[This piece was originally published in October, 2004. It’s re-posted here on the 10th anniversary of Phil DeGuere’s passing. ]
The first time I talked to my friend Phil DeGuere was on the phone. I was calling to interview with him. Someone had told me that he needed an assistant for a TV show he was working on. They’d already recommended me to him. So I called him on a Wednesday afternoon to introduce myself.
I can still remember that first phone call, seven years ago, because I was struck then, as I am today, by Phil’s deep, booming voice. It’s a voice of authority—a big, confident, deliberate voice. It’s also a voice that delivers sarcasm so flatly and calmly that one can’t help but take it literally. Even a proclamation as outrageous as “I tell my children ‘Don’t do drugs, give them to me’” simply seems matter-of-fact when delivered in that booming voice. And so Phil’s humor, like Phil himself, takes some getting used to.
On the day of that phone interview, I called Phil about the job and found myself swiftly becoming intimidated. He asked blunt, discouraging questions like, “Why should I hire you?” and “What makes you any better than the next person I interview?” But I do remember him asking if I knew Microsoft Word and Excel. In a moment of bravado, I said, “Come on, you insult me. Of course I do.” Ironically, and this provides a great inkling of just how smart Phil is, a few months later, he recalled that exact response of mine when I was having trouble working with Excel. I was talking to him on the phone one afternoon, explaining how I couldn’t format a show roster into Excel. Phil interrupted and said in his booming voice, “Look, you told me this sort of thing was no problem for you.” I apologized and somehow, after a bit more struggle, got the roster finished.
But on that first phone interview with Phil, he sounded so imposing and unsympathetic that I almost gave up on the whole thing. At a certain point I thought, “This guy doesn’t think I’m very smart…so…the heck with it.” But right at that moment, Phil asked, “Well, look, what do you want to be when you grow up?” According to Phil’s wife, Alison, it was just a flippant question Phil often asked people. But because I thought he wasn’t impressed with me, and that I wasn’t going to get hired, I simply answered, “Keith Richards.” It was an instantaneous, gut response—at least I was being true to myself.
Unbeknownst to me, though, it was the right answer. Phil loves the Stones and he loves the Grateful Dead. I couldn’t have answered better. At that point he said, “Well, look, why don’t you come by my house tomorrow at 4 pm. You can meet my wife and daughter and we’ll talk about the job.”
So the next day I spent the afternoon playing music in the Civic Center BART station with my friends, then carried my guitar on the bus to Phil’s house in Potrero. It was the first time I’d ever been that far out to Potrero, and I was struck by all the nice houses planted on the steep, sliding hills. I rang Phil’s door and he answered. I shook hands with him—this big, imposing dude with white hair and glasses. There was something nerve-wracking about the way he looked me in the eye, sizing me up. I suddenly felt as nervous as when I’d been on the phone with him during the preceding day’s conversation. But I walked into this beautiful, carpeted house, lugging my old acoustic guitar in its battered case. Phil walked me down to his basement office—crammed with tons of books and books and shelves and magazines and pictures and boxes—lit up a cigarette, leaned back in his chair, and started to talk to me about the TV world. He talked and I listened. And the thing I remember most clearly was him impressing on me the importance of one phrase: “I don’t know.”
“Look,” he said, taking a puff of his cigarette in its little black clip holder, “Everyone thinks they have this God-given right to work in TV. I don’t know exactly why that is. It may have something to do with everyone growing up watching TV and thinking they’re already trained to do it. But the problem is that they have no understanding of what really goes on. If I call you and I need something done, or I ask you a question and you don’t know the answer, tell me that you don’t know. Don’t waste my time. It’s more important that you say ‘I don’t know.’ Go ahead, let me hear you say it.”
I looked at him and said, “I don’t know.”
“Good.” He took a puff of his cigarette. “That can save me a lot of time. If you don’t know, don’t make excuses and tell me things I don’t need to know. Understood?”
So Phil talked and I listened. I didn’t necessarily like him. He just didn’t seem warm or encouraging. And I wasn’t interested in TV, anyway. But being new to San Francisco, I needed a job. So when Phil finally finished lecturing me for an hour and suggested he could hire me at $9 or $10 an hour, I said, “Okay, but there’s two things. One is that I don’t like TV and don’t watch it. But you’ve intrigued me, so now I’m curious to do this job. The other thing is that what you’re offering to pay is very little for someone with a college degree.”
Phil nodded. “I understand. But that’s all the studio is giving me. After you’re working for a while, we can try to do something about getting more money for you.”
A great window into Phil’s sense of humor, though, was his response months later when he learned that the studio had made a mistake in computing my pay. From the very first paycheck, they paid me a salary based on the much more generous rate of $26,000 per year. When I finally told Phil about the better-than-expected pay, he said, “I wish I’d known. I would’ve called and told them to lower it.”
So, the interview concluded and Phil walked me upstairs to meet Alison and his daughter, Dulcinee. I said hello to them and showed little Dulcie my guitar. I even strummed a quick riff of blues chords for her. Then I said goodbye and left.
I started working for Phil the next Monday. But the job only lasted four of five months before I was laid off. The studio was cutting expenses, and they decided that Phil didn’t deserve a San Francisco assistant. A few months later, they cut their biggest expense and downsized Phil as well.
Right after being laid-off, though, I sent Phil a card that said “Thanks for having me work for you.” I’d come to like and respect him, and it saddened me to lose the job. After Phil received my “Thank You” card, he called and said, “Well, listen, I was thinking that it’s been nice working with you. Stay in touch, all right?”
I did indeed stay in touch and it was then that I really became friends with the DeGuere’s. I started to have dinner at their house on Friday nights, Saturday nights, Tuesday nights, Wednesday nights… I went to concerts with them. Went to a July 4th barbecue with them and their friends. They just sort of became stuck with me. I’d call up Alison to say hello and she’d say, “What are you doing this Friday night? Can you come over for dinner?” And I’d take the bus out to Potrero that Friday evening and have a good meal of steak and potatoes and string beans, with good wine that Phil always insisted on pouring himself. Then Phil and I (and whoever else had come to dinner) would carry our glasses of wine out to the deck overlooking the San Francisco Bay and have a smoke, talk about politics, movies, or the latest Bret Easton Ellis book that Phil was reading. In the early days, I was still a bit intimidated when hanging out with Phil, though. He reminded me of my dad, and his big, booming voice instinctively transported me back to when I was an eight-year-old. So I always felt like a kid around Phil, and it took me a few years to realize that almost everything he said was simply dry sarcasm and not intended seriously. If he said, “Alison wanted you to come over for dinner tonight but I tried to dissuade her,” it was meant as a joke. It was also meant to connote that Phil had accepted me as a friend—the theory being that if he didn’t actually want me around, I wouldn’t have been there to begin with. Of course, that sort of subtlety sometimes escaped me in the early days. With that authoritative voice, I’d sometimes flinch nervously, not realizing that, in Phil’s own universe, almost everything was a joke.
But anyway, I somehow became a steady guest at Phil and Alison’s. They kind of adopted me. I’d come over for dinner and would stay after everyone else had departed. The guests would leave and Alison would go to bed. But I’d still be hanging out in the kitchen with Phil as he poured himself a final nightcap. (A side-note on Phil’s “nightcaps”: when Phil, Alison, Dulcie, and Milena came to Thanksgiving at my family’s house in New York a few years ago, my mom observed Phil restlessly poking around the kitchen at some point in the evening. Night-time had arrived and Phil felt like mixing himself a drink. He didn’t ask my mom where the vodka was, but he just sort of gradually drifted into the kitchen, started absentmindedly opening the refrigerator, the cupboards, poking around out of habit, looking for something to drink. And earlier, I’d told him that I’d bought Smirnoff specifically because I knew he was coming to dinner. In his mind, that Smirnoff had to be somewhere in the kitchen. And his hands wanted to mix that jigger of iced vodka. Eventually, I realized Phil was meandering in the kitchen and I showed him to the Smirnoff).
In hanging out with Phil and his family, I’ve always referred to him as “my boss.” I still do, even today, seven years later. It’s just the point at which I entered into a friendship with him. Of course, in the intervening years, he’s become a like a dad to me, and someone I call for advice about jobs, life, and politics. I’ve never been good on the phone with Phil, though. He’s generally not a “phone person,” and that booming voice somehow suggests that the phone call is distracting him from more important matters at hand. So, I’ll usually call quickly to ask what he thought of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, or if he, Alison, and the kids are still coming up to San Francisco for the weekend. But the inspiring conversations and advice he offers always come late in the evening, when I’m sitting out on the deck with him as we sip a final drink. A great summary of Phil’s whole philosophy of life, though, and of those late-night conversations, is encapsulated in one piece of advice he gave me a few years ago. We were sitting in his basement office in San Francisco, and I was discussing my troubles with a girl I was seeing. He suddenly looked at me as if he didn’t understand why I was so stressed. He squinted at me and said, “Why are you in such a hurry to find the right girl? If the universe wants you to procreate, it’ll see to it that it happens.”
Those late-night discussions help to explain some of the closeness I’ve built up with Phil. But it’s interesting to note that it was Alison who became an immediate friend. She seemed incredibly easy to talk to: bright, honest, vulnerable, sweet—the exact opposite of Phil. Probably the best summary of Alison was something my friend Tim once said to Phil: “You know what I like best about you, Phil? Your wife.” But it’s probably because Alison and I clicked so well that Phil simply got used to having me around. In becoming “family” to Phil and Alison and Dulcie and Milena, though, I became close with Phil’s oldest daughter, Adrienne, and her husband, Rey. And I met Phil and Alison’s friends: Paola and Steve, Zann and Lewis, Rose and Scurvy, and dozens of other great people. There were always these warm family dinners at the San Francisco house, like the times when we’d order 18 or 20 Chinese food dishes, and then split them among 14 people. I’d hang out with all of Phil and Alison’s friends, and Phil would be the big father sitting inscrutably at the head of the table. And that’s the one thing that has remained constant in all these years: Phil. He’s larger than life to me: funny, eccentric, fascinating. He’s intriguing—you want to know what he thinks about George Bush, what he thinks about ‘Seinfeld,’ how he likes his steak cooked, what books he’s reading. Only Phil could disagree with the classic status of U2’s early albums and declare, “On the contrary, U2 wasn’t worth listening to until they released ‘Achtung Baby,’” and make you think, “Hmm, maybe he’s right…” But what still chiefly defines Phil is that voice—that deep, kingly voice of his.
When I set out to write something about Phil, I simply thought of how much I can always hear his voice in my head, and how easy it is to picture the way he talks. I’ve often made Alison laugh by imitating Phil. It’s the best way I know of to deal with him—to not take him too seriously. And that’s exactly the way he prefers to be treated. That’s also why, during many of those great dinners at their San Francisco house, I’ve interrupted a discussion and turned to Alison to say, “Just let me know if I need to simplify this for Phil.” Which will prompt everyone at the table to laugh except Phil, who will purposefully reach for another helping of mashed potatoes.
The best way, then, for me to summarize Phil’s big voice is to recall a few of my favorite anecdotes—my list of Top Five Favorite Phil Soundbites.
One. Back in the early days, when I was first working for Phil, he called from his home office in Potrero to ask me to bring a certain script over to his house. I rummaged through the office filing cabinets of scripts, all stored according to the script’s author and color-coded to reflect various re-writes. I found the script and hopped on a bus to Potrero. Forty minutes later I rang Phil’s doorbell. When he answered the door, I handed him the script and we walked downstairs to his office to talk. After 20 minutes or so, it was time for me to head back to the office. As I got up to leave, Phil offered me a quick smoke for the road. I may have had a quick puff, then walked out to the bus and headed back downtown.
When I got back to the office, there was a message waiting for me on the office answering machine. I pressed PLAY and heard Phil’s booming voice say, “STEVEN, YOU BROUGHT ME THE WRONG SCRIPT.” Instantly, I felt a stomach-loosening surge of fear. I mustered up my courage and called Phil to apologize. Then I found the correct version of the script and raced back on a bus to Potrero to deliver it to him.
This incident has become famous, though because I’ve retold it so many times during dinners at Phil’s house. I can still hear the annoyance in Phil’s voice during that pithy answering machine message. And, because I can recall it so clearly, I’m able to do a pretty good impression of Phil saying it. So, Alison has often egged me on to repeat that line—“Steven, you brought me the wrong script”—at dinner. It makes her laugh, and it makes everyone else laugh. The irony is that, though I was the one who made the original mistake, it’s somehow remembered now as Phil’s faux pas for being such a taskmaster, or for being so irked by my simple mistake.
TWO. Anyone who’s ever spent any time in the DeGuere house has heard Phil calling to Alison when she’s in another room. Phil might be cooking in the kitchen, and Alison will be sitting with guests in the living room. But as Phil’s busy stirring the gravy, he’ll notice that Milena has just spilled milk on the kitchen floor. And so, already stressed by his cooking work, Phil will simply yell “AL…”
When Phil yells “Al,” what he’s really doing is loading three sentences of meaning into one word. The way he says “Al,” he gives it an almost two-syllable inflection. It sounds almost exactly like the word “owl” or the “oul” portion of the word “foul.” Or, sometimes it will sound like “Ow-luh.” What’s happening is that Phil is not only saying Alison’s name, but he’s asking it in question form. So when he’s cooking the gravy, the potatoes, the roast, and Milena suddenly spills her milk, the “AL???” that he shouts is actually him saying: “Alison, your little daughter has spilled her milk. I’m busy cooking. Can’t you get in here and clean it up?”
Because the “Al” line is so particular to the DeGuere household, I’ve found myself imitating it numerous times. Once on a Saturday afternoon, and just for the heck of it, I actually fooled Alison. I was sitting with Dulcie in the TV room and decided to do my best Phil impression. Alison was in the kitchen and I called to her, “AL…AL…” exactly as Phil will do. (Instead of finding her, or telling her what he needs, Phil will usually just keep repeating “AL…” till Alison either mind-reads what Phil wants, or comes hurrying into the room. It’s just Phil’s imperious method). In doing such a perfect imitation of Phil on that Saturday afternoon, though, I actually fooled Alison and got her to come into the room yelling, “WHAT, PHIL?”
A footnote to this business of Phil’s more imperious behavior is something Dulcie once said about Phil when she was only three or four years old. Phil was busy preparing dinner for a number of people one time, and was getting impatient about something. He finally came into the room and yelled something at Alison. After he finished yelling, he walked back into the kitchen. Dulcie looked at her mom and said, “When he be’s like that, just ignore him.”
But anyway, the “Al” name, pronounced like the two-syllable word “owl,” is one of Phil’s great soundbites. To me, it’s the domestic signature of the DeGuere house, and a good indicator of what mood Phil is in.
THREE. When I think of Phil’s humor, and how dry and sarcastic he can be, I also think of how pranksterish he is. Phil enjoys stories that have a dark humor. He’ll recount a prank someone pulled, or a bumper sticker he saw that said “After we eat the vegetables, what do we do with their wheelchairs?” and begin to chuckle to himself. It’s a mirthful “Huh-hee-hee-hee” laugh that shows Phil is delighted. The thing is, because of the way he chuckles this laugh, it always seems to tickle his lungs into a cough. It’s not even a huge, booming laugh, but he always ends up rasping because of the sheer up-and-down way that he cackles to himself.
The point, though, is the absolute and fiendish amusement that Phil finds in everyday life. A few days ago, I was talking to Phil. He mentioned a recent injury I suffered while trying to feed almonds to a neighborhood squirrel. Phil remarked, “I love the idea that some squirrel used your finger for sushi” and then broke into his mischievous cackle.
FOUR. More significantly, though, is Phil’s big laugh, which is just a flat-out booming explosion of HAH-HAH-HAH. No one erupts more volcanically into a big laugh than Phil. It’s simply that he’s a big guy, and he throws his whole body into a roaring laugh.
I remember my friend Tim telling Phil about a website that showed “autopsy” photos of an annoyingly popular kid’s doll. The battery-powered doll “cried” if it wasn’t given attention, and made noises if it wasn’t “fed.” Because the doll had become so inanely popular, a backlash developed. Someone had taken advantage of the doll’s notoriety to slice one open autopsy-style and photograph a cross-section of its mechanical innards. This struck Phil as so funny that he roared endlessly with laughter.
And I can remember showing Phil a photo I’d printed from the ‘Burt is Evil’ website. (The joke of the site is that Burt, of The Electric Company’s ‘Burt and Ernie,’ is involved in various sinister operations. There’s “hidden evidence” photos of Burt meeting with Osama bin Laden, Burt aiming a rifle at JFK’s motorcade, Burt guarding the Berlin Wall). The photo I showed Phil was of Burt serving as a general in the Third Reich. It’s a black-and-white photo of Hitler and Burt riding in a car, observing thousands of uniformed SS troops. Hitler and Burt sit in their open-roofed car, staring straight ahead, accepting the salute of all the soldiers in formation. I showed Phil the photo. He studied it for a moment then burst out laughing uncontrollably.
There’s nothing like making Phil crack up. It doesn’t happen all the time because he’s a tough critic, and by his very demeanor, he’s usually and assiduously low-key. But if you really think about it, Phil is just an overgrown kid. He likes silliness as much as anyone else—or maybe more. So when you get him to break up with laughter, it’s a great feeling.
FIVE. The final thing I want to point out, if I’m citing Phil’s greatest lines, quotes, and laughs, is actually something that Alison says. And I mention it here because it’s a great illustrator of the pure, unadulterated Phil DeGuere—his true, candid sense of humor when he’s at home with his family. In short, it’s simply Alison saying Phil’s name. But it’s not just her saying “Phil.” It’s the way she says it and the mix of emotions behind it.
Anyone who’s spent time with the DeGuere’s knows that Alison is the “better half.” She keeps Phil in line, makes certain he behaves tolerably, acts somewhat like a normal human being. Occasionally, though, she needs to lecture him, to point out that he’s misbehaving, that he’s stepping over the line. And so she yells at him, “PHIL…”
A great example is the aforementioned Thanksgiving dinner at my family’s house, several years ago. At the dinner table, my cousins and I were discussing politics. One of us mentioned our displeasure with a certain congresswoman from California. Phil, who’d been simply eating his turkey, and listening quietly, suddenly muttered, “They should kill her.” Instantly, everyone at the table cracked up. It was so unexpectedly droll and sinister. But at the same moment as we burst out laughing, Alison involuntarily swiveled to Phil and shouted, “PHIL…”
It should be noted that when Alison says “PHIL…,” it’s stated almost in the form of a question. Without meaning to, she’s almost asking: “Oh my God, did you really just say that?” But though Alison is watching over Phil in those moments, it’s almost an unconscious routine by now. What Phil has just said is funny in itself. But Alison’s “PHIL…” is the exclamation point. Her editorializing is almost funnier than what he’s said, just because we sympathize with her predicament.
This is all the more amusing when you consider the infamous phone conversation that my friend Bernie once had with Alison. Bernie’s wife, Missy, had frequently babysat for Milena and Dulcie, but on one afternoon, when Phil and Alison suddenly needed a babysitter, Missy was unavailable. Alison called Bernie to ask if he could possibly help out and watch Milena for two or three hours while she and Phil took care of an urgent matter. Bernie is not a practiced babysitter, though, and Alison had to take a moment to explain to Bernie what was involved—what food to give Milena, what toys she likes to play with, when she should nap. Phil was standing in the background for all of this, though, and as Alison was saying, “You’ll do fine, Bernie,” she suddenly turned and shouted, “PHIL…” Bernie says he couldn’t hear exactly what was happening, but he got the impression that Phil had been standing there muttering, “Don’t do it, Bernie…You’ll only regret it, Bernie…Run away now, Bernie…” which prompted Alison to spin around with the sudden “PHIL” exclamation.
And so I sit here, laughing about that incident and so many others. My friend Phil. He’s this big, tough guy, with the big tough voice. But, really, he’s nothing more than an overgrown kid. And how can that be? I know Phil’s an accomplished TV producer and all that sort of thing. But he’s also one of the most uniquely curious, and strangely fearless, people I’ve ever met. So when I try to tell people what he’s like, I usually find myself imitating that big voice of his, and the way he’ll hold forth on almost any subject, looking for the conspiracy in things, or the hand of the universe sweeping all of us across the big chessboard. I feel very lucky to know him, and to have become family with him, Alison, Dulcie, Milena, Rose, Adrienne, Rey, Joe, Fred, and Jackie.
So I conclude this piece by recalling something that happens to have been written about the Grateful Dead, but that applies equally well to my friend, Phil DeGuere. It’s often been said, “There is nothing like a Grateful Dead concert.” It’s a remark that holds true even now, almost a decade after The Dead’s passing. No singer, no guitar player, no group of musicians ever managed to duplicate the beautiful weirdness that the Dead exuded. And the sentiment holds true with my friend Phil, too. Strong, august dragon presence that he is, there’s nothing like him. And it will be that way even many, many years from now.
I was 29 years old, living in San Francisco, and playing full-time in a band. We had been invited to play an outdoor rally for one of the candidates who was campaigning in the 2000 presidential campaign. Our manager, Dianna, thought the rally would bring us some helpful publicity. So we agreed to play the gig and, on the appointed day, arrived at the Ferry Building to begin setting up our gear. I unloaded my bass amp from Dianna’s jeep and plugged it into an electrical outlet near the outdoor stage. Then I plugged my bass into the amp, switched on the power, and tried to play a few notes.
Our keyboard player, Bernard, had plugged his amp into the same outlet, but he wasn’t getting any power. A technician came over and unplugged both of our amps. He plugged us into a different outlet and said, “Try it now.”
I picked a few notes on my bass and heard that my amp was working. Bernard pressed a few keys on his keyboard; piano notes rang out of his amp. I picked a few more notes on my bass and said to Bernard, “They’re both working.”
A moment later, a bolt of electricity tore through my arms, shoulders, and neck. The impact of this bolt of electricity seemed to make a deafening sound, like the rattling of an earthquake. My teeth clenched together. For a fraction of a second, I had a feeling of infinite discomfort– not even of pain, but of such staggering impact that my brain seemed to switch off and restart.
In that same fraction of a second, I thought I could hear someone yelling into my left ear. There was a huge explosion of noise; I tried to yell that I was being electrocuted.
And then I found myself lying flat on my stomach, staring at the black ground. I didn’t know why I was on the ground. But I seemed to remember that I’d been electrocuted, earlier in the day. Or maybe the previous day. My jaw was resting on the ground. My neck ached. I couldn’t move my head.
I moved my tongue inside my mouth and noticed that I was missing a tooth. I saw a small white speck of pebble resting in front of my nose. It was my tooth. Surrounding my tooth were several flat orange-red marbles. I looked at the marbles. After a few moments, I noticed that they were clumps of blood.
I began to hear yelling. People were shouting. I could hear Dianna’s voice. I called to her, “What happened?”
“ARE YOU ALL RIGHT?”
“THE LIGHTING TOWER FELL ON YOU.”
Someone else was kneeling beside me. It was a man. He said, “Don’t move. Just don’t move.”
Dianna was yelling something at me. I shouted to her, “I have my tooth, I’m gonna hold my tooth.”
I felt nauseous. I rested my cheek on the ground. I could hear a siren. People were yelling.
An ambulance arrived. Someone told me not to move. There were legs, shoes, pants. There was a paramedic in a blue shirt kneeling next to me. Then there was a second paramedic. They put a wooden board on the ground next to me. They told me they were going to move me. I said, “Nooo…,” but they began to roll me onto my back. A blinding pain stabbed through my neck. Then I was lying on my back. I was puffing and panting. A paramedic put a white collar around my neck and began bolting me to the wooden board. A second paramedic pressed a belt across my forehead, strapping my skull against the wooden board.
Then they were loading me onto a stretcher. There was a slight bump as they loaded the stretcher into an ambulance.
Dianna climbed into the ambulance. I told her I had my tooth. The paramedic asked me to give him the tooth. I said that I wanted to try to use it again. He said he’d wrap it in gauze and hold it for me.
The paramedic asked me what my name was. He asked me what my age was. I remembered that I was 29. He asked me what day it was and I said I wasn’t sure. I asked him if it was Thursday. He said yes. He told me to move my feet. He leaned over me and asked me again to move my feet. I wriggled my toes. He said, “Can you move your feet?” I wriggled my toes harder and moved my shoes. He asked if I could feel my arms and legs. I said, “Yes.”
I asked Dianna what happened. She said that a lighting tower had blown over and fallen on my head. She said that she heard someone yell something and, as she turned, she saw the tower land on top of me. Our singer, Jethro, and a few other guys had lifted it off of me. I told her that I didn’t know what had happened, that I’d thought I’d been electrocuted. “No,” she said. “The whole tower fell over. The top of it came down on your head.”
The ambulance was moving. The paramedic was kneeling next to me. I told him that I could feel my legs. I asked him if that meant I was okay. He said, “We’re gonna go right to the emergency room and they’ll check you out.” I said, “But I’m okay, right?” He said, “They’ll check you as soon as we reach the emergency room.”
I could feel something wet running down the side of my face. The paramedic was pressing a large piece of gauze against the top of my head. He pulled away the piece of gauze; it was red. He reached for another piece of gauze.
Then we arrived at the hospital. Someone rolled me into a hallway. There were bright fluorescent lights. The paramedic talked to a doctor. They lifted me off the stretcher and placed me onto another stretcher. Then I was resting on a stretcher in a hallway. People in green hospital clothes were hurrying up and down the hall.
A few minutes later, a doctor came over and began asking me questions. He asked me what had happened. I told him that a lighting tower had fallen on me. He told me that I was bleeding from a hole on the top of my head. They were going to take some X-rays. He walked away.
I rested on the stretcher in the hallway. People hurried by.
A few minutes later, I felt the stretcher being moved. I was being wheeled into an X-ray room. Some people moved around. I asked them if I was okay. Someone said they were going to take some X-rays. Someone else put an X-ray bracket next to my head. A technician placed the X-ray machine next to my right ear.
Someone yelled “X-ray” and everyone ran out of the room. The X-ray machine made a grinding sound. Then everyone ran back into the room. Someone adjusted the machine. Then someone else yelled “X-ray” and they ran out of the room. The X-ray machine made another grinding sound. Then everyone ran back into the room.
The doctor who’d examined me in the hall said “It might be a broken finger” and the X-ray technician moved the camera down to my right hand. He lifted my hand and slid a film cartridge underneath it. Then he said “X-ray” and everyone began to run out of the room.
I looked down at the X-ray machine, which was hovering over my waist, aimed at my right hand. I remembered that whenever I’d previously had dental X-rays, a nurse had always covered my chest and groin with a lead apron. I shouted, “Wait, wait…” The doctor came back into the room. I said, “Wait…please, don’t you need to cover me with a lead pad or something?…” The doctor squinted at the X-ray technician. The technician turned and went into a side room. He came back with a yellow apron. He placed the apron over my chest and waist. Then he yelled “X-ray” and ran out of the room.
The X-ray machine made a grinding noise. The technician came back and collected the film cartridges. He removed my lead apron, cradled the film cartridges in his arms, and hurried out of the room.
Then the room was quiet. Several minutes passed. I could feel something wet collecting on the side of my face, near where my head was resting on the wooden board.
Five minutes passed. Ten minutes passed. The back of my round skull was being pressed into the hard flatness of the wooden board.
A doctor appeared in the doorway. “We’re going to take some X-rays just as soon as– oh…” He spun around and walked out of the room.
Five minutes passed. The back of my head was flattening into the wooden board. I listened to the in-and-out gasps of my breathing. If I breathed too deeply, my neck would move, pressing my head further into the wooden board.
A doctor walked in and said, “Someone will be with you soon.” He turned and hurried out of the room.
Five minutes passed. Ten minutes passed. A doctor walked in. “Your X-rays were negative.” He turned to walk out of the room. I said, “Wait, wait…” He turned back. I tried to turn my face. “So they were negative?…I’m okay, right?”
“We checked your spine and skull for fractures. They were both negative.”
“So I’m all right?”
He turned and walked out of the room.
Five minutes passed. I could feel something wet collecting on top of my head. It was collecting and collecting. Finally, it grew too large, and pushed over the side of my face. It began running down along my ear.
The doctor who’d initially examined me in the hallway came into the room. He began wheeling my stretcher into the hall. He said, “We’re just going to patch up your head and then you can go.” He wheeled me through a brightly-lit hallway. Then he rested my stretcher along the side of the hall. “I just have to find you a room.” He parked my stretcher and walked away.
Five minutes passed. People hurried by in green hospital clothes. The doctor came back and said, “We’re just waiting for a room.” He turned and walked away.
A stretcher rolled by. A flurry of people in green hospital clothes hovered over the stretcher. Someone was clipping an IV packet to a post on the stretcher.
A few minutes later, the doctor reappeared. He began wheeling my stretcher down the hall to a side room. We turned into the room and rolled to a stop. The doctor removed my neck brace. Then he removed the strap that was binding my head to the wooden board. I moved my head and felt something wet and sticky under my neck.
The doctor put on a pair of rubber gloves. He leaned over me. “You have a small hole in your head. I’m just going to staple it closed. But first I have to numb the area. I’m going to inject this into an area near here.”
He showed me a needle filled with anesthetic and touched a point on my forehead. “It may sting a little.”
He placed the needle near my forehead and injected the painkiller. Almost immediately, I could feel the top of my head grow numb.
The doctor brought a small light over and placed it above my head. He studied my scalp for a moment, then began pinching together the skin around the hole in my head. I heard the click-click of a staple gun and felt the dull thud as the staple grabbed my scalp. The doctor kept pinching my head and clicking the staple gun.
After the fourth staple, the doctor stood up and removed his gloves. “All right. That’s it. Someone’ll be in soon. We’ll just get your papers and you can leave.”
I looked at him for a moment. “Wait, is there anything I should know. I mean, my head is killing me. I can’t move my neck.”
“You should be able to.”
“No, it hurts so much. It feels like it’s stuck.”
“You should be able to move it.”
I tried to move my head. “It’s not gonna damage anything if I move it? It hurts whenever I try anyth–”
“You should take Ibuprofen. Do you have some Advil?”
“You’ll be sore for a while. Give it a few days.”
He walked out of the room.
A few minutes later, a nurse wheeled me out of the room. She leaned over the stretcher. “So what happened to you? The doctor said you had a light bulb hit you or something?”
“No, no, it was a lighting tower. The whole tower came down on my head.”
The nurse parked the stretcher along the wall in the hallway. “We’re just going to observe you for a little while and then you’ll be free to go. I’ll be right back.” She stood up and walked down the hallway.
Later, the nurse came back with Dianna. The nurse said she was going to check me out of the hospital. I told her that my head hurt, my neck hurt, my back was in excruciating pain, I thought that the swollen finger on my right hand was broken, my right knee felt jammed, part of my ribs hurt, I had a headache, I couldn’t turn my head, my tooth was broken, my right arm felt stiff… Was she sure that I was all right? Was there anything I needed to do. Maybe have a CAT-Scan or something.
“Well, your X-rays were negative. And you didn’t lose consciousness. So we can’t keep you overnight. You’ll probably just be sore for about three days. The doctor said you should take Ibuprofen. Do you want him to write you a prescription?”
“No, I have some Advil at home.”
Dianna looked at the nurse. “Doesn’t he need a neck brace or something?”
“Oh, no, that wouldn’t be good. The neck needs room to travel and recover itself.”
A week later, I was in agony. I was unable to turn my head from side to side. Any time I stood up, sat down, lifted my right arm, lifted a forkful of food, tried to pivot my head, drink a glass of water, climb into bed, climb out of bed– I would feel a sharp, spearing pain in my neck and inside the upper right portion of my back. My right knee– which had apparently been driven into the ground with the full impact of the lighting tower, would buckle if I walked uphill or climbed a staircase. But most disconcerting was a numbness, a lack of sensation in the fingers of my right hand. It had started as a tingling, a dullness in the tip of the index finger of my right hand. Gradually, over the course of a few days, the numbness had spread to the rest of the finger, then the middle finger, then the V-shaped portion of my hand where the two fingers met. As the days wore on, and this numbness increased, I began to feel shooting pains in my neck and right shoulder blade. Even while sitting immobile, the shooting pains would flash down my arm, ringing like a siren inside my elbow.
Finally, my insurance company approved a visit to an orthopedic doctor. I squeezed myself into a taxi and endured the bumpy ride across town. At his office, the doctor brought me into a brightly-lit room. He examined me for less than two minutes before running out of the examination room. “Lynn, Lynn, we need to get this guy an MRI as soon as possible.”
“St. Luke’s is down this week…”
“I don’t care. I don’t care. Find him someplace as soon as possible.”
The MRI took place the next morning. I was given earplugs and fitted into a white plastic tube. For twenty minutes, the machine made loud jackhammering sounds, graphing images of my spine.
The next day, the doctor had the results. I was lucky: I didn’t have any herniated disks– nothing that would require surgery. But one of my vertebral disks had been shoved out of alignment by the impact of the tower. The disk had been worn away as it scraped against the adjacent vertebrae. As it traveled, the disk had struck an adjacent bundle of nerves, bruising them, which explained the numbness in my fingers.
The doctor ordered a neck brace, which I needed to start wearing immediately to relieve some of the pressure on my neck. After I had purchased the neck brace I could eventually begin a series of Physical Therapy sessions to rebuild my neck and arm.
For an immediate measure, though, the doctor had prescribed steroids. The nauseating cortisone-steroid pills would help reduce the inflammation along my vertebrae.
I read the possible side effects of cortico-steroid treatment:
“This medicine makes you more susceptible to illness. If you are exposed to chickenpox, measles, or tuberculosis while taking this medicine or within 12 months after stopping this medicine, call your doctor. Check with your doctor as soon as possible if you experience swelling of feet or legs; unusual weight gain; black, tarry stools; vomiting material that looks like coffee grounds; severe nausea or vomiting; changes in menstrual periods; headache; muscle weakness; prolonged sore throat, cold, or fever…”
I began the steroid treatment the next day.
EPILOGUE: I didn’t work again for nine months.
The nurses called around 10:30 at night to say my grandmother was going downhill rapidly. She was 92-years-old and had been suffering from pneumonia. Her color wasn’t good and the nurses said she wouldn’t make it through the night. I got in a car and raced over to be with her.
When I got to the nursing home, the nurses were standing around my grandmother nervously, pacing the room, trying to make her comfortable. I walked over and kissed her and said, “Hey, Nanny, it’s Steven. I’m here.” I touched her hand and brushed her hair. She opened her eyes and looked at me. I told her I was there and I was going to stay with her. She nodded. I took off my shoes and sweater in the stuffy, hot hospital room. I settled into a chair next to her and began to softly rub her neck.
The nurses left the room. Nanny asked me to switch off the bathroom light. It took a moment for me to understand what she was saying in her faint, whispered voice–that she wanted the light off in the bathroom. I got up and switched off the light. The room became dark–lit only by the light from the hallway. I could still see Nanny’s face. She rolled her head toward me and said faintly, “Not good.”
I kissed her on the cheek and said, “I know.”
I stood up and walked over to the right side of the bed. I stood over her and looked into her eyes. Her right eye was mostly closed–just a little bit of blue eye showing. Her left eye was still open, but was slightly hooded. It vaguely looked up at me. I began rubbing her shoulder with my left hand and stroking her hand with my right hand.
I stood like that for a while, just looking at Nanny’s face, rubbing her shoulder and hand. Occasionally she tried to shift herself slightly. Then she said something. At first I thought she was asking me to shut the small fan that was blowing cool air on her face and pillow. But then I realized it wasn’t “fan” but “leg” that she was saying. She hadn’t been comfortable all day and she was asking me to lift her leg by the ankle, to ease some of the swelling. I pushed aside the bedsheet and lifted her leg. I massaged her knee for a few moments. Then I put the leg down and lifted the other leg.
I put her leg back down and drew the sheet back over her feet. Then I stood over her again and rubbed her shoulder and hand. I asked her if she wanted water. She said no. I kissed her on the forehead and told her I loved her. I said, “You are the best, Nanny. I love you very much.” She tried to move her mouth, the left eye vaguely looking up at me. I told her that I wanted her to drift off. I smiled at her and brushed her hair lightly.
I continued to stand over her, softly rubbing her shoulder and hand, hunching over and studying her face. I could see her blue eyes clearly in the dim room. She seemed to be half-sleeping, with her eyes partly open–the way she’d looked for the past two days. She moved her mouth slightly and looked up at me.
Ten or twenty minutes passed. I stood over her, softly rubbing her shoulder and neck.
A nurse came in to check on her. She turned on a soft light above the bed and took my grandmother’s arm. The nurse began saying my grandmother’s name. “Ruthie…Ruthie…” Gradually, Nanny opened her eyes. She focused vaguely at the nurse, squinting against the bright light. “Whah…?”
The nurse said, “I’m just seeing how you’re doing.” She took Nanny’s wrist and felt her pulse. After a minute she put Nanny’s arm down. “Okay, Ruthie, you get some rest. I’ll see you later.” Nanny nodded almost imperceptibly. The nurse walked out. I switched off the light. The room was dark again, lit only by the light from the hallway.
I stood over Nanny again and softly rubbed her shoulder and hand. I told her that I loved her. Her mouth moved slightly. Her head lay back on the pillow and her eyes returned to a half-closed position. I could still vaguely see the blue of her eyes. Her mouth hung open as she tried to breathe. For the past few days, she had been breathing in quick, shallow pips. Her mouth would hang down and her face would lift up slightly as she inhaled. I watched her mouth mechanically click up and down as she “uh-huh’ed” with each breath.
I continued to stand over her, softly rubbing her shoulder. Her eyes remained half-closed, looking up at me vaguely. Everything was dark. The hallway was quiet.
Ten minutes passed. Twenty minutes passed. Nanny looked up at me, her eyes mostly closed. There was a rhythmical click in her throat each time she inhaled. I stood hunched over her, occasionally straightening my back and neck. Everything was quiet.
I began to feel that Nanny was going away. I couldn’t explain it. But I was aware that something perfectly rhythmic was happening. It had been at least a half hour since the nurse had left. I was simply standing over her as she breathed each click of breath, the eyes vaguely staring, me rubbing her hand and shoulder automatically. I wasn’t even aware that I’d been stroking her hand, her shoulder. But something had snuck up on me. There was a perfect feeling to my finger touching the soft skin on the back of her hand. I was moving my fingers back and forth involuntarily, looking into her eyes, almost forgetting what I was doing. And Nanny had settled into a perfect rhythm, too, looking off, not acknowledging me anymore.
Something had begun. I could sense Nanny beginning to travel off. I couldn’t explain how I knew. But some imperceptibly distant feeling had crept in. I also sensed that if I really wanted to, I could have shaken her arm, and said her name loudly, rousing her back into the room. But it would have been a distraction, a jarring interruption to whatever process had begun. She would vaguely open her eyes at me, but would then have to close her eyes and start all over again in order to return to this traveling that had begun.
Ten minutes passed. I continued to stand there, touching her hand and shoulder softly. Gradually I became aware of the edge of her pillowcase fluttering strangely in the breeze from the fan next to her bed. The pillowcase seemed hazy, blurry. The rest of the room looked strangely yellow at the periphery of my vision. The walls, the pillowcase, the cabinets were flickering strangely, like images from a TV in a dark room. I looked down at Nanny’s face, but where her eyes and mouth should have been, there was a flat, gray, staticky haze. Her forehead and nose were perfectly distinct. I wasn’t really aware of it, but where her eyes and mouth should have been, I had been absentmindedly staring at this haze. As soon as I tried to look carefully at her face, though, the haze drifted away. I could see her blue eyes again, focused in a faint, distant way.
I straightened my neck for a moment and continued to touch her hand and shoulder. Everything was quiet and still except for the soft fan and Nanny’s little breaths.
Ten minutes passed. I was standing over her, looking in her eyes. Again, I noticed the fan ruffling a strange staticky edge to her pillowcase. Ana again I was looking at Nanny’s face and there was a flat haze over the exact area where her eyes and mouth should have been. Her nose was still distinct, and I could see her forehead and hair. I hadn’t been aware that I was looking at this indistinct gray static in her eyes and mouth, but as I noticed it, the features of her face became obscured. The haze disappeared and suddenly I was clearly looking at the face and head of an elderly woman. It wasn’t Nanny. This was a much squatter face, different, with rubbery lips. Eye makeup. Some lipstick. The hair was thicker and curlier, more gray. I studied the face for a moment, then looked away. Then I was looking at Nanny’s head again. Her face seemed slightly more drawn than I had noticed earlier.
I continued to stand over her, softly touching her shoulder and the smooth, cool skin of her hand. Her breathing was a little slower but I could still hear the definite click of her throat as she exhaled each breath.
I was aware that something had progressed far along by now. Nanny’s eyes were still partly open. But she wasn’t looking at me anymore. There was a cloudiness in her eyes. Something was traveling off. I felt it intuitively. For some reason I found myself beaming an intense, happy smile at her. I was emphatic. I heard myself saying, “Yes…yes…”
I continued to stand over her, occasionally adjusting my back and neck. I touched her hand and shoulder. Time passed. Then, the edges of the room seemed to be flickering again a dim yellow hue at the corner of my vision. I was looking at small flat ponds of gray static where her eyes and mouth were. And suddenly I was looking at a pretty, thin-faced woman in her sixties. He hair was tied up in the center of her head with some sort of jewelry. She was wearing earrings and makeup. Her eyes looked up, alert and open. Though she wasn’t looking at me, she was aware that I was looking at her. As I studied her face, it began to change. Something became amorphous, mixing into a staticky haze. And then suddenly it was the long, narrow head of another old woman. Her jawbones angled down to a strong V-shaped chin. She was aware of me looking at her. Then her face became a man’s head. It was a pleasant, little old man. He was bald. There were sun splotches on the top of his head, thin grey hair along the side of his head. His eyes were closed. He was sleeping. But he had a smile on his face. Then the head was growing staticky, hazy. I straightened my neck and tried to focus on Nanny’s face again. I inhaled. I was able to get her face back. Her head was resting on her pillow, her eyes closed.
I realized that I was still rubbing and stroking her hand and shoulder. I had been doing it in a steady rhythm, even as I saw these different people where her head should have been. My movement was softer, slower, though. I straightened up for a moment and rested my back. I held Nanny’s right hand and squeezed it lightly.
Then I leaned over her again, looking into her faint blue eyes, softly petting her hand and shoulder. The eyes were two-thirds closed. I somehow knew that she was deep and far into traveling. There was a clear rhythm. More than an hour had passed since I’d arrived. The breathing continued in little pips of breath, her mouth still lifting up with each inhalation, her throat making a dry click as she switched from inhaling to exhaling.
I continued leaning over her, touching her hand and shoulder. A few quiet minutes passed. And again, I realized I was looking at a strange yellow flickering static in the room. Nanny’s face was obscured by a staticky cloud. Where her mouth was, everything was purple and cloudy. Nanny’s right eye was obscured by this haze. It covered the right side of her face. Then, suddenly I was looking at the squat apple head of the first woman I’d seen earlier. She was in her sixties or seventies. A chubby, apple face. I was aware of her cheeks, her thick lips. She was looking at me–not into my eyes, but studying me as I looked at her. Then the little round head began to twist and spiral. It was swirling and compressing, surrounded by purple static. Her right eye was rotating around the side of the apple head. The eye became teeth, a nose, a skull. I felt disoriented, dizzy, as if I were being swept up in this fluid, spiraling face.
Suddenly, I felt incredibly cold. I was standing there in my t-shirt and jeans, unprotected from an icy chill. For the first time in my life, I felt the hairs on the back of my neck actually stand up. A fraction of a moment later, Nanny’s eyes flamed open. It was a look I’d never seen on her face before. Her eyes widened brilliantly, perfectly round and blue. But more pronounced even than her round eyes was a perfect, crescent black line above each eye. It looked like a caricature of cosmetics, or of the facepaint of a comic book character. I was aware that her eyes were wide open, staring up and to the right of me at something clear and distinct. It seemed completely obvious to me that she, too, was reacting to whatever icy rush was passing through. There was no need for her to even acknowledge me. We were both aware of each other feeling this rush. But rather than look in her eyes, I found myself instantly preoccupied with the strange ceremonial, curved lack lines above her eyes. It was as if someone had drawn a black ink line above each eyelid, where the eyes joined the eye sockets. The black line perfectly traced the furrow of the eyes underneath each eyebrow.
And then the feeling passed and Nanny’s eyes softened. The black lines eased away and the blue eyes slowly closed. The left eye faded and stared vaguely, cloudily under a hooded eyelid. A clammy sweat had broken out on my forehead. I noticed that I was still rubbing Nanny’s hand and shoulder.
I whispered to Nanny, “I love you.” I kept standing over her, stroking her hand and shoulder. Her breathing continued, incredibly light, with slow, tiny pips of breath.
I straightened my neck and back for a moment, then hunched over her again, touching her hand and shoulder ever so lightly. I could feel the process was almost complete. I was perfectly attuned to whatever the mechanism was. The breathing was fading. Nanny’s eyes were almost completely closed.
I stood over her and vaguely sensed the blurry static in her face that I’d seen earlier. But it was faint and diluted now, incomplete. I couldn’t explain why, but I somehow knew that it was pointless or inappropriate now to look for any more faces in the gray static, or to stare and concentrate into it. The moment had passed.
My hand was now barely touching Nanny’s hand. Without trying, I was barely maintaining contact with her skin. It was just the tip of the index finger of my right hand that was following the soft contours of skin along the knuckles of her hand. My fingers grazed softly, back and forth along her shoulder. I looked at her eyes. They were hooded and almost completely closed. Her breaths were scarcely audible, almost exactly as shallow as my faint touching of her hand. There was a breath and a tiny click, and then a pause. Then a tiny breath, and a longer pause. I knew that she was about to stop breathing. Her eyes were almost completely closed. The mouth hung open. A second or two passed and there was a faint breath. A few seconds passed and I could feel that there would be one more breath. Another moment passed and there was a faint inhalation. And then an exhalation. I sensed that there would not be another breath. And then, suddenly, I was aware that the body had become fixed. It was rigid and heavy. She had passed. Without know why, I said to her, “You did it, Nanny.”
I looked at her face and mouth and told her I loved her. I put my ear near her mouth to confirm that she had stopped breathing. But I intuitively knew that she was gone. I stroked her hair, kissed her on the cheek, and told her that I loved her. I sat for a moment, looking at her. Then I walked out to tell the nurse.
Ninety minutes later, the doctor came to certify the death. He felt for a pulse, then put a stethoscope to her chest, listened for a heart, for breathing. He clipped his stethoscope and nodded. “Yes, she’s passed.” He walked out to the nurse’s station to fill out the necessary paperwork.
Then the nurses came in to change and prepare the body. They put the body in a clean hospital gown and began wrapping it in plastic sheets.
I came into the room and helped them lift the body from the bed onto a hospital gurney. The body was completely wrapped in plastic and tied with a string across the middle. Four of us lifted the body onto the gurney. Then we rolled the gurney down the hall to the elevator.
In the basement, we rolled the gurney into a cold room. There were two refrigerated vaults. A nurse opened the bottom door and pulled out a large metal tray. We counted 1-2-3 and lifted the body off the gurney and onto the metal tray. As I stumbled to place the body carefully onto the tray, I could feel the cold, frigid air drifting out of the vault. We finished arranging the body on the tray. The nurses stepped back. I pushed the tray in and said, “Goodbye, Nanny.” I pulled up the heavy metal door and shut it. A nurse placed a tag on the door. It said ‘Ruth Ginsburg.’ I thanked the nurses and went out to the elevator. I walked outside and drove home.