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Are You Sure You're Sick?


Harry Buschman

My mother looked at me suspiciously and said:

"Are you sure you're sick?"

She had a good reason to be suspicious. During the endless gray winter that began at Halloween and lasted 'til Easter Sunday none of the family was at their best. We lived on the fourth floor of a five story cold water tenement, and during the closed in days of winter we shared the same air. The windows were shut tight and sealed with newspaper on All-Hallow's Eve, the kerosene stoves were lit, the gas oven was turned on, and we hibernated until the first sign of spring.

We were a family of five. My father was never without the stub of a soggy White Owl cigar clamped belligerently between his teeth .... my uncle was never without a cigarette in his mouth and another behind his ear. My mother couldn't cook anything without burning it, and my aunt stank of the gaggy perfume she pilfered while working for Woolworth's. In such an atmosphere you would expect all of us to be sick all of the time -- and to some degree we were. But sick enough for a doctor? That was the $64 question when the rash erupted or the dizzy spells made it difficult to climb the four flights of stairs.

Doctors made house calls then. They charged $2.50 a visit, and you made damn sure you were sick before you spent that kind of money for a sore throat or a runny nose. Money like that didn't grow on trees -- it would feed the family for a week. Whenever I felt sick enough to whimper about it, my mother would say, "Are you sure you're sick?" She would not accept my opinion, she would send me off to school with faith in my resilience and trust in my recuperative powers. "Oh, he'll take a turn for the better" -- or, if not, the school nurse was probably a better judge of such things than she was. Usually getting out of the apartment and into the fresh air cured me, but occasionally I picked up something that was "going around" and the nurse would send me home.

Seeing me at the door again, my mother would heave a sigh of resignation and rummage through the medicine cabinet. She was not a good pharmacist and the things she found there and forced down my throat probably did more harm than good. After a day or two of home remedies, and seeing no improvement, (and more than likely a steady decline) she would be forced to admit that I must be sick and that maybe she should call the doctor and ask him to come over.

We had no telephone of course. The doctor had one, so did police stations, hospitals and a few very important people. We did not. The only phone we could use was in "Goofy" Margolis's candy store on the corner. It was in constant use by the horse players in the neighborhood and there was always a waiting line. My mother had more important things to do around the house, so she would wait for my father to get home and tell him to go and phone the doctor. He'd go off, grumbling how he had no use for doctors, and anyway "we coddle our kids too much these days -- run off for the doctor the minute they get the sniffles .... are you sure you're sick, kid?" From my sick bed I would look up through the clouds of smoke from his White Owl and assure him I was and that even the school nurse said I was.

Well, as I said, doctors made house calls in those days. They had office hours in the morning and went on tour in the afternoon. Sick people didn't go to the doctor, he came to them on foot wearing a black suit and carrying a black leather bag of tools, like a plumber. During the morning he lanced boils and set broken bones in his office but his afternoons were spent with the bed-ridden. My father would come back from the candy store and say the doctor would drop by tomorrow afternoon, then he'd light up a new cigar, give me a wink and say, "We'll have you back up on your feet in no time, soldier." My uncle, with a Camel in his mouth would look in and ask, "What's the matter with the kid -- sick again?"

By this time I would have progressed from sick to ill, and whatever was wrong with me had a viselike grip on my delicate constitution -- I would have grave doubts of living long enough for the doctor to see me alive. But children are a hardy lot and usually recover in spite of the care and affection they receive at home. Nevertheless, I couldn't help feeling they were trying to do me in. I would lie there looking at the pattern of lights on the ceiling cast by the kerosene stove and try to understand the unfathomable secret of life, I would count on the fingers of one hand my pitifully few achievements and drift off in feverish sleep wondering who would get my stamp album after I was gone.

But, as it always did, dawn would break, and sick as I was, I'd be hungry. My mother would put something like kippers and home fried potatoes on my lap and I would eat it in bed. I would get a "sponge-down" and clean underwear in preparation for the doctor's appearance and spend the morning wondering how school was getting along without me.

The appearance of a doctor in your bedroom was, and always will be awe-inspiring. It is similar to witnessing the performance of a great actor on the stage. You watch his every move, listen carefully to everything he says, and try as best you can to catch the hidden implications he may have inferred but left unsaid. "Well, he's really sick .... there's a touch of pneumonia, and I wouldn't be surprised if he's got the chicken pox, a lot of it going around -- God!" he would add. "the air is foul in here, smells like a poker game. Keep his bowels open and make him drink a quart of water every day." It didn't take long for a doctor to get down to business in those days, he didn't have to make tests and nobody dared talk back to him. He'd take a quick look at you and more than likely, if you knew what was good for you, you started to feel better right away.

Then he'd take my mother into the kitchen and lay out the routine for my recovery. "Go down to the drug store and get a block of sulfur -- boil it in a pot on the back of the stove, that'll keep the rest of you from getting whatever he's got. Get yourself a roll of cheesecloth and hang it in his bedroom door -- keep it wet, that'll keep his germs from getting out of the bedroom." He would leave as quickly as he came with a parting, "Hang in there little fella, you'll be up on your feet in no time," to me, and to my mother a reassuring smile and a parting, "You know, you'd all be a lot better off if you opened a window in here now and then."

It wasn't only a question of diagnosing what you had, it was also looking for signs of what you didn't have. One thing you could be sure of, so long as you were not at death's door, there was no danger of being sent off to a hospital. No doctor wanted that. He would have to say goodbye to that $2.50 per visit once the hospital got its claws in you. So if your number wasn't up, little by little nature would take over and you'd get better. My friend Ernie would bring my homework from school every day, and I suspect I learned every bit as much doing my lessons in bed as I did under the watchful eye of Mrs. Martel at P.S. 9. Finally, when I did get back to school I would carry a magic note from the doctor excusing me from all strenuous physical activity, and if I was really lucky I might even get permission to leave school earlier than everyone else did.

During the convalescence at home a kid was as close to Heaven as he could get without actually going there. The bed was covered with the toys I loved best, there were things like orange juice just for the asking and when my father came home from work he would read to me. He would put his soggy cigar on the kitchen stove, clear a place on the bed and lie down next to me and off we'd go to Treasure Island or the court of King Arthur. I would drift off to sleep wishing I could be sick forever.

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