Art & Poetry in Medicine, Featured
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My fire escape, green from decades of wear and tear, bears flecks of paint that barely cling after gusts of wind and sheets of snow and showers of rain. Of course, I’m not sitting on this fire escape, but perched inside my kitchen and seated on the black Ikea bench. Because I was never allowed to go out the window as a child, nor was I encouraged to conquer the monkey bars or even play in the rain. My apartment building, probably from the nineteenth century, has its original red color hidden beneath the browned and weathered film that the city’s pollution laid on top. It is rooted at the corner of trauma center and Chinese food, where death flirts with gluttony.

The building across the street is the newly renovated children’s emergency department, with floor to ceiling glass windows carefully adorned with those one-way murals that at night allow you to see out but not in. The precarious balance between vulnerability and protection. The Chinese food restaurant, situated just across the intersecting street, inhabits a corner just like my building. I can’t tell if the neon sign hanging above the entrance is old or new; it shines just as brightly as it ever did.

There, we order two orders of fried chicken wings, shrimp lo mein, beef with broccoli, and what they’ve dubbed “21 shrimp,” which — you guessed it — is 21 pieces of shrimp. Surely this is enough food for two adults and two children, but my mom could never be too sure. We place the order for delivery, paying the extra dollar bills for the tip, because the weather is never perfect enough to take the one-minute trip down an elevator from the 5th floor. Are we too lazy? Or busy? Or tired? Or hungry?

Maybe it’s because we don’t want to run into our neighbors.

A man from 302 who always had 15 minutes of life lessons to talk about.

A teenager from 204 who gave birth to her baby only to have him become her adopted brother.

A lady from 203 whose nighttime screams seeped through the cracks between the floor and the walls.

A lady from 102 who would pay me $40 just to type up her work documents.

Or maybe we are afraid that we’d walk through the wrong entrance. “Emergency Room”

and “Taste of China” are both written in red, after all.


Two decades later, I visit my old haunts.

The Chinese husband and wife ophthalmologists who give me my third pair of green-framed eyeglasses.

The Korean hair stylist who snips three generations of my family’s hair.

The Vietnamese banh mi shop whose entrance is underneath a laundromat.

The Filipino bubble tea worker who makes my usual Taro milk tea with bubbles.

After my excursion, I walk to my old street. I make sure to dodge leaky air conditioners and the sweat of clothes left outside to hang dry. I stand just beneath my old, greened metal fire escape. The new renters have dark brown curtains pulled tightly, body-guarding the apartment from any lick of the day’s last sunlight.

As I look around the street tinted golden by the sun, an eerie chill runs up my back. I look at the emergency department. An empty trailer sits out front, its back door opened hard against the concrete road. That’s where they put their bodies, I think. Piled on top of each other like the bricks of my building, at the corner of life and death.

A man who was expecting the birth of his daughter in just under six weeks.

A woman who had reused her N95 mask more times than she could count.

A woman who worked at the Chinese supermarket down the block.

A man who just celebrated his 90th birthday the month before.

A kid. Maybe many kids.

The faceless. Zipped into the plastic that would be their final resting place.


“ HANK YO .” The remnants of the large cardboard gratitude message are zip-tied to the park’s rusty gates. The swings creak from the brisk wind of the summer dusk. The water fountains are turned off. I take a deep breath. The smell of summer, sentimentality, and childhood? No, the stench of the garbage bags that haven’t been picked up yet, leaking mysterious brown liquids down the edge of the pavement until it runs down into the storm drain. I force the wicked smell from my nostrils, instead feeding it with shards of scents past.

My mom’s chicken adobo.

My dad’s lasagna.

My sister’s play-doh.

My uncle’s laundry.

102’s printer ink.

204’s baby powder.

21 shrimp.

I’m under the same sky I grew up in two decades ago. But from here, it looks different.

From here, I look different.

The “Taste of China” neon sign flickers. It’s closing time.

Image credit: “She Had a Cousin in Tennessee” (CC BY-NC 2.0) by Thomas Hawk

Samantha Aquino Calpo Samantha Aquino Calpo (1 Posts)

Contributing Writer

Mount Sinai South Nassau

Samantha Aquino Calpo is a Transitional Year resident at Mount Sinai South Nassau. In the coming summer, she will begin her Family Medicine residency at Cooper University Hospital. A graduate of the City College of New York and the CUNY School of Medicine, her writing explores lineage, trauma, and transference. Outside of practicing medicine and the writing of it, Samantha enjoys sushi, vlogging, and earth tones.