In my windowless office, the fluorescent lighting casts the mint green walls a pallid pea soup. The constant whir and hum of electricity and air conditioning. In a few years, I’ll declare October my favorite month in New Orleans. The humidity relents, finally, and confederate jasmine explodes into heady bloom.
But the university hospital where I’d worked since moving to New Orleans was kept at a constant temperature of just-above-freezing. I wondered if it was only that no one had thought to adjust the air conditioning post Katrina, whether it was still operating at a level appropriate for a 10-floor building buzzing with doctors, patients, students, and the staff who serve them.
I was an editor for the urology department. Except I wasn’t really an editor. I’d learned after accepting the position it’d been advertised as such to attract someone who could make educated guesses when typing the surgeons’ dictations. So, for example, if I heard Dr. X say: “Besides penile trauma, only cytokine overexpression leads to plaque development…”, I could pause the recording and Google whether the spelling of the word I questioned was “cytokine” or “sytokine”.
I did not come to New Orleans to rebuild. My then-boyfriend, later-husband, now-ex-husband and I moved to New Orleans in 2007 because Tulane gave him a scholarship for an MBA. As a side gig, I freelanced for Tulane’s business school, writing marketing copy designed to lure other “upwardly mobile” folks like us to New Orleans. I regurgitated quotes from Forbes and Financial Times about the “new New Orleans,” but I’d never met the old New Orleans. I’d only known the city post-Katrina, so had no frame of reference when people said—and people always said—things were better before.
On that Thursday in October I was tweaking Dr. Y’s opus, a PowerPoint presentation titled: “Disaster Preparedness: How Ready is your Hospital--Really?” Hurricane Katrina had lent Dr. Y the opportunity to fashion himself a disaster guru on the medical conference circuit. I cropped and aligned the photos to his specifications; his favorite featured he and his family being canoed up a Tulane Avenue newly flush with floodwater. In the photo, his wife and teenage daughter sat snug and apprehensive in the curve of the canoe. Dr Y stood, one foot on the rim, chest puffed like Sir Francis Drake at the helm of the Golden Hind.
“Hey Annie.” It was Dr. X with the droopy slacks and blunt mustache and the “Did you see the tits on that one” in the doorway of my office. He was the expert on Peyronie’s disease, a rare syndrome in which—through injury or causes undetermined—one’s penis makes a hard right (or left) turn somewhere along the shaft.
“We need to get that paper submitted,” he said. “Bring your stuff in my office and we’ll do it together.”
Academic physicians are required to publish a certain volume of scholarly writing, which I edited and submitted for Dr. X and his residents. Each completed research paper was an object for barter—I’ll put your name on mine if you put my name on yours.
Dr. X sat at his desk, arms folded behind his head, their fleshy white undersides exposed. A few gray armpit hairs escaped through the sleeve of his green surgical scrubs. I sat across from him, balancing my laptop on my thighs. Penises observed our interaction from every angle. Dr Y’s office was decorated with photos of the more severe cases of Peyronie’s disease, and a small army of wooden dolls with disproportionate erections.
We went through the submission form, field by field:
He: “3845 St. Charles Ave.”
I paused typing for a moment to jot down his responses.
“Why are you writing these down?” he asked.
“So I can do this part on my own next time. I don’t want to have to pester you every time there’s a paper to submit.”
“Oh, come on Annie,” he said, smirking. “We both know you’ll be pregnant and gone in a year.”
I cringe remembering comments like these, but even more so when I think of how I failed to act. My eyes fell on the requisite family photo on his desk: Dr Y and wife, their three boys. What silenced me was the youngest son in a wheelchair. It’s what angers me now: that I thought I shouldn’t make trouble for Dr. Y. because he had a disabled child.
I shared an office with a research fellow from Turkey. There for a year on a grant, he was as much a stranger to New Orleans as I. He’d wax on the superiority of Turkish cheese and textiles, and chastise my lack of knowledge of local musicians. I would ogle the tattoo on his bicep peeking out from under green medical scrubs.
That evening, I was en route to the parking garage, deflated and disillusioned, when the Turkish fellow poked his head out from behind an unfamiliar door and waved me in without a word.
Inside the dimly lit lab room, he was attaching tiny electrodes to the delicate chest of a rat that lay docile, anesthetized, in his hand.
“Did you know,” he said, glancing up at me, “I always wanted to be a veterinarian.” He whispered deferentially, as if the rat might be woken.
“But when the time came,” he continued, “I couldn’t do it. That’s how I came to urology. People in pain are easier than animals in pain.”
I could sense or taste something warm. Gratitude.
Annie Bleecker writes marketing copy by day and creative nonfiction by night. She lives in New Orleans with her seven-year-old daughter, and holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Annie suggests you contribute to The Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of our society. Using litigation, education, and other forms of advocacy, the SPLC works toward the day when the ideals of equal justice and equal opportunity will be a reality. Visit www.splcenter.org.