The Doc


Evelyn Toynton

   For ten years, I was reluctant to write about him, afraid he might sound like a Horatio Alger character, in however unorthodox a form. All the ingredients were there: the poor boy, orphaned young, who’d fallen to the depths, triumphed against the odds, gone on to perform virtuous deeds and grow rich (at least comparatively speaking). In his own outlandish way, he’d always shown what Alger would undoubtedly have called pluck.

   It definitely wasn’t the kind of story I was used to telling. If he’d died in a cockroach-ridden slum or a madhouse, I could have shown him as a victim of the social forces lined up against him; that might have seemed more acceptable, less tainted by the ethos of Reader’s Digest and the Republican party. But however little his story fit into my aesthetic, I couldn’t let go of it altogether. The fact is, I was proud of him for being that Horatio Alger hero—nobody else I knew had punched his way through so many obstacles—even if he was never proud of himself.    His father, a committed Communist who quit a white-collar job to work as a janitor, died of a malignant melanoma when he was barely a year old. After that he lived with his widowed mother and his Yiddish-speaking grandmother in a fifth-floor walkup, with the bathtub in the kitchen, in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. By the time he was ten, all the other Jews in the neighborhood had prospered sufficiently to move away; the last remaining Yeshiva boy for blocks around, complete with ringlets and prayer shawl, he was regularly chased and roughed up by the Black kids who had replaced them. My first reaction when he told me that was to be indignant on his behalf; my gently reared friends and I sympathized with each other extravagantly over much lesser childhood affronts. But he laughed as he told me the story; he wasn’t part of our culture of self-pity.    In his early teens, his mother married again, to a strict ex-military man who had no great fondness for her son-—he was already a troublemaker, a rebel—and they moved to a more respectable neighborhood. But a year later she was diagnosed with breast cancer. As she grew paler and thinner, she was shunned by the other women on the block; cancer was rumored to be contagious in those days. They crossed the street when they saw her, she was no longer welcome in their houses (that was one thing he didn’t laugh about). On the last night of her life—he was fifteen—his stepfather was at a sales conference in New Jersey, and she begged him to stay home with her, she didn’t want to be alone. She was very weak by then, she couldn’t get out of bed. But he had stayed in for the past two nights, his friends were expecting him. So he left, and when he returned, shortly after midnight, she was dead. No amount of good he did in his next forty-eight years ever really erased that guilt.    His stepfather wanted him out, so as soon as he turned sixteen he moved to another slum, another walkup with a bathtub in the kitchen, in what was then called Hell’s Kitchen. He took odd jobs to make the rent—as a busboy, a packer in a warehouse. But having skipped a few grades in school, he entered City College that fall, majoring in English, because his mother’s death had started him writing poetry. It was one of his classmates, a math prodigy from his old high school—a genius, he said —who introduced him to heroin, which offered more immediate solace than metaphors. A few months later, the prodigy died from an overdose, which scared him, but by then it was too late; he was shooting up three, four, five times a day. (I once asked him if his Aunt Blanche, his father’s sister, had been an emotional support after his mother’s death. “Nah,” he said, “I just relied on Uncle Heroin.”)    Instead of returning to the warehouse, he started dealing drugs to support his habit, and turned out to have quite a knack for it; soon it was a booming business. (That’s not something I’m particularly proud of him for, though I had no moral qualms at the time.) By the time we met, when we were both 19, he owned a Harley Davidson that he joked was the biggest phallic symbol on the block.    I had just returned from a year at University College in London; I was staying with my older sister in New York before heading back to Bennington for my senior year. Though my sister didn’t smoke grass herself, when I said I wanted some she knew where to get it—a guy who used to deliver it to her friend Katy at their dorm at Columbia Teachers’ College. So she phoned and left a message for him with a female who answered. Two days later, while she was out at a job interview, the phone rang. A male voice asked who I was, and when I told him I was Bunny’s sister, he said, “Oh shit. Oh fuck. If I’d known you were there, I would have called back sooner, but the message just said Bunny phoned, so I put it off, because your sister’s kind of an asshole, you know what I mean, man?” Unfortunately, I did know what he meant, so I was more startled than offended. He had seen my photo in my sister’s room, he told me, when he was delivering grass to Katy once; Katy had told him that was Bunny’s little hippie sister, and he’d wanted to give me a present: had I gotten the stuff he’d sent me in England? Which explained the mysterious, badly wrapped parcel full of grass, with an illegible scrawled note inside, that convinced me I’d been set up for a bust by Her Majesty’s customs officers. I had quickly put it in the rubbish bin outside the building and vacuumed the whole flat; even when night came, and the police hadn’t burst in, I didn’t retrieve the package.    He coaxed me into coming to his apartment to get the grass, assuring me it was perfectly safe, there were two other girls there, so finally I went, sitting bolt upright on a rickety chair, my legs crossed primly at the ankles. The two girls were stretched out languidly on the couch opposite, their faces blankly peaceful, and never spoke a word in the hour I stayed. (I thought they were just too blasé to bother with me; I had never seen a stoned junkie before.)    Meanwhile he beamed delightedly at me; he offered me coffee, a line of coke, a poppy seed bagel. He wanted to know how much it cost to go to Bennington, if I had a boyfriend, if I’d ever had the hots for another woman, or my younger brother; if I ever acted like a bitch, whether I believed in hell. I was more than just shy in those days, I was half-scared much of the time, of not only other people but the racing thoughts that kept me awake at night: everything from convoluted theories about the meaning of meaning to arguments with myself about whether I was crazy, or evil, or maybe didn’t exist at all. And I’d grown used to English conversation, in which no one ever asked direct questions, everything was slightly clouded with reticence or overlaid with irony. I had often worried, especially when stoned on hash, that maybe I had inferred wrongly what had just been implied; I spent a lot of time wishing I could go back and clarify matters. Now, with this scruffy, bear-like person firing questions at me, it seemed only natural, the simplest thing in the world, to give him straight answers. Later I heard some of my English friends describe a similar feeling after their first encounters with New Yorkers – a sense of being sprung free, of the fog clearing. Only I didn’t feel it with other people in the city. I’m not sure I’d ever felt it with any male before, that sense of expanding into what I thought might be my real self. (Maybe that’s another reason I felt the urge to tell this story: it’s a tale of my own liberation.)    Back at Bennington for my senior year, my friends had all graduated, my beloved professor had left, I hated my thesis adviser’s dry, academic approach to the Romantics. So I started going down to New York on weekends. I was still in love, or thought I was, with my ex-boyfriend in England, who had already found someone else, while heroin had pretty much suppressed my new friend’s libido, so after a few half-hearted fucks our nights together mostly consisted of lying in the dark on his bed, rambling on to each other about whatever came into our heads. It was like talking to yourself, only better – telling things you never thought you’d say out loud. Once I even confessed my darkest secret: that maybe there was something wrong with me, boys didn’t fall in love with me, maybe I shouldn’t have been born a girl. “I know you’re serious, man,” he said, “I can see you really mean that, but I gotta tell you, I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.”    Sometimes we went for drives on the Harley at two or three or four in the morning, barreling down the West Side Highway or the East River Drive at 80 miles an hour. I would never have wanted him to go slower; it was pure elation, the highest of highs—unlike heroin, which, apart from the initial rush, I found the most boring drug ever. “I don’t see what you like about this stuff. You can’t think, you can’t feel, what’s the point?” “That’s the point,” he said. But I was not so divorced from my upbringing as to be free of reforming zeal; not only did I refuse to try it again after those first few times, I nagged, I raged, I stormed around, yelling that I wasn’t going to sit by and watch him kill himself. Once, in the middle of the night, I broke all the needles in his apartment, so he couldn’t shoot up. Staring at the shards in my lap, he said, “I would have killed anyone else who did that.”    Except he probably wouldn’t have. Though he owned a gun —which should have horrified me, but it just seemed part of the job—he was the only person who ever had it stuck in his face: one of his customers, another junkie, in need of a fix but without the money to pay for it, grabbed the gun from its hiding place. It can’t have seemed all that funny at the time, but he made it into another of his jokes. Then he put on a scratchy LP he’d bought in a junk shop, of John Gielgud reading Shakespeare’s sonnets. “See?” he said. “I don’t want you to think junkies can’t be intellectuals too.”    Of course there was the great class divide between us, but somehow he never seemed as alien to me as—at least at times—I evidently did to him. For years he regarded me as dangerously naïve, in urgent need of lessons in reality: “The moving guy was drunk at 10 in the morning, he’s scratching his balls and belching, and you’re fluttering around saying [making his voice high and prissy], ‘Oh dear, do please be careful with that painting.’”    On Saturday afternoons, when I arrived from Vermont, his place was full of people milling around, waiting to buy his wares. All sorts of people showed up: earnest philosophy students carrying volumes of Heidegger, hippies in tie-dyed t-shirts and beads, tattooed street thugs, even a few preppy-looking girls in pleated skirts and Etienne Aigner loafers. Once, a nervously blinking guy hoping to trade some belts he’d made for grass started showing me the different buckles he’d used, asking my opinion. Immediately, from across the room, came a bark: “Keep away from the chick.” When my girlfriends and I reminisce about our youth, I always joke that that was one of the high points of mine.    Thirty years later, a doctor, a professor of medicine, with a string of initials after his name, many published papers in peer-reviewed journals, he’d say, “I went from being an illegal dope dealer to being a legal dope dealer.”    I can’t claim any credit for his becoming a doctor, but I accidentally provided one push in that direction. Two years after we’d met, he’d been busted for dealing, though somehow he managed to get off with a misdemeanor charge, and afterwards, while weaning himself off heroin, he was supporting himself as a mailman. Meanwhile I had been chivvied into marriage to a man I kept trying and failing to love, a Harvard-educated doctor who, when we paid a visit to New York, was affronted at having to climb up four flights of stairs to meet some scruffy-looking guy who delivered mail for a living. After a few minutes of drumming his fingers on the table, he looked at his watch, yawning, and announced that he’d made a reservation at a French restaurant for dinner; we’d have to be off. “Nice meeting you, pal,” he said at the door, with the casual contempt of a rich boy with two Harvard degrees talking to someone with a bathtub in the kitchen. Later my friend told me he’d gone walking through the streets that night, smarting from the humiliation, and said to himself, “If that asshole can be a doctor, I can be a doctor.” And he signed up for pre-med courses at the Columbia School for General Studies.    After his graduation from mailmanship and medical school, six years later, followed by residencies in hematology and oncology, he wound up working at a famous cancer institute. But he also established a cancer clinic in the county hospital, where he offered the only cutting-edge cancer treatments available to Medicaid patients in New York State. (This is where my pride really kicks in. I visited that clinic several times, I talked to the patients, the other doctors, the nurses; I trotted around after him on his rounds, and realized that he was saving the lives—a phrase he never used—of people who probably would have died otherwise.)    About a third of the clinic’s patients were prisoners, who arrived in shackles, and to whom he was uncharacteristically polite, while baiting the guards who’d accompanied them: “This must be a really cushy assignment for you, right? How much does the state of New York pay you two to bring a 90-pound cancer patient here and sit on your ass in my waiting room all day?” Sometimes he lied to Medicaid about the treatments he was using in the clinic, because they wouldn’t cover the ones he thought best; on one occasion, he even smuggled a man in for an overnight stay under a false name, that of someone entitled to be there.    After his death, patients from both the clinic and the private hospital wrote about the “miracles” he’d performed for them. A junior doctor wrote, “He was the most generous, big-hearted, brilliant boss I’ve ever had, and I’ll never have another like him.” Even the nurses, who used to complain about his language—entering a room where a patient was having a seizure, he’d once yelled, “Would one of you Florence Nightingales get your ass in here?"—said how much they missed him. At his memorial service, a patient from the clinic cried. "At first,” he said, “when I’d hear the doc yelling and swearing in the hall, I was scared of him. But later on, if I heard him yelling down his cell phone, I knew he was yelling for one of us, he was advocating for one of us, and one day he might be doing that for me.”    But though it would be pretty to paint him as a fully reformed character, a heterodox saint, the truth is that he remained a hustler and something of a crook all his life. Not only did he lie to Medicaid, he took lots of perks from the drug companies, allowing them to fly him to a luxury hotel in the south of France for a “conference” where they presented some drug he had no intention of ever using. Or he would invite the doctors he worked with to very expensive dinners paid for by the pharmaceutical rep, having promised to mention some new drug he was supposed to promote. I was at two of those dinners—fantastic food, the best in the city where he lived, some of which he had put in doggy bags for the prisoners—and what he actually did was tell them not to prescribe the drug in question any time soon; he suspected that certain studies praising it had been funded by the drug companies. At least it was Big Pharma he was ripping off, rather than his patients. But he also wheedled the staff on airplanes to move him into first class by telling elaborate stories about his proneness to deep vein thrombosis or other imaginary medical conditions.    He was always in search of a bargain, he loved to haggle. Once he took us to Orchard Street to buy socks for my husband—my second, current husband, whom “the doc” loved and was loved by in return. In the first shop we entered, my husband asked the price of some socks in the window. Fifty cents a pair, the man behind the counter told him. “Well, that’s certainly reasonable,” my husband said. I must have murmured assent, because he dragged us out on the street and told us to keep our fucking mouths shut. “How’m I supposed to get the price down if you come out with shit like that?” He led us into another shop, where we kept our fucking mouths shut while he and the proprietor insulted each other in alternating English and Yiddish for a quarter of an hour, having a wonderful time: “If I want to pay 50 cents, I can go to Bloomingdale’s” …. “Get out of here; go, go, you’re giving me a heart attack.” In the end we got the socks for forty-three cents per pair.    Even when he was very well off he hated to spend money on himself. He wore horrible shiny polyester shirts and ties, and his suits never fit right, because they had started life as someone else’s. I once asked him when he’d last had a new suit, and he said, “For my Bar Mitzvah.” It may have been the truth. At his memorial service, a woman who’d worked with him remembered how, when he’d been invited to speak at some prestigious medical conference, she’d told him he had to get a decent suit, he couldn’t represent the institute in a jacket two sizes too large for him. A few days later he reported proudly that he’d bought himself a very nice, well-fitting suit: he’d found it at the Junior League thrift shop. In the last month of his life, in extreme pain from the cancer that was killing him, he flew to Manhattan to visit his cousin, and instead of getting a cab from the airport took the subway and then a bus into the city. Yet when, after I’d phoned him repeatedly at the clinic, only to have him tell me four times that he couldn’t talk, I should phone back in ten minutes, I blurted out on my fifth call, “Can you lend us $300,000?"—our house sale had fallen through, and we were about to lose the place we wanted to buy—he said, "Sure. Is that all you wanted to ask? I’ll talk to you later, I gotta go.”    In this post Me-Too era, he certainly would have been in trouble for making sexist jokes, some of them in extremely poor taste. He might also be called a sexual predator, or at least a man who exploited his power: he had affairs with two of his employees, though not at the same time. One of them he fell in love with, and was shattered when she broke it off. His wife, who’d never seemed to like him much, who had an embarrassing habit of putting him down in front of guests (my husband and I blamed her entirely for their miserable relationship, which was probably a little unfair, but maybe only a little), found the poems he had written about this lost love and threw him out of the house. That was the end of the marriage, though he continued to run her errands, pay her bills, even walk her dog. When I yelled at him for acting like a slave, he shrugged: “If you’ve felt like you deserved to be punished your whole life, it’s almost a relief when somebody else thinks so too…”    I have not yet mentioned the great tragedy of his life, the one besides which all other sorrows paled: the death of his beloved middle child when the boy was fourteen. This was the boisterous, eternally rebellious child who was uncannily like him, “only,” as he said, sobbing, “he was happy.” He had just returned on the red-eye from giving a talk in LA, and the family was heading to their summer house for the weekend; his daughter, who’d received her learner’s license the week before, was driving. He got into the back seat with the fourteen-year-old and announced that he was going to sleep; his wife sat next to his daughter with their younger son on her lap. When she drowsed off for a minute, his daughter did too, and the car crashed into a barrier, sending his son hurtling out the rear window. Before the ambulance arrived, he tried frantically to resuscitate him, breathing into his mouth, pumping on his chest, but it was useless, he knew it was useless; the boy had died on impact.    He opened the clinic two years later, and named it after his son; he survived for thirteen years after that death, but he never got over it. At the end, when, an oncologist with pancreatic cancer, he was finally sure that all the experimental treatments he’d imported from Mexico, Germany, Israel, all the agony he’d put himself through, had been for nothing (“I had to do it, though,” he said, “after all the times I tortured my patients”), he told me that if only he could believe he’d see Jonah again he wouldn’t mind dying.    But he couldn’t believe it; he couldn’t believe in any religion, least of all the Orthodox Judaism whose punitive strictures had been rammed down his throat for his first thirteen years. He had been told that if he masturbated he was murdering Jewish babies, and when he died he’d be boiled alive in all the semen he’d wasted by sinning; that if he ate anything non-kosher, God (whose name he wasn’t allowed to pronounce) would hate him in this world and torture him through eternity in the next. When his wife turned religious, not long after their marriage, he begged the people he worked with, and even his patients’ relatives—even his car mechanic—always to page him on Saturday mornings, so he could leave the synagogue in the middle of the service.    Which is not to say that he’d renounced his Jewishness; he was the most Jew-obsessed Jew I’ve ever known, and constantly accused me, for the 43 years I knew him, of not being Jewish enough. First of all, I was a German Jew, which, according to him, was barely one step away from being a Nazi; second, I’d had no real religious education; third, unlike him, I didn’t look particularly Jewish, so people often didn’t recognize me as such. All those things were causes for reproach. He, who would work any scam to get out of temple early, would phone me in England and yell, “It’s Tu Bi Shevat. Do you even know what that is?” And I’d say of course I did, and then Google it after he’d hung up.    When, a few years ago, my husband decided to have his DNA tested, having always suspected he had Viking blood—he was right, he did—I had mine done too, and was informed that I was “100% European Jewish.” I wished with all my heart that the doc were still alive, so that I could have gloated over my results and proposed that he be tested too, to see if he was as purebred as I was. But then I often wish with all my heart that he were still alive. Though ours was never a love affair, it was in its way a great romance. We never got bored with each other, or disillusioned, or fed up; we never even had a falling out (though once, when he was two hours late, I threw a jugful of water at him). And our solidarity was unshakeable: we were always, completely, on each other’s side.    The other day I found a picture of him from 1969, his junkie days; he is at Coney Island, in a grungy-looking plaid lumberjack shirt, he has filthy fingernails and a scruffy beard, his hair is in his eyes, he has his arm around a girl and a cigarette dangling from his mouth. On the back is written, “To Dearest. A good and true friend for always. From I hope your good and true friend for always.” For over forty years, we always called each other “dearest” (which enraged his wife: “I don’t want to be dear when somebody else is dearest”). Since his death I have never said that word out loud.