Saturday, April 16, 2005

The Sidewalk Smokers Club - Chapter Two

Chapter Two

Jordan, at the time, worked in a coffee shop. A prior job in the mass media had ended when he’d run afoul of his bosses over moral questions. Although his three-times-a-day smoking breaks in the designated area outdoors were not approved of, the roots of the rift ran deeper. To the larger world, Jordan had an attitude problem. But to his mind, Jordan the battle had been fought over the rights of man and against the lords of the kingdom.

As far as he’d known, his was a nine-to-five job, and with a few exceptions, that was how he chose to approach it. But upon arrival at the appointed hour to his first day’s work, he found his colleagues already into the hard rhythm of office labor, and knew something was amiss. This impression was compounded by the fact that he alone left at the legislated and contractually prescribed termination of his daily duties. He could stay late on occasion if they asked nicely, or come in early once or twice if needed, but absent the legally required overtime pay for such extensions of demand upon his labor, J. wasn’t about to play martyr to the benefit of another, richer man’s company.

The attitude was morally correct where Christian doctrine was concerned and not indefensible. Whether it was assailable is a separate issue, although in Jordan’s case it usually turned out to be so.

This being an employer’s world meant that Jordan was skating on proverbial thin ice.

When you signed on with an organization, you were expected to be a team player and help management get done whatever it was that needed doing. And if you didn’t like the arrangement, there was probably somebody younger, dumber, and more willing to render the services you refused. The bosses meanwhile, like most authority figures, were expert where a good swift kick in the ass was concerned.

That is how Jordan ended up in a coffee shop, without the vaguest idea of what he would do next.

And so it was that he, being older and more mature than most of the workers at Java World, was pencilled in for the daily morning shift. It was the busiest time of day.

It was when the best-heeled clients, savages of the corporate corps from which he’d been expunged, dropped upwards of fistfuls of dollars for specialty, caffeine-spiked concoctions and oversized finger cakes.

Morning following the night just recounted, Jordan awoke at 6:30 a.m. and took immediate note of a dull and enduring pain from the night before in the pit of his stomach. He recalled the Argentine restaurant and began to lament both the price and volume of the rich repast. He didn’t feel much like getting out of bed and so reached over – not without difficulty – to the phone on his night table and called Carlos, the Mexican (what else?) barista who mostly ran the place.

“Java Whirl!” Carlos answered and Jordan described his discomfort. The Mexican promised to tell the boss and more graciously intimated how much Jordan would be missed when nothing could have been farther from the truth. Not that Jordan wasn’t quite simply a godsend to Java World’s proprietor; a mature white guy who could connect with the clientele and smooth over the unspoken prejudices that existed between they and the mostly Hispanic staff whom global economics had forced upon him. Otherwise, Jordan was mostly a wash; a too-slow coffee server who had trouble with the cash register, barked at the customers and stared like a dog at the young lovelies who frequented the breezy drinkery.

Presently he lay back in bed, stricken by the persistent hankering at the bottom of his gut. Pills he’d taken prior to retiring clearly had not worked and the thing seemed to be getting worse. It made no sense unless the offending meal had been rancid to the point of qualifying as poisoned food. He got up and, doubled over, lurched into the bathroom for a healthy swig of pink goo sold under the pretense of being able to resolve such abdominal complications to the sufferer’s advantage. He maintained a perpendicular posture during his return to the mattress. He forced himself flat on his back and tried to envision the pink fluid seeping toward his entrails and suffocating the burning coal that seemingly smoldered there. Jordan knew that these things take time, but something told him that this time, there would never be enough time.

The minutes rolled and his prediction regarding the failure of his medical assault on the offending army marching through his midsection was, in effect, born out. Jordan was really hurting and he repeated the pathetic trek to his medicine cabinet for newer pills, the exact identity of which he was unawares. He was trying anything now. He dropped back into bed, doubled up in an effort to relieve the droning pain that had possessed itself of his body. The sensations were localized, but something else was amiss throughout the whole of his being, his spirit participating in a plaintive plea for relief from a God whose existence his normal outlook denied. As the seriously jeopardized are given to doing, he figured what the heck? And dropped a prayer into the hopper.

The celestial response was perfunctory and unkind. Jordan began to moan and roll in the sheets. He needed help, but like most bachelors, the very fact he was sick prevented him from obtaining the necessary relief. It was the single man’s catch-22 and he knew not what to do. His hand groped for the wallet on his nightstand. He fumbled through it trembling until he pulled out some five-dollar bills, a month’s-worth of automatic teller receipts (habitually unfiled) and a business card, beige with turquoise hieroglyphics.

It was, he reasoned, no time to be reasonable, much less proud, so he punched the appropriate digits into his phone.

“Joya’s Hoyas,” that healthy cornmeal voice he’d become vaguely familiar with the night before pierced his foggy consciousness like a shot of heavenly morphine. “YeahhitsJordan,” he belched.

“Excuse me?”

He grit his teeth and managed to enunciate the three words separate of each other. “Jordan who?” Joya asked.

“We met last night.”


Naturally, the girl was caught off-guard and Jordan had enough strength and vanity to entertain the fact that she thought he was being overly eager.

“I know we just met, but I need your help.”

She immediately judged Jordan to be but another of the countless loopy available men the local female population were condemned to pick over. But this sentiment was interrupted by a moan Joya immediately likened to rare sick cows that had afflicted the ranch where she’d grown up, before it was purchased by a giant agro-biz consortium. It scared her and she agreed to come right over and help him.

“Right over,” as she has put it, seemed to Jordan like a crossing of the Styx as he wrestled with the idea of an early death, regretted a thousand sexual indiscretions and his spotty history of drug-taking. Lots of images, too many images, went through his mind, all distorted through pain’s lens, while waiting for a knock on the door that finally came when he was sure his time had come. Jordan crawled over to the portal and opened it. This made Joya seem even taller than she was. Her lilacs and patchouli and four-leaf clover essence swept life into an apartment where death had taken a spot on the sofa and posted its feet on the ottoman.

“Well gosh!” she said, helping pull him to his feet. “Look atchew!” He wished she didn’t have to, but she did. “Do you wanta go to the hospital?” He managed to croak out a “yes” that wiped all the easy breeze off her face. “Oh my, let’s do it.”

Joya pulled his suit blazer off the chair where Jordan had left it before diving to his mattress. “Do you need any insurance papers?” He didn’t answer because negatives did not seem to be what the situation called for. He needed momentum. “Where do ya work?” she followed up. “Java World,” he told her and Joya, not being from the neighborhood, mistook the name for something out of the wild and zany world of software and computers she did not know.

Bluntly put, her plan was to dump him – with all gentle graces – at the Cedar-Sinai Medical Center in the hands of the best Jewish doctors HMO coverage would allow and then be on her way.

After all, she did not know him well enough to get any more involved than the basic (and deteriorating) rules governing human solidarity dictated.

“There’s a hundred bucks in a purple sock in my top drawer,” he told her, proof some kind of delirium was setting in. Still, he was gaining strength from the fact his battle was no longer a solitary one. Joya went to the dresser with this thought in her mind: “What’s a hundred dollars going to do?” because even those who are the very expression of health know how that and a prayer won’t get you past the front door of most American medical establishments. It was the great profit motive at work and, although she was a small businesswoman who believed in it, the idea struck her in that moment as somehow obscene.

They stepped out the door and walked about ten feet when Jordan, hunched over, turned back toward his apartment. “Where are ya goin’?” she asked, urgency slipping into her voice. He burst in, reached to the side with his right hand and pulled it back with a pouch of Drum grasped firmly within.

“Well for heaven’s sake!” she scoffed.

Next thing he knew they were in the emergency room. A tall, wispy nurse directed them to sit down. “I don’t think– ” Joya began to explain and was cut off by a finger-pointing and posture that Jordan could not help but compare with popular representations of the grim reaper. They obeyed.

There are many things in this story to recommend Jordan’s noble nature; his lack of covetousness, his personal stands on issues of social justice, and his ability to take the long view while absorbing the short hit. And it’s not a question of writing behind his back when addressing his lesser attributes, because J. would be the first to admit that he was a physical coward.

He really couldn’t bear pain, in general, and the amount he was presently enduring had crossed his tolerance threshold clearly, decisively, and early. He now began to toss and writhe in his seat, moan the way he had while at home. Joya, sitting next to him, determined that he was not up to sitting around waiting for help and that neither was she.

“He’s makin’ an awful lotta noise!” she belted in the wispy nurse’s direction. The woman ignored her as nurses are given to doing in such situations, scared sick persons being their stock in trade. So Joya rose to her full Nordic goddess height and walked over to the reception desk, repeating the phrase in a voice as big as her body. The combination of a beautiful cowgirl bellowing at her from close-range and the pathetic moaning of the patient from afar convinced the nurse to dispense with the matter; she picked up the phone and garbled a few indecipherables before hanging up.

She came out from behind the protection of her bulwark, followed Joya over to Jordan, and helped him to his feet. Each taking an arm, they escorted the patient through swinging doors and into the hospital’s entrails. The hundred dollars evaporated.

“Does he have insurance?” the nurse asked.

“He works at a software company or somethin’,” Joya answered. The intimation of something like a real job was sufficient for the moment. Jordan, who had heard and comprehended the brief exchange, decided it was best to get some treatment before getting into the nettlesome details of his coffee shop career.

Some employees in hospital green met the trio and Jordan was slung onto a rolling rack with cool crackling white paper over its surface. Already he felt better. He relaxed. For the time being this was someone else’s problem, too. Rolling toward eventual recovery he was hooked up to an intravenous machine, which fed who knows what into his system. There went the second one hundred dollars, officially plunging him into a day’s worth of coffeehouse work debt.

The rest was something of a blur for Jordan and, in a nod to the Gods of rhythm, shall be glossed over here. A doctor came in by the name of Singh and among the many wacky and divergent things that went through Jordan’s head were a vision of this man in his native India riding an elephant while studying a clipboard.

He was diagnosed, most tentatively, as having appendicitis, but was subjected to a series of blood tests and other procedures less dignified. More intravenous bags of clear liquid were hooked up and emptied faster than ever into his wrist.
Although she was unaware of the cost, Joya asked at one point, “What is that you’re putting into him?” There was a peremptory response followed by no explanation or detail whatsoever. “Does he need that?” she persisted.

“Not necessarily, but it can’t hurt,” came the response and assessment that would later be clarified to the contrary.

At a number of points in what was becoming a very long day Jordan began to hyperventilate. And so they put a paper bag over his mouth and told him to breathe.

The purpose of this crude exercise amidst so much overpriced technology was to force-feed Jordan’s own carbon dioxide back into his blood and lungs. The actual effect, however, was to make him feel like he would suffocate. He was mortified by the downright primitive nature of the technique. “For chrissakes,” he thought, not being a frequenter of hospitals, “is this the best we can do at this late stage of medical history?” Then out loud, “Get it off! Goddamn it, get it off!”

So they got it off.

“This isn’t going well,” sighed Joya, who remained loyally by the side of a young man she had yet to exchange more than a single cigarette and a handful of words with. They plied him with a sedative while awaiting test results. The nurse figured this lull was good a time as any to get the all-important paper work done.

She approached Joya. “Are you his wife?” Joya, a little tired and more than a hair frightened at this brush with the American health care system shook her head no. “His girlfriend?” Again, a shake of the head and the realization it would not suffice. So…onto the explanation of how she and the patient had only met the prior night, in the street, over a smoke. Jordan’s heart sunk. When finances are being discussed, it’s imperative that an appearance of sobriety be projected. “I see,” said the nurse, as nurses are wont to do. “So how do you know he works for a software company?”

Joya explained that Jordan’s place of employment was called “Java World” and that it seemed to her the name had “something to do with the Internet, or whatever.” The nurse, though sworn off caffeine, was familiar with Java World because it was located near her home. It was at this point that Jordan found it very convenient to lose consciousness.

“Jordan,” Joya shook him a short while later. “Listen, they’re not going to treat you here. You don’t have insurance. They’re going to put you in an ambulance and take you down to county medical okay hon?” He nodded in the affirmative, as he had understood from the very beginning that this might happen, though ignorant as to what form the rejection would take. “Now, I’m gonna let you go because I have to run over to my store. I haven’t been there all day and I can’t afford to be away any longer. It’s late afternoon now. I’ll check in on you tomorrow. Is there anybody you want me to call for you?”

Jordan, like many young and rootless cosmopolitans the world over, was from somewhere else and proximate to no immediate family. He didn’t see the purpose of upsetting his parents when there was little they could do for him other than worry – which was not so much for him as for them, in any case. As far as could be determined, he had appendicitis, although it had been explained to him some time earlier that there was no “full-proof” way of diagnosing that particular ailment with certainty since it did not turn up on X-rays.

He watched her leave, long striding in those blue cowboy boots, and felt terribly alone. “Surely,” he thought, “no one should be forced to go through something like this on their own…without her.”

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