6

Where the author gets an alcoholic helper; where the lawyer suborns perjury from the author.

I immediately start a regimen of physical therapy at the surgeon's private medical center on the Upper West Side. The first or second time I wait for the bus at Central Park West and 103rd Street, a neighbor approaches me from behind and tells me the entire story of how he broke his hand and wrist, how many times he had surgery, how he never fully recovered certain abilities etc. He's so generous with the details that I feel nauseous. I have talked to this man only once, a few days ago when I looked at a new set of photos on the porch and my next door neighbor introduced him to me as an expert amateur photo- grapher. Upon which the man proceeded to annoy me by pointing some imperfections of my photos and give me unsolicited advice, from which I could tell that he was no more an expert than I was. And now this. Why does he choose to talk to me now, and to talk about a hand fracture, as if we were old buddies? What makes him think I care?

The day after my arrival I ask around if anybody would like to earn some money being my home attendant and I'm put in touch with a young hispanic woman. I explain to her that she would have to prepare me one meal a day and keep the place clean. She agrees and I ask her to come the next day around 11AM. She doesn't show up, so I ask Arturo, a man from whom I bought two chairs and a mirror when he was moving out of the building a few months earlier, and who was at the exact spot where I got out of the cab from the hospital, since he's hanging out in front of the build- ing and doesn't seem very busy. He accepts.

I watch him come and go in the small space. He wears shorts and has very nice legs, of which he doesn't seem to be aware. And I start lusting after him, but what I know I need more than sex is affection and reassurance. Hugs, a physical contact with another human being to bring me back from the world of the dead that holds me prisoner. But how could Arturo understand this? He seems to have lost some of his head. He's a Viet-Nam vet and an avid consumer of rum.

With the change from the money I give him to buy food he buys rum. We become lovers. With all the alcohol he's drinking, he's half impotent and he tends to fall asleep on top of me. As soon as we've become lovers he makes scenes where I have to defend myself against accusations of unfaithfulness. He's reluctant to leave in the evening. Then he asks me if I wouldn't like for him to make my morning coffee. Then he confess- es that he sleeps in a utility room in the basement of one of the projects and asks permission to spend the night at my place. I protest that there is no room, no extra bed but he says that he'll sleep on the floor, he's used to it. So I give him a quilted blanket to make a mattress and sheets and a pillow and he sleeps on the floor next to my bed like a dog. He wakes up early and brings me my coffee at 5:30AM. He spills the brew because his hands shake so badly. I can hear the spoon rattle in the saucer.

He explains that the liquor is cheaper if you buy it in larger quantities. After a month of buying quarts or fifths, one day I give him money to buy a half gallon. He disappears all day and returns in the evening with the bottle three fourths empty. By this time I've gotten into the act myself. He's always glad to hand me a drink. In the beginning I don't want to be drunk, I'm taking pain killers that don't mix with alcohol but after a while I think what the heck, at least I get some of my money's worth and I can escape those tormenting thoughts.

Since it's very hot inside my room I spend a few hours each day in front of the building, like many of the neighbors in this short street. One of the first days I come out a woman from the neighborhood hops around on one leg, a bandage on one foot. She says that she sprained her ankle. I never talked to her before but she comes to me and repeats that she sprained her ankle as if it was earth- shattering news, as if to make sure that it really sank in. People I've never seen before stop to speak to me. They get in my face and say that they've had a broken arm or leg, they've had an accident, a few years back. Men and women. And from my window I can see almost everyday some people walking on crutches with one leg in a cast, which never happened before. I wonder at the extraordinary coincidence. Can this happen by chance?

My landlord asks for his rent. He asks why I don't call my family. I say that I'm not on good terms with them. He suppresses a start then says that if it's the only solution I have to do it. On July 2nd I call my parents'home. The first thing Mother says, without my asking, is that my father is in a hospital in a village outside the city of E., answering at last the question I asked from hospital to hospital. I tell her that I have a broken knee, my leg is in a full cast and I cannot travel at this time. I also ask her for money and she agrees to wire me $5,000. She puts my father on the phone. His voice is very hoarse, he sounds weak, this man who had such a big mouth cannot terrorize little children anymore. I feel pity for him but not the wrenching pain that I could have felt. I have given up on my father many years ago. I tell him to hang on, that I'll come to see him as soon as I can and to wait for me. Only now am I sure that he is really dying of lung cancer.

I call another time and it's a friend of my mother, Madame D., who picks up the phone. She says that my mother went shopping and she's staying with my father. One of her sons committed suicide and sometimes I wonder if she didn't "yes" him to death because she's always interrupting somebody's speech with "Oui, oui, oui," overdoing the "active listening" to such a degree that instead of showing genuine attention she displays a total contempt for her interlocutor. I hate the woman. She offers to put my father on the phone but something prevents me from accepting. The thought that she'll listen in on the conversation, the memory of my father's betrayal, it's too late now to patch things up. I'll never talk to my father again.

Mother sends me a postcard where, without any reference to my condition, she exhorts me to come home and leave behind "all dross and useless burdens", and where she reminds me that Dad always wanted us to use the money he gave us to productive ends, like starting a business.

After this call my sister Sophie calls several times a week, urging me to hurry. She pretends not to hear when I remind her that I have a full leg cast an cannot travel at this time. She reminds me that our father is going to die soon. My cast is removed at the end of July but I cannot flex my leg. In a sense I'm glad that my leg gives me a good pretext to stay away from my family. Without formulating the thought clear- ly, I am frightened at the prospect of being with them. I have visions where they encircle me and strike me in a dark room. I think of all the cash money that's unreported to the tax authori- ties and the talks they must have about the estate, trying to rip me off no doubt.

At a medical check-up the physical therapist pops in just as I ask the doctor if he thinks that my father is going to die soon. The doctor and the physical therapist look at each other without saying a word for a few seconds, then the doctor breaks the silence: "If he's in the hospital, it means that he doesn't have much longer to live. When cancer patients are taken to the hospital, it means that it's the end" he says, as if it cost him an awful lot to say it.

My lawyer sends me for signature a "Notice of Claim" to the Transit Authority, where he states that the driver "negligently" caused my injuries. I disagree on this word but on the phone the lawyer acts impatient and I don't dare broach the subject. I sign the paper and send it back to him. Then he writes to ask me to come to his office on August 18.

At the bank I meet the man who sold me the bicycle a year ago at the time I was moving to my present address. He had given me a hard sell speech and I had paid sixty bucks for this used single speed Schwinn, hardly a bargain. I tell him what happened to me, and that I think the driver did it on purpose. "Then", he says, "you should ask for punitive damages!"

On August 18 I go to the lawyer's office. Without offering me a seat he walks to his desk. I follow him and he picks up a letter dated August 22nd, 1990, written on blank paper, addressed to his firm, with my name below the space for the signature. The letter says:

"Gentlemen,

This is to acknowledge that you have explained to me, in detail, that, after investigation of the facts of the accident in which I sustained injuries on 5/23/90 on Fifth Avenue and 41st Street in the Borough of Manhattan, City of New York, it is your opinion that I have a viable cause of action against the New York City Transit Authority based upon the negligence of the operator of its bus.

It has also been explained to me, in detail, of the possi- bility (sic) of a claim pursuant to the provisions of the Worker's Compensation Law of the State of New York against [the messenger service] which claims that I was an independent contractor at the time of this occurrence and not their employee.

I fully understand the problems involved in establishing an employment status. Under the circumstances, I direct that you do not file any claim on my behalf as an employee with the Worker's Compensation Board and that you pursue my claim against the New York City Transit Authority."

But he hasn't explained anything to me, much less in detail! I'm thoroughly confused. All I understand is the insinuation about my illegal immigrant status in the first sentence of the last paragraph. He seems to know but I didn't tell him myself. How does he know? The letter is very favorable to the messenger agency, it's not fair. He seems to accept at face value their statement that I was an independent contractor.

I read the letter a second time. How can he say that he's ex- plained anything in detail at the outset of our first meeting? But the reference to my "employment status" discourages me from discussing the matter. Besides I'm using my crutches, putting all my weight on my right foot and I feel very uncomfortable. Just for the sake of sitting down I accept to sign the letter. He follows me to the sitting area and stands against the wall near my chair, towering above me. He tells me that I'll have a hearing with the T.A. lawyers at their headquarters in Brooklyn on the 21st, that's why he asked me to come. We have to prepare.

"How long did the contact last between you and the bus?" he asks me. "Twenty to thirty seconds." "Well, if you say this, the jury will believe that you tried to kill yourself. It's better to say that you fell immediately after the bus hit you; that the contact lasted no more than one second. Now, where did you fall on the avenue?" "In the middle of the second lane." "You must say that you fell inside the bus lane; and if you're asked if any cars were parked there, you must say that there were no cars parked in the bus lane."

I vaguely wonder how he knows that there were, indeed, several cars parked in the bus lane because I didn't mention it to him, having not realized that they were parked illegally. I'm astound- ed and dismayed that anybody could believe that my desperate efforts to stay alive looked like I had tried to commit suicide. And he seems to believe it too. I wonder if suicide is a criminal act. Could I be prosecuted? The last thing I need is to be dragged into a criminal inquiry as a suspect. While my father is dying.

I'm also indignant that a lawyer, sworn to uphold the law, dare ask me to lie in a deposition. Because I assume that the hearing will be under oath. But I don't dare say it to his face, that what he's asking me to do is illegal, because I'm afraid he could get angry and strike me and I can't run away because of my leg, so I say "OK, but not for anything that is legally binding." Then I force myself to say "I also want punitive damages because I think that the bus driver did it on purpose." He just sat down at his desk, now he rises up, throws his arms above his head and exclaims with rage and desperation: "Nooooo!"

Then he takes me to the office next door occupied by a white- haired man I later learned was his father. He doesn't introduce us and doesn't enter. As I hobble across the room to a seat I ask the white haired man:

"Don't you think that if I had been struck on the left and had fallen immediately, then it's my right leg that would have been injured?" He waves an arm nonchalantly, tells me not to worry about it. Now he asks me: "Were you wearing a helmet?"
"No, I wasn't."
"Well, it's better to say that you were wearing a helmet. It'll make a better impression on the jury. And where on the avenue did you fall?" Like his son.
"I fell in the second lane but your colleague told me to say that I fell in the bus lane" I say.
"That's right. You must say that you fell inside the bus lane, close to the curb." Then he repeats two or three times, in a kind of sing song: "I was hit on my left and I fell to the ground."

Back home I grab the Yellow Pages and make frantic calls to several personal injury lawyers. I explain that the lawyers who have my case want me to lie about what happened and I'm looking for a lawyer who'll let me tell the truth. But there's no taker.


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