A few weeks ago, the publishers of this magazine were sharing some mezcal at Café No Sé, shooting the breeze and reflecting on how fortunate we were to be here on Planet Earth after half a century of close calls, near misses and the genuinely stupid behavior that often presents superannuated kids like us one last shot for fame as the kicker to a Darwin Awards report.
Assuredly, we’ve both done ridiculously silly and dangerous things, but in our conversation, we discovered that we’d both also had more quotidian close calls with The Reaper and we decided that a few of them would make a lovely story for this issue of the mag. And so, without further ado, here is John’s recollection “Self Medication,” followed by Mike’s “Call the Mechanic, Idiot.”
It’s all my mother’s fault. She believed, fervently, in only two things: the saving grace of the Catholic Church and the healing powers of Vitamin C. Deep in her soul, my mother believed that their combined power could conquer anything from the common cold to eternal damnation.
And mother never trusted doctors. “Doctors,” she’d say, “will kill you quick as cure you.” For her, they were the very last resort.
Consequently, throughout my youth, any physical misfortune — short of a bloody and dangling limb — would be treated by maternally prescribed Vitamin C and prayer.
“Mom . . . I have a fever.”
“You’re not sick,” my mother would say. “Now take some Vitamin C, get into bed and pray to Jesus. You’ll be fine.”
As any psychologist worth their salt will tell you, it’s the early imprinting that is most difficult to shed. And these days, although I’m now a fairly devout atheist, I still pray like a sinful child, gobble down Vitamin C, and am prone to taking whatever snake oil is on sale at the supplement store when I get sick.
As I was some years ago when I woke up in my apartment with the sheets soaked by cold, clammy sweat.
I was shivering. I had chills and a fever. My entire head felt like a throbbing raw nerve inside of a broken tooth. My sinuses were blocked. My ears were ringing with a piercing, sonic screech as though Flipper had taken up residence in my cranium. My eyes burned and were flaming red, much like the devil’s that I’d imagined as a frightened child. I coughed, and the wheeze in my chest was like a saw cutting casket slats.
Given an early history with my mother’s theories on preventative health care, I might be forgiven for believing that any drinkable fluid would serve to rehydrate my desiccating body. I reached for the vodka, thinking the 80-proof alcohol might kill any viruses or bacteria in me, to boot.
The pain as the booze went down my throat, was like pouring sulfuric acid into an open wound.
Then my gaze turned to the jars of vitamins and New Age tinctures on the dresser. I staggered over and flipped the lids. In rapid succession, I popped five vitamin C’s, two B-Complexes, four niacin, two echinacea, two ‘Immune Rocket Boosters,’ four Chinese Ma Huang tablets, a swig of colloidal silver, one orange lobelia — and washed them all down with another pull of vodka. Then I stumbled to the kitchen, opened the freezer and laid my head on the ice trays for a few minutes.
My head was still burning, but my legs were wobbly, so I pawed my way back to the bedroom, grabbed the pill bottles and collapsed onto my clammy sheets.
In a fevered half-dream, I remembered being at the health food store several days earlier. There was a lovely, crunchy-granola girl working the counter. She said, “Listen to your body; it will tell you what you need. It will tell you what to take.” She then passed across the counter all the herbs, potions and vitamins I had purchased while under the spell of her wan, vegan smile.
Embarrassing as this may be, my early anti-doctor conditioning had me placing more faith in a cute but anemic, braless, dreadlocked twenty-something hippie-chick than in a physician. “Doctors will kill you as soon as cure you.” I’d be damned if I was going to one of them.
I stayed in bed, popping pills and washing them down with vodka for the next four days. It was mid-February. Outside was the sooty, black snow of a Manhattan deep freeze. I would daze in and out of semi-consciousness, pop more vitamins and then fade away again for hours.
It was largely a blur, but when I felt the sudden and maddening itching on my legs, I knew that I’d passed into another phase of this tribulation.
It felt like insects were crawling under my skin. I hopped out of bed. And then collapsed to the floor out of exhaustion. There were no bugs, which was good. But there were small red spots. And they were moving. Moving like they were alive. They ran up one leg and down the other.
This was not good.
I sat on the edge of the bed and closed my eyes. I felt my forehead. It was dripping. I opened my eyes again in abject terror.
The itching had moved north. In short, the spots were moving toward my privates.
I pulled down my boxer shorts and looked.
OH, GOD! NO, GOD!
I felt faint.
Dear Lord, don’t let this happen. Please, dear God, I have faith. I believe in your powers and your light. Please, I was only pretending to be an atheist. Our Father who art in heaven please get rid of the red spots from my pecker, hollowed be Thy name. Amen. Oh, God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee and I detest all my sins. I do so for I dread the loss of heaven and your holy sight. AND my Johnson. Amen. Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with Thee. Blessed are Thou amongst women and Blessed is the fruit of Thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, DON’T LET THIS HAPPEN TO MY PENIS!!!
I stood there, naked and shivering. And sure as miracles, the spots disappeared from my manhood and reappeared on my belly. Immediate crisis averted, my atheism staged a comeback, and I grabbed more vitamin C.
A pain suddenly slammed my chest and knocked me to the floor. I struggled to my feet and splashed cold water on my face. The red spots had colonized and then congealed into a large red stain across my neck and cheeks.
Maybe it was time to call a doctor.
NO!!! I’ll be fine!!!
I went back to the bedroom and popped the rest of the vitamin C and niacin in the bottles on my dresser and necked them with the last of the vodka. I took a teaspoon of colloidal silver, dusted it with cinnamon and drank it with the melt water from the ice cubes.
My heart was doing weird things. My stomach puffed up like a blowfish. I looked out the window at the black Manhattan snow. I wanted to jump.
Then the phone rang. It was my sister Louise. I said something, and she said something back. I understood her, but she could not understand me.
“What the hell is wrong with you? Are you okay? You aren’t making any sense. Are you on drugs?” she asked.
I responded that I was not, just a little under the weather.
My sister said, “You’re not using words. You’re scaring me. I’m coming over.”
My sister, the sensible younger sibling who never bought into any of my mother’s mumbo-jumbo, is coming over. Shit! She’ll make me go to the doctor!!!
I went back to the bathroom and looked in the mirror. My lips were cracked. My eyes were yellow. I could not keep my gut in. I pulled a tee-shirt and some jeans from the hamper and put them on. I had no deodorant so I sprayed myself with Glade Air Freshener. It did not work.
I sat and prayed, “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, don’t let my sister see me like this. Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, cut me a break. Lamb of God, are you out there, dude?”
The doorbell rang. It rang again. There was a fist pounding on the door. I made my way towards it, but my knees buckled before I got there. I pulled myself up by the doorknob and opened it. There was my beautiful younger sister wrapped in a winter coat.
“Holy shit!!!” she said. “Holy freaking shit!!! What’s wrong with you?”
“Rime bline,” I mumbled. She just looked at me.
“Jesus, John, you can’t even talk. Have you seen a doctor?”
I shook my head no.
“Have you taken anything?”
I shook my head no.
“John,” she said very patiently, like a kindergarten teacher, “Have you taken anything, any pills, maybe some vitamins?”
I shook my head yes, sheepishly.
“Show me what you took.”
I reached out for her hand and she screamed, “What’s that moving up your arm? Oh, God! Don’t touch me. Just show me what you took.”
I pointed her to into the bedroom and the nightstand. She found the empty bottles and shouted, “You’re such an idiot, were these full?”
I shook my head yes.
“Moron. I’m calling a doctor.” She grabbed the phone and made a few calls, ending with someone who seemed to know what was going on.
I reached for the dandelion capsules that were in an ashtray. My sister spanked my hand and resumed her phone call.
“Yes. I’m his sister. Yes. I believe he has taken an unreasonable amount of alternative remedies. Yes, okay, from what I can tell, a bottle of niacin, vitamin C, B-complex, echinacea, colloidal silver, a liquid called ‘Immune Rocket Booster,’ something called Ma Huang, something else called lobelia, cinnamon, and oh, maybe a bottle of vodka. No, he’s not suicidal. He’s just an idiot. Symptoms? He has a rash that seems to move like there is something alive under his skin. He’s sweating profusely and his eyes are yellow. He’s having trouble forming words. He’s passing gas and his stomach is bloated.”
The doctor must have been speaking, because she just kept nodding her head and saying, “Hmm, okay, I see. An emetic and a sedative. Okay, there is a drug store around the corner. Yes, last name is Rexer. His first name is John. Okay. So let me get this straight. He’s got hypervitaminosis from the niacin and other vitamins. Okay. So the rash is a good sign? Hmmmm. Okay, but the Ma Huang can cause a stroke.”
She glared at me.
“And the lobelia can cause fulminant hepatic failure. That’s like his liver exploding, right?”
Her eyes pierced my soul.
“Okay, that probably explains the yellow. No. Of course he doesn’t have health insurance. Yes, I’ll watch him for the night. Yes, there is an emergency room not too far from his apartment.”
My sister looked out the window to gather her thoughts before berating me. I took this as my cue to escape, which seemed somehow logical to my brain at the time. I believe I was actually regressing, like that guy in Altered States. I crawled on my hands and knees as quickly as possible towards the bathroom.
“What the hell are you doing now?” Louise shouted at me, I turned and snarled at her. She claims I barked.
“John, you are not a dog. Get up.”
I dog-waddled as fast as I could toward the bathroom. My sister came after me, but I got into the bathroom and with a functional paw, locked the door behind me.
With nothing left to do, she stormed out of the apartment.
When she returned, it was with her boyfriend. He’d met her at the drug store. He was large. He kicked in the bathroom door. When I tried to escape again, he grabbed me and managed to pour some liquid down my throat. It was the emetic. I thought I was a dog. It was an unpleasant scene.
Louise then pulled my head back and put a sedative in the back of my throat. They held me there until I swallowed it. Shortly thereafter, I lost consciousness and dreamed of Jesus, my mother, and a wan vegan girl with oranges in her hands. Two days later, the doctor prescribed antibiotics and handed me a slip on which he’d written a psychiatrist’s name. I never went to the psychiatrist, but I did date the girl in the health food store.
Swear to God.
Call The Mechanic, Idiot
My first grown-up car was a 1984 Honda Civic. It ran me about $3000 and was worth every penny. The first car I bought was a late 1970s Chevy Caprice Classic. It had a hood you could land fighter jets upon, a heater that would never turn off and seemed to have been underwater for at least a part of its life cycle. It cost me $250 bucks AND I got ripped off. But that’s a different story.
My Civic was a rugged little beast, and as this was before automobile companies began installing warp-engine covers under all their hoods, I thought I’d try my hand at some basic maintenance. This was a very bad idea. Many life events suggest that I’m likely descended from a wandering tribe of boy-band producers. The “fix-it guy” gene was lost to my kind many, many generations ago.
Still, with effort and a number of embarrassing failures, I was able to pick up the basic stuff — change the oil, check the plugs, sneak into my best friend John’s back yard and steal his distributor cap just to be a dick. And those successes gave me a dangerous sense of confidence when it came to mechanics and my car.
Then, after a few years of tooling about and having good fortune with my Civic, I began to detect a strong smell of exhaust inside the cabin when not in motion. So, Manly-Mike decided to take a look.
I put the car up on ramps, got out my rolly-board, and scooted underneath the automobile. I hung my dangly-light on a thing-a-ma-jig and started poking around to see if I could identify the problem. Which, encouragingly, I could. The exhaust pipe that ran from the muffler to where-ever-the-hell-it-went deeper inside the engine was rusted through in parts. Smart-Mike would have ponied up the $100 or so and called his guy down at Anthony’s service station a few blocks away. Dumb-Mike decided that he could fix it himself. All he’d need were some soup cans. He’d build a pipe sheath!
The process took several days. First, I had to harvest the cans, which meant eating an unfriendly amount of Campbell’s Bean with Bacon soup for a few days. Then there was the cutting of the cans and the easily-foreseen injuries to my nondexterous, mitten-like hands. But the concept was sound and I had everything I needed. Soup cans, bailing wire and duct tape. What could possibly go wrong?
Underneath the car, I spent a few hours fitting the cans, twisting the wire into knots, repeatedly taping my fingers together and cursing. But to a passerby, with my legs sticking out from underneath a car, I probably looked like I knew what I was doing. And I felt good about that.
It was late afternoon when I finished. But, after all the effort, I looked upon my works, and they were good.
Pride? What is it that they say pride precedes? Eh . . . never mind.
I got into the car and started her up. All good. No smell of exhaust. I had actually fixed something. I was worthy in the eyes of men. Hear me roar, world! I have done it!!! Hear me roar!!!
I wanted a closer look at my mastery, so I got out of the car and rolled myself under the exhaust system a second time. All looked good. There was some exhaust escaping from the seams between the cans, but most of it was passing through the muffler and out the tail pipe.
I was a gorilla of a man. A bear. A lion laying amongst his mates after a kill. And like that well-fed lion, I felt profoundly sleepy. More sleepy, in fact, than I had ever been at any time in my life. And I could think of nowhere in the world that would provide a softer, more comfortable place to rest than underneath the exhaust system of my car. I closed my eyes and began to drift away.
Then, with the suddenness of a thunderclap, my reptilian brain kicked in and screamed in the voice of Dr. McCoy from Star Trek, “Damn it man! You’re dying!!! Get UP!” It was a terrifying realization that came barreling towards me like a demon.
I sat bolt upright!
Well, had I not been underneath a car, I would have sat bolt upright. As it was, my upward momentum was abruptly stopped when my head hit the undercarriage of my Civic. Specifically, it hit a jury-rigged pipe sheath made out of soup cans, bailing wire and duct tape, destroying it utterly.
Dazed from both my carbon monoxide asphyxiation and a rapidly expanding goose-egg on my forehead, I wheeled myself out from underneath the car, staggered inside the house and called my guy down at Anthony’s.