III: Black Renaissance
That evening I was invited to dinner at Louise Thompson’s house in Harlem. There were other guests, and her mother had prepared a wonderful meal. Everybody was gay. But suddenly, in the midst of dinner, the conversation at table floated a million miles away from me, off into space. I could see everyone clearly, hear everything that was said, but I didn’t seem to be there at all. Still, if anyone spoke to me or looked toward me, I nodded, answered something in a monosyllable, smiled automatically, and tried to keep on eating. But I couldn’t eat any more. Not a mouthful. I felt as if I was going to die. And I didn’t want to die right then and there at my friends’ table, so I tried to wait until dinner was over.
As soon as dinner was over, I excused myself, saying I had forgotten I had an important appointment, and that I would have to leave right away. Outside, I hailed a taxi and drove to my doctor’s office in the Dunbar Apartments. It was about eight o’clock at night, clear and starry.
On entering the courtyard of the Dunbar Apartments, I met E. Simms Campbell and his aunt, Miss Allie Simms, coming out. I hadn’t seen them for a long time. They spoke to me pleasantly and asked when I would come to dinner with them.
I said: “Sometime in the next two or three years.”
I meant to say, two or three weeks. I knew I said years, but I couldn’t correct myself. My voice seemed far away and the whole thought lost in such a void that I couldn’t correct myself, although I was conscious of my error. So I left them standing there astonished and went on into my doctor’s office.
The doctor was just about to leave. He asked me what was the matter, and I said I felt as if I had gone to the other world. He smiled, gave me some ammonia to drink, made me take off my clothes and stretch out on a long table covered with black leather. The coldness of the table and the sharpness of the ammonia water brought me back to life. And then I really felt very sick—the way I had felt in Mexico when my father said: “Hurry up,” and anger like a tidal wave had laid me in my bed for a week.
Violent anger makes me physically ill, I guess, although I’ve only been that angry twice in my life. All that day I had kept trying not to feel angry or hurt or amazed or bewildered over the morning on Park Avenue—and I didn’t feel any of those things consciously—for I had loved very much that gentle woman who had been my patron and I wanted to understand what had happened to us that she had sent me away as she did. But now I was violently and physically ill, with my stomach turning over and over each time I thought about that morning at all. And there was no rationalizing anything. I couldn’t. The doctor felt my pulse and listened to my heart a long time. He took my temperature. Then he said he found nothing seriously the matter. He advised rest and a light diet.
“Have you been eating in cheap restaurants of late?” he asked.
No, I hadn’t. I smiled. I had been eating very well. But I couldn’t, for the life of me, tell the doctor about Park Avenue, or why I was ill. I couldn’t open my mouth about it. At the very thought, nausea swept over me! I thought she’d liked me, my patron. But I guess she only liked my writing, and not even that any more.
I went home to New Jersey, but I couldn’t sleep. The next day I couldn’t eat. For a week or more I couldn’t eat anything at all. So I went back to the doctor. He said I had better have some x-rays made to see what was the matter, since he could detect nothing. (And of course, all the while, I knew what was the matter, but couldn’t say it, for if I did, the world started to float away.) So I went and had the x-rays.
The doctor suggested that I go to Rudolph Fisher for the x-ray photographs, but I knew that my writer-friend, Bud, would be full of clever witticisms of a sort that I could never find repartee for when I was in a normal state of mind, let alone now—with my mind in the far-off spaces and my stomach doing flops. So I went to another Harlem specialist I did not know.
He shared an office with a fellow doctor. He charged me a big fee, payable in advance. When he had the fee, he took a picture of my stomach and then gave me an enormous container of white liquid to drink, looked at me in the fluoroscope, and said to come back the following day exactly at noon, because the pictures had to be taken a certain number of hours apart, exactly.
The next day I went back and he took some more pictures and gave me some more white, chalky liquid to drink and said to be back at exactly six that evening for the final photographs. At six I was in his office—but no doctor. He had forbidden me to eat anything, so by now—the body being contrary—I had begun to have an appetite. I sat there wishing he would come so I could go drink some milk, at least. But he didn’t come and seven o’clock was fast approaching. The doctor who shared his office asked me if I had had an appointment.
I said: “Yes, for six.”
He said he had to lock up the office and go to dinner, but suggested that I run around the corner to the barber shop and see if the specialist was there, since he thought my doctor had probably gone for a hair cut.
Well, that made my stomach turn over again. I said I never knew a patient was supposed to go look for his doctor in a barber shop, especially when the doctor himself had made an explicitly stressed appointment for a certain hour.
This seemed to make the other physician mad. He said: “Well, you’ll have to come back tomorrow, since it’s time for me to go to dinner, and I’m going to lock up the office.”
I said I was sorry, but I would not go until I had seen my doctor, and if he wished to lock me up in the office, all right!
About that time, however, the x-ray specialist came rushing in, and, without offering an apology or even donning his white coat, he took the final pictures, and seemed in a hurry to get away again. Perhaps he had a heavy date.
When my own doctor saw the plates, he said they showed nothing physically wrong with my stomach. But since I still could take only a very light diet, puzzled, he advised me to have a laboratory examination, so he sent me to a group of specialists on 125th Street. They took samples of my blood, my urine, my spittle and whatever else there was about me to take, charged me a high fee—in advance—and a week later reported to my physician that I had a Japanese tapeworm.
My doctor was amazed to hear this, and began to look through books on Asiatic diseases. He said the laboratory diagnosis must be in error, but that we had better consult with a famous, but very busy, specialist who was a good friend of his on the staff of the hospital where they both served. Meanwhile, I kept on being sick.
Shortly, it was arranged that I see the famous white specialist, who kindly consented to check on my case for his colored colleague. And since I was a Negro, he would charge me only a modest fee. An appointment was made for me outside office hours. Ironically enough, the office of this celebrated specialist was on Park Avenue near my former patron’s home, so I returned to familiar ground.
His fee (for a Negro) was ten dollars. As soon as I arrived, a nurse-secretary ushered me into a large room where the doctor was lying on a couch in an old dressing gown, looking very tired—no doubt from a hard day’s practice. As I entered, he turned on his side and glanced up at me wearily. When I was about three feet from his couch, he said: “Stand still!”
I stopped. For a split second he looked me in the eye.
“You’ve got no Japanese tapeworm,” he barked.
That was all. I was ushered out.
The nurse collected ten dollars.