“You need a haircut!”
Not what I necessarily wanted to hear from my oncologist, but could have been worse. And it got worse, though not health wise.
“It’s been a long day,” he said.
No shit, I thought, having waited 90 minutes after being asked to reschedule my 10:30 a.m. appointment to the afternoon, since he was in surgery in the morning. When I got there at 3 p.m.—half an hour early—the place was packed, and when I finally saw him at 5 there was only one other patient left.
The long wait had left me vulnerable, though.
You may recall that the first time I went down for radiation, I walked in and ran right into an old music business pal. Remember? The last place in hell you ever want to run into someone you know is the cancer ward, if not the cemetery.
So now with the long wait, this guy comes over to me, but this time it’s a guy I can’t stand. Another music guy. Run into him once a year, usually, at a big trade show in January. He’s with his brother and dad, and introduces me. I have to act like I care. Not sure I pulled it off.
“See you next week,” he said. “And don’t worry. Dr. X is the best.” I’m not worried, at least not about Dr. X. He is the best, even if I am hiding his name. I don’t know if he’d want to be identified here, and I’m too embarrassed to ask.
But I am in fact worried about running into this guy next week and having to act nice again. Maybe even have to talk cancer, which I hate doing. I don’t even like writing about it.
And then it got worse. There was more to the bad news than needing a haircut.
Dr. X is leaving. At least he thinks he might be leaving.
But Thank God he hadn’t said I was fat, like he did last time. I would have jumped out the fucking window.
But I never really had much of a conversation with him in the three years he’s been treating me. That’s not his fault. Ever since Dr. Subramaniam, the urologist I chose because he had the same name as my friend Dr. L. Subramaniam–the renowned Indian classical violinis–diagnosed me, the only real question I ever asked was, “Should I read anything?”
“No,” Subie said. His staff called him Subie. Whereas we call Dr. L. Mani.
“And don’t go on the Internet!” Subie added. I didn’t. Him doctor, me patient. I write about music. It’s not curing cancer. I don’t like reading much anyway.
Subie had sent me to X with highest recommendations. In our initial consultation, X said he was among the best. I had no reason to doubt him. Never even thought of getting a second opinion. “Do you have any questions?” he asked, after outlining his plan of radiation treatment. I told him how Subie told me not to read anything. Prostate cancer, Dr. X esplained, was heavily marketed. He didn’t explain why that mattered, and didn’t have to. After, all, I come from the record business.
In the three years since, I must come across as the biggest loser. Couldn’t afford to have the shingles vaccine he’d been ordering me to get for three years. About the only question I ever asked was whether I needed to be concerned about futility and he said yes.
Otherwise, it was always the quick in-out, so to speak. The nurse would draw blood, then ask the rote questions about urinary, defacatory, and sexual activity. Dr. X would come in and go over medications and then scribble out four or five prescriptions and that was it for the next six months.
It was different this time.
Dr. X isn’t at all unfriendly, but he’s always been pretty strictly business—and that’s fine. He has an office full of patients, and no one knows more than me the time it takes to treat cancer. I don’t mean to suggest that Dr. X was cold, not at all. Or that he wouldn’t have answered any questions I might have asked. I just didn’t ask much, and it was never like I had anything going on in my life to match his.
Yet now, even before glancing at the computer screen to see the info entered by the nurse, he suddenly went on a first-time ever monologue.
As was his manner, it was rapid and complete, yet just the fact that he was doing it was almost moving. And then the more he spoke, it actually became moving.
Also as was his manner, he got straight to the point, the point being that because of political and ownership changes at the facility, he wasn’t sure he’d be there in six months.
He explained that there were only two doctors in New York who could do what he does, he being one of them. He told me the same thing the first time we met, never boastfully, just matter of fact. I believed him then and believe him now—and had the guy I didn’t like and his brother and father to now back me up.
But being so specialized actually worked against him, Dr. X said. If I understood correctly—rarely a certainty—New York wasn’t big enough for the both of them.
But the gist of it came with Dr. X’s admission that “I’m just not good at kissing ass.”
“You can stop there,” I interjected. “I was never much good at it either. I tried hard, but never got the hang of it.”
Suddenly, I felt, we were kind of alike.
“I don’t know if I’ll be here in six months. I might not even stay in New York,” Dr. X confided, then handed me a sheet of paper. “But here’s my cell phone number and my email address. I will remember you. You can contact me any time and I will always take care of you.”
He added the magic words, “no charge.”
“You trusted me with your life,” he said.
That part I tried to shrug off, much as I tried to hold back the sudden and altogether weird sensation of choking up.
I mean, it wasn’t a big deal to me. I made it to 60, a good 40 years longer than I expected. I had so little to show for it now, and so few future prospects, that what did it matter anyway, whatever the perecentages of survival for whatever number of years.
Frank Zappa, whom I knew, died of prostate cancer at 50. I read the obits and every week see some famous person who dies of prostate cancer. Most of my friends that I knew yesterday have gone home, to paraphrase an old gospel song the Hee Haw Gospel Quartet used to do so beautifully. “Don’t read the obituaries,” Rosanne Cash told me.
True, I hadn’t gone home yet myself, thanks in large part to Dr. X. And now he was extendng himself to ensure that I wouldn’t, under his continued watch or not.
I did in fact fight back tears as I mentioned “Cancer Funnies.” He wanted to read it.
“But no one reads it!” I confessed, adding my signature line: “Maybe one person, but that’s only if I decide to proofread it, which is never!”
A lot of his patients have written books about their treatment, he said.
“I know! Everyone does. I wasn’t going to do it, because everyone does. But then I thought of the title ‘Cancer Funnies’ and just had to try. Except it wasn’t very funny.”
But it was cathartic, said Dr. X. “Fuck no!” I countered. Well, I didn’t think I said “Fuck no” then, but I’m saying it now. It wasn’t cathartic at all, I told him. Just another thing to write for free that no one reads.
I said more or less the same thing a week or so earlier at the Social Security office.
I’d never even thought of applying for Social Security. I have such an undocumented work history, other than the billions of articles I’ve written for free that no one’s read. I figured they’d look me up in the computer and either toss me out into the street or have me arrested just for showing up.
Then a friend with an inordinate amount of pity and compassion who is actually giving me work said I needed to go. So I went. Couldn’t find my Social Security card and thank God I didn’t need it. But I did have to make an appointemnt, and the earliest one was in three weeks. In the interim I mentioned all this to another friend, a lawyer, who said I needed to be prepared and bring along my work history.
My work history? I thought, realizing, again, that it was all mostly undocumented. I gave it five minutes.
My first paying job was at Goodmans’ Jewelers, in Madison, I guessed around 1968, when I would have been 16. The Goodmans were family friends and I think I refinished display cases there during the summer. From there I went to The Pancake House in Hilldale, maybe ’69 or ’70. Entry level dishwasher–which set the pattern of my career advancement for the rest of my life: The progression was dishwasher to busboy to waiter. I washed for a few months, then saw guys who came in after me getting promoted ahead of me.
The boss finally took me aside one day and said he’d give ma a dime an hour raise (to $1.35), but that I wasn’t cut out to be a bus boy. I quit and walked across the parking lot to Chandlers Shoes, a low-end women’s shoe store chain. Entry level was a stock boy, and the same scenario played out: After the stock boy who came on after me was promoted to salesman, the manager took me aside one day, gave me a raise and said I was never meant to be a salesman.
I figured I worked at the State of Wisconsin from around 1973 to 1977, first as an assistant to a blind counselor in the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, Bureau of the Blind, then as a Clerk/Typist 1 in the Division of Corrections, then a Clerk/Typist 2 in the Department of Administration before going full-time as a free-lance writer. I did work for the 1980 Census before moving to New York at the end of 1981 and getting a full-time job at Cash Box magazine early in ’82.
After two years as retail editor at Cash Box, I went over to MJI Broadcasting and produced a syndicated country radio trivia quiz show full-time for six months, and have been a free-lance writer ever since, a few months of delivering newspapers in the morning in 2011 notwithstanding.
But as luck would have it, I didn’t need to relate any of this.
The Social Securities rep I was assigned to, to my great fortune, happend to be from China. He was nice enough, but when he saw my t-shirt, it took him home.
Like Kris Kristofferson wrote in “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” I’d found my “cleanest dirty shirt.” It was a black t-shirt with a nondescript logo on the top left. I didn’t even know what it was until the man—I can’t reveal his name, obviously—asked if I was a singer.
The shirt, it turned out, said “Freedom Sings” under the logo. I probably got it 20 years ago at some First Amendment-related event. Maybe I even bought it. If so, it turned out to be well worth it.
No, I told him. I wasn’t a singer. But I was a music journalist—at this point, a failed music journalist.
Yet here was a man, originally from China, who could not have been more impressed.
He had left China, he said, because they didn’t respect intellectual property. He had been a professor, and said that what I had done, as a free-lance writer, required not only courage but was something that was vital to society—though maybe I’m exaggerating this a bit. Either way, he gave me such respect and understanding that I so rarely get anywhere else, such that I started getting teary-eyed—as I had with Dr. X.
Throughout the next hour or so, he went through the paperwork—he already had a computer printout with my work history—and explained everything. But every couple of minutes or so he’d take off his glasses and wax sentimental.
After leaving China he traveled around, England, Japan. He had ideas—good ones—and when he came to New York patented them. But he also got married and had a kid; his wife didn’t understand his inventions, and he needed a job to support his family. When he applied at the Social Security Office and saw an opportunity to help people, he seized it—again, much to my good fortune.
He was a huge help to me, and like I said, I was near tears. Same as I was with Dr. X.
On that sheet of paper with his contact info was a website address for providing feedback. Dr. X asked me to go to it and fill it out and hopefully say nice things about him, that it would be helpful whatever his future.
As a patient with a life threatening illness, I wrote, he’s as good as it gets on all counts.