience. Those of us who, as was said of the deformed Lord Byron, are "scarce half made up."

In Argentina, there were those that spoke out against the junta and promptly disappeared forever, pushed from helicopters flying over the ocean. "Los olvidados," they were called. "The forgotten ones."

The forgotten ones. "Los olvidados." They live among us, scarcely noticed, never noted.

Lost on Perdido Street, you might say.

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