Friday, January 20, 2012

Laughing Gas For Breakfast

Yesterday morning the office of my oral surgeon called and told me there had been a cancellation, due to the snow, would I like to come in early, at 10:50 a.m. My first reaction was an emphatic “are you frigging kidding me?” But that’s not what I said. I asked the receptionist how she had arrived at work. She said she had driven. Really? I was astounded. She said she lived at the bottom of Queen Anne hill and that the main arterials were slippery, but negotiable. I asked if she’d seen any buses. Yes, she had. The teapot began whistling. I excused myself, removed the pot from the burner, and returned. Yeah, ok, I said, I’ll give it a shot.

I gulped my coffee and put the rest in a thermos. There would be no time for my usual breakfast of cherry pie and slices of orange. I grabbed my coat, wool scarf, black fedora, backpack and a pair of strap-on ice grips. I sat on the steps in the hallway and worked at getting the ice grips on. Their framework is rubber. I was required to use a suprising amount of strength to stretch the grip over the toe of my left shoe, then extend it back to the heel where, after a sufficient amount of grunting and straining, I managed to secure it. I repeated the process with the other grip, stood up, and walked gingerly on my heels to the entry door so as not to damage the carpet or shale tile with the metal cleats on the toe of the grips.

The walk to the bottom of the hill went fine. There was more powder than ice. I like that sound of boots crunching into snow. I rarely get to hear that in Seattle. It’s a sound I more commonly associate with North Dakota and Minnesota.

There was an old woman sitting at the bus stop. She looked European, German or Russian, a colorful scarf tied around her head, worn Levi jacket, raggedy dress and a huge grocery sack stuffed with personal belongings at her side, from which she fished a Styrofoam cup of soup. She had a short, squat body and a gruff but gregarious manner. She told me she was going to her doctor. Me, too, I said. She revealed that she had taken some spills lately and hit her head. Her arms were partially paralyzed due to myalgia and so when she fell her arms were useless to catch her and she fell directly on her head. That sounded awful. I asked if she had suffered a concussion. She didn’t know. That’s why she wanted to see a doctor. She was able to get an appointment, which hadn’t been easy, since the doctor was closing early, on account of the snow. The snow was no deterrent for her. She had grown up on a farm in Pennsylvania near Lake Erie and was no stranger to snow. I tried to alleviate her anxiety over a possible head injury by telling her that she sounded lucid. That’s a stupid thing to say, she responded angrily. I told her that lucidity meant that she had not suffered a brain injury. If she had injured her brain, she would be slurring her words and feeling disoriented. This seemed to reassure her. I appeased her even further by going down and buying her a newspaper, an item she had complained of missing.

After a series of buses, several of which were heading back to the terminal, the 18 finally appeared. I got out my bus card, but the driver motioned me in, you pay as you leave. I found a seat and watched the world go by, white and crunchy and treacherous and cold. Everything had a sad, raw, refractory look of artless abandon. I was able to look up into the greenbelt on Queen Anne’s western slope, a greenbelt whose dense, summer foliage hides it from visual penetration, and looked for any paths that led to the top that I might be able to use in the future. I saw nothing. Just a tangle of black trunks and limbs, skeletal and foreboding.

A woman wearing an enormous fur hat got on the bus and reached to the coin deposit box to pay her fare. The driver told her, gruffly, that you pay when you leave. She moved gingerly down the aisle mouthing the words “I’m sorry.”

The bus turned left on Leary, which I had not expected. I got off at 20th NW and Leary and I swept my bus card through the slot on the coin box, but it made a funny electronic sound. The driver waved me off without further adieu, and I walked to the office, where I received a warm welcome. A pretty young woman in in gray hospital togs and hairnet ushered me into the room where my operation would take place, offered a place to hang up my coat and hat and backpack behind the door, then led me to the bathroom where she had me swish a blue, antibiotic mouthwash. I swished the minty liquid, spit it out, and returned to the room, where I was given a hair net, and invited to sit in the operating chair just as the doctor entered the room, an affable, athletic man in his 40s. The chair went way back and my head lowered to toward the floor. I gazed up the light fixtures, one of which had dimmed, a little ripple of light flickering in luminous play.

Then came the Novocaine, prick of a needle into my gum followed by immediate numbness. That’s when you know you have truly arrived at the office of a dentist, or oral surgeon. When your face goes numb, objects are inserted in your mouth, and speech is no longer possible, just grunts and squeaks and inarticulate murmurs.

When the words ‘nitrous oxide’ were uttered, my spirits lifted, and realized I had come to the right place at the right time. A rubber nasal breathing apparatus was fixed gently to my nose and I was asked to begin breathing deeply, a task which I performed with such unabashed eagerness, I was a little surprised that I didn’t suck the entire room into my lungs. In seconds, I began to feel tingly, light, and giddy. I liked this feeling. I craved hearing the Beatles. This was a perfect state in which to hear “Penny Lane” or “I Am The Walrus.” I felt like offering to pay not just for the day’s operation, but for the college education of anyone’s children. This, I felt sure, must be what Santa Claus feels. A giddiness of such unparalleled magnitude you want to fly a sleigh through the heavens with a team of reindeer bringing gifts to all of suffering humanity.

At first, there was some serious drilling. I felt like a block of wood on which someone was working into a birdhouse. My head vibrated. The vibrations conflicted with my giddiness, but no so much to put me out of it. This was followed by what the doctor warned me would be some tapping. I’d say it was more like unabashed hammering, but the task was performed swiftly, and with alacrity, and I did not feel any pain. Just minor irritation. I returned to studying the little flickering ribbon of light, which served as a delightful visual analogue to my lightheaded tingly silliness.

When the procedure ended, I heard the disappointing words “stop the nitrous.” It was like the end of an amusement park ride. The breathing apparatus was removed from my head and I arose from the dental chair back into the world of gravity, angst, Feodor Dostoevski, and uninsured medical bills. Our insurance does not cover this type of procedure, ostensibly because it is perceived as being cosmetic.

I paid my bill and exited the office. It seemed much colder, and it was still snowing. I walked to the corner of NW Market and 15th Street to find a bus stop, but it was merely for the 15, which was an express downtown. I trudged through slush and ice another half mile, until I found a bus stop for the 18, at the base of the Ballard Bridge. There was a couple, a man and a woman in late middle age, who seemed to be encamped under the bridge, and I had to wonder how they managed to endure such cold with no respite.

I enjoyed a conversation with a middle-aged man who had once worked at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena and was now employed as a mechanical engineer at a local shipbuilding facility. We watched in bewildered fascination as trucks and leviathan four-by-fours gunned their engines and went planing up the ramp to Ballard Bridge, slush and ice squirting venomously out from the tread of their tires, all done, no doubt, in defiance of the weather gods, and hoped that this intense cold was an omen of an equally hot summer.

The 18 finally came and I swept my bus card through the slot on the coin box again. It made the same electronic bleeping. The driver said “I don’t know what that is” and invited me to go ahead and take a seat anyway. How could he not know what an Orca card is, I wondered. And then I realized. It wasn’t my Orca card. It was the Metro card from the Manhattan subway I had saved because it had a quote by Saint Augustine on it: Too late I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient and ever new! Too late I loved you! And, behold, you were within me, and I out of myself, and there I searched for you.


David Grove said...

I really enjoyed this, John; it's a thought-stimulating read. It reminds me of when I had my wisdom teeth pulled. I'd read William James' description of the effects of laughing gas, and I was hoping for a similar acidy, mystical experience; but I ended up slightly disappointed. I had feelings of benevolence and elation comparable to yours, but I had no vision of dichotomies melding--of "I am he as you are he as you are me," etc. On the other hand, there was no post-gas plunge into the abyss of depression, no plummet from a "rĂªve parisien" to "le triste monde engourdi." I could use a dose of that stuff right now.

Hope your mouth's okay now.

David Grove said...

And since the comment box at my blog won't pop up, I'll add that I greatly appreciate the comment you left me. A recent dishevelment of my life has prevented me from writing lately; I've been busy sheveling. (& shoveling!) So I felt rusty when I wrote "Imbolc," and I doubted it was worth posting. That it gave pleasure to so discerning a critic as you is wonderfully encouraging.

John Olson said...

Thank you for your comments, David, though I am sorry to hear about the recent dishevelment. I hope it's not too unpleasant and has a positive outcome. I do find that dishevelment is often a good impetus for poetry, provided the stress isn't too overwhelming, or that the pitfalls and thorns are not too concussive or lacerating. It helps to have an edge. Giddiness has its limits. I hope I don't sound too glib. I've had days when getting my shoes tied represented a major triumph. Anwyay, I really enjoyed "Imbolc."