Friday, May 6, 2011

The Free Clinic

“Dude, do you know the truth?”

“Yeah, I think so.” I was sure I didn’t, but I was pretty convinced he didn’t either. This question was his opening, so he could have been talking politics, conspiracy theory or life insurance, but I was pretty sure he was talking religion and I wasn’t interested.

“So you already know about Jesus’ awesome love.”

“Yep. Thanks.” I knew the odds of him saying “Oh, okay then, see ya.” were slim but I had to give it a try.

“Awesome. Can I pray with you?”

“No. Look you seem like a nice guy but I’m here because I don’t feel well, I’ve been here too long already and I really want to just sit and read okay?” He was a blonde surfer looking guy in his late twenties or early thirties. He’d probably quit partying like an idiot when he found Jesus and now he wanted to help the rest of us quit partying like idiots too.

“I’m not trying to pushy bro, but if you knew the truth in a world full of lies, wouldn’t you be pushy?”

“No. I’d take out an ad or something and talk to the folks who were interested.”

Ah, crap, now I’d done it. I’d engaged him.

He prattled on and on by “Totally awesome grace” and “the coolest dude ever” I tried really hard to just read my book. Finally someone on the other side of the room gave an amen and he went to preach to the choir. A bit of peace at last. As close to peace as I’d get anyway sitting in the free clinic with a sinus infection, soap operas blaring on the TV, people arguing with the staff about the insane wait. I’d only been there for a little over an hour. I had a feeling there was more waiting ahead of me.

My name was called and I followed the guy with the clipboard into a small room where he took a seat behind a large desk inviting me to sit on the other side of the desk in a folding chair. This did not look like a examination room. He was there to examine my finances. I filled out a stack of forms and promised that I really was poor. Like rich people are clamoring to take advantage of the amazing free health care the city offers. I was then sent back into the waiting room to sit and try not to watch soap operas while they made sure I wasn’t lying about not being poor. How did they verify this? They had my social security number, maybe they just ran it, but my guess is they just made me wait all day figuring if I didn’t really, really need their help I’d give up sooner.

And wait all day I did. The surfin’ Jesus freak did too, but he didn't seem interested in talking to me again. During my eight hours in the dingy little room with the folding chairs, cracked linoleum, beige paint and stained foam ceiling panels I became the person who argues with the staff about how long it’s taking. I’d have been more patient if I was waiting to see the doctor, but I was waiting to be proven poor. This infuriated me. I was too poor to spend eight hours sitting in this little room not earning any rent money. I asked if I could leave and come back the next day when they knew that I was poor but they kept convincing me that it would be just another fifteen minutes.

At long last I was brought back to the rear half of the building where I was weighed, and poked and prodded with thermometers and little squeezie bulb things that check my blood pressure. I sat in an examination room and waited for another twenty minutes before meeting the doctor. Dr. Nguyen seemed like a nice fellow. He spoke with a heavy Vietnamese accent.

“How do you feel?”

I told him that I had a sinus infection and explained my symptoms. I told him that this was a recurring problem and that I hoped to do more than just take penicillin again. Was there anything he could recommend to help stop the infection from returning?

He nodded in agreement and handed me a prescription. “Yes. Penicillin.”

“Wait. That’s what I’m asking. Can I do something more than just popping more penicillin? Something to help me avoid this in the future?”

He looked thoughtful for a moment and then “Oh yes. Penicillin.”

“Do you understand a word I’m saying?” I asked.

“Yes” he answered, uncomprehending.

I took my prescription and left, Jesus guy following me for about to blocks before I turned and asked him if he’d like to martyred.

The infection cleared up eventually without the penicillin. When a spot on my eye mysteriously became swollen I put off going to the clinic. It got worse. I planned to go in the next Monday, hoping they’d still have it on record that I was poor.

On Saturday I went to the little bagel shop by my girlfriend’s work and the sweet Mexican girl who worked the counter noticed my eye.

“I think it’s a clogged tear duct or something.” I explained.

“No, I don’t think so.” She leaned forward and took a better looking, squinting with her whole face. “That’s a spider bite. Put some olive oil on it.”
“Olive oil? Really?” I went home and put some olive oil on my face and then I bought bagels for all my friends when the swelling disappeared rapidly. Over time I noticed other folks getting good sound advice from the bagel lady. And she didn’t care if they were poor, or rich, just so long as they bought a bagel or a cup of coffee. I went to her with a sore throat (lavender essential oil), a bad back (treat with heat, cold, heat, cold and sleep on the floor.) and of course a hunger for bagels. Free clinic be damned.

Her grandmother, before coming to America had kept an herb garden in a small town in Mexico where she was sort of an unofficial medicine woman. The Bagel Lady had been a loyal student of her grandmother’s and was now becoming our much bigger small town’s unofficial medicine woman.

Noah’s bagel’s moved in a few streets over and the owners of the bagel shop didn’t like the resultant drop in business. The shop is now a café with overpriced coffee drinks and no free advice except for the occasional suggestion that you have a chocolate chip muffin with you’re half-caf latte. I don’t know where The Bagel Lady ended up, but I have no doubt she’s carrying on her family's wonderful tradition.

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