My wife, Violet, and I met in 1985 at a weekly poetry workshop in Manhattan. The class convened at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, and afterward most of the students would gather at a nearby cafe and order pierogies, Ukrainian dumplings stuffed with potatoes or meat or cabbage. (I liked them fried.) Eleven or twelve of us would sit around the table arguing, laughing, and writing poems on place mats. Violet was quiet and rarely spoke. I was loud and rarely shut up.
By chance one day Violet and I both came early to class. We were the only two people at the table, sitting across from one another. Instead of speaking, we gazed into each other’s eyes in mute communion. For five minutes we soundlessly stared. Then another poet walked in, and the spell was broken.
Two years later Violet and I were living together half a block from St. Mark’s Church, in a railroad apartment with a bathtub in the kitchen. We had a cat named Trident Sugarless Gum, whom we called “Gummy.” Our neighborhood, the East Village, had a long history of anarchism, dive bars, cheap rents, mumbling old Ukrainian women, heroin addicts, and eccentric artists. Its famous residents included W.H. Auden, Charlie Parker, Allen Ginsberg, and Madonna.
One night I had a slight earache, which I mentioned to Violet. She was studying herbalism at the time and suggested I place a clove of garlic in my ear. She explained that I should slice the tip off the garlic, to release the natural oils, before inserting the clove. I tried this, and it seemed to work.
After about twenty minutes, however, I felt no more effect from my herbal eardrops. Violet recommended I chop off a little more of the clove, so that fresh oil would drip out, and put it back in my ear. I did so and again felt a soothing sensation. I continued chopping off little bits as the evening went on. Then I realized that the clove had gotten too small and had slipped into my ear canal. It wouldn’t come back out!
My ear obstruction didn’t cause pain but did produce an ominous silence.
“The garlic is stuck in my ear,” I informed my herbalist partner.
Violet is not fond of taking the blame. “You cut it down too small,” she pointed out.
“Can you look in my ear?” I pleaded.
Violet brushed aside my hair and peered inside. “I can see it in there, but anything I’d do would just push it in farther.”
In our culture, when you have a medical problem, you visit a doctor, who writes you a prescription; then you drive to a pharmacy and pay thirty-two dollars for a medication. There are few surprises or slip-ups. But if you decide to single-handedly reconnect with a lost ancient lineage of herbal wisdom, you may end up with a short spear of garlic bearing down on your eardrum.
I was starting to panic. Would this intrusive home remedy dive deeper and deeper into my ear until it penetrated my brain, causing a garlic-scented hemorrhage?
“Maybe if you lie on your side, the garlic will fall out,” Violet suggested.
I lay on the bed with my right ear on the pillow, patiently awaiting gravity’s assistance, but after fifteen minutes I grew restless. There was no solution except to put on a sweater and walk to the hospital.
“I’m going to Bellevue,” I told Violet, and headed outside.
It was after eleven o’clock, and Second Avenue was deserted. As I hurriedly walked uptown, I remembered a joke about a man with a carrot in his ear: His friend comes up to him and asks, “Hey, Hank, why do you have a carrot in your ear?”
“What?” Hank replies.
“I said, ‘Why do you have a carrot in your ear?’ ”
Frustrated, the man yells, “Why do you have a carrot in your ear?”
“Sorry, I can’t hear you,” Hank replies. “I have a carrot in my ear!”
Walking past Stuyvesant Square, a stately, block-long refuge shaded by maples and elms, I remembered another variant: A man sees his friend on the street with a carrot in his ear. “Hey, Hank, do you know you have a carrot in your ear?” he asks.
“Carrot in my ear?” Hank replies. “That’s funny; I planted lettuce!”
Bellevue Hospital was founded in 1736 and is the oldest public hospital in the United States. By 1987 its severe, dignified buildings had descended into shabbiness — or beyond shabbiness.
The woman at the intake desk asked what my problem was.
“I have a clove of garlic stuck in my ear,” I confessed, and told her about my earache and my wife’s unusual treatment.
The woman asked my name, my address, and what day of the week it was. I answered the first two questions and impatiently replied, “I don’t know,” to the third. She gave me an imploring look. Suddenly I remembered: this was Bellevue, one of the most notorious mental hospitals in the nation. If I didn’t know what day it was, then flunked two more questions, I could find myself confined to the psychiatric ward.
“Wednesday,” I said.
The nurse nodded, and I took a seat.
Bellevue’s waiting room was cavernous, in case the city was struck by another typhoid epidemic. I sat near the front, in the hopes that the woman behind the desk would remember me. I’d brought a book to read — Graham Greene’s A Burnt-Out Case — but my sleepiness and anxiety made it difficult to focus. Time flowed slowly, like a sticky ooze.
There were five or six patients ahead of me, and every so often an ambulance would pull up and a couple of EMS workers would zoom by pushing a gurney. The rules of triage — from a French word meaning “selecting” — relegated me to the end of the line. Each time I reached the front, another ambulance would arrive, and another gurney would speed past. I found myself selfishly musing: Why do so many Manhattanites have to get shot while I have a clove of garlic in my ear?
Finally the nurse called my name, and I was ushered into a room where a doctor and two nurses waited. The physician was young and jocular, with a full head of curly brown hair, and the nurses were pretty. There are two types of emergency-room workers: those who will soon have a nervous breakdown and those who absolutely love their jobs. These caregivers were clearly of the latter type. All the blood and guts they saw on a daily basis only buoyed their spirits. Besides, New Yorkers are always looking for a story to tell at their next dinner party, and I was certainly such an anecdote: “Then a bearded poet walked in with a clove of garlic in his ear. . . .”
The doctor produced a special alligator clip, apparently designed for removing ear obstructions. The operation took approximately four seconds, after which the doctor held up the garlic and suggested, “Let’s make some pasta primavera!” and the nurses laughed. One of the women asked if I’d like to keep my herbal remedy. “No, thanks,” I replied, and soon I was walking in the brisk night air, utterly relieved. Instead of wearing a straitjacket in a padded cell because I couldn’t remember it was Wednesday, I was striding down an empty sidewalk toward my cozy tenement apartment, freed from my self-inflicted medical crisis. In most hospitals such a procedure would have cost me hundreds of dollars, but thanks to New York City’s vestigial welfare state, I’d paid nothing, having qualified as “low income.” I thought, Thank you, crusading New York socialists, for creating a shabby but compassionate system to alleviate my suffering.
That’s when I realized: my earache was gone.