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BRAIN SCAN - A True Story

Race Relations at the 7-11

On the morning of my scheduled brain scan, I visited the local 7-11 for a cup of coffee and got more for my $2.13 than just caffeine. Despite having an expensive machine to grind my beans and perk the coffee, I must have my Joe daily with sweet creamer from the convenience store.

To pay I stood in line at the cash register behind a wide and white blond woman wearing low-riding jeans and not so low-riding black thong underwear. Her blouse, if that is what it was, also rode high, leaving flabby flesh exposed between her waist and midriff. She had patterned tattoos on her arms and on her visible ass, with meanings I could not decipher, not being fluent in Chinese. I guessed her age between 25 and 40. She had in her hands two tall cans of Steele’s Reserve malt liquor. When her turn came to pay, she ordered a pack of generic cigarettes and handed payment to the young woman behind the counter, Tina.

“I don’t know why you disrespect me so,” the white girl said to Tina.

“What do you mean?” Tina asked.

“The way you snatched that money out of my hands.”

Tina is a black woman in her early twenties, attractive and not overweight like her customer. That morning Tina was somewhat frantic because she was alone. The city requires by law that any convenience store have two employees on premises at all times, but this morning Tina was alone and her help had not called in.

“I did not snatch the money from your hands,” Tina said, straining I thought to be polite.

“You most certainly did, you bitch,” replied the wide white woman.

“Who are you calling bitch, bitch?” yelled Tina in reply.

“You, you sorry ass,” continued the wide white girl.

“Sorry ass? Have you looked at your sorry self lately?” Tina asked sharp and shrill. Her anger made her tremble. “If you look at yourself you’ll see who the sorry ass is.”

The wide white girl grabbed her change, her beer, and her pack of cigarettes and headed for the door. On her way out the door, she smiled and said, “Be careful, bitch, or I’ll beat your ass.”

“You better watch out for me!” Tina screamed. “You want me to, I’ll beat your ass! You come back here, and I’ll beat your ass right now!”

The wide white woman had already moved where Tina and I couldn’t see her. Wide and white was on her way home at 7 a.m. with two tall Steele’s Reserves and a pack of smokes, and in her wake she had left a steaming Tina trembling with rage. Wide and white girl, as my father use to say, was laughing up her sleeve and pleased with what she had done.

“I’m sorry,” I told Tina, as if I could apologize for the sins of white people because I was white.

I Win Grave Plots

Sucking down my sweet coffee and considering another cup, I get an email from my cousin Judy. It is not unusual for me to have 66-ounces of coffee to power my writing.

As if to emphasize the omnipresence of death in the midst of life, the day my brain scan was scheduled my cousin Judy thought that I might have inherited a number of grave plots.

These were not just any grave plots, but were located in an historic cemetery, but alas the graves were located in a high-crime area of Newark, New Jersey, where (contrary to erroneous information on the Internet under “Florida authors”) I was born. The news of these previously unknown grave plots came through children of Judy’s sister Connie, my late cousin, who had sadly passed on.

At first it appeared there were eight grave plots, but only three or four used. As none of us would like to be buried there (in fact none of us would like to be buried at all), the thought arose that we might sell these grave plots back to the cemetery.

My grandmother Katherine Stahl-Ohr had paid for maintenance of the family plots and likely inherited them. Her heir was my father, his heir my mother, and at the end of the line: me.

As Cousin Judy was later to say when we eventually learned there were approximately 40 Stahl’s and 30 Ohr’s in the graveyard, “Our family is good at dying.”

I replied that the odds of dying were pretty high.

This was not the kind of sentiment a man headed for a brain scan would like to have. Instead he would like to swell with confidence at the robust ripeness of a brain with blood flowing through pipes untarnished into a brain undiminished, although a brain tumor was one possibility for what was plaguing me.

For very short periods of time, my eyes would lock, as if crossed. I could not focus and next would come short spells of vertigo. How short? Ten to fifteen seconds, I would say, although each episode felt like eternity. So far I had not fallen, but steadied myself, but the last episode had occurred when I was on my mountain bike and witnessed by a friend, Bruce Dangremonde, who made me see my doctor, something I had been avoiding from fear of being told something might be wrong.

For more than 20 years, I also suffered from visual or ocular migraines. These were occurring more and more frequently. Each episode lasted 15 to 20 minutes and began with a spinning dot of light, which grew larger and larger into a spinning rainbow. Eventually the flashing, spinning lights (which reminded me of LSD trips, which I have never taken) got so large they vanished from my visual field. I had been told for two decades and more by medical authority that the visual migraines mean nothing, although no one knew what caused them. But I worried that the increased frequency meant a serious change in my brain.

Brain tumor or not, I decided that if the grave plots could be sold back to the cemetery we would split the money between our living relatives and any relatives of the Stahl family. When I was told there were surviving Stahl’s, I suggested just giving ownership to them, never wanting to have possession in the first place.

Using the Internet, I contacted the cemetery and asked how many graves I owned and how many were occupied and by whom.

How to Screw Up a Brain Scan

When I called up the radiology firm that owned the scanners, I chose them because they had open MRIs. I had two previous closed MRIs, I could tolerate it, but I wondered why, if I didn’t need to. It is sort of like being inserted into a casket where a lot of noise is made.

I arrived on time at the radiology office I had been told to report to. When my name was called they took me to a room and told me to change into scrubs and lock my valuables up.

“It’s a scan of my head, right?” I asked the young woman, puzzled about dressing in scrubs for a brain scan. Although I had not needed to wear scrubs when my sinus were scanned, she nodded and left, leaving me no option but to change into the scrubs provided, which didn’t fit, just like putting them on made no sense.

When I reported for the scan, the technician led me to a machine for a closed MRI.

“I asked for an open MRI,” I said.

“Well, can you do the closed MRI?”

“Of course I can do it, but it isn’t what I asked for.”

“I can give you drugs if being closed up freaks you out.”

“It doesn’t freak me out. I asked for an open MRI. I don’t want drugs, and I have no one with me to drive.”

Changed out of scrubs, I reported to the facility manager, a pleasant, pretty, and robust woman of about 25, who asked me if I was afraid of a closed MRI.

“I’ve had two,” I said, “one of my sinus where my head was enclosed and one of my knee, but that’s not what I asked for.”

“We don’t have an open MRI machine here.”

“So why did your company send me here when I asked for an open MRI?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “So let me arrange for a scan at a place that has the right machine.”

The scan was postponed one day, more than enough time for me to worry about the outcome.

The Lost Ukulele

My cousin Judy’s daughter Lore scanned and attached the deed for my Newark graves. I downloaded and looked it over.

Originally the deed was to one Ferdinand Stahl, a name I had never heard of. In time I deduced he was my maternal great-grandfather. The date of sale: April 4, 1887, or 13 decades ago. My grandmother had taken possession of the grave plots in 1956, while Eisenhower was still President.

A crude diagram accompanying the Woodland Cemetery Deed showed eight graves with four empty.

I called the cemetery but received a recording. I left a message. A few hours later someone from the historical society connected with the cemetery called. They promised me details on the sites, but first I had to prove a great many things – that I was who I said I was, the reason I wanted the information, and where I lived, among them. I also had to tell them what I knew about the people buried there.

While waiting for the information to come, I read on-line articles about the cemetery.

Woodland seems to be in total disrepair with approximately 85,000 souls buried there. Some graves are collapsed. Headstones have been overturned and dogs have run loose over the remains of the dead. Drug vials have been found scattered about in the weeds. Two years before my inheritance was discovered, the body of a murdered man was found partially burned nearby.

Even in the time of Eisenhower, my grandmother had ceased going to the family plot because of fear for her safety. What I inherited was something I didn’t want.

Shortly the historian provided me the information on who was buried in the plots. A shock: there were no unused plots. Another surprise: 13 bodies and one leg were buried in the eight plots. One leg?

Thirteen bodies in eight grave plots – how could this be? In the margins by the names of some of the dead was the annotation “buried deep.” In other word, there were two bodies in one grave. Another grave contained twins stillborn; what a tragedy that must have been.

Three family members had died within three days of one another – likely one of the flu pandemics.

There were two people I knew buried there, and the outrage over the condition of the gravesites made me wish I could clean up Woodland. I felt like getting into my car with a rake and shovel and driving north a thousand miles to repair the damage, for my grandfather Fritz, who was a very dear man, is buried there.

Fritz was a very fine fellow who liked kids. When I was a baby living in his house, he tossed balls back and forth to me. He never tired of it. I toss, he catches and throws back; I could do it all day, so could he. He had a wide grin and had been a butcher until the Depression came along. He was a school crossing guard after the Depression ran him over and when I lived with him. He had a stroke at our dinner table at Vasser Avenue when I was three or four. I was so terrified by his stroke at the dinner table that I went and hid under the house, which was raised on blocks. From under the house, my father Frank retrieved me.

“What about Pop? What about Pop?” I remember asking.

My father had no answer.

My Uncle Leslie was buried in Woodland too. I never knew Uncle Leslie. My father had been told that his oldest brother died chasing a bus and was born with a defective heart. My cousin Connie, before she too departed this world, corrected my misinformation, although it was too late to set the record straight with my father. Over one terrible night in the 1920’s, Leslie had died in bed besides my Uncle Norman and my maternal great-grandmother died the next morning, both now resting in an uncared-for cemetery in Newark.

Not wanting to alarm the two much young brothers, my father Frank and Uncle Milt, my grandparents invented the bus chasing and heart defect to explain Leslie’s death. Apparently the family is very good at keeping secrets because to the day he died, my father believed Leslie died running for a bus, not beside his brother. As for a defective heart, not so either; Leslie had endocarditis, an infection.

Ironic in a way because I was adopted, a fact my family successfully hid from me for 60 years – a very good family at keeping secrets. And surprise, I have a half-sister named Leslie from my birthmother’s family.

After Uncle Leslie died, he left behind a ukulele. The ukulele passed on to my Uncle Norman’s family. Connie and Judy Ohr were riding in a car with their parents and Connie kept strumming the ukulele she had somehow claimed. My Aunt Louise told her to stop, but she didn’t. Her mother took Leslie’s ukulele away, and its whereabouts are unknown every since.

Arab-American Relations at the 7-11

In the morning I woke with my head spinning over all the dead folks who I might soon join depending on my MRI. I dreamed the night before the MRI of young Connie, a very pretty girl when witnessed as a teenager, strumming Leslie’s ukulele and of my own father assuring me that Connie had been wrong, and, yes, Leslie had died chasing a bus. My mind also overflowed with images of Tina shaking with anger over white and wide.

I fetched my 22-ounce coffee and added creamer.

The attractive young women behind the 7-11 counter when I arrived for pre-brain scan coffee was not Tina, who perhaps had quit. I wouldn’t blame her. The woman behind the counter was someone who had become in my mind (over forty purchased cups of coffee) The Queen of the 7-11.

The Queen was in beautiful bloom of youth, with long flowing black hair, which often she left unattended and in a teased, confused mass, as if she had just woke up and forgot about it. The Queen was womanly, proportionate, and young – a potential child bearer.

Unfortunately The Queen smoked cigarettes outside if there were no customers inside and stubbed out the cigarette when she a saw customer coming. She had a boyfriend, who on New Year’s morning called her, and she asked him where he had gone and if he had a good time the night before at the party. She laughed at some of her boyfriend’s presumably drunken antics at the turn of another year.

The Queen would last only two more weeks before she found something better and quit, but on the morning of my second MRI she sat impatiently behind the counter waiting on two girls in headscarves.

A donut sat on wax paper before The Queen, she had wrung it up, but before she could total the amount, one of the Arab girls went back for a second donut.

“Is that all?” The Queen asked impatiently, ready to ring up the sale.

The two girls conferred softly in Arabic. “Wait,” the other Arab girl said and rushed to the candy bar aisle.

The Queen was obviously frustrated with the young ladies. Her head was cocked to one side. She rolled her eyes for me. You could hear the tapping of her shoe on the stone floor and the drumming of her long, clear fingernails on the counter.

“OK, now? All set?” The Queen asked when the Nestle Crunch Bars arrived.

The two girls turned to each other and spoke in Arabic. “Wait,” the first girl said, and went to the Slurpee machine.

“Is that it?” The Queen asked when the Slurpee arrived.

The Arab girls spoke to each other in Arabic and then one said in halting English: “No more.”

The Queen had been looking the girls over during her frustration with obvious disapproval. The girls were a little chubby. The Queen was not chubby or tolerant of chubbiness. The Queen did not believe in being chubby. Her disdain was clear. She was fit and they were not. Moreover they were buying food guaranteed to turn them from chubby to fat.

“Nine twenty-one,” The Queen announced.

“How more?” girl two asked, meaning, “How much?”

Slowly and one syllable at a time, The Queen said: “Nine dol lars and twen ty-one cents?”

The two girls took from their two purses a great deal of change, dumped it on the counter, and began to count.

The Queen mouthed to me, “Jesus Christ!” I smiled back. The Queen mouthed to me, “Oh, my God!” The Queen mouthed to me: “Can you believe this?”

“You want me to count it?” The Queen asked, but the girls didn’t understand her, and one said, “Pardon?”

Several more minutes passed before it was determined the girls did not have sufficient money and lacked a dollar and change. I gave The Queen the difference and went back for a coffee refill.

When the girls had thanked me politely and left, The Queen said, “Goddamn rag heads. Do you believe them?”

The Verdict

For an open MRI of your brain, you sit erect in a chair. A cage is put over your face, although it is called a facemask. Your head is immobilized by padding being put between year head and the cage. You are told not to move. You try to sit still and not cough for 15 minutes or so while you hear buzzes, beeps, and pings – and other mysterious noises you would expect from a satellite in outer space.

“When can I get the results?” I asked on my way out.

“You want to pick them up yourself? We fax them to your doctor.”

“Yes, I want a scan and a copy of the write up,” I told the receptionist.

“Call tomorrow,” she said, “to make sure it’s ready.”

I did not sleep well. I kept thinking of the Arab girls and The Queen. I speculated on if I had a brain tumor would they operate? If they did operate, would it be the kind of cancer Senators McCain and Kennedy had? Would they operate on me while I was awake? Would I be paralyzed or blind? How much time did I have left? And what had happened to Leslie’s ukulele? I remembered then that we had a ukulele when I lived on Vasser Avenue as in infant.

“What are you worrying about? Just how long do you need to live?” I could hear a dream voice saying. “After all, you’re seventy-one.”

“How about another seventy-one years?” I replied. “All lived as if I were sixteen years old.”

The voice did not answer back.

There was no drama that morning at the 7-11, but the extra-large coffee didn’t seem to wake me up. I exercised, had lunch, and called the radiology office. Yes, they said, I could pick up the results.

Try to be calm, I told myself, but I was not calm. I became alarmed. My fate would be decided. It would live or die. I could die and suffer. Perhaps my time had come. How did anyone ever get ready for the time to die? Here I thought I was all prepared and I was not.

When I arrived at the radiology office (the one where they had an open MRI), I asked for my results and was told they weren’t ready.

“But I called,” I said.

The receptionists scanned her computer.

“Not ready,” she said. “Maybe tomorrow.”

“So why did I bother to call?”

The receptionist shrugged.

Fortunately the office manager was nearby and had overheard. “Can you come back in an hour? I’ll have the results ready for you.”

“Thank you,” I said, and went outside to my car where I had a pain in my head that made me wince.

Easy, I told myself, or you’ll give yourself a stroke.

If I died then and there of a stroke, I hadn’t left any directions for my wife. Maybe she’d find the deed to the graves and try to bury me in Newark. I didn’t want to be buried, especially with the leg or “deep.” I made a note to write instructions for what to do after my demise when I got home and drove away to kill time at Barnes & Noble.

They had my results ready when I came back the radiology office. I went to my car and read it. There was nothing I could understand in the report.

On the axial T2 and FLAIR sequences there is 2 and 3 mm focus of high T2/FLAIR SIGNAL in the left centrum semiovale, etc.

“Etc.” in this case means another five hundred words just as impossible for a writer, even a well-educated one, to easily penetrate.

After several hours on the computer after arriving home, I deciphered the jargon and decided it meant I was old.


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