by Stephen Poleskie
There are few among us who can say that they have never fallen in some way or another at least once in their lives. When we were children falls were quite common, but usually not disastrous. As one gets older it becomes a different story. I know three people who have died from having fallen: two artist friends and my mother.
I have had a number of serious falls over the years, most relating to my passion for motorcycles. My most recent fall was on this July 15th. It was not as dramatic as some of my motorcycle falls, but I was injured just the same.
I was showing a workman to the basement of our house. I had taken one step down when I realized that I had on my sandals. Fearing that the basement floor might be wet, I turned around to get my rubber boots. I took a step back up, not looking down, but at my boots, which were in the corner of the room. It was then that I miss-stepped, slipped, and began to fall. I was in the air, looking down at six concrete steps, surrounded by concrete walls.
And it was then, for some strange reason that my motorcycle racing experiences came back to me. My mind said, “Relax, go with the flow, if your body is tense, you will be injured more severely.” And so I instinctively complied. My head hit the concrete wall at the bottom with a thump. But I did not go unconscious. It was bleeding on the top where it scraped the wall, as was my right arm. My back had ricocheted off the last step, just before my head hit, and hurt considerably.
I must have screamed when I was coming down, for when I looked up my wife was already at the head of the stairs. The workman was standing there, rather uselessly, staring down at me. My wife helped me up and washed off my bruises. After a brief chat with the workman about what repairs needed to be done on the basement, at my wife’s urging I agreed to go to the local hospital emergency ward.
My wife drove me there. Traffic was fairly light, and we found a place to park in the always congested hospital lot. I held a pack of frozen organic chicken breasts over the lump forming on my head. Fortunately few people were in the waiting area, and we were taken right in.
X-rays showed that nothing was broken, and I had no concussion, so after spending about four hours there I was sent home with some pain medicine.
That night, my back, which hadn’t bothered me that much when I was walking, sitting in the car, or on a bed in the emergency ward, began to hurt painfully when I lay down. So the next day we went back to the hospital. More x-rays showed nothing was wrong with my back. I was given cream and pills and discharged, very happily.
As a number of my friends have died in a hospital while being there for minor matters, I have no enthusiasm for these institutions. The two artist friends I mentioned at the beginning of this essay did not die from their falls but while in hospital. One of then fell down a flight of stairs, but the other merely tripped over one of his cats and had to remain in hospital with a broken leg. My father had gone into a hospital for a hernia operation, but died of the pneumonia he contracted while waiting in a ward to recover. And my friend Andy Warhol went in for a routine gall bladder operation and came out a dead man.
So what was my worst fall? I would say that this occurred back in 1966, when I was road racing my motorcycle at a track in Danville, Virginia. I had drag-raced motorcycles for two seasons before that, as I have related in a previous Ragazine article.
You rarely fall in a drag-race, as your bike is traveling straight ahead. However, I did have several minor incidents riding my drag-racing bike on the street.
I had replaced the stock rear tire with a racing slick. This tire had a squarer radius on the bottom for greater traction. However, this takes away the bikes cornering ability. Riding around the streets of Manhattan this was no problem as one rode mostly straight up anyway, but occasionally I would go out into the country and forget myself and lean over in a curve, where the bike would slide out from under me. This is where I learned to relax when faced with a fall.
But I had become bored with racing in a straight line; so, I bought myself a Bultaco TSS, a bike that had been a factory racer in Europe only two years previous. Some people thought that I was in it over my head with this exotic machine and should have acquired a bike more appropriate for a road racing beginner. Maybe they were right, for in my first race I crashed, badly.
I don’t know how fast I was going as these racing bikes have a tachometer, but no speedometer. I was leaned way over in a tight left turn, when another bike slid up underneath me. The flagmen who witnessed the incident said that the other bike hit me. I don’t know. I only realized that I was suddenly heading off the track at about 65 miles per hour. This was before tracks were required to have guard rails surrounding them.
The empty field in front of me looked like the ideal escape route. But I couldn’t see the drainage ditch in the middle as it was filled level with tall grass. I had retarded the throttle, but I was still going at a considerable speed when my front wheel locked up in the ditch, throwing me forward over the gas tank and windscreen. I was in the air, telling myself to relax, but clearly expecting that I was going to die.
I held my two arms out in front of me as I was about to hit the ground. For some reason only my left arm broke, but so did my right hand. My crash helmet saved my head, but my face landed in a bit of gravel, ripping it in such a way that a friend later visiting me in hospital would refer to the look as a “meatball face.”
If I went unconscious when I hit, I cannot recall. When I looked up there were all kinds of official race people surrounding me. An ambulance was brought. I was loaded in the back and driven to the Danville hospital.
I must admit that, although I was in great pain, I did not feel too welcome there when I heard one of the emergency ward attendants refer to me as “some Yankee hippy motorcycle racer.” I must admit that I did have a beard back then at a time when, unlike now, beards were not very popular with “regular” people.
All I can recall of my treatment was that it was rather perfunctory. My left arm was set I a cast, my face was washed off, I was given some pain killers, and released, wrapped in a white cotton blanket, which I still have as a souvenir of the occasion.
I had driven down with my mechanic, so it fell on him to make the nine hour drive back to Manhattan by himself. I was in too much pain. About three hours into the trip I had my mechanic stop at a gas station and buy all the bags of ice that they had in stock. I put these all around me on my sore spots for some relief from the pain.
We managed to get back to my loft on Jefferson Street. My motorcycle, which was virtually destroyed, had been laid on its trailer and towed back to their shop in New Jersey by the people who maintained the machine for me.
The next morning there was pounding on my door. It was my assistant wondering why I wasn’t at work. My screen printing shop, Chiron Press, was on the floor below. I staggered to the door and opened up. It was apparent that I was in very poor condition, and should have been admitted to the hospital in Danville. It was agreed that my assistant would take me to a hospital in Manhattan.
Upon looking me over a bit more thoroughly than the folks in Virginia, the staff the staff at Beekman Downtown Hospital decided that I should be admitted. I stayed there for two weeks.
The reason for my long stay was that the Beekman staff discovered a number of things that the Virginia hospital had missed. My broken arm had been set improperly and had to be re-broken and reset. I had injured my spine, and had to have a spinal tap to determine the extent of the injury. And I had also fractured my right ankle. I was in a bed in traction, in a ward with several other men.
Word got out about my whereabouts and I started receiving cards and gifts. Two of my lady friends came to visit me. It was one of them who coined the phrase “meatball face.” They also had a special motive. No, I couldn’t lend them any money. My hand was in a cast: I couldn’t sign checks.
A few days later, one of the men in my ward came up to me waving a New York newspaper. “Hey weren’t these the two chicks who came to see you the other day?” he asked, pointing to a full page picture on the front cover. The ladies had been arrested in Bloomingdales for shop-lifting, and as one of the two was the daughter of a very famous movie actor, their escapade had made the daily scandal sheet.
Eventually, I was reluctantly released from Beekman, just in time for George Plimpton’s Paris Review Party at the Village Gate. This was quite a big social event on the New York calendar. The purpose was to raise funds for the magazine. I was an invited guest.
When the night came my arm was still in a cast so I decided to skip the party. Then I remembered that there would be dinner served at this event, a better meal than I could prepare for myself here with my one hand. I slipped on a plastic rain poncho, the only garment I had that would cover my cast, and headed out to the subway.
When I arrived at the Village Gate there was a huge crowd out front and paparazzi that had gathered to view the celebrities that were arriving by taxi and limo. I pushed my way through and was about to go in when I was grabbed by a policeman, who wanted to know where this bearded man in a rain poncho thought he was going. I showed him my invitation and he escorted me right in.
After the dinner I got to talk to George Plimpton alone. He had heard about my accident, and we discussed it briefly. George had just published a book called “Paper Lion” about his experiences playing with the Detroit Lions NFL football team. I asked him if he would like to try motorcycle racing and write a book about that. I would be happy to help him. George politely declined.
I didn’t give up motorcycles after this fall, but got back on as soon as I was able. I even did road racing again, on a less exotic machine, taking second place in the 200 cc category at a track in Maryland. Unfortunately I soon had another serious fall while riding on the West Side Highway. I will discuss this and the rather curious circumstances surrounding my emergency ward visit in the next issue.
To be continued …
About the author:
Stephen Poleskie’s writing has appeared in journals in Australia, the Czech Republic, Germany, India, Italy, Mexico, the Philippines, and the UK, as well as in the USA, and in three anthologies, including The Book of Love, (W.W. Norton) and been twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He has published five novels and two story collections. Poleskie has taught at The School of Visual Arts, NYC, the University of California/Berkeley, and Cornell University, where he is a professor emeritus and been a resident at the American Academy in Rome. He lives in Ithaca, NY. Website: www.StephenPoleskie.com