$1,380 Per Night, Double Occupancy

from I Thought My Father Was God; and Other True Tales from NPR's National Story Project, edited by Paul Auster, (Holt 2001)

A summer in a Manhattan hospital with ailments too boring to discuss. Eight roommates. One realization. The semi-private room, the repository for all but the very rich or the very infectious, is the great leveler of society. It's where people who normally wouldn't mix suddenly find themselves sleeping together -- and sharing a toilet.

"I'VE BEEN GOING TO THE BATHROOM FOUR TIMES A DAY FOR SIXTEEN DAYS AND HAVE HAD A PAIN IN MY ABDOMEN FOR FOURTEEN DAYS!" my first roommate cheerfully shouted at anyone who came near. But then he always shouted. Roommate Number One was an ex-42nd Street hustler, 30 years old, and looked 45. The fact that he hadn't used the john for 36 hours after his arrival didn't seem to lower the volume any. He just kept shouting about his supposed diarrhea, until finally he produced a turd the size of Kansas, which I knew because he never flushed.

His doctors said there was nothing wrong with him. He shouted louder. They tried to send him home. He responded by filing a grievance. Screaming and tantrums ensued, until a mysterious visit from a nurse and a man in a white coat.

"We're just teaching him how to give injections," the nurse assured him as the novice whipped out an enormous syringe.

"Oh my God!" shrieked Roommate One as the needle missed its mark.

On the third day, he was still demanding to be allowed to stay, when his friends with the bad haircuts arrived. They took Number One on furtive trips to the public bathroom for undefined illicit purposes, and it was after one of these excursions that he simply didn't come back. No one seemed surprised. They just got his bed ready for the next occupant.

Roommate Number Two was a retired and heavily sedated Monsignor. He had been brought in from a nursing home and had no idea where he was. "Sometimes I think I like you, and sometimes I think I hate you," he droned groggily to a nurse's aide he had never seen before. Pausing to consider, he then delivered his verdict. "Today, I hate you."

A social worker came and shouted in his ear. "MONSIGNOR! I'M GOING TO GET SOME ICE CREAM! WOULD YOU LIKE SOME?" He perked up. "CHOCOLATE OR STRAWBERRY?" The Monsignor thought chocolate. "OKAY, I'LL BE BACK IN ABOUT TWENTY MINUTES!" and she scurried from the room. About two seconds later, a nurse came in to administer some medication.

"Where's my ice cream?" demanded the priest.

"I don't have any ice cream. Just pills," she answered. There came a low growl from the Monsignor's bed.

"Bitch," he hissed.

Roommate Number Three had recently been a homeless drug addict, and was nothing but bones held together by a bag of skin. "Ninety-nine pounds!" chirped the nurse after she weighed the 5'8" man, who could have been anywhere from 27 to 50 years old -- he was just too ragged to tell. He slept, mostly, only waking long enough to complain about the food or to spar with the technician trying to draw blood. "I know what you do with that blood," he told him ominously, "You sell it -- five dollars a tube -- you can't fool me."

With increasing urgency, Roommate Three's doctors implored him to give his formal assent for an H.I.V. test, as they legally couldn't administer one without it. "If we had a diagnosis, we could prescribe medication that could really help you," they pleaded, but he was unmoved, seeming to think that HIV tests were part of some sort of evil conspiracy hatched by the medical establishment. Every day they begged. Every day he declined. I wanted to plead with him too, but figured that since I had overheard confidential information, it wasn't my place. Still, whenever he dragged himself out of bed to go to the bathroom, I'd watch him carefully, ready to call the nurse in case he toppled over. Somehow, he never did. Roommate Three was finally released to a shelter for homeless people with medical problems. I prayed that someone there would convince him to get the help he needed.

Roommate Number Four was pleasant, chatty, and covered in sores. He also had a girlfriend who always came at mealtimes. "I'll just taste this to see if you'll like it," she would tell him as she polished off his lunch. She talked nonstop while she ate, rattling off gossip about friends, about television, about nothing at all. Eventually she would whisper, "I've got the stuff," and the two of them would limp off to the public bathroom, with the "stuff" concealed in her pocket.

Whatever her faults, Number Four was touchingly devoted to this girlfriend. So much so that he carefully saved his nail clippings in a little bottle, just for her. "She likes to chew on fingernails, but doesn't want to ruin her own," he explained, "So I give her mine."

"Oooh, these are good ones!" I heard her exclaim.

I always made sure the curtain between our beds was tightly closed.

Meanwhile, Miss Thomas had taken up residence in the room across the hall. Miss Thomas screamed. All night. Every night. And with her door directly opposite ours, it was like she was right in the room with us. "Evelyn!" she'd wail, "Evelyn! Evelyn! My butt hurts! Evelyn! Oh, the pain. The PAIN! Eve-LYYN! My BUTT hurts! EVE-L-Y-N-N!"

At first I felt sorry for this poor, deranged woman, obviously in agony. That is until I heard her on the phone the next morning speaking in a normal, reasoned voice. "Oh the service around here is horrible," she said, "Last night I had to scream. I just screamed and screamed until someone came in." That night, Miss Thomas was thirsty. "Evelyn! I need a glass of water! Evelyn! I'm THIRSTY! EVE-L-Y-Y-N-N!" I broke hospital regulations and shut my door.

Roommate Number Five was a soap star. Blonde, chiseled, perfect teeth -- the nurses were all over him for autographs. He had a cell phone, a personal assistant, and a hospital administration at his beck and call. "You can order out if you don't like the food," the beaming admissions office staff said as they handed him a stack of restaurant menus.

"I've been here three weeks and nobody ever told that to me!" I called out, but they paid no attention.

The soap star had an infected testicle -- a fact that he would happily share with anyone at any time without any provocation, whatsoever. To a blood technician, "I knew they hung low, but not that low!" To me, "When I felt them brushing against my knee, I figured I should get them checked out!" On the phone, "The doctor said it's probably because I haven't been having enough sex, but I know that's wrong!" Everyone was dazzled. The only things missing were 8x10 glossies.

That night, Miss Thomas was cold. "Evelyn! I need a blanket! Evelyn! I'm so COLD! Get me a BLANKET! EVE-L-Y-Y-N-N!" Early the next morning, the obviously chagrined administration told the soap star that they were moving him to a distant, private room -- at hospital expense -- so he would "be more comfortable."

"I've been here three weeks..." I started, but they ignored me again.

That night, when Miss Thomas started screaming for Evelyn, a frustrated voice was raised in response. "Miss Thomas you just have to stop all that screaming! We tell you to use your call button every night but you just keep on making all this noise! There are people trying to sleep, you know! Now if you don't be quiet, I'm just going to shut your door and NEVER come to help you, and you know how much you'd hate that!" and then, as she turned to make her exit, one parting shot. "And another thing. My name's Yvonne!"

Roommate Number Six was moved up from intensive care. I think he had been in a coma. "Do you remember how you got hurt?" a social worker asked him. A long pause, and then a halting voice said, "Do I live in New York?" Later, he asked the overworked resident, newly assigned to him, "How long have I been here?" The resident didn't even look up when he gave the curt reply, "I don't know, a couple of days." Actually, I had heard someone say that Number Six had been there for weeks. "I began to remember something..." he started to say, but the doctor cut him off. "Listen, I can't talk now, I've got other patients to see." I never heard what Number Six began to remember.

One thing Number Six consistently forgot was that he was strapped into bed because he had a broken shoulder. Sometimes, on my trips to the bathroom I would find him hanging off the side of his bed, tangled in his cloth restraints, looking mournful and confused. "Are you in trouble?" I'd ask, and he'd nod his head. "Do you want me to get your nurse?" and I'd trot off and find her. Finally they came and strapped him in so tight he could barely move, and he, forgetting where he was, would crap all over the sheets. Eventually, the nurse's aide would hustle in, spewing fury.

"What's the matter with you?" she'd shout, "Why do you make all this mess and make us come and clean you up? What are you, a baby?" After a couple of humiliations like this he got a little gun-shy. I'd pass by his bed and find him covered in shit, looking utterly miserable. "Are you in trouble? Do you want me to get your nurse?" and he'd nod, slowly, while trying to hold back the tears.

Roommate Number Seven was an older, working-class man from Queens. He had been undergoing chemotherapy for his cancer and spent the first couple of days throwing up. "I'm sick of this," he told his wife, miserably. "What's the point of going on if this is how I'm going to live?" And then he'd wretch again. With me he was cordial and as pleasant as can be expected, but his poor wife received the brunt of his frustration. "What the hell is this?" he'd snap after she'd traveled for an hour to visit him, "I said pitted grapes! How can you be so stupid?"

But he started to get better, and for two days he was downright cheerful. That is until the third morning when his speech suddenly started slurring, he introduced me to a daughter who wasn't there, and then fell asleep while the doctor was talking to him. When he woke up all he said was, "I miss Paris." I couldn't have agreed with him more. They whisked him off to another floor that afternoon.

Roommate Number Eight arrived late that night. He had a deep, kind-sounding voice, with a lilting Latino accent. He also had long, painted nails, a bouffant hairdo, and preferred to be called Cynthia. He was just twenty years old, and was running a high fever because one of his breast implants had become infected. He also had AIDS, was on welfare, and was estranged from his family. Yet through it all he remained remarkably calm and philosophical. When I finally went home the next day, he was patiently fielding phone calls for Roommate Seven, who had been moved so abruptly that no one, including his wife, knew where he was. "He's on another floor now, sweetheart," he said soothingly to some bewildered relative, "You just call the switchboard and they'll give you his number." I left him a couple of magazines that someone had brought me and all the juice I had been hoarding. "You're leaving, just as I was getting to know you," he said wistfully, but I was anxious to get home.

Besides, I knew he'd be having plenty of company soon.


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