As some of you may recall, this blog has granted full journalistic credentials to comic book writer (now Tulane student) Neil Hendrick. Recently, Neil had the opportunity to visit the free medical clinic that was set up at Audubon Zoo. After you read his account (see below) you’ll know that when people say that the medical system here is a zoo they mean it quite literally. I think it was Tom Wolfe who said in the mid-1980s that the challenge of writing fiction had become extremely difficult, namely because truth had indeed become stranger than anything that could be conjured up in one’s imagination. Neil’s story about visiting the zoo to get medical care proves that point quite forcefully.
I regret that I have no photographs to support this missive from the strange, strange land that is Post Disaster New Orleans…I am afraid that this story lacks verisimilitude, that you will believe that I am not being straight with you, embellishing and fabricating where things lack the luster of fantasy. I hope that you can look back on other stories, of volcanoes and wild dogs, the quack throw downs and bacchanal events that I have illustrated in the past, and have faith in your humble narrator. I am a magnet for the phantasmagoric, or the reverse, I am drawn like iron filings to the lodestone of the weird, and have no need to make things up. It is hard enough for me to believe in these things myself, but I rub my eyes and pinch myself and can only believe the input of my eyes and ears and conclude that this is just the shape of the world, that it is always and ever stranger than fiction.
Mostly, things are very boring for me. This, I don’t mind, "I am a Zen monk" I tell myself. "It’s good to be alone" I say. "I am the caretaker of a quiet mind, I am a pool of water, I am a stone." These are things I tell myself during the long and tedious hours I spend studying and doing homework now that I am a student for the first time in 13 years. There are reading assignments which add up to hundreds of pages a week, there are writing assignments. Research. What do you want to know about the Oil Market in Syria? Ask me, and I will tell you that by 2012 Syria will be a net importer of crude oil (It’s not their fault, they just don’t have that much oil, they aren’t even in OPEC.) Do you want to know about Hegemony? About the World Trade Organization? I am pretty good at this kind of thing. Comic books have made me a terrific researcher (really, my stuff is very well researched). I make a thing about it, being used to writing pulp fiction, I find that I can inject a little bit of whimsy into even the most dreary topic. Last week, I deconstructed the international political and economic system through the eyes of Rudyard Kipling. You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din. I can read a U.N. Human Development Report and turn it into a dirty limerick, or critique the World Trade Organization in Haiku.
People Shouldn’t have to be
Slaves for Pepsi Co.
OK, not very good Haiku. But this is my life, chained to my desk most of every day. Once a day, I walk across the street and go to the Jewish Community Center (where I am a member in good standing) and go for a workout and then a nice schvitz. Once a week, I go over to Tulane campus and go to class where we talk about all these kinds of things (though not in Haiku). It’s Mardis Gras season, but I don’t have time to go to parades and that kind of thing. Maybe if I get a little ahead of things. I make coffee at home and interface with my laptop. There is a room in my apartment I haven’t even been in in a week. (no, not the bathroom…it’s the living room, which would be more aptly named "room with a couch and bookshelf"). I work on comic books and it’s more fun than studying, so I kind of look at it as my entertainment. I don’t have a TV. Boring maybe, but nice, and it is after all, what I wanted. So, when something strange comes up and I can make time for it, I do. This last week, during my narrow window of contact with other humans, when I am in class with the other students of International Political and Economic Relations, two and a half hours of lively debate, Tim Grant mentioned that he had just come from the Zoo.
You may remember that I volunteered on a project to survey the population of New Orleans, going door to door in ruined neighborhoods. Tim Grant is one of the guys who put the project together. He is also in my class. He had just come from Audubon Zoo, which had been transformed, in these strange times, into a giant free field hospital for the people of New Orleans whose doctors are not coming back to this disaster zone. There just aren’t any doctors around. Most of the hospitals were destroyed and only one or two have re-opened. The emergency rooms are swamped even just trying to keep the reduced population from coming apart at the seams. (note: don’t come here for Mardis Gras without a reasonably complete first aid kit) One of the hospitals I know will never re-open, it is so full of mold it will never be surgical again, total tear down.
Audubon Zoo was damaged by the storm, but the animals almost all survived. They lost like a couple otters or something. (You would think it would be something that couldn’t swim, but I think it was otters, go figure.) The New Orleans aquarium did not fare so well, where, in the absence of electricity, all the fish went belly up. At the Zoo, the fences and stuff were kind of ripped up, the Simian habitat was decimated, but fortunately after they had all been moved to a new area. I remember in December it re-opened a couple days a week, but I had not bothered to go. One day, this is even earlier in November when I didn’t even know Audubon Zoo was down there, I’m riding my bike around uptown, just sort of goofing (this is before school started…how I miss those carefree refugee days at large in the world, my pockets stuffed with FEMA money). I nearly fell off the Canondale (again…can you believe I don’t even wear a helmet?) when I look up and there are these Giraffes staring at me. Giraffes, you know, yellow spotted horses with great long neck, monsters of the African Savannah, and I’m in downtown New Orleans just riding around and wondering what I’m going to run into, I would have been less surprised to see Voo Doo priests raising Zombies from above ground cemeteries, Papa Guede and the Spider Loa, anything but Giraffes. Five of them. One is staring at me. And two of them…two of them are screwing. If I didn’t spend all my time alone, I could have gone up to someone and said, "Hey, you know what I saw today? Giraffes. Screwing." As it was, all I could say was, "Huh. Don’t see that every day." The Giraffes were behind a fence, but they are way taller than the fence, and the screening was kind of ripped up so I could see inside their enclosure. I assumed that it was the zoo and inside were all kinds of other animals and one day I would see them.
Fast forward a couple months and I hear about the Zoo being turned into a free hospital. I will elide here much speculation as to why the Zoo, why not a conference center or Tulane campus, or anyplace without giant piles of mega fauna feces? Let us all simply accept that this is New Orleans, and it is as far out and weird as you can be and no one was likely to say, "The Zoo? No no no. Medical care and crap flinging primates don’t go together." We will accept the fact that the Zoo was chosen. I decide that I should go and get some medical care.
I haven’t been to a doctor in years. I am not even sure when the last time was…but I think it might have been more than ten years ago…and then not because I was sick but because I needed vaccinations for going to India. Tetanus, gamma globulin, Hep A, Hep B. I can literally not remember the last time I needed a doctor for medical care. There have been times I ended up in the emergency room, childhood accidents and illnesses, but I will tell you that it’s not just me…the Hendrick children are all remarkably durable. I have never broken a bone…even when I was smashed by a car (this was in college) so hard that people thought for sure I was dead. I went to the hospital, X-rays and all, but I walked out of there. I think my brothers Ray and Gary have had some minor fractures. Jeannie had a complicated birth recently, but it all worked out. We are all made of tough stuff, and don’t think it’s because we lead safe lives. Anything but, we are all inclined to the most reckless kinds of behavior, dangerous employ, violent recreation. I myself have dove off of cliffs into untested waters, climbed mountains, braved sub-freezing environments, tropical disease, politically unstable nations, I mouth off to strangers, laugh at big drunken assholes. And I am a wimp compared to Ray who spends much of his time around live machine guns. We were made for a more dangerous world. So, I don’t really NEED to go to the doctor. But I do fall down a lot, and I am often around things that are sharp and rusty…New Orleans being strewn with crap. I could use a Tetanus booster. Also, I could go to the Dentist, it’s been a while.
I go down one morning to the Zoo. Nine a.m., got my coffee from Cafe Luna on Magazine St. There’s a line a hundred yards long and five people thick, so I think better of it. The next day, I wake up at 5:30 a.m. (Yes, you layabouts, there is also a 5:30 in the morning, not just one at night) and I’m in line by six. No coffee or breakfast, but thank goodness the Mayoral candidates are working the crowd, buying votes with donuts. Krispy Kreme, glazed, no jellies. I am voting for Mike Hammer, because he gave me a donut when I was hungry, and because he is named exactly like the Mickey Spillane character which I still remember the TV show. ("Hey, we’re gonna Nail you!" says the mafia thug. BAM! the detective punches the bad guys lights out and says, "I do the nailing around here, that’s why they call me Hammer.") So, I wait in line for a solid two hours. Close to 8am, I am just getting to the front gate of the Zoo, where they are letting people in in groups of ten. My group is next. Me, two other Tulane students (serendipity) and a group of African Americans who have been talking about food for the whole two hours. We kind of had fun waiting in line. There is a lady sort of organizing people as they get ready to actually go inside the Zoo. People are asking her questions. Do they have any OB/GYNs? What if I need glasses but I don’t have my prescription?
"Excuse me…" I say. The lady comes over to me with that helpful earnest look on her face. "I want to get a liposuction and some pectoral implants, are the lines very long for that?" Remarkably, I was not asked to leave, though she did suggest I go for the Botox injections while I’m here. They let us in to the Zoo.
Inside, there are all these tents. Oh, also, it’s a Zoo, so there are statues of Komodo dragons and gorillas and all that kind of Disney world side-walkery and Ye Olde Worlde hokey pokey kid’s stuff around. And tents. And volunteers in the Hundreds. I mean, this is a big operation, not some rinky dink school nurse with a box of band-aids and an aspirin. There’s a whole setup with computer networks where they take your info and put you into the computer and give you some printouts and direct you to where you want to go. I ask for the dentist, and this girl tells me, "Up that way and turn right at the Elephants." She actually says this by way of telling me how to get to the Dentist. Turn right at the Elephants. There is a whole triage tent set up where they are supposed to take your blood pressure and ask you if you are allergic to penicillin, etc. I am supposed to do that first, but I just totally skip is due to the aforementioned unbreakability factor, and that I am not going to visit the proper doctor. Just the dentist, which is really more of a tradesman, don’t you think? There’s no diagnosis or anything, hole in tooth, fill hole. Nothing to it, so I skip the triage and follow the signs to the elephant exhibit.
True enough, there they are, two Asian elephants. These are different than African type elephants, that have bigger ears. I know this because I stopped and read the sign while I was on my way to see the dentist. In the Zoo. When I say that I went to see the Dentist, I really saw one of a hundred dentists who were set up in a cluster of M*A*S*H tents in the area between the elephant exhibit (Asian elephants, so it was all done up like a Cambodian temple) and the Bug House. Just so you know, there weren’t any bugs there at the time. I don’t know what they did with them.The otters probably got in there and gorged themselves and died from exotic bug poison. I wait in line for a while and eventually get into a handy dandy portable folding dentist chair (no doubt the hot item in next years Sharper Image) and the dentist has a quick look, but it is basically me making the diagnosis, this tooth have hole, you fixy…fix hole in tooth. He sends me for X-rays.
The X-rays are actually in an annex of the Bug House, so I am inside for the first time. This doesn’t last long as there are too many people and they have to push us out to wait on the sidewalk, but I was in there for a good hour with two X-ray machines going full freaking tilt, spraying rads all over everyone all himbly pimbly. You’ve been to the dentist where they take your X-rays and they give you this lead mu-mu to wear and then the dentist and the whole staff get into a lead bunker like it’s the Manhattan Project at White Sands testing ground. This is nothing like that. Everyone is in this room and they are just zapping one person after another with no worries. When I finally get my X-ray, they don’t even bother with the lead apron, they just hammer me with cesium 136 electrons and print out my teeth on this portable printer. I look at the X-ray and I’m like, "Wrong tooth, guy, this is the wrong tooth." The guy looks at my paperwork and looks at me. He looks at the X-ray print-out and looks at me. He looks at the other doctor. I say, "I’m not waiting in line again." So they hit me with another X-ray. With any luck, I will end up with super mutant powers out of this. I wasn’t going to have kids anyway, I guess. At this point all I’ve eaten all day is a donut, I’ve been in line since dawn, I haven’t had any coffee, I’m irradiated like Hiroshima, and the whole place smells like Rhino poop. They could put me in a cyclotron and I wouldn’t care.
Back to first dentist, who confirms that, duh, I need a filling and sends me to yet another line. During these waiting periods, I read much of Robert Silverberg’s "Dying on the Inside" and sci-fi book printed in 1953 that I found in a dumpster full of books a couple months ago. It’s not very good, and it’s so old that as I read each page, it peels off the ancient glue. It passes the time. I have been in line for a total of 7 hours by the time I am actually getting medical treatment. It’s free, so fine. I am one of the lucky ones, I don’t have to sit outside, albeit under a tent, and have my teeth drilled. My dentist is set up in the Bug House proper. Like all the dentists here, he is a volunteer. He’s here from Ohio, who knows where everyone else is from, but all the assistants, the hygienists, the OB/GYNs, the Doctors, the Nurses, the girl who puts your name in the computer, everyone is volunteers. They can see about 1500 people a day. They pull teeth, give shots, checkups, treat asthma, prescribe medication. At night, they sleep in tents out past the emu enclosure. In the morning, people show up at 4am. Sometimes it takes days to get the treatment you need. My seven hours is no big whoop. I just want to mention here, I don’t know where else to put it, but if you needed glasses, they would diagnose your prescription and make your glasses right there (in about an hour, hah!) but the optometry is set up way over in the Africa section with the simians and giraffes, so to get there, you had to get on the little tram shaped like a choo-choo and be trucked over there. CHOO CHOOOOOOOOOOO!
Anyway, what happens is just like going to the regular dentist…if every dentist in town was in the same room and there were posters of bugs on the walls. But they have all the tools and stuff. He looks at my X-rays, asks me questions while my mouth is full of gear, makes jokes. He looks at my tooth. "I hate this tooth" he says. "It’s hard to work on." I tell him he can put the filling wherever he wants. The dental assistant is fascinated to hear that I write comic books (she asks, I don’t tell people unless they ask me, for obvious reasons). Her husband writes political satire. We’re bonding. The dentist, Dr. Mark, likes me cause I’m funny or something. He says so. "I like this guy" he says. Also, I have a very dashing orange scarf and I am finding that people like you if you have a nice scarf. How would I know this before, I’m from Florida? Anyway, he takes extra care with my filling. Going for some extra cosmetic touches, uses the non-fluoridated pumice, and the special bonding agent. He’s talking to himself like, "Oh yeah, this is going to be so Hollywood…I’m going to sculpt this a little…yeah, give me that special…yeah, Hollywood." We’re done in half an hour and I am free to leave, face half numb, with my new Hollywood filling in my upper right bi-cuspid.
Seven and a Half hours, I’ve been in this Zoo hospital. I can’t bear to wait in another line. I decide to forego the tetanus shot (what could go wrong?) but there is no line for the acupuncture (wonder why?) and so I sit down and an acupuncturist pushes needles into my face. Half my face is numb from Novocain, so this is not as scary as you think, and most of the needles are pushed into my ears, which are kind of cold anyway because we are just sitting in chairs under the clear blue sky, not even a tent over us. For twenty minutes or so I sit there and let my Chi get realigned with my Chakras. It is really pretty relaxing, after the chaos of getting into the Bug House Dental Clinic, being irradiated and everything. When the needles come out, I am content to wander around the Zoo for a while. I see the Pachyderms again on the way out, some peacocks, tapirs prancing silly around their pen, I have a chat with the Emu, who seemed lonely, and visit the flamingos. For a while, I watch an Orangutan doing an amazing circus worthy act in his rope and ladder habitat while the Capuchins hoot next door. And then the Capuchins remind me that I haven’t had any coffee all day and I can get a cappuccino at Cafe Luna if I bother to leave the Zoo.
That’s the story, does it press the very borders of believability? I swear, it is all true, and I am only sorry I didn’t think to bring my camera. This place is weird, I’m telling you…it isn’t me, it’s the world around me. Move here, come visit, at least call me on the phone; it’s strange days for sure, but you are welcome at my home should you want to come visit. We’ll go to Jacque Imo’s famous restaurant for his delicious alligator cheesecake, we’ll ride the streetcar down Canal st., we’ll get behind some cocktails at Miss Mae’s Honky Tonk, we’ll ride bikes over to Audubon and look at the Giraffes over the fence, and like I said before, I have an extra room for your comfort, filled with looted loot, comic books, and a futon. Mi casa es su casa.
Love & Stuff,
p.s. Alright, it hardly seems right to send you off without a single image, so I am including here, the graph I created to analyze the Oil Market in Syria, I’m sure you will all see how production is dropping and consumption is rising, and soon the two will meet and Syria won’t have any more oil to export.
Then they are screwed!