February 09, 2005

Fingers and Blades

I've always relied heavily on my ten fingers and toes, particularly for Math. But also for things like holding cups and pencils and keeping myself from falling forward (toes). They're pretty neat little tools when you think about it. To show my appreciation, I'm dedicating this post to the fingers on my right hand.

Several times during my nearly 50 years (yikes!) I have had my little world rocked clear off its axis. One such event happened in 1974 while living in the State of New Jersey. I had moved down to the shore in late summer so that I could live there in the off-season and get some writing done. At the time I had visions of becoming the next best author of children's stories. I was nineteen years old. Such dreams!

I worked at a small sandwich shop a block from the ocean. It was the first Blimpie's (you Americans should be vaguely familiar with this chain). I managed the place during the daytime shift and it provided enough money to pay for my small apartment and my then vegetarian diet. I'd come home from work, grab my puppy and my writing needs and hurry off to the beach with a blanket and a radio. By that time of day all the baskers were gone and it left me virtually alone on the sand. I had a routine and I loved it.

Preparing sandwiches was pretty much a no-brainer, unless you're a perfectionist at heart. It has to be symmetrical and it has to look as good as it will taste. Always. Produce has to be clean and sliced, evenly - (hint, key word) - and it has to be placed just so on top of the meats and cheeses or it will just never do.

Part of the job involved preparing the produce in mass quantities so there would be plenty on board for a sudden influx of hungry customers. One major shortcut we took at Blimpie's was to use a professional meat slicing machine to shred lettuce and slice tomatoes. The gauge would be set to 3 for tomatoes as they had to be thicker than most anything else. To give it some perspective, the cold cuts you buy at the deli are sliced at about .75. We would line up four tomatoes against the safety guard of the slicing machine and they'd slice up perfectly every time ... quite quickly filling bin after bin for easy storage.

One evening, I was in the back of the store slicing produce and there was one coworker up front in the shop waiting for customers to start arriving. I had been slicing for about half an hour already, and placed four more tomatoes against the safety guard, flipped the switch and started to walk away. From the corner of my eye, I spotted one of the tomatoes slipping off kilter. I wish I hadn't looked.

I hurried over and in the twinkling of an eye, did the unthinkable. I reached down, directly into the mechanism, to straighten out the tomato. I KNEW enough not to put my hand into this area of the machine while it was running. I KNEW this. I used to show people how to operate the thing and STRESSED this, every single time. It was a knee-jerk reaction and one that sent me reeling. The corner of my elbow was caught up by the safety guard and it literally pulled my entire arm forward setting my hand up for the unforgiving blade.

It all happened so rapidly that there was no time to think at all. Suddenly I heard a dull grinding sound, saw spashes of blood flying up at my face and felt an incredible heat rising clear up my arm and into my shoulder. There was no pain; absolutely none. Just an amazing rush of heat.

Since I've already written an entire chapter (in my book) about the series of events that followed, I'll keep this down to a minimum for the sake of blog readers.

In short, it took about five full seconds for my brain to receive the message that my fingers were being sliced, and that's when I screamed out in a rather ugly, guttural tone. I pulled my hand out from the grips of the machine and looked at it ~ quickly ~ with one eye shut tightly. It seemed surreal; like this wasn't my own hand at all. When you hurt your finger, the first thing nine out of ten people will instinctively do is shake it back and forth with quick little thrusts. It's not a voluntary reaction. What I hadn't realized was that blood was pulsating outward from my index finger every second or so; flailing it about wasn't the brightest move I ever made.

At some point I grabbed at a towel and threw it over the "thing" so I didn't have to see it anymore. My hand was just hideous.

My working partner rushed me into the delivery car and raced me around the corner to the police station where they would call an ambulance to take me ten miles to the nearest hospital. The cops took a look and started placing tournaquets at three places along my arm. I was in a state of semi-shock and no one could get any information out of me as to who to call or where I was from. I did have the presence of mind to ask if I could still play piano ~ which they naturally perceived as a joke. I hadn't been joking at all.

Once the ambulance arrived, they determined that I had lost too much blood already and should be taken to the nearest beach emergency center to try to stop the incessant bleeding. The doctor there was a real bastard and wasn't happy at all to be disturbed during his off-hours. It didn't faze him a bit that I was a nineteen year-old kid for Christ's sake, who was 50 miles from my nearest relative and scared to death!

If you've never had anything cauterized - thank your lucky stars! Cauterization is this neat little procedure where they take a medicinal substance the color, consistency, and odor of roofing tar, boil it in a heating device then apply it directly into the open wound. This sears the skin and stops the bleeding. There is nothing nice about it. I will never forget the smell of burning flesh. In fact, this was the first real pain I felt since the machine grabbed my arm.

The outcome was disturbing. My ring finger lost a tiny snippet off the tip, the top of my thumb had been left dangling by a thread of skin, and my index finger lost a hefty chunk from the top and side. The cops had gone back to the shop to try to find the missing piece so they could bring it to the emergency care center, but it was not to be found. It was probably just disintegrated. Please, no jokes about someone getting a bonus on their sandwich. Ewww.

Somewhere in between, they finally got my parent's phone number out of me and called my mother in New York. While having my thumb stitched back together, my parents walked into the room looking rather disheveled and harried. Could you blame them? They got this call during their dinner saying "This is the Seaside Heights Police Department, your daughter has had an accident and she's going to need you to come here as soon as you can."

I had to keep my arm tilted upward in an awkward brace contraption for quite some time following this event ... and my fingers each remained heavily bandaged for at least a five weeks. It was excrutiating to have the bandages changed every three days to avert infection. Dried blood doesn't help in removal of gauze.

As you might have figured by now, so much for the peaceful seaside setting to get my writing in order. Everything was put on hold for weeks on end. I couldn't work, couldn't dress myself very well, and couldn't take care of the simplest of tasks on my own. But the absolute worst bit was not being able to write. I worked every evening on teaching myself to write with my left hand but it kept arguing with my brain the whole while. Amazing how that can happen, but it can, trust me.

I ended up moving back to New York and in with my parents again. Ugh. There is little about 1974 that I miss. My hand healed nicely - though I was left, as you can imagine, with some scars and mild disfigurement of the index finger.

I always look for irony in things. For me, the irony here is that while trying to right the silly, fifty cent tomato so that the slices would be symmetrical (damned perfectionism), I was left with permanent disymmetry of my very own hands!


Blogger Swifty said...

Jesus Carol! I really feel for you. I told you I'd led a sheltered life compared to you and you wouldn't have it. Now I know for sure. Truly traumatic. Great writing as usual.

10:23 AM  
Blogger brooksba said...

Hi Carol,

Wow! I'm sorry that you had to go through this at all. You wrote about it beautifully, but it's still frightening. I'm sorry for the pain you had to endure.

Book? I read the words, "Since I've already written an entire chapter (in my book) about the series of events that followed". I want to read! Is this available?

I know Blimpies. I think there might still be a couple here, but I haven't seen one in about two years.

Keep up the great writing. I am excited every time I see a new post!


3:52 PM  
Blogger Wally said...

You truly wear your perfectionism, outstandingly well! The quality and the choice of your words, even while telling this terrible ordeal, is nothing less than captivating. You were meant to tell a story, and you will definitely be an author of reconition.
I absolutely enjoy reading your work, and I can hardly wait until your novel is published.

11:05 AM  
Blogger The Rambler said...

I just read Fingers and Blades. I had my fist clenched the whole time in sympathy! I didn't even realise I was doing it until I finished reading. I really like your writing style. Isn't it amazing how the reflexes override the mind. I've done similair things that have resulted in stitches.
Bye for now.

8:13 PM  
Anonymous Deangelo Addario said...

are you serious?

12:20 PM  

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