The world as contagion
Who’s got what’s gonna kill me? Is it you?
Think about it. Every single person around you is a potential source of contagion — that cab driver, grocery store clerk, person waiting for the bus, that crowd of tourists flocking on the corner. And try to avoid them (it) — it’s impossible!
Day 6 after my kidney transplant: I take one Percocet and descend in the elevator to the street. I walk (with great care) to the corner and hail a cab. If the cab driver has any sort of disease I’m doomed. If not, I feel safe in his cab, swirling up 8th Avenue in the protected bubble of his yellow taxi. He asks me if I want to go up through Central Park. Yes, yes, I do. This is a vast source of entertainment for me after four days in the hospital; furthermore, the Percocet immediately starts to kick in.
I arrive at Mount Sinai on 98th and 5th and make my way to the 12th floor — the Transplantation Institute. After carefully selecting an elevator with no one in it and holding my breath when people enter on subsequent floors, I arrive. Good god! The place is an absolute warren of humanity — already, at 8:50 in the morning.
I’ve just spent the last week getting my immune system knocked out of my body with steroid IVs and started taking nonsteroidal immunosuppressant drugs as soon as I got home. I feel like a walking invitation for the next big disease and everyone is a potential carrier. I look around. Is it you, you, you???
I sign in at the desk and also for labs. Looking to the right I see a packed little seating area, packed with writhing humanity. To the left it’s the same. The area by the bank of elevators is relatively people-free — at the moment. And the larger seating area on the other side is packed as well. Nowhere is safe!
I plant myself in the space between the elevators and step back every time the doors ding ding and the floor is announced and out steps more people. Good god! Alone or in groups. And they all look so blithe. They look at me. Does my face convey horror? I step back further. Somebody gets on the elevator. They look at me. Why are they moving closer? They may think I also am waiting for the elevator. No. I’m just avoiding any possible contact or even proximity!
It seems people keep veering toward me. The more I move back the closer they come. By the way, I’m standing up for a long time — six days out from a kidney transplant. Finally I get called in. I see the head surgeon who’d done rounds in the hospital. “You look excellent,” he says, smiling broadly. Well, by the way, I made an effort.
My visit goes fine — I’m progressing just swimmingly — and when I get out the waiting area is even more crowded and I still have to wait for labs. I feel like I’m in steerage class on a ship bound for Ellis Island. I resume my post by the elevators, dodging and weaving. Finally I get my labs done and get the hell out of there, but not before developing a kind of loathing for humanity.
Day 9 after my kidney transplant: I walk to the grocery store with my son. It’s the first public place I’ve entered since my surgery aside from Mount Sinai. Holy shit — it’s crowded. We should have come earlier. I get a cart. I’m totally overwhelmed. My son shoots me a WTF? look as I’m frozen by the strawberries. I’m off Percocet by now but the anti-rejection drugs create a fog that I’m still trying to come out of. I walk through the produce section thinking of all the bacteria that’s no doubt being harbored by those innocent apples.
There’s a whole range of foods I’m supposed to avoid, including anything cooked in a restaurant — at least for now. No smoked fish, no rotisserie chicken, no deli anything, no soft cheeses, no salad bars or open food bars of any kind, no juice bars — anything subjected to the human touch, nothing not pasteurized, heated to a boiling point, washed to within an inch of its life.
Not without considerable mental effort do my son and I walk out of the store an undefined period of time later with two bags of groceries, he dutifully carrying them both. At home I prepare him something for dinner, trying to resume my role as a mother, trying to see myself as anything other than a receptacle for the world’s bacteria, viruses and fungi — and don’t think I’m not taking medication for those three things because I am.
Day 11 after my kidney transplant: my younger sister — and donor — and her husband pick me up at the apartment and we walk over to the Highline, this representing enormous progress for both of us. We get there and it’s not too crowded and yet, and yet …. someone sneezed! Another person coughed! You’re not safe anywhere, really. It is with relief that we reach the midpoint of the Highline, a shaded area with tables where coffee, empanadas, gelato and a few artful souvenirs are sold. We sit down.
I’m also apparently subject to skin cancer if I’m as much as kissed by the sun so I’m glad to be in the shade. My sister gets a coffee for her and her husband. I lost my mind on a double espresso the other day, so, no. I look at the gelato I won’t be eating (not packaged) and at my sister. We both look well.
Day 15 after my transplant: I meet my older sister from Brooklyn by the Q train at Herald Square — actually she walked toward me at 34th and 7th. Our effort to avoid the Midtown business rush has failed and we’re faced with the writing humanity of 34th Street going home. We fight our way through the trifecta of bacteria, viruses and fungi till we get to 5th Avenue then Park as the crowd diminishes along the way. We walk south to our destination: Madison Square Park. “What’s that park over there?” my sister says after a time. “Oh, that’s it,” I say. I’m still anti-rejection-drug oblivious.
We find a place to sit down, not too close to the dog park (other contagions), out of the sun (cancer). We watch people go by — as long as they don’t get too close.
She walks me back to the apartment before getting on the subway. “Let’s do it again.” “Let’s.”
Day 16 after my transplant: that’s today. I might go to a matinee. I don’t even care what I see. No one’s ever there in the morning and I’ll probably have the theater all but to myself. Let me just walk on the shady side of the street and try to use the auto-ticket dispenser without touching the buttons. I’ve already wiped my cellphone and my debit card down with a Clorox wipe several times this a.m. God help me if anyone coughs or sneezes in there. I might not be responsible for what I do.
The world is a dangerous place. But Trump and Bannon have it all wrong. It’s not ISIS or the attack on white Christian civilization. It’s that door handle you just touched. Or that world leader who just shook your hand. Get yourself some Clorox wipes, people. And go ahead and say a little prayer to your immune system.