Not Even the Worst Hurt

The Coil
The Coil
Nov 23 · 16 min read

David Ari Allan relives the trauma and survival instincts of a life-or-death teenage experience on the streets of New York City.

t’s cold and snow-dusted on this quiet, pretty street in the West Village. It’s just past midnight, January 23rd, 1982. I descend the steps of the brownstone on St. Luke’s Place and run toward Seventh Avenue South. I hear my down bubble jacket, light blue and ratty, going swoosh, swoosh, swoosh, the thin layer of snow under my blue Pumas, my arms swinging, swoosh, swoosh, swoosh. I am 19 years old.

I’ve only gone a few yards when I sense two bodies running parallel with me. I turn my head and can see the closer of the two looking into my eyes as they both match my speed. As we all run.

I shouldn’t even be here. I’ve already left my best friend’s family home to pick up my girlfriend at her waitressing job near Christopher Street, but I’ve forgotten my hat and it is cold. I know I’ll regret it if I don’t go back and grab it. So I do. And once again I leave the warm, familiar brownstone. It takes all of five minutes. The tiny course correction that changes everything.

I am late to meet her, so I am running. I am in the wrong place at the wrong time, and they are running alongside me and that’s when the one closest throws the first punch. A jab thrown while he runs, so when the punch connects with my jaw I’m not exactly hurt. More the shock of it makes me stumble.

Toward Seventh Avenue South, the brownstones on that curving street end and a line of tenements begin. These types of buildings have basement apartments, and to get to these there is a little landing, a patch of cement, with steps leading down to the left and to the right. There are low black gates that run along either side to prevent people from falling into the stairwells.

I land in this little area with steps leading down into darkness on either side. I get up off the ground and the two stand in front of me and I am penned in, trapped. I can’t go forward into them or down the steps. The gates prevent me from pivoting around them. It is the worst possible place for me to have tumbled.

Every window above us is dark, and on the other side of the street is a public library — long closed for the night. The street is deserted except for the three of us. I am scared and the adrenaline is pumping too quickly through my bloodstream. I expect more punches to be thrown and brace for them. This is when I see the knife.

Suddenly I know this is something entirely different, something potentially far worse than anything I’ve ever experienced.

I keep my eyes lowered. I have a vague notion that this is what one does to not provoke. Don’t make the aggressor nervous, or suggest one would be able to identify him. Take what you want and go. I won’t tell the police. It’s all right, this kind of thing happens all the time and never gets reported. I wait.

“Gimme your coat.” My secondhand, grimy, bubble down jacket — not worth a dime — and later I wondered if it wasn’t the coat they wanted, but rather just a clear view to my gut.

Me now in my white knit sweater … such a white boy standing in the cold with no jacket waiting for further instructions with nowhere to run. Me, white as snow — shaking with cold and fear — and them, relaxed and observant.

“Gimme your money.” Six crumbled dollars, as ratty and insignificant as the jacket. Handed over. “Okay … now run.”

I’m confused by this. How can I run? I’d have to push through the two of them, and they’re filling the space between the gates. I don’t understand. I need more information about what he wants me to do. The knife is in his right hand and he is on his partner’s left. The knife is between them, and everything in me wants to stay away from that glinting object that makes this different from anything else.

I finally look up into his eyes. I don’t say a word, but I’m sure I have a questioning look on my face. It’s not more than a second.

His face contorts horribly, becomes enraged. He becomes a monster, or possibly just a kid who needs to scream inside to do what he came here to do. He draws his arm back and quickly rams his fist forward.

I feel … nothing. I’m confused. I grunted with the impact, but I have this thought that he merely punched me in the stomach. I saw his arm go back and swing forward with force. I felt his fist hit my belly. But that was the hand holding the knife. And I felt nothing. It didn’t hurt. Did he stab me? Am I stabbed?

And then I black out.

And then I come to.

I wake up. I hadn’t passed out, or collapsed. I hadn’t died.

In fact, I am not even in the same spot by that dark tenement. But I am still with them. We three are across the street now by the library. In that time, when I lost consciousness, we three had moved 60 feet. And we are no farther apart — in fact, we are closer because at this point I have them both by the shoulders of their jackets, the fabric gripped in my hands, and my arms are raised, holding them up. As I become aware, I realize I have them both up on their toes. I had done something. I had grabbed them and moved them all the way across the street. Did I scream? Did I make animal sounds? Did I talk in tongues? Did I whimper? I physically moved them with intense force and direction, but for however long it was, five seconds? ten? I was not conscious and to this day don’t even have flashes. It’s a black hole. I might as well have been dead for those 10 seconds.

When I realize I am holding these two big, young men up on their toes, I look at them, and they both seem almost bewildered. And then I get very scared again. It seeps back into me. We are even closer than we had been when he stabbed me in my abdomen.

I can’t let go. This is all a matter of seconds, but it feels like an eternity — the three of us hyper aware of every moment. And as the fear comes back over me, I see in their eyes something like humiliation. This is over for them.

And the one with the knife just raises it straight up and into the bottom of my right arm. It cuts through my sweater and shirt and flesh. I let go of them and allow myself to drop to the gutter.

I look up and see them running west on St. Luke’s toward Hudson Street, carrying my blue bubble down jacket with them.

Relief floods me as fear had poisoned me a moment ago. I feel so deeply grateful that they are running from me, leaving, that I will never, ever see them again, that this is over. I’ve never felt more grateful and relieved about anything in my entire life, just seeing them going away … running with my jacket … swoosh, swoosh, swoosh.

I get up quickly, like a robot, it is so automatic — 20 yards to Seventh Avenue South — hail a cab — go to the emergency room. Get to the hospital. Get to the hospital. Get to the hospital.

I put my hurt right forearm over my abdomen, press it there firmly, and walk about ten steps, when suddenly my right hand curls into a kind of loose fist, and my wrist bends inward, all on its own. And I immediately think, ‘This is bad.’ The involuntary, almost graceful, slow movement of my own hand closing unnerves me just as I was feeling so good about this being over.

A couple in formal evening wear are exiting a taxi on the east side of Seventh Avenue South. I make my way through traffic and approach on the avenue side of the cab. The couple’s smiles seem strange to me as they elegantly get out of my way.

I try to open the back door, but it’s locked. I peer through the window, and the driver shakes his head no. He mouths, ‘I’m sorry, no.’ I say, or shout, “Please, please, please.” He doesn’t drive away — he just smiles at me in the same way the couple had.

I hear the automatic locks click, and I open the door and fall in.

We are facing south on the avenue — toward downtown. St. Vincent’s Hospital is directly north on the same avenue. Getting there, in the Village, is circuitous, it is difficult. I tell the driver to go to St Vincent’s. He pulls away, and I feel deep anxiety about how he will have to go to Carmine, slowly run west to east until Sixth Avenue, tear up Sixth to 13th Street, cut back west all the way back to Seventh, and somehow drop me in front of St. Vincent’s Hospital at 12th Street and Seventh Avenue. I keep my forearm firmly across my abdomen telling the driver my family is rich. That every red light he runs through, he’ll get one thousand dollars. He doesn’t say a word. I keep my eyes on the street ahead, imagining, but refusing to confirm, that I’m bleeding.

Later it will become part of the narrative that the driver was one of the bad guys in this story. But he did unlock those doors and take me to the hospital. Whoever he was, he saved my life.

He drops me at the corner of Seventh Avenue and 12th Street. I open the door and get out without a word or payment and wonder for a moment if he’ll come after me for the fare, but he doesn’t. I never allowed myself to look down at my wounds during that ride, but I realize now he must have had a substantial cleanup of that taxi cab seat.

I desperately search for an emergency room door as I walk along the dark, desolate side of the hospital. An overweight, elderly woman, possibly getting off her shift, is walking slowly toward me, and I urgently ask her where the ER entrance is. She is struggling a bit to walk with her weight and age and shopping bag, and at the sound of my voice, she looks up at me and horror comes over her face. I still haven’t glanced down at myself, and looking into her face I don’t have to. My snow-white sweater and stonewashed jeans — covered in blood, I just know it.

(Some time later, after the hospital, my mom would open the plastic garbage bag of my clothes that the hospital had given her when I was discharged — we were both standing at the washing machine at home. The white sweater had a long thin slit in it and my jeans were covered in dried black blood — she looked at them and began to cry.)

The lady can’t take her eyes off of the lower half of my body. She points behind her and says, “Right there.”

I push into the emergency room entrance and walk toward a counter. I say to the woman sitting there, “I’ve been stabbed.”

She looks at me and stands quickly. I look to my left, and a man in a thin, white doctor’s coat is charging at me. He’s running at me so fast it’s alarming. He leads me quickly off to the left. There is a trail of blood all over the highly polished floor from the entrance to the front desk. A trail that follows me.

He takes me into a room and directly into a tiny curtained area. Suddenly there are several people all working to get my clothes off as I stand next to an examining table. They cut my jeans away and I finally look down at my abdomen. It is relatively clean and pale, and below and to the right of my belly button there is a slit in my flesh, and bulging out, a blob of sickly white fat. I moan loudly at the sight, and wish I hadn’t after all that not looking, looked.

They get me on the table, and there is a lot of frantic movement. A young woman with a clipboard asks me questions: “How old are you?”

“19.”

“What is your birth date … weight … height … allergic reactions … address … phone number … blood type? Where are you hurt as far as you know? Is there anyone you want us to call? …”

I don’t know why, but I shout my answers, like I am in the military responding to a drill sergeant. Possibly I’m in shock. Maybe I am yelling for my life to stay awake. I am more frightened now that I am depending on others to save my life and not on myself — when moving forward was all that was required of me to stay alive.

So much activity around me in that tiny space. After a time, I realize mine is just one amongst a lot of tiny spaces in that triage room. I feel humiliated by how I yelled my answers now that I realize I’m not alone. I am probably not stable enough to afford embarrassment. But it feels humiliating. I’m not the only one hurt. Maybe I am not even the worst hurt.

Activity that had previously been swirling around me progressively ceases to almost nothing. They are waiting for an operating room where they will stitch my wounds. They say two police detectives want to interview me as soon as possible.

My parents and sister come in to see me. The strain and stress and worry deeply drawn on their faces is hard to take in. They were all awakened in the middle of the night by a phone call: “Your son has been stabbed. We have no other information at this time.”

I am horrified at the thought of them getting that call, dashing to pull pants on, get shoes on, not having any other information, only that I’m alive. All of them crying in the taxi. I am almost grateful I am me. I never, ever want to get a phone call like that. I’ve lived the rest of my life with a pervasive low-grade terror I’ll get a call like that.

As it becomes quiet again, it is just the head doctor and I. He is checking tubes and blood pressure, and it seems like a calm, appropriate moment to ask him, “Am I am going to be okay?”

He says, “Oh yeah,” as if there is no question about it, that if there were a crisis, it has passed. But he doesn’t look me in the eye. I decide he’s either a person who finds eye contact too personal … or he’s lying. Instead of saying more, he walks to the curtain and loudly calls “Father? … Has anyone seen the priest? … Father, can you come in here a moment?”

Nothing scares me more that night than him calling for, and the sight of, that priest, in black clerical clothing, entering my tiny space. I am certain it means only one thing: The doctor has lied to me, handing off the truth to an official better suited for conveying this specific type of message. I’m certain I am about to be given the last rites.

“GET THE FUCK OUT! GET THE FUCK OUT!” I shout at the priest, over and over and over. I feel terrified and justified and deeply humiliated again, and I know now I am dying and I don’t need a priest to tell me.

The priest smiles down at me, inappropriately, stupidly, as if — although seasoned and experienced — no one has presented him with this exact situation before in his professional life. I am embarrassed by that smile for us both. He pats my hand twice without saying a word and leaves, and I do not know what to think or feel.

I go into blank hospital waiting time. Staring at nothing. Not moving a muscle.

And I’m being wheeled into an operating room. Sew up the wounds. Lots of explanation. “We don’t just cut people open anymore. Causes infection when there might not be any major internal damage. We’ll watch you for 24 hours. We’ll know, and can do surgery if we need to, if there’s internal bleeding.”

For the first time all night, I feel pain. Even with injections to numb my torso so that they can sew my skin together, it feels like the surgeon is taking my intestines and twisting them into knots.

A nurse sits by the side of the operating table and holds my hand. She watches whatever the surgeon is doing. But I don’t look. She tells me I have lost a lot of blood. That I am very lucky. Her voice is both caring and kind, but also strict, as if to remind me that if I am not yet feeling grateful to be still alive, I certainly should start.

I have no idea who she is, this nurse whose hand I held so tightly. I wouldn’t know the ER doctor, the taxi driver, or the surgeon if I bumped into them on the street. I will never know who any of them are.

The detectives watch me from a small window. After the surgeon is finally done they come into the operating room. They ask me a list of rote questions in bored, tick-tock voices: who, what, where, would I recognize either of them. They get less than satisfying answers from me. Unhelpful facts. “It’s already been too many hours,” one of them says. He’s irritated, resentful, as if I’d prevented him from doing his job with all this needless waiting around he had to do. “Most likely nothing to see, but we’ll take a look at the crime scene anyway.” I never see or hear from them again.

An orderly wheels me into a very large, dark ward room. Fifteen beds and all taken. Old men. One young man asleep on a gurney at the foot of the bed they hoist me onto — even in the dark, I recognize him. He’s a harmless junkie I have seen around my neighborhood in the Village for years — nodding out on Bleecker Street.

I know for a fact that if I fall asleep I won’t wake up. There is one tiny frosted window high on the wall, and a very dim light comes from a lightbulb just outside. I stare at it — the only point of light in the entire room, in the entire world at this hour. I keep my eyes on it and will not let myself go to sleep. And I don’t.

irst light. My eyes haven’t shut — I never let them close. The place comes alive.

They tell me the radial nerve in my right arm is severed, and that the stab wound to my stomach can still kill me if there’s internal bleeding. Despite being the truth, I think this is an unusually harsh thing to say to a patient, but so many harsh things have happened in the last 24 hours that I don’t react.

My best friend’s parents, who live in the brownstone on St. Luke’s, come to visit me very early that morning. They stand by my hospital bed for a short time. Before they leave, the dad asks me in a bewildered way, “Why didn’t you come back and get us? We could have driven you to the hospital?” He says it as if they both have struggled for hours to come up with a plausible answer themselves.

I’m left dumb. I can’t answer them. I don’t know. I won’t know for some time … until later, I realize that I knew in the moment that if I’d gone back up the block, I would have died. I’m sure of it. No one understood. As if the only explanation was something shameful. But eventually the truth was self evident to me. Go in a straight line to the hospital or die. And do it yourself.

I will need microsurgery to reconnect the radial nerve, and I won’t know if I will have use of my right hand for possibly two years as the nerve grows back inch by inch from my bicep down into my thumb. The chances are 50/50 that I won’t ever have any real use of my right hand for the rest of my life.

When I leave the hospital a week later, I walk out into the brightest day I’ve ever experienced. The air is so crisp. Just pure oxygen. It fills my lungs, and the air shoots out into every part of my body in such an overwhelming way it almost makes me weep.

I will return to that hospital for twelve hours of microsurgery. It will be eighteen months of waiting without the use of my right hand, until one and a half years later, I feel the first twinge while riding a New York City subway. I sat there in the train and all of a sudden realized I could move my hand ever so slightly. It was so sudden, so overwhelming, I nearly fainted.

But before that, only months after being stabbed, the emotional tsunami of post-trauma, a kind of insanity, began and in most ways it was (and still is) more painful and far more frightening than the violence. And just as lonely.

But on this day at the very start of February 1982, I walk out of this hospital. This hospital where my two sons will be born 20 years from now, and that 30 years from now will be torn down and will no longer exist, making way for the endless creation of luxury condos that will become a fact that defines a new city that hasn’t been born yet.

But for now I walk out into one of those perfect New York City days — the light, the air, the smell — everything just so perfect.

It is 1982 in New York City. I am 19 years old. I’m alive.

DAVID ARI ALLAN is an NYU film school grad who writes about movies/TV for a UK magazine, is a photo editor in news and documentary photography, and has played guitar in bands at CBGB, The Cat Club, and Limelight. Born in Brooklyn, he’s working on a novel and new music.

The Coil

Literature to change your lightbulb.