Saturday, April 02, 2005

How My Hair Almost Killed Me

"I don’t know why I’m such a hairy guy.
I’m hairy noon and night.
Hair that’s a fright.
I’m hairy high and low.
Don’t ask me why.
Don’t know."

From the Broadway Musical "Hair".

It was another very busy Saturday lunch at the grill. Mama was running back and forth between the kitchen and the tables out front, her dress white, her face red from the heat of the gas stove in the back. One of her waitresses had failed to show up for work, and would probably not have a job when and if she ever did return.

My brother, Bob, and his wife, Beth, had come home for the weekend. They both taught school at Booker T. Washington High School in Norfolk, Virginia and had made the six hour drive from Hampton Roads to Delway to spend a little time with the family. Beth was originally from Pennsylvania, a Yankee according to all I had learned in my short life, but I quickly took to her because she made time to show me the attention that I so desperately needed at that age. She was a large woman who wore lots of make-up. The night before, I had been in my bed, watching her through the hall as she sat at her dresser, removing the makeup from her face. At one point, she turned and saw me watching and then just continued with her Noxema and cotton balls as if she were not being observed. From time to time, she would look back to see if I was still watching, and of course, I was.

Bob and Beth usually slept-in when they were visiting. It must have been about 11 or so before they showed up at the restaurant. I was working at the store a few feet away, but wanted to go see them. I wasn’t feeling well, though. I went to Daddy and told him that I felt like I needed to throw up, and then had to run outside to do so. He put his hand on my head and said, "You are burning up with a fever." He then sent me next-door to tell my Mom.

I walked in and found that my brother had been pressed into service as a waiter/cash register operator/ short order cook. Beth was sitting at the table at the end of the counter that we usually reserved for family. I walked up to her and she said, "Good morning, honey! How are you?"

"I just threw up. I don’t feel good at all."

She put her hand on my forehead and said, "Oh, my lord! You are hot as a griddle!"

Every time Mama would rush by with her arms full of plates that were equally piled high with food, I would say "Mama" and she would say "What is it? Can’t you see I have my arms full of food?" Finally, I got her to stop, although she was irritated to no end. "What? WHAT?" she asked me.

"I have a fever and I am throwing up, Mama."

"What do you want me to do about it? Can’t you see I am working?"

I went and put my head down on the table. After a few minutes, Beth got up and walked behind the counter to where my brother was sitting. They talked for a few minutes before they both came back down to where I was. My brother found a thermometer and took my temperature! I was very hot…104.5 Fahrenheit!

I could tell that there was alarm about my fever because my brother actually got my mother to stop and talk to him about it. I heard her saying that she certainly couldn’t go anywhere and that Daddy couldn’t go either, so it would have to be someone else. She needed Bob to take me, but he was also needed to make short orders and to run the register. It fell to Beth to take me to the doctor.

She looked absolutely startled as she was handed 2 twenty-dollar bills and told that she would have to drive me to Rose Hill to see Dr. Hick. She had no idea where Rose Hill was located nor how to find this Dr. Hick’s office. She was not exactly sure, I imagine, that this was how she had planned to spend part of her weekend in North Carolina.

We got into the Oldsmobile and headed out. My head was swimming by this time, but I knew the route to Rose Hill and could direct Beth on where to turn to get us there. We headed east toward Magnolia, then turned at Concord Church. A few miles further, we took the left fork in the road and then arrived in Rose Hill just a little while afterwards. Finding Dr. Hick’s office was a little bit trickier. I had only been there a couple of times. We finally had to stop and ask directions.

When we found the office, we got out of the car and walked into the clinic. There was a main door that lead into a vestibule with two doors. Above one door was a sign that read "Whites" and above the other "Coloreds". Both doors led to waiting rooms that were full of people. My sister-in-law looked at the signs and her face went white with amazement. She had never seen Jim Crow’s vestiges, much less the actual "separate but equal" facilities. She said to me that it was 1972 and that she couldn’t believe that there were still facilities like this where whites and blacks were separated from one another. We took our places in the very crowded white waiting room after signing in.

The wait was interminable. An hour passed, then another. For three hours, we sat, awaiting our turn to be seen, my fever spiking higher as time passed. We watched as people who had been there before us were called back and then walked out a few minutes later rubbing their hips where Dr. Hick had given them injections. Finally, my name was called and we stood to go back into the examining rooms. I noticed as we got back into the main hallway there that both waiting rooms opened into the same hallway and saw that white and black people were distributed evenly throughout the examining rooms with opened doors. The nurse led us into a room and said that someone would be with us momentarily. My sister-in-law thanked her and took a seat next to me in separate but equally uncomfortable straight-back chairs.

Another fifteen minutes passed and no one showed up. Eventually, after about forty-five minutes, a nurse walked in and asked us what seemed to be the problem. Beth spoke up and told her that I had been throwing up and that I had a fever of 104.5º F. The nurse looked at me with an expression of worry and concern and got a thermometer. She put it under my tongue and again left the room. A few minutes later, she returned, retrieved the thermometer and announced that my fever was still at 104º F. She said that Dr. Hick would be with us right away.

We continued to sit in the small examining room. After a few minutes, the door to the ante-room opened and Dr. Hick strode into the room. He stopped short, took a look at me, and muttered "damn billy-goat" and turned on his heels and walked back out of the room. My sister-in-law and I looked at each other quizzically and then laughed. We figured he was trying to lighten the mood a bit.

The door opened again and it was the nurse. "Y’all have to leave. I am sorry."

"What? What do you mean we have to leave?" asked Beth.

"Its his hair. His hair is too long. Dr. Hick will not treat him with hair that long. He said that if you want to go across the street to get a haircut and then come back, he will be happy to treat you, but unless you do that, he will not see you and you will have to leave. He said he would even pay for the haircut. I am sorry, but that is what he told me."

"You have got to be kidding!" My sister-in-law was incredulous…how could a doctor not treat a 12 year old boy with a fever of 104ºF because his hair was too long? This seemed to be the most absurd thing she had ever witnessed in her life.

"No, ma’am. Y’all have to leave right now. We have other patients who are waiting to be seen."

My sister-in-law’s face registered absolute shock at hearing that she was being asked to leave a medical establishment in a town she didn’t know because she was with a boy with hair too long for the doctor’s liking. She stammered, "Is there another doctor in this town?"

The nurse said with a dismissive tone, "Well, there is Dr. Matthews, but I don’t know if he will see you either."

"Where is his office?"

"I am sorry. We are very busy here. Y’all have to leave now."

We walked outside. Beth was stunned. She was so angry that tears had begun to fall. We got into the car and drove down the street, while she tried to figure out what to do. We spotted a phone booth, but there was no phone book inside the cover that dangled by a chain. Finally, Beth decided to stop at a gas station and ask for the location of Dr. Matthews’ clinic.

We were directed to a home a few blocks away. We drove up to the parking lot and could see that there was a clinic built onto the side of an old ante-bellum mansion. We walked up to the door and found that the clinic was closed. The sign on the door indicated that Dr. Matthews only held hours from Monday through Friday, and not on weekends. At that, my sister-in-law started to sob outright. She had been indirectly insulted, thrown out of a clinic and now was in a town she didn’t know, out of alternatives with a twelve year old boy whose hair was too long and who had a fever of 104ºF. I said that I could go get my hair cut as Dr. Hick had suggested, but she stomped her foot and said to me, "Don’t you ever let any ass-hole tell you how to live your life like that man tried to do. It is just plain wrong. How can he do that, being a doctor and all?"

While we were talking, a young white gentleman walked around the corner to where we were standing and asked us if he could help us. Beth, who by now, looked a bit like a raccoon from the running of her mascara, spoke up that we had been hoping to see Dr. Matthews because I had a fever of 104º. She went on to tell him the story of how we had waited for 3 hours and that she was from Norfolk, just visiting and that she didn’t know what to do and she started to cry again.

The man spoke up, "Just why did Dr. Hick kick you out?"

"Because my hair is too long!" I said.

He broke out into laughter, shaking his head in disbelief and said, "Just a minute. I’ll go get my key to the clinic. Allow me to introduce myself….I am Dr. Matthews."

"Pleased to meet you, Dr. Matthews. My name is Beth Hudson and this is my brother-in-law Ronnie Hudson. He lives in Delway, but I am just visiting from Norfolk. Thank you so much for being so kind and considerate!"

"Delway? Are you one of the Hudsons that run that restaurant over there?"

"Yes, sir. That is my mama’s place," I said.

"Is the food good there? My wife has been pestering me to go there for lunch on a Sunday. She has heard that your mama puts out quite a spread for Sunday lunch. Particularly the desserts….seems someone mentioned her Italian Creme Cake or something like that."

"Yes, sir…that is the place."

"Hold on. I’ll be right back with my key."

With his kindness, my sister-in-law felt much better. As he turned to walk away, she thanked him again. A few minutes later, he returned, inserted the key into the door to the clinic and opened the door, inviting us to follow him in. We walked in as he illuminated the fluorescent lamps in the waiting room and then directed us back to the examining room. After a few minutes, he began his examination, and took my temp. Sure enough, it was back up to 104.5º. He announced that he thought I had a bacterial infection of the throat and sinuses and that he was going to give me an injection. He wanted to know if I was allergic to penicillin. I told him that I had been given a shot of penicillin when I was small and that I couldn’t walk for several days. He thought that a bit strange, but didn’t want to risk a reaction, so he gave me a shot of tetracycline, and told me to gargle with warm salt water to relieve the pain of my throat.

As we were preparing to leave, Beth asked him how much we owed him. He said that he and his wife would take it out in trade at my mother’s place the following day. He smiled and led us back out of the door. Just before we got into the car, Beth said, "I do hope to see you tomorrow, Dr. Matthews. You have been more than kind! Thank you so much."

She started the car and turned to me. "What a day!" she said.



Blogger Lenslinger said...

What an intriguing story, it reminds me of my own awkward teendom. Thanks for visitng my site, I'm enjoying yours...

4/02/2005 05:22:00 PM  
Blogger Vickie said...

Okay, so I'm a little late. Your sister-in-law was absolutely right in not allowing you to cut your hair to satisfy that old scumbag. Dr. Matthews sounds like he's worth his weight in gold. You never did say whether he showed up for lunch the next day. I certainly hope he did. Thanks so much for sharing this story. By the way, I loved the quote from Hair. I knew the song well.

6/15/2005 09:59:00 PM  

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