All posts by Kate

First injection free

Coming from a country that generally bankrupts its citizens if they find themselves in an emergency medical situation, far be it for me to talk smack about the NHS. How can anyone argue with free health care? Sure, the US of A has free speech (sort of), but free health care? That’s for Socialists! Health care in the U.S. is something of a luxury, like a free beer on the airplane or a mint on your pillow in a 3 star hotel paid for by the company account. That is, people who can afford it, get health care.

I understand that the NHS isn’t perfect; what system is? It seems nothing short of backwards that doctors here only prescribe the drugs that you actually need for your condition, and refuse to write you largely recreational prescriptions. Medication is given out like candy in the U.S. –  it’s like Halloween for grown-ups all the time! Provided you have health insurance, or enough money to pay for private doctors, prescription drugs are plentiful for folks looking to make themselves more balanced, motivated and confident, or at least to sedate themselves to the point where they don’t give a shit.

You don’t have to prove you need medication either. In fact, random samples of drugs are offered to patients, pick-and-mix style, thanks to the young, attractive college students working part time for drug companies. Endless gaggles of chatty, blond 20 year olds in their mothers’ heels wheel suitcases full of drug samples into the doctor’s office day after day.

Never mind you don’t feel depressed; you might as well take some antidepressants home for your friends to try out! Finding it difficult to concentrate on writing your Masters dissertation? Here’s a prescription for ADD meds! Don’t smoke? Who cares – try a few handfuls of smoking cessation samples anyway! They have a hallucinatory effect while you sleep, and turn your otherwise boring dreams into Technicolor erotic escapades! The best sex you’ve ever had, the doctor quips with a sleazy wink as you redress. As you hasten to leave, the good doctor offers a course of Botox to remedy that furrow in your brow, with the first injection free as an incentive. (Botox, by the way, is generally extra; no one’s health insurance is that good.) Yes, medication is the American way.

However, if you are unfortunate enough to be like the millions of New Yorkers without health care, you are all but screwed. If by some stroke of terrible luck you end up in the back of an ambulance, the $850 ambulance ride is only the beginning of your financial woes. In your sorry state you might be taken to a hospital (hello lifelong financial bankruptcy for you and your family!), and if you’re supremely unlucky you might be taken to a Brooklyn hospital made famous by video footage of an ER nurse repeatedly stepping over a dying woman (who had collapsed on the floor of the waiting room) with as much concern as for a mop that had fallen over.

If that is your situation, then you’d be better off doing what some churches advertise in a desperate and defeatist attempt to increase their congregation numbers: try praying. Apparently simply dying in the middle of the floor isn’t enough to get you noticed; indeed, even multiple stab wounds to the head might be treated as a you-can-wait-your-damn-turn scenario. You have to be haemorrhaging out of each eyeball, have a knife lodged in your throat and half your brain spilled on the floor for an ER nurse to admit you, and even then you might have to wait your turn because there are countless other bleeding patients ahead of you. This is New York, after all.

So I find it fairly incredible that I can simply go to a UK health center and leave my wallet in my pocket. Not only that, I receive real and timely treatment. Recently, after hanging upside down on a trapeze, I had a brief spell where I couldn’t distinguish between objects of the same colour, and experienced an odd numbness in one arm. So off I went to the GP.

The GP’s extraordinary caterpillar eyebrows furrowed closer together as I talked. He ordered a taxi to take me to the hospital, informing me gravely, “it sounds as if you have a hole in your heart.” Having been in a New York hospital, I prepared myself for the worst. Would I croak on the floor of the waiting room like that poor woman in Brooklyn and my loved ones would have to find out about my tragic demise from video footage on the hospital security cameras?

My worries were assuaged when I didn’t see anybody dying on the waiting room floor. Speedy medical assistants and nurses ran a slew of tests on my eyes that left the world blurry, and then seen by the neurologist who asked if I spent any time upside down. “The trapeze explains it,” he said. “It sometimes happens. There’s no hole in your heart.”

And that was that. Sure, I was temporarily blinded, no one had offered me even an ibuprofen to ease my pain, and the GP was obviously an idiot, but my heart and wallet were intact. I was free to continue ignoring bills and credit card payments without the establishment encroaching on my god given right to ruin myself financially. Instead, I was given a pair of disposable sunglasses (free!) and sent out into the bright light of the day, wholeheartedly grateful to stumble home.

The mail will never stop coming

Of all the queues we must join, the post office line is by far the most character revealing. Try as you might to avoid it, sooner or later you are going to need to mail that crappy sweater you sold on eBay for far less money than was worth your hassle, or the Mother’s Day card you are sending a day late. (By the way, your mum knows it wasn’t the postman who slacked off, despite what you might have told her. She knows you bought the card the day after mother’s day because it was on sale, and you are a cheap bastard. She birthed you and wiped your ass. She knows.)

Unlike other goods and services we’re required to queue for, such as takeaway coffee or the bus, the post office has no magic level of customer service or schedule they’re striving to meet. No-one who works at the post office looks at the desperate, sweaty line of sad sacks wasting their lunch break and thinks; “I am going to stick more stamps than I’ve ever stuck before and expedite these important packages!” The post office workers don’t give two rat’s asses about you or your mail. They don’t care because no matter how many packages or letters they send, the mail will never stop coming. Theirs is a Sisyphean task, endlessly laborious and futile.

Nevertheless, you wait in line, your package clutched to your chest. To pass the time, you engage in conversation with the person in front or behind you, smile at the mother with her baby in a stroller and offer her your place further up in the line. You wave and coo at the baby, and the baby smiles back, gurgling and laughing. You make the most of your time, responding to emails and sending text messages on your phone.

But the room is becoming unbearably stuffy with so many people in it, and you are cordoned off and corralled by a rope barrier like a heifer waiting for slaughter. The collective patience and human civility lasts about 7 minutes. At this point people start to sigh audibly. The suits roll their eyes at the unstaffed counters and well-dressed women mutter incredulously that there should be more staff during such a busy time. Each member of the line swiftly becomes the authority on the correct operating procedure for the post office.

Then, having officially abandoned all social niceties and composure, the line begins to unravel. Coats and jackets are unbuttoned; bags are dropped loudly to the floor. Someone stamps an indignant foot. Everyone is a petulant, pissed off toddler, with a need more urgent than anyone else’s. You glare at the older lady ahead whom minutes before had filled you with fond memories of your gran, and shake your head at her excessive number of packages. No-one is making cooing noises at the baby in the stroller any more, and the baby is no longer cute; it is screaming and red-faced and trying to claw its way out of its wheeled prison.

The baby embodies how you feel but you are not sympathetic to its discomfort. You blame its mother for bringing it here and taking a place in the line, a place that was yours before you gave it up, before the post office line had robbed you of your ability to feel compassion.

More people enter the post office and join the line. They are civilized at first, but turn quickly, ready to throw the first stone at whoever is holding up this godforsaken line. A man lingers at the counter, buying stamps after he has already paid for his package. A woman asks drawn-out questions about different rates and shipping times as she fishes around in her purse. Can’t they see there are people waiting? Can they not feel the hot glares and seething impatience as they dilly dally with their change purse or forget to fill out a customs declarations form for their international package? You glare a silent warning at the people in front of you: try and buy a single stamp and this angry mob is going to descend on you like a biblical swarm of locusts on a crop field. Three of the counter windows remain unstaffed.

The situation is nearing its apex, the fabric of society so thin it threatens to snap completely. Only a fragment of order remains, and it is the counter worker who holds the last frail thread, for she is what stands between you and your package being mailed. You no longer even care about your package, but you have invested this time and you are going to see this through. Finally, you arrive at the front of the line, and taste a long-awaited victory.

But you have grown accustomed to the line mentality and forget what you are here to mail. When the counter worker asks about the contents of your package you pause and stutter, unable to form words after so much non-verbal grunting and seething. You take too long to answer and the din of the mob grows louder behind you. You mutter something unintelligible and then remember you didn’t fill out the international customs form still clutched in your sweaty palm. In an urgent whisper you ask to borrow a pen, and the counter worker raises a knowing eyebrow and pushes a pen through the window. Hastily you fill out the tiny boxes on the form, hoping the line doesn’t notice your misstep, but they do. Twenty, thirty people strong, the line bellow their dissatisfaction. You shove the completed form back through the window, and pay for your package.

The counter worker eyes you blankly. “Do you need any stamps today?” she asks. “Yes,” you reply, suddenly remembering, “Can I have a book of first class please?”

Heaven Below

There are roughly 9 million residents of the fair city of New York, and most of them are forced to regularly engage with the dark, piss-soaked abyss of the subway system. Unless you can walk to work (rare) take taxis everywhere (expensive) or are homeless (sucks), or you have a death wish and choose to cycle to work (which I did often, sometimes arriving at my office genuinely surprised at still being alive), you are hereby sentenced to share a very small, sealed space for an unpredictable amount of time, at least twice every day for the rest of your working life. You will share air, germs, unwelcome advances, viruses, silences, stares, frustration, judgement, proselytising, uncomfortable temperatures, standing space, uncomfortable seats, screeching noise, and a variety of smells (good and bad, often very bad) that you cannot escape, with every other cog like you.

During your sentenced subway rides, you will encounter (often intimately) people you otherwise would not have believed existed. In that human-as-spectacle sense, the experience will be fascinating. Documentarians, take note: the New York subway provides more of an in-depth look at the private lives of modern city dwellers than any film you could ever hope to produce. Where else could you expect to find such a diverse cross-section of people, and in such intimate detail? It is both unexpected and illuminating to witness the usually-private rituals of people who are so rushed for time that they are forced to carry out their morning hygiene practices on the train, shoulder-to-shoulder with their neighbours. To wit, during one oppressively hot summer morning commute I learned that the man sitting one seat over preferred to clip the toenails of his left foot first, and that the woman jamming her colossal behind into the too-small space between me and toenail man suffered from early morning flatulence. What’s more, had I not been crammed onto that seat I might never have noticed the “Heaven Below” tattoo that was peeking out from the expanse of her buttocks as she descended on me. Heaven itself, in all its blazon glory was amongst us on the morning subway!

Without this slow and uncomfortable underground journey, I might never have known the sheer scale of a truly enormous ass. I have born witness to asses so big they cover three subway seats with ease, spreading across the hard plastic like a non-Newtonian fluid. What’s more, without the subway I might have continued to assume that the only place I could throw garbage was into a garbage can. No longer must I endure the indignity of holding my own trash until I find a suitable receptacle to dispose it in. Now when the subway doors open at each stop I can throw my empty wrappers or the thoroughly-sucked bones from my bucket of fried chicken onto the platform before the doors close and the subway leaves, my dignity intact. If that isn’t American freedom, then I don’t know what is!

So thank you, New York City subway. I have learned many valuable lessons from my countless forays into your often foul and stinking belly. I know you are not just a vessel to transport me from A to B and back again in a slow grind to old age and dissatisfaction; you are my resting place when I am too drunk to stand, my toilet when I can’t hold it any longer, my conjugal bed when the time just gotta be right here, right now. Thank you for reminding me that I am not above the struggle; rather I am in the shit with all of your followers, and I’d better take something to shield the nail clippings and fried chicken bones flying at my face. Or get out and fucking walk.