Yesterday I had a basal cell removed from the left side of the bridge of my nose. I’d detected the cell myself, pointed it out to the dermatologist who said it was probably nothing. I told her I’d only felt this particular intermittent pin-prick of pain twice before, on the other side of my nose, and each time it had been a basal cell. The pore eventually bleeds and then it is easy enough to detect. By then, past experience shows, a skin graft is needed after the basal cells and surrounding skin are removed. The dermatologist told me she’d never known a patient to diagnose a basal cell, took a precautionary biopsy, which hurt like hell, and later called with the bad news– it was indeed a basal cell. She sent me to a surgeon.
The surgeon who operated yesterday was a diminutive red-haired woman whose card identifies her as “Director of the Comprehensive Skin Cancer, Director of Dermatologic Surgery, Dermatology Department.” She too expressed surprise that I’d been able to feel the presence of the basal cell at such an early stage. She assured me that since it had been detected so early only a tiny line of stitches, and no skin graft, would be required to close the wound. I’ll take my good news wherever it can be had these days. No skin off behind my ear.
During the surgery, my eyes shielded from the high intensity light by a towel draped over them, she asked me what I did for a living. I borrowed the phrase of a former judge friend (who always claimed it was my line), to tell her and two other doctors, and their nurse, that I was a “recovering lawyer”.
I briefly described my subsistence law practice, defined subsistence for the nurse who was unfamiliar with the word (“like a farmer who grows just enough to pay the rent on his land and feed his family”) and was praised for my noble work protecting the city’s most vulnerable from eviction, a compliment I shrugged off sincerely as they were burning and cutting my nose.
“If the smell bothers you, breathe through your mouth for a minute,” said the surgeon as the waft of seared flesh hit my nostrils.
In response to the follow up about what I am doing now I told them that I am writing a book about the remarkable life of my father.
“How is it remarkable?” asked the surgeon, poking unseen at the basal cell. I felt only minor pressure, after the painful injections of lidocaine.
A canny self-promoter would have had the canned thirty second elevator pitch talking points ready to go. Always be selling, the mantra of the salesman. If you have talent, sell it, otherwise you are a failure. I paused for a second and said:
“He worked in the Human Relations Unit of the Board of Education in the sixties and early seventies, intervening in schools where there had been race riots.”
Everyone was very impressed, by the sound of their collective reaction. It didn’t occur to me then that the life of every individual is remarkable, for uncountable reasons. We are trained from birth, in a commercial society like our own, to believe that some lives are remarkable, the life of a baby born a billionaire, for example, a baby!, while others, well… the only remarkable thing is that these determined fucks hang on for as long as they do.
I described to them some of the things I learned researching my father’s life. I told them that there were no child labor laws in the U.S. until my father was twelve, that, but for the worldwide Depression, he could have been legally employed as a chimney sweep or something. I described the NYC Division of Human Rights’ report on an early seventies riot in a Brooklyn High School that my father and his team had been called in on afterwards.
That report, I told them, would be unimaginable today. It was a candid and detailed search for the causes and solutions of the tensions that led to the riot. There was no blame or finger pointing, there was no agenda, except to try to honestly understand the dynamics and solve the problem that led to the violence.
“Did they solve the violence?” one of the doctors asked, foolishly.
“My father would take the gang leaders off for sensitivity training and he said the rivals often became friends, or at least no longer enemies. Peace would reign at the school, until those kids graduated and their little brothers and sisters began stabbing and shooting each other.”
Then I went into the domain that makes the man truly remarkable in my eyes. This part of my answer they were neither prepared for, nor particularly interested in. I reasoned, if it can be called that, that they had asked me a question and I was doing my best to answer it. That the question had been asked out of mere politeness, and for the purpose of having me talk as another way of measuring whether I was experiencing any pain during the surgery, did not occur to me then.
“One remarkable thing is that this idealistic peacemaker, sensitivity trainer and advocate of social justice was called the Dreaded Unit by his children. He had this bottomless reservoir of anger, which is, in a way, hard to reconcile with his social conscience, although, blah blah blah….”
I rattled on in this manner for a while, telling them of the pseudo-closure of the last night of his life conversation, and then summed up, saying the ms. was now almost 1,100 pages and that I was going to try to sell it and have it published. They were even more clueless than I am as to how one goes about doing this. I explained that I need to find a literary agent, who would then shop it to publishers. I’d prepare a sample of the book, send it out in hopes of interesting an agent.
“You might have a black eye,” said the surgeon, which sounded about right. She explained that since the basal cell was close to my eye, blood from the operation might show up in the eye. I’d heard it metaphorically as well. They will beat the fuck out of you, and make you wait, panting and full of dread, before they finally finish taking care of you.
An hour or so later I was roused from my drowsing in the waiting room with the good news that only the one slice would be necessary, that they could stitch me up now.
Back in the operating room I had another painful poke in the nose with a needle. The doctor explained that many people would not need additional lidocaine for the stitches. The next injection was also painful, as was the one after it. I winced meaningfully. The doctor’s next question surprised me.
“Did you have red hair when you were a kid?”
I told her it had been dirty blond, but my beard had always been red (it’s now white). She told me she thought she saw some red in the mustache. People with red hair, it turns out, have more sensitive skin and it’s much harder to anesthetize them for dermatologic surgery. A person with dark hair, apparently, would probably still be good with the lidocaine injected an hour earlier. Another injection, another stoic, but determined wince from me.
The notes they sent me home with a few minutes later told me I could expect mild discomfort and that I should take tylenol for it. I was already experiencing some pain before I even left the hospital, it was beyond mild discomfort. The nurse gave me two tylenols. By the time I got home, twenty minutes later, the pain was excruciating.
Sekhnet stood crying in the local pharmacy as I called the doctor twice to get a prescription for pain medication sent over. The bridge of my nose felt like a snake had just finished biting it over and over. I was told the doctor was in surgery. I told the receptionist that it was irresponsible for a doctor to send a patient home in pain without pain medication. After a little less than an hour from my first call the prescription reached the pharmacy and Sekhnet rushed back with the pills in hand. A half hour later I had some relief.
An extroverted L.A. lunatic named Larry Fisher spent some time in mental hospitals. When he was not institutionalized he’d sing songs for change on the street, often making them up on the spot, custom jobs for a quarter or fifty cents. Frank Zappa ran into him, liked the guy and produced an album called “An Evening With Wild Man Fisher.” Interesting work, this double album (if I recall correctly). At the end of the record Frank asks Larry, from the control room, “what’s the matter, Larry, don’t you like making records?”
Wild Man Fisher says “they’re all fucking bastards, Frank, they’re all fucking bastards.”