So Sorry, Uncle Chick, I Meant To Say Goodby
© Copyright 2021 by Elliot Wilner
There was a large FedEx envelope resting in plain view on the counter that fronted the mailbox. The mailbox was a simple wooden cabinet, open-faced, divided by shelves and partitions into twenty-four slots for sorting of mail to staff members of the Holy Cross Hospital Health Center. This envelope obviously had been left on the table because it was too bulky to fit into one of the individual mail slots. It might have been mailed to any of twenty-four individuals -- yet I somehow assumed, for no good reason, that the address on the envelope would bear my name. Or, to be perfectly honest, I earnestly hoped that it would bear my name. And my hope was realized once I held the envelope in my hand: there, on the label, in bold characters, was my name, Dr. Elliot Wilner. The sender was Novartis, the pharmaceutical company. Thank you, God, I murmured to myself, and special thanks to you, Novartis. I was confident that what lay inside was an invitation – to precisely what I had no idea, but I was yearning for any invitation that Novartis might send me. Nevertheless, I decided to defer opening the envelope until later in the day, after I had seen my last scheduled patient.
I had been a part-time volunteer at this clinic, serving as a neurology consultant, for the past four months, ever since my retirement from private practice. I saw patients there every Wednesday afternoon, from noon until four or five o’clock. The first thing I would do upon arriving at the clinic would be to check the mailbox, always hoping that the mail had brought me something that would brighten my day. Not that my days at the clinic were so gloomy, but they were intense and often frustrating, in large part because nearly all of the patients whom I saw in consultation spoke only Spanish. This was a clinic for uninsured patients, mostly immigrants from Latin America, and I needed the assistance of Billy, a Spanish- speaking nurse from Puerto Rico, or one of the other Latinos on staff, in order to communicate with the patients. Those three-way interviews usually proved to be tedious, time-consuming and unreliable.
“Hey, Doc, aren’t you going to open that?” Billy had observed the FedEx envelope perched conspicuously on the table for the past several days. “Aren’t you curious?”
Billy himself was no doubt curious about the FedEx envelope, which wasn’t a common sight at the clinic. The stuff in the mail slots ordinarily consisted of public health bulletins, pharmaceutical flyers and notices from the hospital administration.
“Yeah, Billy, I am. But it can wait until we’re done for the day.”
I didn’t want to appear overly eager. The mail that was collected for me at the clinic, and that awaited my arrival every Wednesday, was predictable: bulletins and flyers, never anything personal, never an invitation to attend a professional meeting or to deliver a lecture. That sort of invitation --which more often than not would have been issued by a drug company -- had arrived regularly in my mailbox when I was in private practice. And it would invariably be delivered in a FedEx envelope. But physicians at this clinic, which served indigent patients, didn’t constitute an appealing clientele for the BigPharma companies. Because at the clinic we almost always prescribed generic drugs, seldom the expensive brand-name drugs that Novartis, Eli Lilly and the other companies were pitching. And just suppose that I had actually opened the envelope when Billy or one of the staff physicians was standing nearby, and suppose that I pulled out an invitation to some event at, say, the Four Seasons hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico? How embarrassing would that have been? Billy was from Puerto Rico, for goodness sake, and it was a safe bet that no drug company had ever invited him to be their guest at the Four Seasons.
I took the envelope home and opened it there. Inside there was, as I had expected, an invitation to a meeting in early December -- not in Puerto Rico, which would have been nice in December, but in New York City. Still, New York City was a nice place to visit any time of the year, wasn’t it? Especially when someone else was comping the hotel bill. And meals. And, oh yes, also providing something in the way of Continuing Medical Education (CME) credits, which I needed to earn every year in order to renew my medical license. As I further scrutinized the invitation, I took note of the venue for this meeting: The Essex House. I would be staying at the Essex House for two nights! That excited my imagination in a way that no previous invitation to a medical meeting, anywhere, had ever done.
was I excited? It wasn’t so much that the Essex House was an
upscale hotel, which indeed it was, and located on Central Park
South, which it was – these meetings, after all, were almost
always held at upscale hotels in desirable locations – but it
was because I had once, forty-seven years earlier, spent a memorable
night at that hotel. The invitation immediately brought back a flood
of memories, surprisingly vivid memories, and I couldn’t help
but think that it wasn’t actually Novartis but karma, pure
karma, that had arranged this long-delayed rendezvous at the Essex
House. Yes, it would be a rendezvous. A rendezvous of an old man
with his past self, his very-early-adult self -- or, more accurately,
his inglorious late-adolescent self. Here was an unanticipated,
unprecedented opportunity for my own recherche du temps perdu!
“Elliot, I have something to give you.” The giver was Joan, my girlfriend, a senior at Barnard College, who had just come downstairs to meet me in the parlor of Brooks Hall, her dormitory building. She was now seated next to me on a sofa, holding an envelope in her hand and thrusting it toward me. I hesitantly accepted the gift, while she looked on demurely, eagerly awaiting my response. “Go on, Elliot, open it.”
What Joan had presented to me was an embossed, square envelope, on which I found my name inscribed in an elegant calligraphy font. It wasn’t hard for me to guess what lay inside, since Joan had, several weeks ago, shared with me the news about her sister Sabena becoming officially engaged to Lenny, her college-dropout boyfriend . I opened the envelope and withdrew from it a heavy, glossy card with gilt edges, on which was printed the announcement of Sabena’s upcoming wedding. On March 23, a Sunday. At a place I had never heard of, the Essex House hotel, located on Central Park South.
“You can come, can’t you? It’s the next to last Sunday in March. Your midterm exams will be finished by then, won’t they? Please say yes!”
“I’m not sure. It depends on you. Will you be going, too?” Joan, flashing a smile, swatted me in the face with the empty envelope.
“Elliot, can you be serious for a change? I need a date for the wedding, and you’ve already met Sabena and Lenny, and you’ve met my parents, too. Look, I’m not asking you to get married, just come to this wedding and I won’t ask any favor from you ever again.”
Her request was not unreasonable. We had been dating off and on – mostly on -- for the past four months, and if I didn’t escort her to the wedding she would need to ask one of her dumb cousins. Which would be a major embarrassment. And I really did like Joan. She was cute and, even better, she was witty and smart. Besides which, she was a Nice Jewish Girl. And Joan was right that my midterm exams would be over by the wedding date -- except for one, Physics, which was scheduled for the Monday after the wedding. After a moment’s hesitation, I leaned towards her and kissed her on the cheek.
“Sure, Joan, I’ll be happy to come.” She immediately responded to my affirmation with a hug and a kiss on the lips.
“I promise you won’t regret it. There are some fun people in my family whom you haven’t met. Like Uncle Chick. You’ll like him.”
“Why will I like Uncle Chick?”
“I’ll tell you later. We need first to talk about the wedding. Did you read where the wedding will be?
“The Essex House? I never heard of it.”
“Yes, the Essex House. It’s a very fancy hotel, and this is going to be a very fancy wedding. By the way, did you see on the invitation, Formal Attire Requested?”
“Formal? You mean…?” That line had in fact escaped my attention. I guess I had not read all the way to the bottom of the invitation. Now, after hearing Joan’s reference to “Formal…,” I began to experience the prodromal symptoms of buyer’s remorse.
Joan lowered her eyelids and nodded her head gravely, in a slow up and down motion. “Yes, Elliot, formal. You’ll need to wear a tuxedo. This doesn’t have to be such a big deal. Is it just possible that you own one? Or could you borrow one from somebody you know?”
Of course I didn’t own one. I had worn “formal attire” only once in my life, at our senior prom in high school. And even then I didn’t really wear a tuxedo but a white dinner jacket, like every other guy at the prom. A dinner jacket wasn’t considered as formal as a black tuxedo with the cummerbund and all that other stuff.
“No,” I answered. “I don’t own a tuxedo. And I don’t know anyone who does.”
“Okay. That’s not a problem. There are places where you can rent one.”
Though I was by now a senior at Columbia College, only a few months away from graduation, I had never ventured into the fast lane of undergraduate life, instead becoming assimilated into a social circle comprised of serious students and nerds like myself. A Jewish wedding in a midtown Manhattan hotel could hardly be considered anyone’s fast lane, but, still, I now faced the reality that I had committed myself to attending a formal affair that was somewhat out of my league. And, in so doing, I had committed myself to renting a tuxedo. But I had survived any number of uncomfortable situations in my life before this, hadn’t I? And I would survive this wedding, too, wouldn’t I?
After having read the invitation from Novartis, and having mused at length on the prospect of a reunion with my former self at the Essex House, I pulled out the rest of the material contained in the FedEx envelope. What I was being invited to, I discovered, was an orientation meeting for prospective clinical investigators who would be participating in a Phase IV study of Exelon, a drug developed by Novartis for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease (“AD”). This drug had been approved for distribution by the FDA a few years ago, following completion of the required Phase III studies, and it was already being marketed worldwide. But what Novartis was now proposing was a post-marketing trial that would specifically evaluate the efficacy of the drug in a Hispanic population. Drug companies occasionally did clinical trials like that, targeting a minority demographic, since it was commonly the case that minorities were poorly represented in the larger Phase III clinical trials.
Now I understood why I had been invited. Over the years, when I was in private practice, I had been recruited as a clinical investigator in several Phase III studies of drugs designed for the treatment of AD, including a study of Exelon. I had also, consequently, been recruited as a speaker for Novartis, receiving regular invitations to speak before groups of practicing physicians, locally or out of town, about the diagnosis and treatment of dementia in general and of AD in particular. During those talks I would, of course, present the findings of the Exelon clinical trials, which did in fact provide evidence of the drug’s efficacy. True, Exelon’s efficacy in AD was limited, as was the efficacy of all the other drugs that were competing with Exelon for market share, but limited efficacy was better than no efficacy at all, wasn’t it? (Provided, of course, that the drugs’ side effects could be shown to be relatively infrequent and mild.)
The senior drug rep for Novartis, Mike, with whom I had had an amiable relationship for several years, knew that I had retired and was now consulting at a clinic that mostly served a low-income Latino population. I suspected that it was Mike who had recommended to some higher-ups at Novartis that they recruit me for this study. Although I had participated in Phase III studies of Exelon as a clinical investigator, my retirement from practice would ordinarily have brought an end to my professional relationship with the company – and with Mike. His card, though, was still in my Rolodex, so I decided to ring him up and let him know that I had received this invitation.
“Hey, Dr. Wilner, how’s it going?” My call obviously took Mike by surprise. “Good hearing from you. Things haven’t been the same since you retired. I miss seeing you when I stop by your old office. Say, did you recently receive an invitation to a Phase IV Exelon study?”
“Yes, Mike, I found it yesterday when I arrived at the clinic. Thanks for thinking of me.”
“Well, you know, it’s hard to recruit Latino volunteers for a drug study. Especially when it’s an AD study and the patients are elderly and not well-off. Their children can’t afford to take a day off from work and bring Mom or Dad in for the screening evaluation and, afterwards, a lot of follow-up visits. And transportation can be a problem. Many of those families don’t own a car. So I thought that you, because you’re now at the Holy Cross clinic, where you see a lot of Latinos, might be in a position to recruit patients for this study.”
I thanked Mike again and assured him that we would work hard to find people willing to participate, and I added that we would be sending a request to the hospital’s Institutional Review Board for expedited approval of the study. And we would ask Social Services for help in arranging transportation to and from the clinic for patients who joined the study.
“Thanks, Doc. Let’s keep in touch.”
That was the end of my conversation with Mike. Would he and I keep in touch? Now that I had retired, would any of my former colleagues, physicians with whom I had been in frequent contact over the years, day in and day out, keep in touch? I remembered having examined a recently retired physician in my office about a year ago, only a few months before my own retirement. Not only had Dr. Norris maintained a busy office practice and hospital practice for many years, but he had been very active on hospital committees and had served a term as president of the medical society. While we were seated in my office, discussing his neurological symptoms, Dr. Norris abruptly interjected an unrelated thought:
“Do you know,” he asked rhetorically, “what’s so amazing about retirement? It’s how quickly you’re forgotten. Life just goes on, and you’re not really part of it anymore.”
Now that I reflected on Dr. Norris’s comment, I thought, that is life, isn’t it? It’s largely about (a) being relevant and (b) symbiotic relationships. Dr. X needs a neurologist to whom he can refer his patients, and I, a neurologist, need Dr. X as a source for patient referrals. It’s a simple matter of symbiosis. Now that I’m retired, we don’t keep in touch; Dr. X no longer needs me, and I no longer need him. Even a relationship based on the love of one person for another won’t last long if the love is not reciprocated, right? And what should I say about my relationship with Novartis? I needed an invitation from Novartis to join an AD study so that I could feel professionally relevant -- at least for a little while longer -- and they needed someone like myself, who had experience conducting clinical trials and had access to AD patients. It wasn’t exactly love but it was a mutually beneficial relationship. That’s why I had been invited to participate in this study -- and why I would soon have the opportunity of revisiting the Essex House hotel.
I arrived at Penn Station shortly after noon on a cool but sunny Thursday in early December, 2005. There was to be a reception for the Novartis meeting participants at 5:30, but I had decided to arrive a few hours early so that I could take in some of the sights in midtown Manhattan, which I hadn’t visited in several years. It was a slight inconvenience to be rolling a carry-on suitcase up Broadway all the way from 33rd Street to 59th street, maneuvering between pedestrians, but the north-south blocks in Manhattan are actually quite short and I enjoyed viewing the Christmas displays in the shops. It took me less than half an hour to reach Columbus Circle, at the corner of Broadway and Central Park South, where, turning right, I caught sight of the venerable horse-drawn carriages that evidently were, after all these years, still a popular tourist attraction. And the weary looking horses were, as before, still adorned with flowers in their bridles. They looked like the same carriages, and maybe the same horses, that I had seen on Central Park South forty-seven years earlier.
Soon I was standing at the entrance to the Essex House, a building that I had not visited for nearly a half- century. It is a relatively plain-looking building, but I immediately recognized the distinctive Art Deco canopy above the entrance. I paused beneath the canopy and looked back toward Columbus Circle, allowing time for long-term memory circuits in my brain to retrieve the image of a late March afternoon in 1958, when a few snowflakes were beginning to drift lazily downward from a darkening sky over Manhattan and a young man was emerging from the IRT subway station beneath Columbus Circle. The young man was clad in a beige overcoat that concealed – although not entirely – the formal attire that he was wearing. He might have elected not to wear an overcoat, considering that the weather had been sunny and tolerably cool at noontime when he walked across campus to the college dining hall, but he would have felt like a real fop if he had boarded a subway car while dressed in a tux. So he put on the overcoat. He even took a scarf and wound it around his neck, to conceal the black bow tie that he wore. Even so, he had felt conspicuous aboard the train when he glanced down at his feet, taking notice of his black dress pants and polished black shoes. Was he just imagining it, or were all the other passengers staring at his pants and shoes? As he ascended the stairs from the subway station and began walking toward the Essex Hotel, a block away, the soggy snowflakes that clung to his face gave him assurance that the overcoat had indeed been a good idea.
Putting all those memories of the young man back into brain storage for the moment, I entered the elegant lobby of the hotel -- strikingly elegant in contrast to the building’s rather plain exterior. Before I had even registered, while still pulling my carry-on suitcase behind me, I explored the lobby. It looked familiar. Yes, there was the manager’s office, just beyond the front desk, and there was the coat-check, situated between two of the black marble columns in the lobby. Then I set out in search of the Grand Salon, the ballroom where the wedding of Joan’s sister had taken place; I located the entrance to the ballroom halfway down a corridor that extended from the lobby to the rear of the building, but, to my disappointment, the doors were locked. On the side of the corridor opposite the Grand Salon was the entrance to the Petit Salon, where the pre-wedding reception had been held, and those doors were unlocked.
I pushed open one of the doors at the entrance to the Petit Salon and stepped inside. And presto! – my memory circuits became activated, the clock magically turned back to Sunday, March 23, 1958, and there I was, at Joan’s sister’s wedding reception, a twenty-year-old college senior dressed in a tuxedo that had been rented for thirteen dollars from a rather seedy shop on West 35th street. (Thirteen dollars for the tuxedo included all the accessories, including a dress shirt, black tie, studs, cufflinks, and cummerbund, and I had until Monday afternoon to return everything to the rental shop.) I was fairly overwhelmed upon entering the reception room, foundering in a sea of strangers, but Joan quickly spotted me cowering near the entrance and took me in tow.
“Elliot, you look very handsome in that tux! Come, I’d like to introduce you to Hannah my aunt, my most favorite aunt!”
Never mind that a few minutes later Joan would be introducing me to Becky, another aunt, a youngish woman who was also her “most favorite aunt.” Joan evidently thought that it was her responsibility, during the reception hour, to guide me from one relative to another and to integrate me, as it were, into her family.
“I’ve heard so much about y’all, Elliot,” said Hannah, “or should I call you Dr. Wilner? Y’all can call me Aunt Hannah. Or just Hannah if you prefer.”
It seemed that Hannah had indeed heard a lot about me. It was only a few weeks ago that I had received notice of my acceptance to medical school. And during those few weeks Joan had evidently managed to spread the news far and wide. Overnight my social rank had risen dramatically: I was no longer just another college senior, I was now “Dr. Wilner.” And now I was being invited to adopt Joan’s Aunt Hannah as my Aunt Hannah.
“Thanks for the compliment, Hannah,” I replied, “but, you know, it will be a long time before I become Dr. Wilner.”
There wasn’t time for a longer conversation, as Joan was now leading me in the direction of another relative. A waiter passed by, holding a tray of fluted glasses that contained a bubbly pink liquid. I lifted one of the glasses from the waiter’s tray and managed to take a couple of quick sips as we snaked our way through the crowd.
We came to a corner of the ballroom where several people were gathered around a rather plump, middle-aged man dressed in a plaid tuxedo jacket and matching bow tie, who was regaling everyone with a story. I had never before observed anyone in a plaid tuxedo jacket, except maybe Liberace when he performed on TV. And this guy was a performer, too, eliciting guffaws from the men and high-pitched giggles from the women who were paying close attention to his spiel – something about a rabbi and a priest playing a round of golf while discussing sex and bacon. Joan and I waited patiently until he had finished.
“Uncle Chick…” Joan said as she approached the man in the plaid jacket, but she could say no more before he embraced her in a big bear hug and planted a kiss on her cheek.
“Joanie! Joanie! Where the hell have you been? Haven’t seen you since…” Abruptly, Uncle Chick pushed Joan away at arm’s length so that he could gain some perspective.
“…since forever! Just look at you! Gorgeous! You look fantastic, like always! What a beautiful bride you’ll be, just like your sister…” His voice was loud, and it seemed to me that his words were a bit slurred. “Sister” had devolved into “shister.”
“Oh, you’re so sweet, Uncle Chick. Look, there’s someone I want to introduce you to.” I had been trying to retreat into the crowd surrounding Uncle Chick, but Joan grabbed my sleeve and pulled me forward. “This is my friend Elliot, who’s at Columbia, a senior like me. We’re both going to graduate in a couple of months.”
“Elliot? Izzat your name? Great to meet you, Elliot.” Gripping my shoulders and turning me to face the people in his coterie, Uncle Chick exclaimed loudly, “Attention, everybody, say hello to Elliot! Don’t my niece Joanie and Elliot make a handsome couple?!”
This was the moment that I should have foreseen ever since Joan had handed me that invitation. The ladies in Uncle Chick’s entourage, who were, I surmised, members of Joan’s extended family, smiled approvingly as Uncle Chick wrapped one arm around Joan’s waist and the other around my waist, drawing both of us close to him. Worse yet, one of the ladies picked up her camera and snapped a picture of the three of us, as if to memorialize this soon-to-be-historic conjunction. My tour through the reception room was beginning to feel more and more like a wedding rehearsal.
How could I not have foreseen this happening? Joan wasn’t a devious person, she was simply a sister of the bride in need of a date for the wedding, and she hadn’t exactly planned this public unveiling of me as her intended, as the bridegroom-in-waiting. But she could have foreseen that this would happen. Her family, the Brenners, were after all a traditional Jewish family, and in the middle of the twentieth century there was still a well-respected tradition that a daughter ought to be properly married by her twenty-second birthday -- if not earlier. Not to mention that my worthiness as a suitor for anyone’s Jewish daughter had increased tenfold a few weeks ago, at the moment my letter of acceptance to medical school had arrived in the mail.
At the conclusion of this impromptu photo session, during which I managed to return the warm smiles of the ladies with my own half-smile-half-frown, I disengaged from Uncle Chick and Joan and slipped into the crowd. Only then did I realize that I was still holding a glass of champagne in my left hand, and I quickly gulped down what remained of the drink. Although I would soon be graduating from college, my history of alcohol consumption to this point had consisted of nothing more than the occasional bottle of beer or glass of wine; I was totally naïve with regard to mixed drinks. But I did remember having read somewhere that drinking alcohol on an empty stomach was more likely to result in intoxication, so I picked off a knish or a pig-in-a-blanket every time a waiter passed by with a tray of hors d’oeuvres.
Soon a bell was being rung to signal the end of the reception hour. The wedding planner circulated amongst the guests, encouraging one and all to move from the Petit Salon to the nearby Grand Salon where the ceremony would shortly be commencing. Obviously I would have to find a seat for the ceremony on the bride’s side of the aisle, but I figured that if I tarried a while I would find that the only seats left vacant were at the rear of the room, where I could safely isolate myself from all of Joan’s family. So I hung back, and as the last waiter with a tray of drinks was about to retreat into the kitchen, I lunged in his direction and picked a glass off the tray. It chanced to be a whiskey sour. Almost simultaneously, someone approached me on my “blind side” and gripped my forearm; it was Aunt Hannah.
“Well, I declare, if it isn’t the good Doctor Wilner!” Having found me lagging behind the other guests, all of whom were converging on the doorway and exiting the Petit Salon, Hannah glowed with satisfaction at her catch. Or maybe she was just flushed with champagne. “Elliot, y’all may have the honor of escortin’ me into the weddin’ ceremony. How ‘bout that! Okay?”
Smiling wanly, I nodded my assent to her command and hurriedly took two sips of the whiskey sour before I set it down. So I walked arm in arm with Aunt Hannah into the Grand Salon, an elegant ballroom where dinner would later be served but was now configured as a wedding hall. A huppah stood at the far end of the room, situated between two ornate columns, and facing the huppah there were about twenty rows of seats divided by a center aisle. I was feeling just a bit giddy as I walked into the room, so probably I held Hannah’s arm more tightly than she held mine. We found two seats in the next-to-last row, Hannah taking the seat on the aisle and I the next seat over. It turned out that Aunt Hannah was actually good company, eager from the get-go to share personal stories about some of the wedding guests. She confided in me as if I were already under contract to marry her niece Joan -- and therefore fully privileged to hear some Brenner family gossip.
“Elliot, have y’all met Uncle Chick yet?”
Hannah spoke in a soft, expressive voice, and her speech was punctuated with enough “y’all”s and “I declare” phrases to punch her ticket as a woman whose roots were somewhere south of New York.
“Yeah, I was introduced by Joan. He was telling a story to a bunch of people when we came by, and everyone seemed to be having a good time.”
“Oh, lordy, does that man ever know how to have a good time! It’s a good thing you met him durin’ the reception, Elliot, and not later in the evenin’, when I reckon you wouldn’t be able to have any conversation with him.”
“Why wouldn’t we be able to talk?”
“Because he will very soon be drunk as a skunk, that’s why. He gets drunk every single time there’s a family weddin’ or bar mitzvah or any kind of celebration.”
“Oh, that’s too bad. But he’s invited to these things anyway?
“Well, they can’t not invite him. I want y’all to know, Elliot, even though I’m called Aunt Hannah and he’s Uncle Chick, he and I are not related. Not at all. He’s married to Henry’s sister, Bess, and I belong to the other side of the family, since I married Debbie’s brother, Matthew. We’re divorced now, Matthew and I, but Debby and I are very close, like sisters. So I’m related to the Jacobsons, not the Brenners.”
Joan may have been right, I reflected; she did have some interesting relatives. And I could do worse than marry into a family like hers, couldn’t I? If, that is, Joan could wait at least five more years to get married. But of course she couldn’t. Anyway, it was fun talking -- mostly listening, in truth -- to Aunt Hannah. She let me know that she was born and raised in “N’Orlins”, in the state of Louisiana, where she had roots going back three generations. I thought of calling her “Hard-hearted Hannah, the Vamp of N’Orlins, LA,” which I thought might have amused her, but then the musicians started to play and the wedding procession began. My witticism would have to wait.
By now I was experiencing a bit more giddiness, as well as a slight headache. I knew that eventually Joan, who had been designated the maid of honor, would come walking up the aisle, and I would need to make some sort of eye contact with her when she passed by. I just hoped we wouldn’t make ourselves conspicuous. Hannah, who had taken the aisle seat, was the only buffer between myself and everyone walking up the aisle. Maybe I could keep my conversation with Hannah going and avoid eye contact with Joan? But Hannah was paying rapt attention to every person who passed by in the procession, and she shushed me when I started to ask if she might have any anything in her purse that could help to relieve my incipient headache.
When Joan did come into view, walking up the aisle at a measured pace, gripping a bouquet of roses in her hands, I could see that she was glancing to her left, scanning each row to see where I was located. Hannah, to my considerable consternation, had already made eye contact with Joan and was actually pointing toward me with her right index finger, so that Joan would be sure to spot me. As Joan approached our row, she winked at me. It was a wink that was visible for miles around; no one in our row or in the rows ahead of us could have missed it. I slouched in my seat and my head began to throb. Hannah, noticing my obvious discomfiture, just smiled and poked me in the ribs. She really was hard-hearted Hannah. At least she was able to produce a couple of chewable aspirin tablets when I told her of my headache, and she gave me an extra couple of tablets in case my headache should prove persistent.
The ceremony dragged on for nearly an hour, and I was fighting off sleep as the rabbi blessed this union of a man and a woman and one speaker after another heaped effusive praise upon the beautiful bride and the worthy bridegroom. Finally the bridegroom crushed a glass, the wedding guests cheered, the musicians struck up a gay hora and everyone hurried toward the exit. We were ushered back to the Petit Salon, where the reception had been held; the bar was again open and waiters again circulated with trays bearing drinks. I learned that we were going to remain in the Petit Salon for close to half an hour, which would be the minimum time required for the staff to reconfigure the Grand Salon: They would be removing the partition that had been put in place to separate the “wedding hall” from the main part of the dining room, after which they would need to remove all the chairs that had been arranged in rows for the ceremony -- so that a dozen more round tables could be moved into the vacated space and each table set with service for ten. A lot of work needed to be done in a short span of time.
When we finally re-entered the Grand Salon, it could be appreciated in all its grandeur, a room so elegant that it surely would have satisfied the tastes of Louis XIV. On the walls there were many floor-to-ceiling mirrors, flanked by thick, cream-colored drapes. At least twenty-five tables were arranged around a parquet dance floor in the center of the room, and the head table occupied a dais above the dance floor; every table was adorned with a huge spray of flowers. The place settings, needless to say, featured fine china and heavy silverware. An ensemble of nine musicians occupied one corner of the room.
I was still feeling giddy, and a bit queasy, too, when I went in search of table #15, which, by all appearances, had been designated as the Single Adults Table. Joan, of course, was seated at the head table with the other members of her immediate family. Most of the people seated at table #15 were relatives or friends of the bride or the groom, none of them married, most of them young, in their 20s or 30s. I recognized only Aunt Becky, to whom I had been introduced at the reception, and I asked if I might take the vacant chair on her right. She graciously invited me to sit down and join her. I stumbled and kicked my chair while attempting to seat myself, and Becky extended her arm to steady the chair.
Aunt Becky was youngish, probably in her late 30s, and, like Aunt Hannah, she too was a divorcee. Hmm, that can’t be a good omen for the newlyweds, I thought; lots of failed marriages in this family. I saw that there were two wine glasses and a champagne flute arrayed at every place setting – an extravagant display, I thought, nothing like what I had seen at other weddings. Soon a waiter approached with a cart carrying several bottles of wine in ice buckets. He uncorked one bottle and circled around the table, pouring white wine for everyone. I took one sip of the wine and quickly put the glass back down. The room had started to turn.
“Elliot, are you alright?” Becky’s concern was prompted by the sight of me gripping the edge of the table with both my hands, trying to keep myself anchored to the table as the room went swimming by. “Are you dizzy? Then don’t look down, look into the distance.”
I gazed across the room toward the head table, where I caught sight of Joan. She wasn’t looking in my direction, but I found that by continuing to fixate my gaze on her, I was able to suppress the swimming sensation to some extent.
“You’ve had a little too much to drink, haven’t you, Elliot?”
I started to nod my head up and down, to affirm Becky’s observation, but even that slight movement of head brought about a resurgence of the swimming sensation.
“Well, then, Elliot, leave the wine alone and have a little of the soup.” Those words spoken by Becky would prove to be the last words that I would recall hearing until 6 am the next day.
Glancing down, I could see that there was a bowl of soup in front of me. I hadn’t noticed when the waiter had ladled the soup – something reddish-orange and creamy – into my bowl. I hadn’t even noticed when the first course, a salad that I didn’t touch, had been removed. I took a sip of the reddish-orange soup, then a second sip, but I was too queasy to take any more. Now the giddy sensation rapidly intensified, as though I were being sucked into the vortex of a monstrous whirpool. And then it happened: suddenly, up came the reddish-orange soup, together with the knishes and the pigs-in-a-blanket, up came everything. I pushed back from the table and puked into my own lap and onto the carpeted floor in front of me; but my puke spared the table and Becky and the guest on my right, I’m pretty sure. A couple of the young guys who were seated at the table came to my aid. As they helped me to my feet and guided me toward the exit, holding onto both my arms, I puked again. I remember that my dress shirt, cummerbund and trousers were soiled with puke. I don’t remember anything more.
A telephone rang, and kept ringing. Where was that telephone? I opened my eyes, looked to my right and saw a telephone a few feet away, resting on a nightstand. Whose telephone was that? Where did that nightstand come from? Where was I? ...oh, I was in a bed. I guess I should answer that call, shouldn’t I? I reached for the telephone receiver, pulling it from the cradle but dropping it to the floor; then I grabbed the cord and yanked the receiver up onto the bed, close to my pillow. But I couldn’t pick up my head, which seemed stuffed with cement, so I let the receiver rest on the bed a few inches from my ear. I could hear a man’s voice cheerfully making an announcement.
“Good morning! This is your wake-up call. The time now is five minutes past six, and there is snow falling over Manhattan! Have a wonderful day.”
Following that announcement, there was a prolonged dial tone and then an endless series of beeps; I fumbled with the receiver before managing to replace it in the cradle. Where was I? I’m in a bed, aren’t I? I rolled my body slightly to the left, and then I discovered that there was another man in the bed, fast asleep and snoring lightly. Could this be…is it possible that…? Oh yes, I know who that is. That’s Uncle Chick. Now I realized where I was, in the Essex House Hotel, sharing a king-size bed with Uncle Chick. I surmised that the family had reserved a room in advance for Uncle Chick, expecting him to be falling-down-drunk before the end of the evening’s festivities, and when they found another guest who was falling-down-drunk, they just decided to let the two of them sleep it off in the same bed.
I shook Uncle Chick’s shoulder but couldn’t arouse him. He kept on snoring, not perturbed by my presence. Was that wake-up call for him, I wondered? Or could it have been for me? And had I heard correctly, that snow was falling?
Painfully, I pulled myself up and sat on the side of the bed. I was in my underwear; where were my clothes? The room was dark and the windows covered by curtains, so I turned on the lamp on the nightstand and promptly spotted my tux and dress shirt, draped over a chair near the foot of the bed. I got to my feet and, holding onto the side of the bed, got to the chair where my clothes had been deposited. The clothes, I noticed, were a little damp, and the stains that I expected to see on my shirt and tux jacket were barely visible, so I figured someone must have wiped the puke from my clothes. Gosh, was it Joan who did that? And arranged for me to share the bed with Uncle Chick? Even after I had made such a fool of myself during dinner in the Grand Salon? What a saint she is. I reached into a pocket of my trousers where I found the packet of two aspirin tablets that Aunt Hannah had given me. I chewed the tablets and prayed that the aspirin would loosen some of the cement that was lodged inside my head.
Then I walked to the window and parted the curtains. The view – of Central Park South and the park beyond, and Columbus Circle off to the left – was shocking. Everything was white! There was snow everywhere and snow was still falling. How can this be? The forecast in the Sunday Times had made no mention whatsoever of snow, and anyway it’s late March, isn’t it? True, a few flakes had been falling when I arrived at the hotel in the late afternoon yesterday, but that seemed to be nothing more than an early-spring snow shower. Nonetheless, what I was now observing from the window was a real winter snowstorm, an actual blizzard – unbelievable!
I looked at the clock on the night table: the short, fat hand rested at “6” and the slender hand rested at “3.” It took a while for my brain to process the information provided by the clock, but I soon grasped that the time of day was 6:15. And that could only mean 6:15 a.m. And since the wedding had taken place on a Sunday, then this must be Monday morning, right? Yes, it is Monday morning and the time is 6:15 a.m. and – holy shit! – I have a Physics midterm exam at 9 a.m.! That exam was to be the last of my midterm exams, and I absolutely had to show up and I absolutely had to pass that exam. Medical school admissions committees, I had been warned, don’t look kindly on prospective first-year students who screw up during the last semester of their senior year. Yet, it’s snowing like crazy…so maybe I need not worry, maybe the exam will be postponed?
No, I decided, I can’t take a chance, I have got to show up at Pupin Hall by 9 a.m. It’s doable: I’ll get dressed, take the subway up to the Columbia campus and get to my dorm room by 7:30 a.m., which will give me enough time to shower and change clothes before arriving at Pupin by 9 a.m. It suddenly dawned on me that the wake-up call from the hotel front desk had been intended not for Uncle Chick but for me – that Joan, bless her heart, had remembered my Physics exam and wanted me to be waked in time. How extraordinarily thoughtful of her, I thought, and how extraordinarily boorish of me to have gotten drunk at her sister’s wedding. I can only imagine what her family must think of me now.
I put on my dress shirt and my trousers, never mind that both were a little damp. The cufflinks and the studs were, I noticed, on the night table next to the lamp. Good. But where is that cummerbund? It’s not on the chair…oh, never mind, I don’t need to wear it now. I looked on the floor next to the bed and under the bed for my socks, until I realized that they had never been removed from my feet. Okay, now I just had to put on my shoes and the tux jacket and I could be on my way. But wait! It’s snowing and I’ll need my overcoat and scarf, which I had deposited with the coat check girl in the hotel lobby yesterday…Oh, I see the overcoat, it’s hanging from a coat hook near the door! Joan took care of just about everything, didn’t she? I put on the overcoat and scarf and prepared to vacate the room; but first I glanced back toward the bed and saw that Uncle Chick was still asleep, still snoring gently. Could I leave him alone like that? Shouldn’t I at least rouse him for a second to say goodbye? Would I ever see him again? Never mind, I decided, let the poor guy sleep. So I just waved my hand in Uncle Chick’s direction, opened the door and set out on my way back to the college campus and what would prove to be, I suspected, a challenging confrontation of my addled brain with physics, with the Second Law of Thermodynamics and all that.
There were very few people coming or going through the hotel lobby at 6:45 a.m. that Monday morning. Looking through the glass doors at the entrance, I could see the figure of a hotel employee leaning on a snow shovel and enveloped in swirls of snow even while he stood beneath the broad hotel canopy. The doorman pushed open the door and I stepped outside. I counted myself fortunate that I had thought to wear an overcoat and a scarf when departing the campus yesterday (although I had done so only in order to conceal the tuxedo that would have been embarrassingly conspicuous aboard a subway train, not because of any forecast of wintry weather), but I was otherwise poorly equipped for a blizzard. I didn’t have a hat, or gloves, or – most worryingly – boots to protect my feet. But hey! The Columbus Circle subway station was only one long block away, wasn’t it? And the station at 116th Street, where I would be detraining, was only a couple of blocks from my dorm room, right?
Surprise. The gates at all entrances to the station at Columbus Circle were shut and locked. An IRT employee stood at the head of the stairway leading down to the entrance on 59th Street and explained, to me and a huddle of other would-be riders, that the blizzard had caused a transformer to blow out, somewhere down the line, and that there would be no train service on this line “until further notice.” By now, a good six inches of snow had accumulated on the unplowed streets and sidewalks of Manhattan. There were scarcely any taxicabs in sight, only a rare cab that was equipped with tire chains, and those were already carrying passengers. But somehow I’ve got to get from where I am now, at 59th Street, to the campus at 116th Street, and I’ve got about two hours until the start of the Physics exam. Maybe I could hire one of those horse-drawn carriages on Central Park South? Haha!
I turned north on Broadway and started to walk. A few store-front-sidewalks had been hastily shoveled but most had not, and the snow was still coming down. I spread my scarf over my head, looped it under my chin and tucked the ends inside my overcoat. It probably looked like a babushka. I tried to keep my hands inside my coat pockets, but I found that much of the time I needed to extend my arms to help maintain my balance. My main concern was my feet, which I feared might become frostbitten inside my cotton socks and black dress shoes. But I did keep moving forward, plodding through what was, by now, probably more than seven inches of snow. It was very slow going, however, and after fifteen minutes of plodding I had advanced north on Broadway only as far as 65th Street. The north-south blocks in Manhattan, I reminded myself, are fairly short blocks. But still, there were many, many blocks ahead of me. How many blocks precisely? I did the math: 116 – 59 = 57, that’s fifty-seven blocks from the Essex House hotel to the Columbia University campus. I had walked farther than that on the West Side of Manhattan on a nice fall day -- but could I do it now? Fifty-two blocks to go. I plodded on.
Soon I heard the rumble of machines, and I saw several snowplows moving in both directions on Broadway, including one snowplow that was fast approaching behind me. I moved closer to the buildings on my right so as to avoid the avalanche that would momentarily be ejected onto the sidewalk. While the snowplow did clear a lane on the street, the sidewalk became almost impassible because of the piles of displaced snow. But hey! Now I could walk in the street, on the one- or two-inch residue of snow, since there was scarcely any vehicular traffic. Every couple of minutes a taxicab or private car would pass, and I would need to move closer to the curbside snowbank. I also stuck out my thumb at every passing vehicle, but no driver ever looked my way.
I came to the subway station at 72nd Street with the wan hope that perhaps service on the IRT line had by now been restored; but I could see that, here too, the gates to the entrance were locked. And then, abruptly, a memory emerged from my brain, a memory of a beautiful spring day two years earlier, when I was a college sophomore. I could see myself, as if in a film, exiting the 72nd Street station and walking across Central Park, on my way to an art exhibit at the Frick Collection on Fifth Avenue at East 71st Street, when abruptly I came upon – like a mirage – a flat expanse of meticulously manicured , very green grass, similar to a putting green. On this elegant lawn stood several men, dressed in knickers and Argyll socks and tam o’shanter caps, who were bowling. As I stood there, marveling at this exotic picture, two birds chanced to alight on the lawn, birds which I immediately recognized as scarlet tanagers. I had never before spotted scarlet tanagers – nor have I ever again spotted them – but here they were, posing amidst a group of men dressed in funny clothes who were lawn-bowling in the middle of Central Park. New York City never ceases to amaze, I reflected, whether it be lawn-bowling and scarlet tanagers in April or a major snowstorm in late March. But enough about bowls and birds, I had better concentrate on getting through this blizzard.
I resigned myself to walking another forty-four blocks. And I managed to keep up a pace of at least one mile per hour, maybe close to two miles per hour. Okay, I mused, here’s a thought problem for a physics student (albeit a tenth-grader, probably): If a student is walking north on Broadway at a pace of two miles an hour, toward the campus which is forty-four blocks away, and the campus is moving toward him at one mile per hour, at which intersecting street on Broadway would they meet? My long walk also afforded me ample time to ruminate about another problem: How did I come to be in this predicament? What rational person, knowing that he was bound to show up for a Physics midterm on Monday morning, would allow himself to get stinking drunk on Sunday evening?
The snow continued falling, and I continued walking. I would later learn that by the end of the day the accumulation of snow would come to a total of twelve inches, which was a springtime record for New York City. I passed subway stations at 79th Street, 86th Street and 91st Street, all locked down. After that I didn’t even look at entrances to the stations but just plodded ahead. Finally, I looked up and saw the gates to the Columbia campus, at Broadway and 116th Street, and I pulled up the cuff of my overcoat to look at my wristwatch. The time was precisely 9:01 am. The Physics midterm exam had begun. My feet were numb, and I could only hope that immersion in a tub of hot water would bring them back to life; but I no longer had the option of stopping first at my dorm room for a bath and a change of clothes – I had to get to Pupin Hall immediately.
The pedestrian paths across the campus had evidently been swept earlier in the morning, but another two or three inches had accumulated and it took me seven or eight minutes to walk the short distance from the gates at 116th Street to Pupin Hall. That delay of seven or eight minutes might prove to be my undoing, I reckoned, since Physics was my weakest subject and I always needed a lot of time to figure out the solution to a problem. And would my still-addled brain even be able to recall the basic equations that I would need to use for the solution of any problem?
At last I opened the front door to Pupin Hall, and I was immediately overcome by the heat. I could hear the steam hissing through the overhead pipes, and I remembered that this building was always overheated in the winter. (It had always been a challenge to stay awake during the Physics lectures, partly due to the heat and partly due to the lectures themselves.) My first impulse was, of course, to take off my overcoat before entering the lecture theater, where the midterm exam had already been underway for nine or ten minutes – but would I, a solitary figure in a soiled tuxedo, dare step through those swinging doors wearing a tux and make an exhibit of myself in front of a hundred and fifty students, all seated in rows facing the entrance?
So I kept my overcoat on, unbuttoned but pulled around me tightly enough to conceal the tux that I wore beneath; and, contriving to put the most earnest expression possible on my face , I cautiously pushed open the door to the lecture theater. And to my amazement, no one laughed at me, no one snickered, no one reacted at all – because no one was there! That is to say, the rows of seats ascending to the top of the theater were all vacant, and there were no students scribbling in blue exam booklets. There were a dozen or so students hanging out in the well of the theater, just standing around and kibitzing or sitting in the front row and reading newspapers. Two guys were standing behind the podium with a deck of cards and playing blackjack.
“What happened?” I asked a guy whom I knew, Herb, who had his face buried in the sports section of the Times. He looked up, blinked twice at the sight of my stained dress shirt, and said, “You’ve been partying? You shouldn’t have left the party, because the Physics exam has been postponed until next Monday.”
“When did they decide to do that?”
“About six a.m. They posted notices in all the dorms, and an announcement went out on WKCR. But a couple of dozen guys, mostly commuters like me, didn’t get the message and showed up. Some have left already, but the rest of us are waiting for the snow to let up. Let me tell you, it was a bitch getting here. Where are you coming from?”
“I’ll tell you another day, Herb. I’ve got to get back to my dorm room.”
We had a bucket in our dorm room, which we used to fill with ice when we needed to chill a bottle of milk or some cheese -- a luxury like a refrigerator being as yet a fantasy in the Columbia dorms -- and now I filled the bucket with hot water to soak my feet. My feet were numb and bluish when I first removed my shoes and socks, but they gradually pinked up after immersion in the tub for half an hour. I then took a shower and, finally, collapsed into my bed. I didn’t awake until six p.m. when my roommate – who had been stranded on Long Island for most of the day – arrived and roused me from my sleep, just in time for us to grab some pizza in the dining hall.
I did show up for the Physics exam the following Monday, and I did pass. Joan, generous as always, did forgive me for my awful conduct at the wedding, and we continued dating until graduation. Then it was Goodbye, Columbia…and Goodbye, Joan, and Goodbye, Uncle Chick.
years passed between the wedding at the Essex House, during my last
semester of college, and this visit to the Essex House, arranged
through the courtesy of Novartis. And here I am, once again in the
Petit Salon, mingling with a hundred and twenty other people who have
been invited to this evening’s reception and buffet dinner. I
look around at the guests, most of whom have been, like myself,
invited to serve as clinical investigators for the upcoming Phase IV
study of Exelon. Their badges tell me that they come from cities all
over the country, and their faces tell me that they are all younger
than myself. I don’t recognize any of those faces, but I do, in
a reverie, see some faces that I recognize. Over there, isn’t
that Joan, still youthful and perfectly radiant in her bridesmaid’s
dress? Oh, what a sweet girl she is. Hi Joan! I know I was a fool,
Joan, or maybe I was just very immature, but I am sincerely sorry
that I let our friendship lapse after we graduated. Believe me, it
was my loss! And look, in the corner, there is Uncle Chick, holding
court with Aunt Becky and Aunt Hannah – both so lovely! -- and
a large retinue of other adoring relatives. Joan had predicted that
I would like Uncle Chick, and she was right. I did enjoy hearing the
irreverent joke that he told, and I was grateful that he shared his
bed with me after we both became stupidly drunk. But I feel guilty
that I left in the morning without saying goodbye. I did apologize to
everyone else, but not to Uncle Chick. It’s not too late, is
it? I really should walk over to him and say something. But where
is he now? He’s left the room, I think, and I may have missed
my chance once again. Darn. I’m so sorry, Uncle Chick, I meant
to say goodbye. Really I did.
Elliot Wilner is a retired neurologist, living in Bethesda, MD. Since his retirement, he has – with his wife’s indulgence – enjoyed a long-deferred dalliance with writing.Elliot Wilner has submitted numerous essays, stories and poems to literary journals, and several have been published. He will attest that he has never received a penny for any of his published pieces.