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Code Red, Code Blue, No Free Parking For You
8.11.2003 by Dan, every Monday.

Hospitals have always been, at least in my experience, strange places. Think about it- where else can you pass a surgical ward, gymnasium, chapel, gift shop and cafeteria all in one hallway? I tend to wonder about this, often aloud, and not necessarily while in a hospital. My friends are patient and/or deaf people.

Anyway, my point is that I will expect a level of strangeness from a hospital going in. So when I walked under a helicopter flying about sixty feet above me to go into the ER, I accepted this as par for the hospital course. (which is, of course, where all the doctors disappear to. It's on the roof. But you didn't hear that from me.)

Now, I was not visiting the ER on my own behalf. No, I was checking on my brother. You see, I was visiting some friends of mine who I only get to see every couple of weeks. They live about an hour out the interstate. So, of course, I had not been there long when my mom calls me on my cellphone and tells me that my brother was in the ER after getting bitten by a spider. Her car is broken, so would I please go? She asks this as a Mom Question, which is one of those rhetorical ones which sounds very plaintive but that you know you can't refuse. The most successful mob bosses are the ones who can adapt the mob question somewhat. “Vito, would you please go and whack Lefty since he has seen fit to use my personal restaurant booth?” is an adapted Mom Question. That being said, only moms can truly use the power of the Mom Question.

But I digress. Anyway, I drive the hour back to the city and to the ER, where I walk up to the front desk and have my first encounter with Mr. Seat Warmer. He is this slightly overweight middle aged man who looks like he'd be more comfortable managing an antique store than wearing a lab coat and talking to morons who just walk in off the street to bother you and ask you stuff. This is a guy who has decided that his efforts and pay had a slight gap and has therefore apparently lowered his job performance to match his pay.

I ask him about my brother. After a quick glance at the monitor, he tells me that he's still in the waiting room. I look around. I have seen smaller bus depots than this waiting room, but gamely set off to canvas it in search of my brother. The first thing I notice is that apparently the carpet gives off fumes that induce paranoia, as I get stares from people as I look around that would be more appropriate were I carrying a large axe. Which I wasn't.

Ten fruitless minutes later, I return to the desk. “He isn't here,” I inform Mr. Seat Warmer. “Oh,” he replies. “I saw after you left that he'd been taken to a room. Go on back.” He pushes a button on his desk and a set of doors behind him swing open. I debate tossing him a nickel as a tip but decide that it's not worth the effort to fish one out of my pocket.

I find my brother in a room, talking to a doctor. “Oh, this isn't a brown recluse spider bite!” she's saying. “This is just a skin infection. Have some antibiotic ointment.” She strides from the room, stopping only long enough to pick up a seven iron on the way to the elevator. My brother looks up from the tube of ointment. “What took you so long?” he asks.

As my brother walks out, Mr. Seat Warmer gives him a token. “Since you're a patient here, you get free parking!” In the parking lot, I helpfully offer to saw my brother's hand off to stave off gangrene, but he decides to just go home and drives off.

This is where things started to go awry.

I too attempt to leave, but am stopped at the exit by one of those parking garage arms through which the hero always smashes in movies. You'd think that after a while they'd start making them out of something other than balsa wood, but I guess they're cheap or something. The booth is empty- instead, there's a machine that takes money or tokens. The charge is $5. It'll take up to a ten. All I have is a twenty. I stare at the machine for a moment, then offer it a bad word. No luck. I shift my truck into reverse and back down the fifty-yard (673 celsius) driveway back to the parking lot.

Mr. Seat Warmer is busy delaying an ambulance driver as I stalk past in search of a change machine. Nothing takes more than a ten, until I find a stamp machine, bearing a helpful sign informing me that it gives change in dollar coins to help “more quickly get past the parking lot machine.” Great. I buy a stamp and am rewarded with a couple of quarters and nineteen dollar coins. I stalk back across the hospital, past Mr. Seat Warmer, who seems to have lodged a pen into his nose, and drive back up to the machine. I pull out a dollar coin. It doesn't fit in the slot. I frantically look around for some other way of making this stupid machine take my money and let me go home. Unfortunately, I had left my hammer at home. I say another bad word, and one again back down the fifty yard (19 parsec) driveway to the parking lot, and back into the ER waiting room.

Mr. Seat Warmer seems to be asleep as I walk past, lurching to one side from the weight of nineteen dollar coins in my pocket. I decide to lighten the load by purchasing a soda. At this point, I'm sure you know what happens next- the machine eats my money. ”Mommy, why is the funny looking man crying on the Coke machine?” asks a little girl from behind me. Mr. Seat Warmer comes dangerously close to being useful as he tells me to go to the cafeteria to get a refund. The cafeteria, as it turns out, was literally three steps around the corner from the stamp machine. Across the hospital.

So once again I stalk across the hospital. In once corridor, I hear a “ping” noise as the dollar coin I had just dropped bounces off of a door frame before vanishing into another dimension. “Mommy, why is the funny looking man crying on the garbage can?” comes a familiar voice from behind me.

The cafeteria makes me sign for the dollar refund, and won't change my dollar coins into something I could use with the machine, like one of those huge Yap Islander coins that I could use to crush it. Desperate, I return to Mr. Seat Warmer. I tell him the whole story, and ask if I can just exchange five dollars for one of the parking tokens. “Oh,” said Mr. Seat Warmer. “You were with a patient, you get one too. I thought you two had driven together.” Never mind that less than an hour ago I'd walked in asking if he was here. Arrrgh.

“Mommy, why is the funny looking man cackling insanely?”

Once again, trepidatiously, I drive up to the Parking Attendant Machine. My old nemesis. A red status LED blinks on its front, just to mock me. I insert the token.

“Ping.” For a long moment, nothing happens. I mentally calculate the running start I would need to break through the balsa wood. “Whir.” The gate slowly rises. I am free. I speed off into the twilight.

As I pull out onto the highway, a stalled car is blocking traffic.

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