Wart Nation: Upward Mobility Through Excrescence

I first noticed the wart while showering in the Barnard dorm. It didn’t look like much – just a smooth, hard, round bump just to the right of my left nipple – but after twenty years on this earth, I’d never had any warts, moles or other weird skin growths before. I vividly recall being worried enough about it to make an appointment with Columbia’s official university dermatologist for the next day, December 10, 1983. His name was, naturally, Doctor Moley, and for those of you who require documentation of such things, his office was on Amsterdam Avenue at 114th Street. Anyway, people with free medical coverage can’t get finicky about inappropriately-named physicians.

Warts are strange. Not to be confused with their darker, hairier cousin the mole, wart viruses are among the oldest life forms on the planet – even pterodactyls probably had to deal with these hard little growths disfiguring their leathery wings. Warts come in tens of thousands of varieties. Everyone has wart virusues all over their skin, but almost all wart viruses are too damn weak to plant a root and become visible. We are a warty nation: According to a brochure I picked up at my dermatologist entitledWarts, the average American sports some sixty of these things. You should see this thing – it had photographs of people who have warts on their warts.

It’s not pretty to think about, but the virus is mildly contagious, which means you can and will get them from handrails, subway seats and other places where wart-ridden citizens drag their infected limbs. New York City is a dermatologist’s darkest, moistest dream, a place where warts, moles and all types of skin growths you’ve never given a thought fester and spread among 8 million people, each to be removed at more than $200 a pop. At 60 warts per person, the economics of wartdom add up to potential business of a staggering $96 billion.

The more stubborn viruses wait for your body’s immune system to weaken; then the little bastards strike. Some people use foul over-the-counter liquids like Compound W to treat their warts, but I’ve never heard of the stuff working. All it does is turn your skin white and smell like shit, like Gary Oldman in Coppola’s version of Dracula. Ointments are pointless, because they only treat the surface. It’s like a weed – you have to get down to the root.

The only methods that actually kill the fuckers are to have a dermatologist freezing them off with liquid nitrogen, burn them off with a soldiering-gun-like instrument or electrocute them with lasers. (Genital warts are even worse – they hurt like hell and usually require actual surgery.) Usually the resulting burn blisters. Then it starts to itch like crazy. A few days later the wart emerges from the gooey bloody hole in your skin, loosely hanging on my the bottom of its root despite it all. Then you yank it out, and if you work in food service, drop it some bad tipper’s meal. Even this doesn’t always work – some warts come back bigger and better than ever. Most people, figuring that the warts will die when they do, decide to ignore them. For the most part, warts are harmless, so there’s no point worrying about them or spending hundreds of dollars to treat them.

For the most part.

Which brings us back to that magical winter of 1983. Reagan was presiding over a recession, Culture Club topped the charts and I was a junior applied physics major at Columbia Engineering. I lived in the Barnard dorm under a then-pilot housing exchange with Columbia. It was the night before my first final exam, and for the first time since I’d arrived in college, I felt good about my prospects. The Mudd Club had just closed, so I had started sleeping more at night than during the day. My midterm grades had risen to decent, all As and Bs, and I’d actually been to most of my classes, done most of my homework and read most of my books. I was on my way to becoming a full-fledged member of the white power elite. In just two years I planned to be working on satellite-mounted laser-defense cannons for GE in South Jersey, pulling down fifty grand a year as I developed more efficient methods to incinerate millions of human beings within tenths of a second.

That night my girlfriend insisted that we sleep in her room. In the middle of the night, I started to feel really warm – sticky warm, as if I’d pissed in the bed. I was in one of those half-awake states where you’re asleep but can think straight nonetheless. I reminded myself that I was 20, so I probably hadn’t wet my sheets. Anyway, I hoped not. Then some part of my brain proposed that I might be sweating like a pig because it was so damned hot. That was impossible, though, because Philippa’s radiator never worked right and it was always freezing in her room. “All right, shit,” the skeptical part thought to the other one, “I’ll check what’s up,” and awoke.

There was blood everywhere – on the wall, the floor, all over both of us, everywhere. Philippa’s thick comforter was soaked completely through. It looked like someone had slaughtered a pig – a large pig – right over the bed while we were sleeping. A pool of blood a few feet across spread across the tile floor. My first thought was that I’d accidentally killed my girlfriend while I was dreaming about offing my dad for not paying my tuition. Then I felt a ball of blood hit my arm, warm and slick, and realized that it was spurting out of my chest like a garden hose. I remembered the wart, and knew immediately what had happened. Its root must have grown into an artery. The root had somehow become dislodged from moving around at night, it popped out like a cork and the artery burst. Amazing.

Philippa got up and tried to call an ambulance. “This is New York City!” I screamed as she tried to explain that no, it wasn’t an address per se, but a room within a dorm that didn’t have an actual street address. I held my hand over my chest, trying to keep my blood inside. “I’ll die waiting for a fucking ambulance!”

“Good point. I’ll call Robert. He’s pre-med. He’ll know what to do.”

Robert was planning to practice forensic medicine. At least he could identify the cause of death later.

“We’d better carry him to the hospital,” Robert said after surveying the mess. “You could die waiting for an ambulance in New York City.”

The thought of all that blood, my blood, spilled all over Philippa’s floor and the sight of what was left dripping out on the sidewalk of 114th Street finally hit me. It was snowing, but I felt not warm, but uncold. I passed out while they carried me over to St. Luke’s, but woke up just as we arrived. My body felt like it weighed maybe forty pounds. I could feel my brain pressed up against the back of my skull. I kind of miss that feeling; feeling your brain is really cool.

“We got a gunshot!” the attendant screamed after spotting the hole in my chest. On the operating table, I tried to explain about the wart to the doctor, a large balding guy with pink skin. “Don’t talk, man – you’re delirious.” I wonder if this technique works with delirious patients. Anyway, he cut off my shirt with scissors, cleaned off the wound, and stepped back for a moment. “It’s a wart,” he announced grandly. I was actually relieved; maybe I’d gotten shot without knowing it.

“Call the other doctors – anyone who’s not operating,” my doctor asked a nurse. Within what seemed like a few minutes, I was surrounded by at least a dozen men and women in white. “Watch carefully,” my doctor announced gleefully. “You’ll probably never see another one of these the rest of your careers.

“The wart’s root has grown into an artery, become dislodged and burst,” he continued, poking the wart and helping his career.

“I think it came loose during sex,” I offered.

“Shut up. You’re delirious.”

He used silver nitrate to force the bleeding to stop and put a clear bandage over the hole in my chest. You could look right through it into my chest. Then they gave me tons of blood through a transfusion – I think it was six pints. This was only a year after they started national screening for HIV, so I’ve gotten tested every year ever since. I threw myself a 10th anniversary bash when my 1993 AIDS test came back negative.

My wart was a boon for the bald doctor at St. Luke’s, who published an article in a major medical journal about my case. It was titled “A Potentially-Lethal Dermatological Condition.” My freak wart is a rare example of a terminal skin condition. Skin cancer doesn’t actually kill you, it’s the spread of the disease into your body that does. Anyway, that’s what the doctor told me – I don’t know squat about this stuff. All I know about this wart is that it screwed me up less than 24 hours after I discovered it!

The first thing I did after getting discharged from the hospital was to go to Tom’s of Seinfeld opening credits fame. Losing a lot of blood makes you ravenously hungry for greasy diner food. I ate three full breakfasts and enough side dishes to bring the tab to $30 in a place where you can get two-eggs and bacon for $2.40. I still have the bill. Then I headed back to my dorm, where I found Philippa trying to scrub the blood off the wall. It looked like a finger painting done by an elephant – pretty cool, but very gruesome.

“I want you to clean my comforter. It’s disgusting!” she spat upon seeing me hours after my brush with the Big Sleep.

I was still too weak to argue, so I lugged the thing, still incredibly heavy with my blood, to the bathtub. Incredibly, cold water really did get all the blood out, but I bet that thing still smells slightly ferrous. Finding no affection from my soon-to-be-erstwhile girlfriend, I decided to seek solace from other girls instead.

“Show me your chest!” Felicia and Judy demanded. Soon a crowd of women gathered in the 5th floor hallway to stare through my transparent bandage at the blood rushing past the dangling remnants of my once-fearsome wart. “It’s gross – but kind of cool,” one commented. Unfortunately, this didn’t lead to any illicit sex.

I ended up missing all of my exams. Under Columbia’s professor-as-tyrant policy, any teacher can arbitrarily deny a student the right to take a make-up test, no matter how legitimate their excuse. Three of my teachers, eager to get their winter breaks started, opted to fuck me over by refusing me a make-up. Failing a final means failing the whole semester, so I ended up on academic probation. The following term I failed a class, so I got expelled. No one likes to date a drop-out, so Philippa dumped me. Never underestimate the power of a wart to change your life.

A week after my transfusion, I went to see Dr. Moley to have the wart extracted. He injected a local anesthetic above the wart and went to cut in, but I warned him: “It’s going to spurt. There’s a lot of pressure under there.”

“Listen, son,” the guy snarled, “I’ve been doing this since before you were a thought in your father’s balls. Shut up and let me do my job.” I guessed that working with rich college kids would make anyone surly after a while.

“Yeah, but it’s really, really-”

He pressed down and sent a perfect jet of blood shot straight into his eye. I was too afraid to laugh. “I told you it would spurt,” I whispered.

He did a crappy job sewing me up, zigzagging all over and pulling the flesh every which way. The scar is really huge, but it makes a fun conversation piece at the beach.

After I got expelled, I had no prayer of ever pursuing my parents’ dream of my becoming an engineer of mass destruction. I worked in a series of financial services jobs, first at Bear Stearns as a $10,000-a-year trader-trainee, and later at the Industrial Bank of Japan. The bank liked me and kept promoting me and giving me raises, but it was during that time that I decided that I’d never be happy doing anything other than drawing cartoons for a living. One night after work in 1987, I drew a cartoon before dinner. I’ve done three a week ever since then. Four years later, I got syndicated. Last year, it finally became a full-time job. For the time being, I’m really happy about my career, and I know that I owe it all to that fucking wart.

© 1996 Ted Rall, All Rights Reserved.