Life is a series of humiliations.
Maybe it’s neurotic, but I have much stronger recollections of humiliations suffered — large and small, real or imagined — than I do of events that were celebratory.
For example, my only surviving memory from ages 0-5 was of a horrid moment at a Horn & Hardart Automat in New York City.
For those born after the war between Italy and Ethiopia, who know nothing of those American icons, let me provide some history: For much of the 20th century, the Automat was America’s largest restaurant chain, feeding 800,000 people a day.
Every Automat was cavernous and ornately bedecked with mirrors and marble — but there were no waiters.
The tunafish sandwiches and wedges of apple pie were housed in chrome-and-glass coin-operated little boxes. Each item was priced and the glass door sprung open when the proper number of coins was inserted. The last of the Automats, these magnificent "giant vending machines," closed in 1991. There is a 35-foot section from the original Automat on display at the Smithsonian Institute.
It was magic land for a 5 year-old, and I was so proud when my mother entrusted me with 2 nickels to purchase my own slice of cherry pie. Unfortunately, the box was too high and I asked a man for help. I gave him my two nickels, he inserted them and peered down at me for a third as the price was fifteen cents.
It was a crisis too horrible to recall even now. The man was ugly and loud. He said that I was a dreadful little boy. What was my upbringing? He was a childhood dragon come to life. I was too frightened to cry and could only look helplessly to my mother back at our table.
It took days of mother-comforting to help me survive that humiliation.
Fast-forward a decade to my next major humiliation: I was 15, making my annual appearance at Aqueduct Racetrack with my father and his racetrack buddies.
It was the final race and we were betting on a long-shot filly named Bright Goldie. The odds on her were 45-1, and I decided to watch the race standing at the rail right on the finish line. The race ended in a virtual dead-heat. The stewards flashed "Photo" on the Tote Board but there was no doubt in my mind. Bright Goldie had won the race by an inch or two and I dashed upstairs to give my father and his friends the wondrous news.
I was Lazarus returning from the dead to tell all: "Our horse won, our horse won."
It took about ten minutes for the official results. Just as I said, Bright Goldie won, and she rewarded her backers by paying $97 for each $2 bet.
The 15 minutes of excitement proved too much for this lad. (I was clutching a $5 win ticket in my hand). Later, my father told me that I passed out cold when the official results actually flashed on the Tote Board.
I revived in just a few seconds, but the episode haunts me still, and provides solid evidence that I’m more at home with bad news than I am with good.
No list of humiliations can be complete without at least one instance of a lover’s heart being shattered by a non-responding object. I was a college freshman, and she was a freckled-faced, brainy type with natural orange colored hair. I could barely breathe when I looked at her. She was kind to me in her fashion, but I had the feeling she was never quite certain what my name was.
Yes, I was the one seen carrying her books around campus. I was an appendage, a sort of pet rock seeking any slight attention.
Finally, one day, fortune smiled and she invited me to brunch at her home that Sunday. I had four days to rehearse, four days to select the proper clothes. I memorized the list of the New York Times bestselling books and agonized whether or not to bring along a few poems she had inspired.
Sunday finally came and I took deep breaths before reaching for the door buzzer. From that point on it was all a blur. The 85 guests had already arrived and the party was at fever pitch.
My princess breezed by, handed me an apron, pointed to a room filled with dirty dishes, and said: "You’re such a dear. We are desperate for help in the kitchen."
I never saw my Dulcinea again that day — but there was one indignity still to come: As I started to leave, her younger brother gave me a small tray of leftovers and said, "Blumert, you were great help today and I’m going to recommend you to friends." A $5 bill was neatly folded on the food tray.
I hated him then, and I was right: Today, he’s a prominent commie professor at an Ivy League school.
As the years passed the humiliations become less frequent. But last year, I was devastated when my family phyician for 25 years summarily dismissed me as a patient. I had been loyal and recommended him to others when he was struggling to build his practice.
I was one of his first patients and comforted him during his malpractice suits. My reward — he dumped me (The sordid details of that epic humiliation are available in my article, "I Hate Doctors.")
The ingrate. He’ll be begging me to come back as a patient, but if you must know, I’ve done just fine without him. Who needed him anyway? This is an age of medical specialty. The Internet provides unlimited access to data in the pursuit of good health. No waiting rooms, no surly receptionists, no crooked insurance companies.
And then three weeks ago the gods conspired against me and I was stricken with the flu. Every human who has walked the earth knows the agony caused by a bug that’s trying to kill you.
Surely, there must be immediate help out there. I started my search at Walgreens.
After eleven purchases at the drug counter, colorful packages that promise to defeat coughs-chills-sore throat-runny nose-fever, I realized that all of these cold and flu medicines are essentially the same.
They are a fraud.
They drug you into an unpleasant stupor, but sleep is fitful and you’ll probably make a mess of things if you are operating heavy equipment. With the passage of time the body will overcome both the drugs and the virus.
"I’m not going to use any of those head cold and flu remedies ever again.
Never," I moaned.
"Call a doctor!" my wife said.
"I don’t have a doctor," I responded. "Don’t you remember? He dumped me."
"Well, people tell me that there are now these new u2018immediate-care’ clinics all over the country."
After some Yellow Pages research, I selected the medical clinic named:
"WeReleva Your Feva. No appointments necessary. Physicians on Site 24 hours."
Somehow I felt a humiliating experience coming on.
I dragged myself in, coughing and sputtering. My face was pressed against the glass door waiting for them to turn the lock at opening time.
The receptionist, wearing a Florence Nightingale nurse’s uniform, said, "You have an appointment?"
"How are you going to pay?"
"You mean a check, cash. Card cash, or cash-cash?"
"Cash. Cash. Cash."
"Please pay now. Getting money from an estate is never easy. By the way, if I catch your flu, you’re in big trouble."
In the next 60 seconds I was weighed, blood pressure taken, temperature recorded, all without removing my jacket or unbuttoning a button.
I was put in the traditional examination room, only this one had bars on the window. The only thing to read was a crumpled magazine left behind by the last patient: "How to Live the Good Life With a Partial Colon, Part II."
Suddenly a huge figure blocked the doorway. There he was: the Doctor. He was wearing a white medical tunic studded with military medals on his chest.
"Hello, Doc," I wheezed. "I’ve got the flu."
"A few questions, first. Who is your primary physician?"
Well, it was clear he hadn’t read my article, "I Hate Doctors" — so I explained: "My primary doctor dumped me."
"He dumped you. How come? What were the circumstances?"
"Have you considered that possibly it was because of you that he quit medicine?"
"No, I hadn’t considered that."
"Think back: Why did he dump you?"
"Well, I was sick a couple of times."
"Sick or malingering?" he snarled.
"Look, all I’m here for is to have you listen to my chest and make sure I’m not getting pneumonia, so give me some real cough medicine with codeine and I’ll be out of your hair."
It was clear the prescriptions were already written and he gave them to me.
"Fill those prescriptions at the pharmacy in the building. I get a cut."
In spite of the interrogation and strange bedside manner, he was my kind of a no-nonsense doc.
"Doc," I said. "You’re my kind of doc, and I’d be proud to call you my family physician."
"Not so fast, Blumert," he said. "I’m not taking any new patients, and I’m not comfortable with your secessionist inclinations."
The same old feeling of rejection returned.
"What do I do? I need a primary physician."
He pulled out a yellowed, coffee-stained sheet with names. Some were crossed out with scribbled notations like insurance fraud, guilty of criminal negligence, and plain old embezzlement.
"Well, let’s see who’s available here. Ah, here’s Dr. Goldfinger. He will be coming out of Detox this month. The two of you should get along just fine."