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I Was Vaccinated in the Detergent Aisle at the Wellness Pharmacy!

Updated: Aug 12, 2022

Victory! (Photo credit: Doug Dworkin)
Victory! (Photo credit: Doug Dworkin)

The Road to Wellness

Only 6 in 10 Americans say they will “definitely” or “probably” get a Covid-19 vaccine when it becomes available to them. What I want to know is where those other 4 Americans live. It’s definitely not here in Manhattan, where everyone is in a frenzy to get vaccinated. New Yorkers are pounding on their computers, and hitting the keys on their iPhones, trying to find a doctor’s office or pharmacy with a stash.

But mirabile dictu, in the midst of this urban insanity, I got a vaccine last week. I triumphed in the Darwinian struggle now taking place in the United States, even though Lord knows it wasn’t the survival of the fittest. In fact, it was the survival of the luckiest.

It’s therefore not surprising that I’ve developed a case of survivor’s guilt. A psychological condition, survivor’s guilt is a malady that sometimes afflicts people who have escaped death when others haven’t been that fortunate. It occurs among survivors of natural disasters like hurricanes and floods, as well as man-made disasters like wars. I have the pandemic strain: a severe case of vaccine guilt. Everyone who has escaped contracting Covid knows they’re damn lucky compared to the 400,000 Americans who have not made it. But my current discomfort is coming from the shame of having received a vaccine when millions of people are still scrambling to get one. Why me? Did I deserve it more? The truth is that I just lucked out.

That is especially true because I dd not try as hard as many people. I had received texts from N.Y.U. and Mount Sinai hospitals, where two of my doctors are affiliated, saying that they had the vaccine and would be giving it out when the law allowed. Lord knows, I am as sick of being locked inside as the next person. But I assumed it would happen when it happened. So I was passive about the matter, religiously wearing my mask and socially distancing, but sure that my name would advance on the hospital lists.

Then my niece Lisa, a fellow Upper West Sider, got into the act, and began to text me. Lisa has a generosity of spirit that is rare. Despite the fact that she is busy working full-time as a professor and raising three girls under the age of eight, she still has a strong impulse to help others. She also is aware that I’ve been barricaded at home most of the pandemic, because of an underlying medical condition and my senior status.

Lisa started a text campaign at the beginning of January:

“Wish we could have gotten you a vaccine for your birthday!!“

I thanked her, grateful for her concern, but paid little attention. But Lisa was just getting started. Last week, after a few other mentions, she inquired again whether I was trying to get a vaccine. I repeated by rote the names of the two hospitals whose vaccine lists I was on. But that wasn’t enough of an answer for my activist niece:

Is anyone pushing for you at these places? And have you tried the sites you can look for openings yourself? May I can send you the links and/or keep checking for you? Unfortunately, many of the places are not in our neighborhood- only a few are. Apparently the 69th street urgent care will be getting vaccines but doesn’t have them yet. But that’s a site I’d keep checking!

I robotically reiterated that I was confident, based on my communications with the two medical centers, that I am a serious contender . But I started to wonder—am I?

Lisa popped up by text a day later:

There are tons of appointments opening at places that one can sign up for online. Just wanted to make sure you knew— You could sign up for a slot easily without waiting for your docs. Let me know if you want me to send you links.

Links would be great, I told her. It couldn’t hurt. Immediately, with professorial precision, she shot back another text:

If you make a short profile at it shows you lots of places with availability

At that point, I gave in. Who could turn away such determined niecely enterprise? It was time to take the reins and shake off my complacent attitude. But as it turned out, I didn’t have time. Minutes later, I got an urgent email from my across-the-hall neighbor, Stephanie, a busy author. New York City apartment dwellers usually get low marks when it comes to concern about their neighbors; people live down the hall for decades from people whose names they don’t bother to learn. But Stefanie is the exception to the rule, as is my next-door neighbor Amy, who has run errands for me during the pandemic, knowing I wasn’t venturing outside.

Stefanie’s rushed email read:

Not sure if you qualify for the next group allowed to receive the vaccine in NY — and your own drs may be getting and have their own appt system — but wanted to share info we got from Craig’s mother. She spent yesterday making dozens of calls to all their drs and all area pharmacies, and the majority wouldn’t take their name or make any promises … but she was able to put their names on an appt list at both Wellness and Joseph’s Pharmacy on W. 72nd St for when they have vaccine in stock (hopefully next week). So just FYI, in case that’s useful to you.

Had there been a front-page story in the New York Times about my inertia? Clearly, my relaxed attitude was out of sync with that of Type-A Upper West Siders. I decided to get my sorry ass into gear and do something.

I took a baby step, and called the Wellness Pharmacy, just a few doors down from me. The pharmacist answered on the first ring and I gave him a spiel why I was a great candidate for one of his scarce vaccines. He put me on the store list. I called Joseph’s too, but the line was constantly busy.

Two days later, I got a call from Wellness. Would I be available to come in for a vaccine the next day at 4 pm? Knock me over with a feather. You bet!

The Geezer Brigade

In his classic video “Andy,” my man Randy Rainbow swears his undying love for Andrew Cuomo, the charismatic governor of New York. Randy, never one for understatement, declares himself a “Cuomosexual.” Well, I wouldn’t go quite that far, but I too am sort of sweet on the Love Guv. After all, he deserves the ultimate vote of gratitude for me and some of my Boomer friends getting vaccines last week.

On January 12, Cuomo expanded distribution of the already hard-to-find Covid-19 vaccines to people 65 and over. At his daily briefing, the Governor blamed the severe vaccine shortage in New York on the incompetent response by the Trump Administration: “Now we have 7 million people eligible, and we still have a drip, drip, drip from the faucet of federal dosage availability at 300,000.”

I was soon to discover two days later, on January 14, what that short supply looked like on the ground.

While my appointment at the Wellness Pharmacy was for 4 p.m., I started preparing for my half-block trip to the drugstore hours early. There was no way I was going to be late; it would be as unthinkable as leaving the Queen of England cooling her heels at Windsor Castle for 15 minutes while you took your sweet time getting there for tea. (Oh, President Trump did that in 2018? No offense meant.)

Insider photojournalist Doug Dworkin and the author out on the vaccine beat Victory! (Photo credit: Doug Dworkin)
Insider photojournalist Doug Dworkin and the author out on the vaccine beat

Doug Dworkin, a stalwart Insider columnist and a fellow Upper West Sider, agreed to accompany me to the pharmacy and serve as the Insider photographer for the occasion. I nervously asked him a hundred times to meet me early to walk the half block for my appointment.

During our walk over, I went bonkers. I was in a state that Jews describe in Yiddish as fertootsed—discombobulated to the max. As we walked down West 72nd Street, I almost came unglued, It wasn’t because of worry about the safety of the vaccine—I’m far more concerned about getting Covid than taking the shot itself. I was panicked by fear that the vaccines would run out just as we reached the doorway of the store. By then, having had the misfortune of witnessing my meltdown, Doug was undoubtedly wishing that he wrote for a different publication.

When we approached Wellness Pharmacy, to our surprise, there was a line snaking out the door and down the street. Obviously, these would-be vaccinees had failed to make advance arrangements. I confidently strolled right in, assuming that my 4 p.m. appointment entitled me to roll up my sleeve at 3:59 p.m.

Fuggedaboutit. It took 30 seconds for a cranky customer in the store to put me in my place. Blocking my way, he pointed defiantly at a woman sitting on a nearby bridge chair. “She’s 92. “I have a 4 pm appointment.” I replied politely, “So does she,” he answered sourly. “I’m 94.” Clearly, this was a country for old men.

It turned out that everyone in the line had been told by the pharmacy that they had a 4 p.m. appointment! And even those with appointments in hand were being told to join the lengthening line outside. Oh, no, this was going to be another epic Manhattan competition. Calling Woody Allen! I meekly took my place outside.

What followed was a quick descent into Geezer Hell. It was immediately evident that I wasn’t the only one coming apart at the seams. In front of us, there was an unruly rabble of neurotic New Yorkers, all 65 years and older, all sure that the person standing next to them was trying to steal their place in line.

Although I have lived in New York City for 39 years, I’m still unnerved by hardcore native New Yorkers. By now, I’m probably as rude as they are, but my midwestern roots don’t provide me with as much protective covering as they have. My cowgirl nerves are still a little raw. So when bystanders started peppering us with resentful questions about why we were in line, I got even more uptight.

A 50-something woman with a Yankee Stadium-size New York accent was particularly aggressive. “What’s the line for?” she demanded, looking accusingly right at me. I answered that we were getting vaccines by appointment. She reared back, as if to say “well, excuuuuuuse me,” like comedian Steve Martin. “I know that!,” she snarled and walked away in a huff. Don’t take it personally, lady, I muttered under my breath. And I hope you never get an appointment.

Meanwhile, Doug, ever the conscientious photojournalist, was snapping pictures with his iPhone. “I would rather be standing on line at Pastrami Queen,” he quipped, referring to a popular new deli down the block where the locals lined up for overpriced $20 hot-pastrami-on-rye sandwiches. Well, Doug could afford to be more relaxed, since he literally had no skin in the game. I was the one in a battle-to-the-death with these pushy New Yorkers.

Making matters worse, the pharmacy proceeded to hand out eight-page New York Government questionnaires to the unfortunates in the line. Clearly, they should have emailed them to us. I borrowed a pen from poor Doug, and awkwardly filled out the ungainly document against a store window. There were page after page of intrusive questions, many of them stupid and irrelevant to getting a Covid vaccine. The first question: “What sex were you assigned at birth? Male. Female. Intersex. Chose not to respond. Sexual orientation not listed (write-in).” I looked around to see whether there were any octogenarian transgenders in line.

To be fair, everyone here was being subjected to the same unnecessary national vaccine rollout chaos. Plus, New Yorkers in congregate setting are famously prickly. And on top of it (with the exception of me, of course), this was a group of decrepit oldsters.

Finally, we advanced inside, near the cash register, to the inner sanctum. It was hard to avoid the thought that this crowd represented a goldmine for the pharmacy. Ka-ching! As we listened to the clanking cash register, a man started talking about all of the money that the government had given to big Pharma to develop these vaccines. I casually chimed in that Donald Trump had given it to them, thinking of the substandard performance of Operation Warp Speed.

The man cut me off, thinking that I had meant my remark as a compliment for our now-deposed president. It’s a hanging offense to compliment Trump anywhere in the United Socialist Republic of the Upper West Side. I quickly made amends and gave the obligatory anti-Trump sneer to clear things up,. The man relaxed, reassured that I also thought Trump was a monster. Landsmen again. He smiled.

A Visitation by an Angel

Two roads diverged in Wellness Pharmacy, and I was waved to the vaccine station on the left. A bridge chair had been set up for vaccinees in an aisle packed with Tide and Lysol. I had no time to think about the fact that I was sitting in a germ-filled store--a masked young woman was approaching me with a syringe full of Moderna in her right hand. Before she plunged the needle into my arm, I asked the nurse (the counter clerk?) what her name was. “Engy,” she replied. “It’s Arabic for angel.” I rolled up my sleeve and received the least dramatic shot of my life. The needle popped in effortlessly. I didn’t even feel a pinch. My Angel of Health!

My Moderna Moment (Photo credit: Doug Dworkin)
My Moderna Moment (Photo credit: Doug Dworkin)

Engy handed me a card that said that my second dose would be administered on February 11. The line for February was probably already halfway down Broadway. Crazy thoughts filled my mind. What if there were a national shortage of Moderna vaccines by then? What if the owner of the pharmacy had snatched his millions from the cash register and gone to Boca Raton? What if Trump had stolen all of the vaccines on his way out the door?

Meanwhile, Doug was furiously snapping photos on his iPhone. Unlike me, he had the presence of mind to ask Engy whether I should wait a little while before leaving, just in case I felt sick. “No,” she said firmly. “If you feel fine in a minute, you can leave.” A New York minute, instead of the prescribed 20 minutes. So that’s how the pharmacy managed to process a hundred curmudgeons a day. As we walked out the door, it occurred to me that no one had asked to see my Medicare card.

Hot pastrami sandwiches at $20 a pop Victory! (Photo credit: Doug Dworkin)
Hot pastrami sandwiches at $20 a pop (Photo credit: Doug Dworkin)
Al fresco dining at the ungrammatical Friedmans (Photo credit: Doug Dworkin)
Al fresco dining at Friedmans (Photo credit: Doug Dworkin)

Back on the street, I was overcome with a sense of relief. I was positively floaty. Mission accomplished! To celebrate, Doug and I stopped along the way at the outdoor annex of the ungrammatical Friedmans Restaurant (As a former copy editor, the lack of an apostrophe on their sign drives me nuts.) Since there is no inside dining now in New York City, restaurants have hastily constructed extensions for outside dining. This makeshift one reminded me of a sukkah for Sukkot, but it was airy and therefore healthier. Doug dug into a plate of vegetarian potstickers as I sat there with a cup of untouched coffee in a happy trance.

When we left and crossed West 72nd Street, the truck shimmered like a mirage on the next corner. The vendor had prices like Pastrami Queen down the block, with a large box of popcorn running $6. I hesitated, but the beneficent owner of the truck, David Blackstone, gave me a large box of unbuttered popcorn at a reduced price. Another West 72nd Street angel! New York City was still magical, despite the pandemic. I wanted to throw my hat in the air like Mary Tyler Moore.

I said goodbye to Doug, and went back to my apartment to shelter in place. That evening, I felt both giddy, and a little guilty that I had somehow mysteriously moved to the front of the line. That feeling would grow over the next few days, when I realized that I had no side effects whatsoever from the vaccine, not even a sore arm. But this was VE Day, and I was in a heightened state of Vaccination Elation. For the moment, I decided to enjoy my good fortune. I had a tasty box of popcorn for dinner and fell asleep, dreaming of my next dose.

The author with David Gladstone, the Popcorn King (Photo credit: Doug Dworkin)
The author with David Blackstone, the Popcorn King (Photo credit: Doug Dworkin)

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