Last weekend I visited the Howl Festival at Tompkins Square Park in the East Village. Named after the poem by Allen Ginsberg, this was a celebration of art, music, and dance. It was a beautiful day, and a nice opportunity to contemplate how New York City has evolved in the past two decades. When I moved from Jersey to the West Side of Manhattan in 1984 the City was darker and more forbidding. Aggressive beggars were on every corner, graffiti covered the subways, and stepping into the street risked death from kamikaze cab drivers. Central Park was a dust bowl ruled by hoodlums and people walking large dogs.
I started moonlighting in emergency rooms in 1989 in the last year of the Koch administration. I had finished my medical training and wanted to get rid of the student loans that hung around my neck. I worked 24 hour shifts in a quiet, rural hospital in Orange County where I saw ski accidents in winter and fishing accidents in summer. But that didn’t match the parade of sick and injured humanity that came off the streets during my night shifts in the ERs of New York City.
Most of the routine was made up of sickle cell crises, asthma attacks, cuts and bruises, drug overdoses, venereal disease, elevated blood pressures, and diabetes out of control. This was punctuated by violence and seasoned with New York City’s street culture. One evening an ambulance came in with someone who had fallen on the subway tracks. The first stretcher had the upper portion of the young man’s body and the second stretcher had both legs severed at the thighs. On another night a tall pimp wearing a fur coat carried in one of his sex workers with a badly mangled leg. Everyone working the ER that shift peeked out to see his Cadillac idling at the curb.
I worked mostly weekends and saw a lot of holiday related visits. The Fourth of July brought people with fireworks injuries to the hands and eyes while food festivals brought people vomiting. One Halloween a group of party goers was attacked by a machete wielding gang, and when they came in covered with blood we couldn’t tell who were the injured and who just had costumes.
Late at night a man walked in after being shot in Central Park. His arm was covered in blood and a bullet formed a lump under his skin. In those days the thickly forested area known as the Ramble was a favorite pick-up spot. He laughed as he said to me, “I went looking for a gay man and found a straight shooter!”
At the Howl Festival I wandered among the artists, dancers, and musicians and pondered the immense changes that had taken place in the city over the years I’ve lived here. Central Park is a green showpiece and fireworks are banned on the streets July 4th. You can’t smoke in bars and restaurants, tenements are giving way to glass walled condos, and there is a bank on every corner. At the Howl you can still see the grit and creative spark that made New York City the place that I loved back in the 1980’s.
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