Saturday, February 17, 2007

S.O.L. Enters World, Part I

Photo caption: Sunset, Healdsburg, Ca.
Today is Michael Jordan’s birthday. You’ll probably hear that a lot if you tune into today’s NBA All-Star Game coverage. We got the Slam Dunk Contest (which has lost it's luster but was kinda fun last year because a normal-sized guy won it), where MJ will sit on the judging panel, and the Three-Point Shootout (which was interesting last year because a big guy won it) and some various and sundry other events that TNT is sure to over-hype. Tune in later and I’ll be blogging live for some of the coverage.

Today also happens to be my birthday, too. Yay, me.

So I thought I’d take this opportunity to explain the origin of my blog title, Shyonelung, to those of you who don’t know the story.

Interestingly, I don’t tell this often anymore and I’ve never written it down for reasons that are hard to articulate. I think mainly it has to do with going through something intense and then never quite finding a way to match that intensity with words. Some things are like that for some writers, this is mine.

So we go back in time to February 1990. I have a brand new job – I’m not in even three months in yet – and it’s covering the retail biz for The Washington Times. It’s not the best gig for me – stuck on the business desk writing about shit I couldn’t care any less about (Bloomies Going Bankrupt! Nordstrom Lets a Customer Return a Tire) but it’s work writing and at an almost-major daily in a big-time market and in a city I love where I can dream about being one of the boys on the bus. So what if it’s in the shadow of the cross-town rival paper that took down a sitting President. Big whoop that it's owned by a guy whose politics give me night sweats.

I’m in New York City covering the Toy Fair. It’s been two days of walking between the different venues. One is as cold as the February winter outside. The other is like a steam bath. By the time I get back to my hotel, the little nagging tiredness I feel is now a full-blown cold, at least that’s what I think it is. My head hurts, I’m running a fever and my throat feels two sizes too big. And I’m literally having those night sweats.

I’m staying at the Empire Hotel in New York, which is right near the Lincoln Center but all I want right now is a Duane Reade. So I throw on some sweats and shuffle out of my room to the elevator and downstairs. It’s late, maybe 10 or 11 p.m. and I have one single thought in my head – to get some cold meds and go back to my room and sleep for a year.

Only when the elevator doors open and I step out into the lobby, I am surrounded by people in black tie and gowns. My first thought is I’m hallucinating and that I’m much sicker than I think, a thought reinforced when I realize I’m looking right at Benny Carter. I mean I think it’s Benny Carter and he’s staring at me with a look that says I’m a bit underdressed. I grin and shrug as I slink away almost running into ... was that Lena Horne? And fuck me if that’s not Tony Bennett across the room. And wait, did I just catch Pearl Bailey and Louie Bellson?

There was a brief moment there when I had to consider that I wasn’t sick at all but actually dead and this was heaven. The only thing was that as far as I knew, all these people are actually still alive. Whew, scared myself there for a second.

I did finally slink away, got to the drug store and bought some meds before doing my best to sneak by the party-goers on the way. Still, I thought I saw New York City Mayor David Dinkins there and Stan Getz and Joe Williams and even David Sanborn. My memory, you can understand, remains sketchy.

What I didn’t know until later was that the Empire was hosting the after-show party for something called “Hearts for Ella,” a concert benefiting the American Heart Association that was held that evening (February 12, 1990) at Avery Fisher Hall (the New York Times has a preview of this concert in their archives). Ella was supposed to be at the party but she was too sick to attend, even though newspaper accounts and one biography about Ella recalled she did an impressive version of Gershwin’s “Lady Be Good” as the finale for the evening. I imagine despite her frailty (she was 73 then) watching her do that syncopated scat she made her trademark, transforming that legendary voice into another remarkable instrument on that stage.

The next day I was on Amtrak heading back to Washington – and sick as a dog. I was now having night sweats during the day and a woman in my compartment came over to ask how I was doing. That woman was Pearl Bailey and she was riding the train back to Washington, D.C. She was so kind and sweet to me, it almost makes me cry to think about it. Later I found out she had an extra reason for empathy (not that she needed it from what I hear she had a big heart) -- she was sick that day, too, and would be dead by that August. I wanted to attend her funeral but I was far away from where it was held in Philly. But I've been to her gravesite in West Chester, Pa., just to say thanks.

I wasn’t getting any better myself. I made three trips to the emergency room in the next two weeks. The first two lasted maybe a half hour, total. The ER doctor – the same guy both times – first time he diagnosed me with strep throat and put me on antibiotics. Within a day of taking the meds, I broke out in a terrible rash and so I went back to the same ER and saw the same doctor. He saw me for a minute maybe before sending me off for an over-the-counter anti-itch cream

After two weeks of waiting to get better and celebrating my birthday alone with my two cats and bad cable t.v., I had had enough. I clearly remember talking to my mother a night or two after my birthday and saying, “Well, Mom, I guess it can’t get any worse.”

The fates, I am now sure, heard me too.

That night, I woke up to go to the bathroom, feeling as miserable as a person can feel without being dead and when I looked in the mirror, the face staring back at me had yellow eyes. Not pale yellow or light yellow but bright, dark freaking scary as hell yellow.

I got in my car, vaguely remembering to stop for gas (five bucks worth) and drove the short way to the hospital. A new ER doctor greeted me and it took him about a nanosecond to diagnose me with a bad case of mononucleosis. The yellow in my eyes, he said, was Hepatitis (not the contagious kind). “You’re staying here tonight,” he told me before having me ushered downstairs to x-ray.

Two things here: one, a bad reaction to penicillin is apparently a crude diagnosis for Mono. It’s medicine 101 I’m told although I’m not a doctor so I wouldn’t know. Second, when you have mono, it’s usually a good idea to get x-rays because sometimes it can affect your organs, especially if it’s left untreated for as long as mine was.

Well, taking those x-rays probably saved my life.

To be continued ...

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