It’s early evening, the late summer dusk is overtaking the sky, and my stomach is burning again. I’m walking toward the Duane Reade on Broadway to pick up an old prescription for some fancy purple pills for my stomach and for added firepower, or rather coolingpower, a bottle of Pepcid Complete, a pretty kickass OTC antacid I’ve gotten into recently. The eighteen months I squeezed out of my cobra health insurance after I left Antonelli’s—the East Side Italian place, part of the Grubman Restaurant Group, (five places in New York, one in L.A. and one opening in Vegas)—finally kicked a few weeks ago. I’d been putting this off as long as I could, avoiding the outlandish price for prescription meds but the burn came back even in just these few weeks without the purple pill.
For the past week or so I’ve been drinking a cocktail of fresh ground ginger stirred into a Dixie cup of Pepto as a demented home-remedy for my acid reflux. Someone told me that ginger helps sooth the stomach but I think it just has made me numb, which was good as far as relieving the burn but worried me because I feared it was dangerously treating the symptom not the disease. The numbness was so prevailing that I assumed damage was still being done to my stomach, only I couldn’t feel it.
I’m walking to this store on Broadway instead of a drugstore closer to home because, supposedly, walking helps with acid reflux, at least that’s what I read in some article in the Times last week. Something having to do with peristalsis and gravity, they said. Really, if you don’t have a bad stomach you don’t know the different lengths (no pun intended) that you’d travel to get some relief.
(To make matters worse, and I won’t get into detail, my ass has been bothering me too. So, as long as I’m there I might as well pick something up to help that situation as well).
I find myself squinting when I enter the store as I walk toward the medicines in the back. Even though I’ve come in from the over-lit city streets, the light in here is obnoxious and jarring, intense enough to meet safety standards for an O.R. “Whose idea was this?” A question I thought was secured in my head surprisingly mutters from lips. Some executive committee, after reviewing the data from a market research consulting firm they paid two million dollars, decided that indeed, blinding fluorescent light bewilders the consumer to a point that he inadvertently buys more deodorant or power bars or cheap hair-brushes.
Some easy listening song is raining from the shitty, no-bottom-end ceiling speakers like a vinegar mist. As the song plods forward, recycling into the chorus yet again, bursts of static and crackle begin to weave in and out of the music. (Can they possibly have the PA tuned to a radio station? How does a chain with this much money not have cable or satellite radio, or at least some consultant-created mix CDs? Maybe it’s bad wiring). The static and the music together is a mix so caustic it prickles through the air and soars into my ear straight to my brain, so penetrating it’s as if the standard filters and impediments of the outer ear and the canal aren’t even here, as if this noise was purposeful in its intent, reaching its endpoint with precision like an Olympic bobsled staying centered on the track, nimbly avoiding the sides. Like a million needle-tipped sperm heading to my brain, their egg, they are attacking, infecting with their diseased DNA. It doesn’t matter what song it is. It’s always the same song. All the You Light Up My Life’s, and Dancing on the Ceiling’s, the muzaked Penny Lane’s – the sinister calculation of blandness, of inoffensiveness to the silent shopping majority – it’s all one song.
There are four people loitering by the pharmacist’s window in the back waiting for their drugs. I put in my order and the receptionist tells me it’ll be ten to fifteen minutes before mine is ready. I want to plead that “he doesn’t even have to do anything, my pills are already made, all he has to do is grab the bottle” but instead I muster a “thanks” and wander off to the aisles to look for the Pepcid. I pass the time by reading and comparing the ingredients of the generic brand products and the name-brand ones. Fleet Enema, Afrin Nose Spray, Tylenol, Advil, Advil Cold and Sinus, Advil Cold Sinus Allergy, Fibercon, Sudafed are all identical with their Duane Reade counterparts. I wonder how many sick people have touched all the packages I keep picking up, and I absent-mindedly rub my hand against my jeans, not knowing if it’s a symbolic gesture to appease my psyche or if it actually does something to sanitize my hand.
And it doesn’t matter what store it is exactly. You’ve been here before, a thousand times. The Duane Reade-Kmart-Walgreens-Rite Aid-genera chain drug store. The mild though still requisite self-consciousness when you’re picking up some personal hygiene product; the queasy pleasure of the blissfully artificial air-conditioning on a sweltering day; the trance-inducing fluorescent light beating down on and reflecting off the interchangeable, over-marketed, plastic and cardboard contained products, the mottled white linoleum floor, and you. You grab your ass cream or zit medicine or fancy dental floss, the synthetic miracle they call “dental tape,” no doubt the end-product of an R & D campaign with a budget rivaling a small African nation’s GDP, and head to the front of the store. It’s a long line filled with nobodies like you as the overweight, acne-faced failure behind the register methodically, dilatorily scans each item of the guy at the counter, six people ahead of you on line, bitterly struggling to even the score of her foundered life on the patrons in her store. She glances up at the silent, shrugging line with a sulky indifference while s-l-o-w-l-y scanning the next item. Her lot in life is not what she bargained for and we are being made to pay dearly for her frustration, her deprivation of her due. The same petty revenge of service workers everywhere, the bouncer not letting you in the club, the maitre d’ condescending to you at the trendy restaurant, the auto-mechanic charging for whatever repairs he wants because he knows you have no idea what happens in the mechanical bowls of your car.
I close my eyes and quietly exhale. I am walking in the hallway of my building, carrying my meds in the plastic bag, twirling it in a Ferris wheel watching the centrifugal laws of physics keep the contents snug in the bottom of the bag. I’ll jiggle the key in the lock until it catches, then turn it and feel the deadbolt shift, and I am home. The apartment is dark and silent. I’ll feel relief as I am finally back home, alone. And I will feel queer and unsettled because I will be home, alone.
As I step up to the register a Mariah Carey song comes down from the ceiling engulfing the store in a putrid, aural miasma. The production, the lyrics, her voice, stream down on me from these tinny in-ceiling speakers like acid rain. The chorus, some asinine platitude resembling “you are the hero/the hero is within” swells while overtop she vomits histrionic shrieks and abuses melisma as if it were the only means of expressing emotion, a soulless entertainer’s shorthand for exclaiming Passion (and it is dutifully interpreted as such by her grotesque, disturbingly vast legion of fans). I’m picturing her hand quivering its way down with an ersatz religious fervor as she wrings the guts out of a defenseless note. Why must these stores do this to me? The tyranny of the lowest common denominator – the forced music in the modern chain store. Billboards you can try to avert your eyes, magazine ads you can avoid by not reading magazines, TV ads—you don’t have to watch. But there’s no escape from this.