Perceived Purgatory

The Second Essential Scary Truth


I have found purgatory.


(If you are afraid of blaspheme, being struck down by lightning or are convinced that I have completely lost what was left of my sanity, you want to stop reading right now.  Otherwise, please read on.)


It was 1:30amish and restless as always, I started wandering around the east side of Manhattan, specifically the far eastern edge of the Kips Bay district of the island.  I walked down East 34th Street to 1st Avenue and turned right, walking back towards my downtown home.  It was warm and a slight summer heat haze shimmered off the sidewalk, NYU and Bellevue Hospitals were on my left and non-descript NYU Medical School and City of New York Buildings to my right.  With no thought at all, I walked right down to my local at East 22nd Street and 3rd Avenue in record time.  As I was walking home, threading my way through the returning NYU students, falling out of the neighborhood bars trying to make it back to their dorm rooms to vomit, it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen ANYONE on my little walk down 1st Avenue.  I was free and clear from any entanglements with other people.  Could this be possible in New York, I wondered.


I did it all again the next few nights and yes, no people.  For your average New Yorker, this generally means you have wandered into a neighborhood where danger reigned.  Your next move should be to hail a cab and get out of Dodge – if cabs would actually be seen on the streets of that district after dark.  With the summer heat being released by the sidewalks and the monolithic Bellevue dominating the area, danger would seem to be the overriding feeling one would have.  But no, it’s just as safe as any other street in New York at that time of the day.  There is simply no reason for any living soul to be there at that time of the day unless you are getting out of an ambulance. 


The third night I walked down the Avenue, I looked over my left shoulder at 31st Street and noticed what the corroded silver letters said on a squat, blue tiled building next to some wrought iron gates said: Office of the City Medical Examiner of New York City.  I guess I thought the Morgue would have been near City Hall and One Police Plaza downtown but near the number one trauma center in the City made some sort of sense.  When I turned to head back down 1st Avenue, that’s when I found Purgatory in the form of the East Bay Diner.


The East Bay Diner is the only light that shines on that 11 block stretch of avenue, beckoning anyone who needs food or drink to come in and satiate themselves.  The food is alright, not great, not really memorable.  It’s diner food.  You can get a drink, say a scotch and soda; Johnny Walker Red or Black (maybe…), no single malts, no stand outs, nothing special.  You eat next to nurses, government employees, detectives waiting for results and the only papers to be found are from the day before.  Everything purgatory should be, no on to talk to and everything is just – there.  Of course, before you leave, there is a tip on the table.


The place reminds me of an old Far Side cartoon.  Two guys are in Hell, a demon is standing over them as they converse by the coffee machine.  The copy reads something like this “The coffee is cold.  Man, they thought of everything.”


Growing up, purgatory was being taken to the Schvitz (a Russian style steam room and bath), specifically the Oakland Avenue Bathhouse, by the Old Man. 


I never understood why my father had an attachment to this place.  The drive down was through ever worsening neighborhoods and lectures about how beautiful the city used to be.  Then I found myself wearing the same white toga as the guy next to me, the same one my father wore, sitting in the steam room getting a plaitza (a rub down with an oak leaf broom).  Everyone looked the same.  I was never quite sure if I was talking to one of the Old Man’s cronies like Jerry the Goniff (thief) or a local political figure from Oak Park.


There was a rock in the middle of the steam room, heated to a bright red.  Every now and then, someone would get up and throw a bucket of cold water on the rock and the room would get instantly hotter.  I would sit on the wooden bleachers, a white towel over my head, and taking in the musty steam while my father talked to everyone about what, I still don’t know.  After I got my plaitza, the Old Man always said “I have to talk to these guys about something, why don’t you go and swim.”


Off I’d go to the cold pool in the basement, at it was cold, and swim laps until my father came to get me.  It was time to eat, steaks and Atlas Soda Pop and more conversation with more men that all looked the same to me.  And of course, you tipped the guys who worked there as you left. 


At the time, I thought all of these men were just waiting in this place for something to call them or take them to wherever they had to go next.  So, of course, when I hit my adolescence, I refused to set foot in the place.   I wanted to live, not wait.


In retrospect, I miss the Oakland Bathhouse.  When I think of what really went on in that place, the deals that were cut, the things that were said that went on to effect how the entirety of the region would be run, I wish I could go back and be a fly on the wall.


I guess that’s the thing about the faux purgatories we perceive here on earth.  There is so much more going on than was is on the surface.  It makes me wonder how many major homicides have been solved at the East Bay Diner.



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