The waiting room was a dingy mustard color. A simple table-lamp cast a sullen glow upon the old chairs along the wall. Congested and coughing, I wondered if the veil of mist which had a faint eucalyptus odor was a product of my imagination…perhaps a film noir set.
A young woman emerged, matter of factly took my name and vanished.
“I wonder if I did the right thing coming here,” I worried. According to a fellow singer who referred me, most of NY’s vocalists from Liza Minnelli to Fredericka Von Stade brought their head colds, laryngitis and bronchial infections to be treated by Dr. Eugen Grabscheid.
Forced proximity, courtesy of the excellent but overcrowded public transportation system and the resultant constant exposure to one another’s germs may have a bracing effect upon the immune system of NYC’s residents. However there seems to be a collective breakdown around both the winter holidays and the “dog days” of summer when everyone succumbs.
My particular cold was in its third month; having begun as a sinus infection it pressed on to my larynx and was now settling into my chest. This was my norm, since as a performer I could afford neither health insurance nor a typical doctor’s fee. I had come to view my biennial “bugs” as annoying relatives who periodically came to stay; one simply had to put up with them until they left or one of you died.
“Rrr – oh – behrr – ta – vayhn!” boomed a voice in a thick Viennese accent. Startled, I froze momentarily, my feverish eyes trying to focus; “Rrr – oh – behrr – ta – vayhn!” commanded the voice again.
“I’m coming,” I replied meekly, scrambling down the hallway. Enveloped in fog, tall and silver-haired, stood Dr. Grabscheid. He was in his late 70’s, slim but for a bowling-ball belly. Erect as a general, the doctor had a peculiar gait consisting of baby- steps which made him resemble a large wind-up toy in a lab coat. Wordlessly, he led me down a hallway papered with autographed publicity photos. There was a poster signed by the entire cast of “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” whose inscription read, “To Grabby, without whose care the show would not have gone on!”
Dr. Grabscheid’s examination room was part 19th century apothecary, part antique shop. Photos of the championship German Shepherds he raised were displayed on the wall and atop his old wooden desk. A tall walnut cupboard with glass doors and shelves held large jars full of candy colored pills, syringes and assorted steel implements. Selecting a tool, Dr. G. sterilized it over the flame of a Bunsen burner. “Open,” he said; “Say EEEE…” He peered into my swollen red/throat. “Say AAAH… say OOOH.” All I could manage was a feeble squeak.
“Yuk!” said Dr. Grabscheid with satisfaction. “Komme dis vay.! As I followed him down the hall the mist hanging in the air seemed to increase. My congested state made me feel as if I were buried in a mountain of mashed potatoes; viewing a distorted world through a telescope. All the same, I was unprepared for the treatment room. The glaring sun pouring in through the windows facing East Ninety-Sixth Street temporarily blinded me. Gradually, I could see the room’s contents were arranged in concentric circles (“like Dante’s cantos,” I thought). On the floor piled against the walls were stacks of thick medical texts with titles printed in German Black-Letter.
In-between two of the piles was a peculiar beige cabinet which looked like it belonged in Thomas Edison’s workshop. On it were several knobs and dials along with an adjustable arm, similar to a dentist’s light, at the end of which was a metal cap-like device. A patient would sit with their back towards the cabinet. The machine’s arm was extended over the patient so that the “cap” could cover his or her forehead, like an egg cup turned sideways. Dr. Grabscheid would fiddle with the knobs, set a timer and leave. One experienced a warm, not unpleasant feeling within one’s scull. No one knew what “the head machine” as we called it, actually did; as far as I knew, no one was brave enough to ask.
Farther into the room’s center sat a large circle of miserable-looking musician types. The chairs, garish orange or turquoise plastic things, were right out of a 1950’s beauty parlor. Each patient had been given a small bubbling tank, from which protruded a hose. On the other end was a mouthpiece, the idea being for the patient to inhale mentholated vapor deeply into the lungs. This caused, however, a good deal of gasping and coughing, which allowed the steam to escape into hallways and the upper reaches of the room where it formed a small cloud.
In the middle of the room was a rather rumpled-looking bed. Dr. G. bade me lie down, covering most of me with the largest heaviest heating pad I had ever seen. “Stage center,” in a room full of strangers with the life being pressed out of me I fell instantly asleep. After what seemed like only minutes, I was awakened and repositioned in the circle of water pipes.
Whenever Dr. G shuffled out of the room the patients exchanged gossip about fellow performers, shows, auditions and a new virus that had begun to affect the gay community. Then the talk would inevitably shift to who would treat us if “Grabby” died. Vulnerable, superstitious, often hypochondriac, performers are understandably paranoid regarding their bodies. They form unflinching loyalties to their physicians. I learned that in NYC there were, at that time, three doctors to whom the performing community turned. All were in their late 70s & 80s. Stories of how each had gotten someone famous back up onstage were the stuff of urban legend.
“So,” I croaked to the corpulent soprano on my right, temporarily removing my water pipe, “Who will treat us when Dr. G. is gone? I mean, do you know of anyone else?”
“Oh my GOD!” She replied in a dramatic and congested stage whisper, “There is no one. NO ONE like him.”
“Do you know whose doctor Grabby was?” the beautiful blonde boy on my left asked conspiratorially, “Wait for it.. Marilyn Monroe!”
Nods all around the circle; I was about to point out that Marilyn Monroe’s voice had always sounded like something was wrong with it when Dr. G. re-entered, removed my water pipe and commanded, “Komme!” I stood up, swaying. Inhaling whatever was in that pipe had made me feel high. I wobbled along behind like a penguin following him back into the examination room. Dr. G. opened the cabinet door. He hesitated briefly, and then chose a syringe. My heart sank.
“Drop ‘em,” he said, pointing to my jeans. As I bent over for the shot, I noticed the door wasn’t closed. Across the hall another patient was nonchalantly dressing herself. Catching her attention, Dr. G announced, “Diss is the beautiful famous lady, Chita Rivera”! Hearing her name, this youthful-looking woman smiled broadly and waved to me as though greeting bare-bottomed fans was a common occurrence. I smiled weakly and waved back.
While I pulled up my pants, Dr. G. re-opened the cabinet, removing a jar filled with what appeared to be orange and yellow jellybeans. He scooped out a fistful and poured them into my cupped hands, “Tetracycline,” I noted, disappointed.
“Tree times per day,” said the doctor; “I see you again in tree weeks”! I stood, bemused, holding the pills.
“May I…may I have a cup or an envelope?” I asked hopefully, dropping a few pills.
“See the receptionist. Tree weeks,” he said dismissively, showing me the door. He was already bellowing the name of his next patient as I left.
To my surprise, the receptionist was a woman in her twenties, an Opera singer herself. I had expected someone older and more fearsome. Throughout my visit (including the foggy waiting room part), she and Dr. Grabscheid had exchanged insults shouting enthusiastically down the halls at each other.
“Slacker!” She handed me an envelope for my pills. “He wants to see you in three weeks,” she said; “You want Monday or Wednesday?”
I handed her my check for thirty dollars, a big chunk of change for me, but about a third of what most New York City’s doctors charged. Dr. Grabscheid knew few of us had health insurance. He made us return two or three times, so in the end each cold cost us about what we’d have had to pay another doctor but for three times the care. He cured us. Got us back on stage. We trusted him entirely and knew he loved us back. Over time I, too, became one of his loyal patients who would never dream of going to another physician while I lived in Manhattan. Besides, what other doctor had ever even heard of a “head machine?”
She has been published in The RavensPerch online magazine five times and Intrinsick online magazine SLAB magazine, Blueline Literary Journal, and Colere Literary magazine.