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In 1948, one of the Internet physicians at Bellevue Hospital contracted tuberculosis. The senior medical students at Columbia were asked to volunteer to take his place, and for a month I did so. Since I knew I was soon going to Philadelphia to the Internet at the Pennsylvania Hospital, my interest was particularly taken by an old Bowery bum who was talking about untaxed liquor. In New York at that time, it was common for Skid Row denizens to drink the wood alcohol in Sterno, called "squeeze" because it could be extracted from the waxy contents of a Sterno can by wrapping it in cheesecloth or a handkerchief and squeezing out the juice. Another favorite was "Smoke", which was typically a mixture of automobile radiator fluid and other sundry handy ingredients. My new best friend at Bellevue was just recovering from the effects of such recreation, and was in a mood of "never again". He observed that "When I get out of the Bell View, I'm going to get on a bus and go down to Philly. They've got a drink there called Goat Head, and, man, is it ever smooth."
The Chief Resident of the Pennsylvania Hospital was happy to tell me what Goat Head was. It was bootleg liquor, made in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. Bags of cane sugar were fermented and distilled through coils of copper tubing, obtained from old hot-water heaters. The smooth stuff that so intrigued the bums of Bellevue was what was otherwise known as "White Lightning". It was then sold in the alleys near South Street by "Goat Head Merchants", who carried a suitcase full of small bottles, sold for about 25 cents a bottle. They say that during the Depression, Goat Head was sold out of an open bucket, at 10 cents a dipperful. One of the Goat Head Merchants used the Accident Room of the hospital as his family doctor, let us call him Walter Apple.
One day, Walter had a heart attack and was brought in on a stretcher, in considerable pain. I had just completed an electrocardiogram on him, when the pain disappeared. A few weeks later, he had completely recovered and was going home. Every time I came anywhere near him, he announced to everyone in the vicinity that I was the best doctor in the world, having cured his heart attack by giving him the "wire treatment".
As he gathered up his belongings to go home, he apologized that he was not going to be able to pay his bill. He had once known Dillinger and all those other big shots wore a diamond stick-pin and drove a Duesenberg car. But now he was broke.
But grateful, too. So, if ever there came a time when I encountered someone unpleasant, who needed "pushing' around" -- just you call on Walter Apple, and Walter would be glad to pay off his debt.
Originally published: Monday, June 26, 2006; most-recently modified: Thursday, September 16, 2021