One day long ago and far away, in a different land, I noticed the dreaded ‘change in bowel habits.’ Specifically, blood.
Now the land in which this takes place is late 1980’s New York, a land that was shaken to its very core by the terror of AIDS. At that time the cause was unknown nor was just how infectious or transmissible it was. There was not a day that went by that I jostled off to work on the IND line that there was not a front page—as in page A-1—story on AIDS. Anyone who had ever had sex might have been a time bomb waiting to go off. The generalized angst was pervasive, if unspoken.
Anyone who had ever been born as the result of other people having sex could have had it. Aside from the eventual and rapid death, the symptomatology of it was mysterious. Could be skin lesions, could be mouth sores, could be foot sores, could be sudden weakness. Did someone say sudden weakness and lethargy? And let us not forget the chronic diarrhea.
It gave rise to mysterious cancers in healthy people who were unlikely to get mysterious cancers. And so even though I was not gay, or Haitian, I was having diarrhea, although not chronic, and it had blood in it.
So let us just say that I am not in any way being figurative when I say that I got my sorry ass to the doctor.
The doctor sent me to another doctor, this one in a wondrous hi-tech office with chilly Nordic furniture and lots of chrome and dramatic lighting. And really beautiful women with New Jersey hair.
Soon enough—after filling out the requisite ream of forms—I was taken to an examining room. You know the kind of room. There was a chair in the room and so I sat in it. There was also a different kind of examining table than I’d ever seen, but in my alone time there in the room, I hunkered in the chair, praying, promising God, if there was one, that I would accept anything, do anything, just so long as it wasn’t AIDS.
Soon enough a stout woman with a deep Scottish accent came in to interrupt my reverie and bring me the gracious gift of a hospital gown, about which she said, Strip and put this on, will ya? And a Fleet enema. Having never used a Fleet enema before, I naturally asked her, What is this supposed to do?
She looked at me as though I was a complete moron and said, Why, it’ll make you move your bowels. She said this in such a way as to cut off conversation.
In terror, I put on the gown and followed the instructions on the bright green box. And then I sat for a while as the enema did its work.
A bit later, the doctor came in with an entourage of beautiful women with New Jersey hair. The doctor was a large, pleasant man, and he motioned to the examining table and invited me to kneel on the ledge provided for kneeling, and then bend down. When I did so, the table elevated, with my—and again, this is not figurative—sorry ass in the air. I kept thinking—One day I’m going to laugh about this.
There was talk and bustle and a little bit of gum snapping and rubber glove snapping behind me while they prepared to scope me. But just as they started the scoping, the light source in the machine burned out. The doctor explained, and one of the tall, New Jersey-haired women went looking for a light bulb. The doctor and one of the other women chatted amiably, and I could clearly hear that the door was open and there was pedestrian traffic.
Eventually, I got scoped. Then the doctor sent me to a place called the Jedi Katz Tropical Disease Laboratory to get a stool sample. This was another first for me.
I went out into the cool afternoon air and got on a bus uptown with the directions and the doctor’s orders, and in my mind pictured a similarly high tech place.
When I found it, it was anything but. It was about three rooms that looked like they hadn’t been updated since before the war—the war in this case being World War II. One room was the waiting room. The first room was a decrepit reception area slash waiting room, and a pleasant woman gave me a nice big gulp of magnesium citrate—Some people actually like the taste of it, she said and cringed. I was not one of them.
The essence of magnesium citrate is to bring on a bowel movement, or BM, as my mother used to say, as rapidly as possible. Like, totally post haste.
She pointed out the room lined with toilet stalls—When you feel the urge, she said, Just go in one of the containers, mark your name on it, and then take it back to the lab. She pointed to the lab.
I looked around at the three or four other people who were sitting there, all evidently waiting for the same natural course of events, and I sat down among them.
I had wondered how the—shall we say—logistics of going in a cup would be accomplished. I assumed, as I sat and waited, that there would be some sort of Teutonic pedestal in the toilet (or something) to hold the cup while you did your business.
Every now and again, someone would get up and disappear. I had the idea that we all ought to be cheering one another on, but we were, after all, all uptight WASPy people, and no one said much.
When it came my turn, I got up and went into a free stall. There was nothing there but a toilet, a sink, a peely tile floor and a stack of cups like you get soup in at the deli, caps for the cups, and a grease pencil to write your name.
It took me a while to work out how to hold said cup in the right place and not also soil myself.
The drill went like this: You went in the cup, marked your name on it, then took it back to the lab. A rather unpleasant woman in white who wore rubber gloves and a surgical mask took it from you, then opened it up and inspected it. She looked at my first attempt and shook her head. Mostly blood. I’ll need another.
Well, that sure was good news. I went back to my seat.
Now and again, one of us would meet her high standards and get to leave.
A good sample, she told me on my second or third trip, was mostly liquid.
And not blood.
Finally, I made the grade—and I wasn’t the last to leave. The woman at the desk gave me a tiny white tablet to counteract the magnesium citrate and wished me luck on the bus ride home.