Between Lanes by Stephen Poleskie

vintage checker cab
Vintage NYC Checker Taxi Cab by Michael Dolan. CC license.

Off to my left the dark current of the Hudson River rushed downstream at 65 mph, a magnificent sight, but at the moment my mind was concentrating on the tail lights bobbing and weaving in and out of traffic in front of me. I was somewhere in the middle of the pack, an anonymous group of motorcycle enthusiasts who met on summer evenings on Eighth Street in Greenwich Village to ride out together. Being, more or less, one of the regulars, but never the leader, I would hang around, chatting and ogling the passing chicks, as they were called back then, until it got dark and someone started their motor, and then another, until we all finally were revving our engines, ready to go to wherever we did not know. It didn’t matter though—riding was what it was all about. We never got where we said we were going anyway.

Generally finding the automobile traffic too slow, we usually rode between the lanes if we came on a line of cars that clogged up the highway, and then dodged back into a lane when one came open. This was what I was doing when I felt my rear wheel give out from under me. I must have hit a rut or pothole, or maybe gravel or oil, all hazards to a machine that depends on balance for its forward motion. The bike went down—and I went with it. I hit the pavement with my right shoulder, at the same time hearing a cracking sound. The motorcycle was away from me now, sliding along the road making sparks in the darkness where the metal parts rubbed against the pavement. Cars and trucks, and the riders behind me, were swerving to avoid my body, which was rolling down the highway.

Clad entirely in black and wearing a black helmet, and having a full dark beard, I was not the most visible of objects as I lay in the middle of the road. I had ended up between the two lanes. Vehicles honked at me and swerved when they caught sight of my figure huddled in their headlights. My first thought was to get out of the center and over to the side of the road, although there wasn’t that much more room there on this narrow, elevated highway. I tried to raise myself up, but the pain in my shoulder was too intense. I thought to crawl to the edge, but the speed at which the cars were coming up the highway made me realize that this would be all but impossible. The only thing that I could do at the moment was lie there awaiting my fate. Although it was a warm summer evening, I felt cold and began to shiver.
After what seemed like a long time, and in fact was, three riders pulled up behind me. They were from our group and, although I didn’t know their names, I did recognize their faces. They had been behind me and seen me fall. However, with nowhere to pull over, and the concrete divider making a U-turn not possible, they had to ride to the next off-ramp and backtrack under the elevated highway to the previous on-ramp so that they could come to my aid. Now they had blocked the right lane with their bikes. One of the riders was directing traffic to go around, while the second one was helping me up and to the side of the highway. This attempted movement on my part was causing the pain in my shoulder to become almost unbearable. The third man had gone down the road and was working to upright my fallen motorcycle to remove it from the traffic lanes. So far so good I thought—but what happens now?

I didn’t have much time to worry about this as no sooner had I been propped up against the side of the highway than the flashing lights of an ambulance appeared and I was loaded into the back, glad for whatever I had been given to ease the pain in my shoulder. The three riders, who I knew only by sight, assured me that they would take care of my motorcycle. I thanked them, not sure if I would ever see my beloved machine again.

So where am I now—a little bit out of it from the pain pills? The ambulance had deposited me at the emergency door of a hospital. What hospital I was not sure. A woman with a clipboard and an official appearance was asking me for my ID and insurance cards. I did have a driver’s license; however, being a self-employed, or more accurately an un-employed artist, I had no health insurance. I reached in my back pocket for my wallet, only to find that it was not there. I patted down my other pockets, an activity that caused my shoulder to hurt like hell.

What had happened to my wallet? Several possible scenarios entered my medically drugged head: it had fallen out when I went sliding down the road, the good Samaritan who had helped me up off the highway had slipped it out of my pocket and into his, or the emergency medical technician in the back of the ambulance who attended to me had claimed it as a reward for his services.

“I’m sorry, I seem to have lost my wallet, or maybe it was stolen.”

The woman with the clipboard looked at me with a frown and then wrote down—taking me at my word—the name and address I gave her. There were already three more potential patients in line behind me. “Go and wait in that room until your name is called.”

“But I am in big pain… ” I protested.

“So are the others. You will be called as soon as a doctor is available.”

The large waiting room looked rather dirty and run-down for a hospital that I had learned bore the names of both an Ivy League university and a major Protestant domination. The space held dozens of people, none of whom, on first sight, appeared to be suffering as much as I was. I adjusted the temporary sling that my arm had been put in while I was in the ambulance, and sat down, trying my best to make myself comfortable in the uncomfortable chair.

Names kept being called out, and people kept disappearing through a side door that led to the emergency ward, as new people kept coming in through the door I had entered from. Then people who had arrived after me were having their names called. I got up to ask when I might be called, just as a woman on a gurney was hustled through the room and directly into the emergency ward.
“Hey! I complained to the woman behind the desk, “I’ve been here for two hours already, how come that lady got to go right in?”

“It’s an emergency… ”

“And my broken shoulder is not an emergency?”

The police officer who had come in with the woman on the gurney and was now standing at the desk shuffling papers was happy to fill me in. “She’s got a broken beer bottle up her snatch… she’s bleeding severely.”

“A broken beer bottle!… ”

“Yeah, it’s Friday night, the lady said that she and her boyfriend were just fooling around. Some people know how to have fun.”

It was early evening. She was the first of a parade that soon became an avalanche: gunshot wounds, muggings, beatings, rape victims, most accompanied by a police officer or two, and all apparently more in need of assistance than me. I sat there suffering silently.

And then my name was called; I stood up and the lady at the desk pointed to the emergency ward entrance. As I walked toward the door, I could feel my body shivering. I thought at first that it must be the air conditioning, and then I realized that my body was shaking with the pain.

On the other side of the door my world speeded up considerably. No more waiting in silence. Two nurses immediately jumped on me; one inserting a thermometer in my mouth, and the other pumping up a blood pressure cuff on my arm; while asking me what my problem was—a question I tried to answer without dropping the little glass tube from my mouth. No sooner had they begun than they were finished and I was sent through another door.

I got to sit down for only a few minutes before a nurse came for me to take me down the hall to a different room. There a doctor removed my temporary sling, and poked and prodded at the shoulder I had been holding together for the past three hours. He stood me up in front of an X-ray machine, which clicked and hummed a few times. Then a nurse came and took me back to the room I had just come from.

After what seemed like a short waiting time, as compared to my previous long waiting times, another nurse came and led me to yet another room.

“Well, I’ve got good news for you, John,” the doctor said, addressing me by my first name after looking down at his chart. He was pointing at an X-ray image hanging on a screen. “Your shoulder is not broken.”

“It’s not, so why does it hurt so much?”

“It’s your clavicle that is broken… the bone connecting your sternum with your scapula.”

“My clavicle?… ”

“Your collarbone.”

“So are you going to set it?”

“We can’t set collarbones. Well we can, but you would have to be in a body cast and stay in in the hospital lying down for six weeks while the bone heals. That wouldn’t be practical.”

“So what are you going to do?”

“I’ll fit you with a new sling for your arm, and give you a prescription for painkillers, and then you can go home,” the doctor said smiling at me as if I should be happy with this information.

“Go home! You mean I’m not going to stay in the hospital overnight. I’m in pain, and it’s late, and my wallet has been stolen and I have no money for a taxi, and I live all the way downtown, on the lower East Side… ”

I was in a bit of a panic, but before I knew it my sling was fitted, a prescription, and some sample pills, handed to my good hand and, I was out on the street. I had explained my problem to several of the hospital staff; however, no one seemed willing to offer me any assistance. It was Friday night in Harlem they kept saying, the Emergency Ward’s busiest time of the week.

Standing in front of the hospital, the warm air outside seemed a relief after the cold inside. My plan was to hail a cab and explain to the driver that if he took me to a certain bar just off Union Square, where I was known and a friend of the owner, who I was sure would lend me some money, I could pay him the fare, which was going to be a tidy sum, and promised a generous tip.

But getting a cab to stop for a bearded white man, with long hair and wearing black leathers with his arm in a sling, on a busy Friday night in Harlem was not easy and, when one did pull over, as soon as I began to recite my request the driver would speed away.

It was getting cold. Or was I just shaking again from the pain? I had already chewed down most of the painkillers that they had given me inside. Cabs kept passing me by, either full, or flashing their “off duty” light when they saw me. I was beginning to feel weak, dizzy, I sensed myself falling. I was lying on a beach in the Bahamas, or was it Fire Island?

A boot kick in my back brought me back to the real world. I was lying on the pavement in Harlem. A member of the NYPD was shining a flashlight in my face. Another kick was applied to my backside.

“Get up you hippy scumbag! You can’t sleep here on the sidewalk.”

I staggered to a sitting position, raising myself with my left arm as best as I could. The officer wanted my ID, which I didn’t have and so had to go through my whole story all over again. Sensing a problem a second officer had gotten out of the police car.

“Why won’t the asshole stand up?”

“He says he can’t get up… his collarbone is broken.”

“Stand up when we talk to you,” the second officer said. Being much bigger than me, he grabbed me by my good arm and wrenched me upright. Then, he dragged me across the sidewalk and hitched me by my jacket to some wrought iron fencing that seemed to have been put there to decorate the hospital entrance. “So if your collar bone is broken… why aren’t you in the hospital?”

I told my story yet again. The officers didn’t believe me, and asked me to repeat it. I got the feeling that they were content just chatting with me here and not having to go off to chase after more serious crimes. As I felt that we were becoming friendly I risked asking them a favor: “As I said, I’ve been standing here for quite a while and not been able to get a cab to pick me up. Maybe you guys could drive me somewhere, out of Harlem, to a cab stand or someplace where I can get a cab?”

“What! You want us to drive you somewhere! Are you nuts or something? Police officers aren’t allowed to give rides to civilians.”

With that they got back into their cruiser and departed; leaving me standing there still hooked to the fence. All I could do was flail my good arm at passing cabs, and I was at the back of the sidewalk, not on the curb. No one even slowed down. There were no people passing in the street, visiting hours were over. All the action was at the back of the hospital where the emergency entrance was.

And then the unexpected happened, a cab pulled up to the curb just in front of me. The rear door opened and a woman got out.
“Wait! Miss… hold that cab,” I shouted, tearing myself loose from the fence and running to the curb. To my surprise, the driver did not flee.

“Where do you want to go?” the driver asked, eying me suspiciously.

“Downtown… ”

“How far down?”

“Union Square… ”

“Okay, hop in.”

“First,” I said, leaning into his open window so he would not pull away, “I’ve got to tell you I have no money.” I then quickly described my situation and explained my plan, to which he surprisingly agreed.

On the way down the cabbie revealed to me that he lived on the lower East Side, and normally worked the downtown, but had gotten three fares, each one taking him farther uptown. He had just about decided to turn on his “off duty” sign and head back downtown with an empty cab. He was as happy to find me as I was to find him.

We didn’t say anymore to each other for about ten blocks, and then the driver asked me: “So how come if you live downtown, you were way up in Harlem coming out of a hospital with no wallet.”

I told him my story, the whole thing—the riders, the West Side Highway, the spill, my experience in the hospital, all the cabs that passed me by.

“You know,” I said the thought just coming into my head, “You were the first white cabbie that I saw, and you stopped.”

“And I’m glad I did, you told me an interesting story… do you mind if I write it down?”

“Now?… ” The man was weaving in and out of lanes of traffic.

“No… I mean later. I’m a kind of writer. I’d like to use your material as a short story, like I’d change things a little, and not use your real name. I mean, I don’t even know your name… ”

“Go ahead. I’d be interested to read it when it’s published.”

“Well, that’s the thing. It probably will never be in print. You see I’m not a very well known writer. So I rarely get anything accepted… even though I send a lot of things around. I have published a few stories though; in small literary magazines. I’m working on a novel.”

“So we have something in common then,” I replied. “I’m a not-very-well-known artist. I’ve been in a few group shows, and had a show at a small gallery downtown. People say that my work is very good—but unfortunately it’s not very fashionable right now.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean… ”
We drove the rest of the way in silence.

Stephen Poleskie
Stephen Poleskie’s writing has been published in the USA, the UK, Germany, Italy, Mexico, India and Australia. His artwork is in the collections of numerous museums, including The Metropolitan and the MoMA in NYC.

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