At the back door I find Tyson on guard. When I tell him I'm going to the hospital he just nods. Like The Wire said, word travels fast on this scene.
There are no cabs to be had out on 29th Street, but I can see a line of taxis stretching down Madison. I pull my Consolidated baseball cap over my spikey hair and hope there's a big enough crowd out front of Hedonism to protect me from view. There is. Hedonism has one of the strictest door policies in Manhattan which means that instead of an orderly queue at least two hundred people are gathered round the ropes, shoving, pleading, cursing and occasionally waving five or ten dollar bills. Like that will get them in. Twenty's the minimum to make Queen Bee lower her dress standards and reach for the magic ropes.
I head for the first cab but before I can open the door, someone else has done it for me. I prepare to fight for my ride but then I realize it's just one of the many beggars and con merchants who congregate outside Hedonism hoping for evidence of trickle-down economics. Most of them know only to hassle the customers, not those of us who work here, which means this guy isn't a regular. I tell him not to bother.
"Good night and God bless," he says with false sincerity anyway. I growl, get in the cab, and shout my uptown destination through the partition. The car door remains open. I try to pull it shut. The guy's stronger than he looks.
"Quarter for some food, man." It's less a request than a demand.
"I told you not to bother." Tommy's one thing, but this dude's something else entirely.
"Come on, man."
"Leave it. I work here." I'm firm but not too loud. If the Count happens to be out front and sees me deserting my duty I'm as good as unemployed.
The bum lets go the door with a curse. I pull the door shut, the cab takes off with an elaborate squeal of rubber and immediately the driver picks up his CB radio and starts talking in some middle eastern language. I'm meant to lean back and leave him to it, rather than engage in conversation, but some of these CB radios double as a trip on the meter. The driver turns the volume up, the fare ticks over. All the best scams are simple. I lean forward purposefully, and fix my eyes on the metal box ahead of me. If it clicks quicker than every four blocks I will do serious damage to this man.
Thoughts of violence bring me back to Skippy. You know, normally, if I heard a Hedonism DJ had got it in the head I'd be celebrating right now. Arranging an after-hours party. Getting the Dodger to scam some Brut. I mean, I dream of dee jays dying.
You know how some people think up sexual fantasies to get them through the night? Me, I get a hard-on thinking up new ways for dee jays to meet their demise: drowning in hellish pits of molten wax, beaten to a pulp by relentless beats, crushed by the weight of their merciless cool.
They make out like bandits, pocketing several hundred bucks cash for masturbating their slabs of twelve inch vinyl over twin Technics in the ivory tower of the DJ booth, while those of us who actually work for a living -- bar backs, bus boys, bartenders and the like -- consider ourselves blessed if we can clear as much as twenty dollars in cash on top of our minimum wage on an average midweek night. Then we can go to an all night diner at five in the morning and actually eat for a change.
But Skippy's not your normal DJ. Only a few months ago, he was working alongside me and the other bus boys at the bottom of the industry's food chain, hauling crates round Hedonism all night long. He might still be there too, like I am. But Skippy knew his music. Knew it and loved it. Skippy could differentiate twelve degrees of techno even from the distant depths of the drinks cellar whereas to me it all sounds like a 747 colliding with an express train at Grand Central during rush hour. While I kept my distance from the din and worked the back bars, Skippy would bring the DJs their drinks tray and then he would linger in the booth, combining a fan's enthusiasm with an expert's knowledge, earning the DJs' friendship and trust - both usually impossible to come by and, as far as I'm concerned, ill-desired too.
The Wire took a shining to Skippy. Opposites attract and all that. Eventually The Wire let Skippy spin the first half hour of his 'Excess Yourself' Thursdays one night while I covered and lied to management about his whereabouts. Skippy was so impressive at that public audition that he was allowed to spin the opening hour every week - with management permission. Word got out that the kid had talent, that he even understood the concept of melody in a style not exactly known for it. Soon Skippy was scoring bookings at other clubs around town and at some of these weekend raves that have spread like a virus up and down the east coast and busing was but a distant memory. The coup came last month when the Count axed his mainstream Friday night dee jay and gave Skippy the night instead. Fridays. Talk about rags to riches.
I ought really to be jealous of Skippy, especially as I don't give a crap for this whole baggy jean and lollipops rave scene that's he's been trying to bring in with his Friday thing, but my boy remained so down-to-earth in the face of sudden fame that I could only feel pride instead. And hope. Skippy proved to all us bus boys, bar-backs, waitresses and the like, us who harbor dreams of acting, writing, music-making or, in my own case, painting, that we have it within us to see those dreams through.
And now he's been shot.
The cab swerves violently at 57th Street to avoid slamming into another which has hit the brakes without warning or signal to pick up a fare, and my driver leans out the window as he passes.
"Motherfucking piece of shit!" he hollers. And they say the cab drivers don't make efforts to learn English. The meter's ticking over at the right rate, though. Cabbies generally know when they've got a sucker and when they're carrying a real New Yorker.
At Mount Sinai's front desk, I encounter serious attitude as I fight for attention alongside crack addicts, street fight casualties and the occasional carrier of a genuine medical virus. It's two in the morning, which is obviously well past visiting hours, on top of which the receptionist informs me that Skippy's in intensive care and therefore not in a fit state to receive anyone. She's just like Queen Bee trotting out her favorite diss that it's a private party and you're not on the list.
"But I'm his brother," I insist. "I'm the only family he has in this city." This is not really a lie. Skippy's real blood relatives are 10,000 miles away in Sydney and I have not a clue how to find them.
The receptionist gives me a frosty look. Either she pities someone with a brother like me, or she knows I'm playing loose with the truth. That I'm wearing a t-shirt with the words Killing Joke on it probably doesn't help. All the same, she sees beyond the bullshit into my genuine concern, picks up a phone and describes the scenario. Twenty minutes emergency room purgatory later I find myself escorted through a labyrinth of corridors and elevators by a white-frocked, brown-skinned Doctor, who gives me the prognosis as we walk.
"Your 'brother' is fortunate to be alive," he says by way of introductions, in a finely clipped English devoid of emotion.
"And he was unfortunate to be shot," I reply testily, unwilling to surrender so early in the conversation. "Is he conscious?"
"No," says the Doctor. His badge identifies his name as Gurishami; his heavy accent indicates he is still new to our country. You have to wonder how bad things can be in Asia for a guy to want to come and deal with gunshot victims in New York. "No he's not." He stops walking and I stop alongside him. "He's in a coma."
"Christ. And you call that fortunate?"
"Unless you'd sooner he was dead already, then yes I do, my friend."
Touché. I think of what being in a coma means. I'm not sure I know. I'm not sure I want to. "Will he make it?" I ask simply. I'm surprised to hear my voice crack as I do.
"It's too early to say," replies the doctor. "He is suffering from cerebral hypoxia."
And all of a sudden I feel way out of my depth. I've got myself this far through sheer force of bluff but I have absolutely no clue what comes next. The Doctor recognizes as much, and resumes the lead. "The bullet has lodged on the edge of his brain, damaging the cerebral hemispheres, those which deal with cognition, and crippling the supply of oxygen. Without its fuel, the brain shuts down."
"And you can't operate?"
"I'm afraid not, my friend, no." He smiles, as if he knows the words are no comfort but he wants to show he's human. "The bullet is very delicately balanced. Had it penetrated a few millimeters further in, he would be dead already. If we operate and the bullet moves just those few millimeters...."
But then he sees what very little color I possess drain from my face and knows not to finish the sentence. We continue on our walk in silence for another half minute. Eventually he pauses outside a door, on which there is pinned a chart with speech marks around the name 'Skippy'. We both take note of it. He asks me my brother's real name.
"Sampson," I say quickly, in case he's trying to test my claims to a blood connection. "Martin." Truth is, I have no idea of Skippy's real name. No one uses them in the club world.
Gurishami writes "Sampson, Martin" down on the chart and we enter the room. I find Skippy wired to all manner of IVs pumping fluids in and out of him and hooked to a variety of monitors checking his heart rate, brain waves and no doubt sperm count in the process. It's a formidable collection of equipment and I can't help but observe the cruel irony that Skippy would be in his element if he could see himself making full use of the latest technology like this. I study what little of his usually unblemished face and blue-tinged hair I can make out behind the oxygen mask and the bandages and wonder where his mind is at. Is it in a total void, a black hole of consciousness? Is he aware enough to will himself better? Or is he instead slipping slowly towards the eternal light?
"Don't give up Skippy," I say quietly. I'm not soft, but I find myself choking back tears. The poor bastard, his life just starting, his career just kicking into gear, and suddenly he's on fucking life support.
I stand there, more or less silent and motionless while Gurishami patters around, checking readings, calling in nurses and attendants, issuing commands and demanding information. I'm glad someone knows what they're doing here. I'm tempted to ask exactly what all the bells and whistles are for, but I don't have the strength to absorb the answers. When the Doctor tells me my two minutes is up, I silently accompany him out of the room. He says he will walk me back to the elevator: understandably, the hospital is none too keen on the likes of me roaming the IC wards unaccompanied in the middle of the night.
"What happens next?"
"We watch and wait. The bullet is, we believe, only a twenty-five calibre. Hopefully, it will remain where it is, even drop back a little and the supply of oxygen will resume and his motor functions with it. Most people who come out of comas quickly return to full health."
"And those that don't come out of them quickly?"
"A day at a time, my friend. A day at a time."
"Yeah, thanks." We continue walking in glum silence until we reach the elevator that will take me back to the main foyer. A uniformed guard is standing duty inside, his gun holster brazenly on display. I offer Dr Gurishami my hand. Don't ask me why, I'm not usually prone to such behavior. He grasps it as if to offer comfort, and smiles one final time.
"One last thing," he says before he lets go. "Does your brother have health insurance?"
The fuck he does. I'm not sure I know anyone my age who does. Skippy told me that in Australia they have this thing called National Health. Dentistry, checkups, emergency treatment, ingrown toenails, abortions, births...You name it, it all gets paid for by the State. I told him it goes against the American grain to get something for nothing and he asked me why else we should be paying taxes. I liked the way he only said should.
"Sure he does," I tell the good doctor, breaking my usual ground rule regarding the truth. What are they going to do if I say no? Unplug him and leave him to die. I wouldn't put it past them.
Continue to PART C Back to PART A