Great secrets in New York City are like good friends, sharing them with others can be a gamble. Lobster salad on a croissant at Zaybar's, for $4.50, has got to be one of the best culinary secrets in the city. I'll risk the disappointment of finding them sold out the next time I pop in for a quick snack, if only to share with you a the story of one of my most cherished New York friends, one that begins with the purchase of two of those yummy, secret treasures.
It was a lovely spring day, Easter Sunday, which meant that everything was coming together perfectly for my master plan. I wanted to conquer the ill moods of my dear friend John. John hadn't been feeling well, not feeling "himself," for longer than any of his friends could remember. At least that's how long it seemed. His condition was just going on and on. This was the holiday of resurrection, so I thought my idea foolproof. John lives on Beekman Place, a lovely vintage building across the street from a dashing row of town houses. It's intensely New York. Once you set foot in the neighborhood, not imagining that Babe Paley, Auntie Mame and Irving Berlin are all waving hello, isn't an option. There's a dog park located right below his building, way below. Manhattan has some pretty unusual terrain. This dog park is close to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive (the FDR), which winds completely around the island on the East Side. It's not close enough to the park to be annoying, but just close enough to be dramatic. This area was once part of the shore of the East river, eons ago. Now, it's a treacherous cliff, crowded with jutting buildings, and little parks and the FDR zooming past part of it (if you don't think a busy highway near a park can be romantic, your brain must be clogged with car fumes). And it's all pulled together by a marvelous, towering blue stone staircase that winds up through it like icing on a cake. It's an interesting landscape that it drops off very dramatically from the "mainland." It has a mind-blowing view.
My plan was to take John to walk my dogs, Gomez, Magi and Benny, with me at the dog park, after indulging in the lobster sandwiches and other tasty treats I'd just purchased. I hoped this excursion would lift his spirits. He had been telling everyone that he felt generally unwell. We had grown so accustomed to hearing him talk about it, I think everyone hadn't fully realized–or just forgot–how long it had actually been. At times he confessed that he just knew he was seriously ill. He thought he had cancer. But, did he go to a doctor? No.
With the four of us wearing real smiles, The Three Musketeers and I met up with John outside his building. John's strained face returned a large grin when he saw us. John's building is so lovely. I'd forgotten because I hadn't been there in so long. It's home to many New York eccentrics, so of course John lives there. I was actually happy that John met us outside, so we wouldn't have to deal with Randy.
Randy is John's damnable doorman. He's nuts. Everyone has a story about having to deal with Randy. The last time I saw him, before this episode, he was flailing himself, shirtless, through traffic on First Avenue. He had his coat, shirt and slacks all held together in one huge knot, flailing it about like a dead floral arrangement, the tentacles of which undulated around him as he jaywalked loudly across the street, resembling a sort of horrible black squid with cerebral palsy and three day-old B.O. Randy is cursed with one of those weirdly fecund-looking male figures that is tall and scrawny, yet somehow possesses a pot belly. But he looks more ridiculous in his doorman uniform; a kind of equilateral one-size-fits-all box curtain. He resembles a malnourished, shabby Captain Kangaroo–which is an improvement. This costume also transforms him into an excruciating dullard, which is his work "mode." Not too brilliant for a doorman in an upscale, uptown apartment building, where important people are usually in a rush. But more on Randy later.
My plan began perfectly, and John loved the sandwich. As we walked, we shared stories, memories, and laughed a lot. There was a sweet moment when a young child came along and instinctively began playing with Benny (no one can resist Benny, he's a real heart stealer!). This whole exchange made John laugh out loud for a really long time. Afterwards, we decided to walk up the hill along the marvelous staircase, and then wander over to a grocery store on First Avenue.
As we climbed, our voices began to get louder, and we started saying "what?" a lot. I realized it was because the distance between us was increasing. John was lagging behind me, an unusual amount. This is odd because normally he has an inexhaustible, nervous energy. When we reached the top, we bid our goodbyes and I left him breathless, pale and waning, but in good spirits. I saved my look of grave concern for the passing strangers I encountered on my way home.
Then it was off to distract myself with an Easter dinner, which was thankfully going to be a nice. My friend Susan and her husband Val were going to Scarsdale to a dinner at a Jewish family's home. I thought "It is Easter, it is dinner, Easter Dinner!"
We left Manhattan and ventured out to the house by car. It was a splendid drive, and a wonderful home which belongs to my friend Lori. Besides being a friend, Lori is an old client of mine. I had done all of her previous homes, except for the one we were visiting. She's now married and has two nice boys, but I've known her for a very long time.
We made it back to the city in time to walk Benny and my usual Sunday night ritual ritual. I water the plants and straighten up a little bit, getting ready for the coming week.
I finally sat down to check my voice mail. I hadn't listened to it all day. I listened to the first message; "Marc. This is Alice." Alice lived in California. It was sure odd to hear her voice; it had been a long time. The last time I'd been with her was when a group of us flew down to Jamaica. "Marc. It's important. Call me back."
Okay, I would.
I listened to the next message, it was Alice again, sounding a bit more frantic this time; "Marc, it's John. Something's very wrong with him. I've been speaking with him and he cannot recite the alphabet, or remember his name. Or..." I dropped the phone and ran outside.
John's apartment building was only two blocks away. I arrived and threw the doors open as I rushed into the lobby. As I mentioned, John's doorman, Randy, is one of the building's most unfortunate eccentrics. I'd say he's an idiot savant, but I don't want to insult other idiots. He's the only person I've ever known who has dandruff in his moustache. Sharing hysterical stories about Randy was a guilty pleasure amongst everyone who knew John. In the past, I would usually arrive upstairs at John's, rolling my eyes about some affray that had happened on the way up, and John and I would both howl. But this wasn't funny. I urgently said to him, "Randy, something is very wrong with John. It's an emergency!"
I then stood leaning slightly over the front desk, covered lightly in nervous perspiration and waiting for him to fly into the kind of brisk action that kind of announcement would usually warrant. Randy slowly turned and looked in the direction of the elevators, then turned at looked at me, paused, and said, "Whoa." Then he paused again and added, "Wait a minute. I have to call him and announce you."
"There's really no time for that." I interrupted, "I think he could be very ill!" Randy creaked forward and covered the end of his thumb with a layer of saliva to begin leafing through his book of apartment numbers.
"A friend just called me in hysterics after getting off the phone with him." I continued, "This is real trouble, he may need an ambulance!"
"Well," he said, stopping what he was doing to look at me, "I saw him not long ago and he seemed fine."
"How long ago?" I demanded.
"Now calm down, calm down!" he looking straight at me through his thick glasses, almost as if he were trying to see if I was really there or not.
"How long ago!?" I repeated louder.
"Well let's see," he said, putting his wet thumb up to his chin, "I think it was…Tuesday?"
"BUZZ HIM NOW!" I screamed.
So he finally buzzed John while I stood there about to implode. With Randy's cauliflower ear pressed to the receiver, I could faintly hear the echo of John picking up in his apartment. Randy cleared his throat several times and then said "John? Um, this is Randy. You know, Randy downstairs. There is a friend of yours here who…"
I reached over and grabbed the phone out of his hands. "John! John!" I said loudly into it, "It's Marc, I'm downstairs. Alice called me, are you all right?"
There was a pause. I waited for a response. John then said, "Wait a minute, wait a minute. What? What? How? Can I? Can I?" He made absolutely no sense.
"John, I'm coming up to get you." I said.
"No no no no no. Wait a minute waitaminute waitaminute where is the whereisthe whereisthe wiataminute..." I heard him slur as Randy reached over to try and yank the phone away from me, which now for some reason that I'll chalk-up to panic, I didn't want to let go of. I was now in a phone tug-of-war with Randy.
With all four of our hands on the receiver, you could still hear John faint voice on the phone; "Izza waita wherezat?" as we yanked it back and forth in truly mortifying slapstick style. How did my life come to this? But I'd sacrifice anything, even dignity, to save John! I actually hoped he pulled through because this was going to make a great Randy story.
The spiral cord bounced and whizzed around us like a Slinky, as I grunted "Give…me…it!" I contemplated wrapping it around Randy's neck and strangling him.
"The…pro…ce…dure!" Randy choked back. We both began to wheeze.
Suddenly, there was a loud ding at the end of the hall. It was the elevator! We both froze and looked over, our hands still locked onto the one phone.
"Hold that door!" I cried down the hall.
"Don't hold those doors!" Randy countered.
We began to struggle again, more violently. As the elevator doors opened, a woman, 100-ish, emerged and calmly walked through the lobby. She barely glanced at us and went on her way out the door. New Yorkers are a strange breed. Maybe she thought it was a handicapped thing, and didn't want to stare.
I let go of the phone and, catching my breath, pulled my cell and pushed the 9-1-1 buttons as fast as I could.
"Should I just bolt up the stairs?" I thought as I waited for the dispatcher to pick up. I had to get John to a hospital, and Randy–the dandruff-peaked Rock of Gibraltar, clueless and not moving–was the only way up.
"He sounds okay to me." Randy huffed, the phone receiver still dangling in his hand. I could still hear John's voice coming out of it; "Nonononono don't come don't come," you could hear him whining, "Where is it whereisit?"
"Are you INSANE?!" I said to Randy, "He's probably had a stroke or a heart attack or something!"
"911 what's your emergency?" the operator suddenly said on my cell. I explained the situation quickly and gave the address.
"You're not getting in that elevator unless he allows it." Randy said, now sounding inexplicably like Dick Cheney.
"Now, we have three options." I heard Randy reciting in the background as I turned my back on him to go outside and wait for the EMT workers.
It was incredible. Four emergency vehicles arrived within three minutes. Actually, I think their rapid arrival was because of the building's renowned address. But who knows, maybe they got there fast to allow time to deal with Randy, who perhaps had a reputation on the EMT circuit as a bumbling obstacle with a predisposition towards involuntary tenant-slaughter. Whatever the reason, I knew then and there if I ever had a medical emergency; I'd drag myself to the front of that building with my tongue if necessary, before calling for help.
The emergency workers scrambled in and threw down their equipment, with Randy shouting the whole time, "You can't come in. You can't come in! I'll call the police." It was ridiculous.
One of the young men stood straight up and said clearly, "Sir, I am the police and if you don't stop this crap you're going to jail."
Randy shut up.
I was already over by the elevator, pounding the button. When it opened, I reached my arm around and pushed the button for John's floor as everyone simultaneously poured in with their clattering equipment. It zoomed up to the 12th, and when the doors opened we fell out and barreled down the hall. I hadn't been to John's apartment in probably twelve years, but I remembered its location exactly. We arrived at his front door.
It occurred to me that–given John's apparent condition–knocking the door down with an ax and me running in screaming, flailing my arms in hysterics, was probably not the most constructive idea. So, I decided I'd better take a peek alone first. I asked the emergency guys to wait in the hall as I jiggled the doorknob, suddenly realizing that Randy probably had the key downstairs. Damn. But then…there was no need, the door was open. I realized, and then remembered, that John's door hadn't been locked in fifteen years. I pushed it slowly, saying "J-o-o-o-h-n-n?" and stopped when my eyes hit the apartment's interior. `You can't even begin to imagine.
It was only vaguely lit; I think there was only a single light on in the entire place. Besides being dim, it was smoky, and there was a musty aroma. Through the haze you could see large, dark cliffs–which were giant sheets of primer, sheet rock and paint hanging curled out from the walls like glaciers, probably caused by ceiling leaks that had begun long ago. You'd need snow shoes to walk around, or perhaps moon boots, as the floor (as well as every horizontal surface) had a wall-to-wall, two feet thick layer of magazines, unopened mail, CDs, discarded voicemail recorders, luggage, beautiful little objects and everything else covering it. You couldn't see his dining room table because it was buried under, on top of, and on all sides with stacks of newspaper and piles of other things. There might as well have been a car under that mountain. It was so dim and confusing; you couldn't make out half the things you were seeing.
As I precariously began to walk into his bedroom, I could soon hear John's hoarse voice; "Nonono. It's ok. Whereisit whereisit whereisit? I need the Ineedthe ineedthe. Nonono nonono..." he just went on and on.
I finally slid my way over the undulating layers of glossy magazines and into his room. He looked strange. His eyes looked confused. I just said, "John, we must go."
"Nonono." was his response.
"John, we've got to go." I said. Then I jerked, because there was a sudden pounding at the front door.
"Sir! What's going on?" I could heart the EMT workers shouting from out in the hall, "We need to check him out! We need to get him to the hospital!"
I crept carefully back through the entangled apartment jungle, and cracked the front door open again. They all looked at me with urgent faces. I whispered, "It'll just be a moment." and then, keeping my unblinking eyes locked with theirs, I slowly closed the door.
They must have thought me insane. Moments earlier I'd been a frantic blur. Now that I was upstairs, I was taking so much time they probably thought I was having a cup of tea, or worse. Looking back, I think I just didn't want anyone to see John in the state he was in. At one point, I guiltily caught myself trying to straighten a pile of travel and financial periodicals in his apartment, so it would appear neater. What in the hell was I doing?
I finally dragged a mopish John, half dressed and still getting dressed, to the door. They had a gurney ready, and they tossed him in. When we got out into the light of the hallway and I got a good look at him, my blood turned to ice water. He was as white as an egg, and his lips were turquoise. They went into an emergency procedure, giving him oxygen and checking his vitals. Later, they told me it was a good thing they were there, because he surely would have gone into organ atrophy before long.
We rushed him down, and Randy's red, angry face greeted us when the elevator doors opened on the ground floor. In a scolding manner, he started telling us that the ambulance outside was blocking traffic and we had to move it. John was laying there on the gurney, practically dead, in full view. The ambulance attendants stared at each other incredulously, as we all bolted right past a finger-wagging Randy. Poor Randy, I think even Gandhi would strangle him.
We got outside, and of course there were horns honking all around and people yelling. New Yorkers really are a strange breed. The EMT guys were now connecting all sorts straps to his arms, something to his leg, tapping him all over the place, shining bright lights in his eyes and asking him questions. We were still out in the street. Frantically, I looked over at one of the attendants and nervously said, "Could I please ask you a question?"
He swallowed and looked at me, prepared to answer honestly with whatever might be the worst about John. I lifted up my pant leg and showed him something on my leg, asking, "Do you think this rash is serious?"
After staring at me as if I'd lost my mind, he told me to quickly get in the back of the ambulance to ride along with John to the hospital. Oh how exciting! I'd never done that before, even if I'd seen it in a million television dramas. But the ride wasn't dramatic, it was pathetic. Even with the siren blaring, they could barely wedge their way through stubborn New York traffic, which is just awful when one of your best friends in laying on a gurney next to you, nearly a ghost, and every second counts. John was still in bad shape but they had done all they could do, and really just needed to get him to the hospital.
We finally arrived and because he was in such a bad state, they took him in immediately. The loud group of doctors and nurses almost seemed to swallow him whole as they wheeled him through the emergency room doors. They began to work on him frantically, and I started to get scared again. One of the attendants pulled me away for a moment, and asked me to go to the check-in area. I walked over, and was met by a stern-looking woman sitting behind a window. "Are you responsible?" she demanded. I instantly thought about Judy Garland singing a newly lyric-ed version of "Call Me Irresponsible;" "Call me irresponsible but I’m undeniably yours."
"Responsible for what?" I asked her.
"Responsible for your friend." she said.
"Well, I brought him here."
"Okay, sign here please."
"What am I signing?"
"It states that you're responsible."
All of the sudden it was like I was on a used car lot. I looked at the form she was holding in front of me; it was quite a sly trick. It's like that funeral parlor thing where you're so emotional you'll just pick any piece of expensive garbage out, and then regret it when you've come to your senses. They were asking me to sign something that stated I would be financially obligated to any of his billing, forever. I looked at the woman and said, "You've lost your mind." as I turned around and walked away.
When I got back to John he was surrounded by even more nurses, doctors and attendants, and they were shouting questions at him; "What day is it? Who is the president? What month is it? What is the holiday today?"
I squeezed through them all and shouted, "John, who were the six wives of Henry the Eighth?"
It was the first time he blinked, and as he did he tried to say something. It sounded like "Kate rind's a goon." It was Catherine of Aragon! He was trying to say Catherine of Aragon, bless his heart. I almost cried. The doctors and nurses all stood looking at each other.
After the experience, a few weeks later I made a paper fan with buttons on it, with all the wives’ pictures and names on each button. When he finally was able to name all the wives on the fan again, we knew we had serious progress.
John had suffered a massive stroke. He is one of the most detail-oriented, brilliant people I've ever known, so his stuttering speech and frustration with basic motor skills in the beginning came as a real shock. But the warning signs had been there. He'd obviously had several mini-strokes the week prior, which caused him to feel pain in his legs (caused by blood clots), and for him to think he might have been ill.
But now he was in the right place. While he was holed up in the hospital, all of his friends and I got downright filthy (and a little frightened) as we took on the enormous task of cleaning and fixing up his apartment. It was quite a job. Paige came up from New Orleans, Alice from San Francisco, Jennifer from Seattle, and others. In between visits and gifts at his hospital room, we'd schlep over to his old place and dismantle huge glaciers of melting wall plaster. What a job!
He stayed in the hospital for weeks and weeks, and when it was time for him to go home, his physician asked me, "Is he going home with you?"
"Oh yes," I said, "He lives very near me. I'll be able to drop him off. We just fixed up his place."
The physician continued looking at me and said, "No. Is he going home with you? He needs someone to care for him."
"Oh." I said, "Is he going home with me?"
"That's what I'm asking you." The doctor said.
"Is he?" was my reply.
"He's either going home with you or he's going to have to go into an independent living situation." the physician concluded.
Well, I certainly couldn't let that happen. Coincidentally, my apartment had been recently vacated by two recent guests; my nieces from New Orleans who had unexpectedly moved in with me seeking refuge after hurricane Katrina, and eventually to attend their sophomore year of school. But it hadn't worked out and they went to stay with someone else. So the timing was perfect. I had spent time making up my nieces' precious little room before they arrived. It had twin beds with wicker head boards, and a little identical teddy bear sitting on each. So that's what John would get. Quite a change from the apocalypse his old place had turned into, although I'm not sure if Holly Hobby was quite the change he'd longed for.
So I brought John home and laid him in his little gingerbread room. His eyes got really big when he saw it. In the beginning, a large part of my daily routine included taking care of him. This was new for me. I've always had my precious dogs Gomez, Magi and Benny, who rely on me (and me on them!). But of course another person, a friend, relying on you is different. There were times it was frustrating, but somehow that didn't matter. There's a certain kind of renewing energy one attains when providing for someone else in need. I can't quite put my finger on why it's there, but it's a subtle, pleasant feeling. It's probably primal.
One evening, I came home to an unbelievable aroma in the apartment. It wasn't just the smell of food; it was the smell of FOOD! As John had become better, he'd suddenly began cooking, a passion of his. Without me saying a word, he automatically took over the much-in-need duties of shopping and cooking. That evening he had made parsnips and beef Wellington in a heavy cream sauce, and also cream of mushroom soup. All of it was from scratch–so rich, dense and flavorful–truly phantasmagorical. His meals were re-dunk-ulous; we would have French omelets stuffed with crème fresche and salmon roe, or fresh Cornish hen with sizzling corn bread dressing, or lobotomizing lasagnas and pastas. He's more than a cook, he's a chef–no, a mastermind. No, an evil genius! I realized that if I ate like this every day I would gain a tremendous amount of weight, and I did.
To this day John still refuses to eat another lobster croissant sandwich from Zaybar's, ever again. Good. Good for him. That's just one more that I know will always be there waiting for me. But I must confess, indulging in one now really does carry an undertaste of memory. It isn't the memory of the sandwich not being good, or the day not being beautiful, or the dogs not behaving charmingly, or that I wasn't absolutely hysterical–but it was the haunting memory of that horrendous morning when it had all begun, and the evening when the wicked thing finally struck. But John had made it through, with a little help. The most important thing is that he's well on the road to recovery. Me? I'm well on my way to pick up another lobster sandwich for lunch. With friends like this, to hell with my diet.