Gimme Shelter: Common

Ambrose Clancy

Ambrose Clancy

I have a cold.

Yeah, I know, poor baby. That’s one symptom of a cold that has nothing to do with crankiness and Kleenex — the chance to play Poor Pitiful Me for a while. Or go the other way, and play Stoic He-man, rattling the windows with coughing that comes all the way from your toenails, spritzing small rooms with projection sneezes, only to answer alarmed questions of, “Are you all right?” with, “I’m fine, just a cold.”

Meaning, “Leave me alone, don’t bother me. Can’t you see I have a cold?”

A week ago Wednesday at work, I was speaking to our art director, Charlie Tumino, about something when he interrupted me to say he had a cold once that, like me, “makes you sound like Leonard Cohen.”

And here I thought I was purring away like Barry White. Thanks, Charlie.

That evening I asked my health care professional when you should you go to the doctor if you have a sore throat. “Tomorrow morning,” she said.

The doctor took a swab and ran it around the back of my throat and then held it, dripping, in front of my face. “Oh my God,” I said.

“Exactly,” he said, and prescribed an antibiotic, levofloxacin, that’s also prescribed for bubonic plague victims. I wish I were kidding.

Violent sneezing is one symptom of the plague. While no one says anything when someone coughs, those of us brought up the correct way will say “God bless you” after a sneeze. We get the tradition from sixth century Pope Gregory the Great, who would bless plague-stricken people lying on their cots sneezing their lives away.

I woke up a couple of times this week in the middle of the night, certain I could hear voices on North Brander Parkway chanting, “Bring out  your dead.”

The doctor said along with my cold, I had laryngitis. That threw me. I thought the only people who got laryngitis were opera singers. Or other performers who claimed laryngitis to cancel events when they really were too trashed to make the gig.

The old three-liner came back to me.

“Where’s the queen?” asked the king.

“She’s in bed with laryngitis.”

“Is that Greek SOB still here?”

But I couldn’t afford to laugh. My throat was like 20 miles of bad road.

Suffering as I am, calling the affliction “common” is just one more insult to we wretched of the earth. But it’s true. According to PubMed Health, a service provided by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, there are more than a billion (yes, with a “b”) colds suffered by Americans every year. The American Lung Association reports that adults get four to six colds on average a year. Kids are wiping their noses on their sleeves six to eight times a year.

All those colds are stalking viciously through homes, schools and offices. At the Reporter, four out of six of us are suffering. When I accused the Community News Editor, who was the first to fall, of being “our Typhoid Mary,” she would have none of it. “There are a hundred ways to catch a cold,” she said, quietly, and of course she’s right. Colds are viruses, typically one called the rhinovirus, which can be caught wherever and whenever.

But it’s still comforting to blame an individual you know.

For those one billion colds, we spend more than $4 billion a year on over the counter medicines, says Consumer Reports. The Mayo Clinic says there’s no cure for the common cold — even though, plague, if properly treated, gets you out of the woods — but the MC and your mother agree that chicken soup, lots of fluids and getting tucked up in bed by someone who cares for you helps with the symptoms.

My profession was changed dramatically because of a cold. In 1966, Esquire commissioned writer Gay Talese to do a profile of Frank Sinatra. Talese said yes, because the pay was good (those were the days) and he was wise enough never to turn down work.

But he approached the job with a kind of dread. As Talese said later, he wondered what more could be written about someone who had been one of the most famous people on  the planet for more than 30 years. It got worse trying to make contact with Sinatra throwing up roadblocks, canceling appointments and stalling. When Talese finally got close to Sinatra, he hit on a way to make his story sing, resulting in one of most famous headlines in feature journalism: Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.

The description of the great man, with the most common of ailments, sparked a new way of newspaper and magazine writing, using fictional techniques and organization of material to present facts. Talese, along with a handful of other writers, created what is now taught in schools as “the New Journalism.”

So, good enough for Gay Talese and a cultural revolution, good enough for me. As I said when I came in: I have  a cold.