How Maggiano’s Little Italy Gave Me A Brain Injury

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When I was twenty years old I worked at Maggiano’s. My job was as a delivery driver and caterer in the downtown Chicago area. This was a pretty sweet gig to have as a twenty-year-old. I got all the free Rigatoni I wanted and I got to drive around the Loop in this:


I catered company lunches and holiday parties. Sometimes I’d get tipped generously. Except for the one particular holiday party that I worked in December of 2010 that left me the generous tip of a brain injury and a lifetime of memory issues.

To begin, I was running late for a delivery order at Union Station.

The loading dock was under heavy construction so deliveries were very delayed. I wheel the van onto the dock, unpack the heavy boxes of pasta, bruschetta and marinara sauces onto my hand cart and haul ass towards the freight elevators. If anybody’s ever sprinted full speed while dragging a heavy suitcase behind them, they know that it’s very difficult to maneuver. As I’m running, I keep turning and looking over my shoulder to make sure I’m not leaving a trail of parmesan cheese behind me.

And in the catering outfit, I looked like Carl Hanratty.

As I rounded a corner, I tossed a look over my left shoulder to make sure no boxes fell. Suddenly, a sound like a gunshot rang out and I felt a searing pain in my right temple. I had run full speed into a low hanging construction beam, with my head turned sideways. It felt like my brain had been put in a salad spinner. I fell to my knees and immediately thought, “Not good.”

Now I’ve had a concussion before and I was pretty sure this was a concussion. But I was dedicated to my job. I told myself, “JR, you have a menial food service job to finish! Get in there and make Mr. Maggiano proud.” As I’m unloading the boxes in the company’s conference room, my nose starts bleeding all over their food. I drop the boxes on the table, apologize profusely and head back to the van.

As I drive up the parking ramp out of the loading dock, I sideswipe about four different cars. It felt like I was just learning how to drive for the first time with a fifth of vodka in me. When I cross the Chicago River and pull onto Wacker Drive, I puke all over myself. Yep, definitely a concussion. When I pulled over and called 911, I was brought right to the hospital. Nope, didn’t do that.

By some miracle, I make it back to the restaurant without killing anybody. I stumble through the front door in my stupid fucking white button-down covered in blood and puke. My eyes were completely dilated and I’m slurring the words, “I needa goda hossspital.” Naturally, the wait staff, cooks and I’m sure a few customers were horrified.

Now, this was a restaurant. Most of the people who worked there hadn’t made good decisions in their life. Since it was our busy season, the manager told the only person available to take me to the ER: an overweight Hispanic man from the back of the house who I’m pretty sure didn’t finish high school. Does that come across as racist? Don’t worry, he confirmed my suspicions minutes later when he made a decision that probably screwed me up for the rest of my life.

Let’s call this man “Alberto.” Alberto is now driving the delivery van towards Northwestern Hospital with a slumped over 20-year-old suffering from a severe head injury and puking all over the floor in the passenger seat. This had gone from bad to very dangerous. So Alberto thinks to himself, “Head injury, this kid needs to see a neurologist!” Smart thinking, Alberto. So he pulls in front of the Northwestern Neurology Association building, tells me to get out and leaves.

Let me repeat that in case you didn’t understand. He’s told by his employer that he’s responsible for taking somebody in his care to the emergency room. Instead, he takes that person to a random university building two blocks from the emergency room, kicks him out of the car and then races back so he can continue to stuff his fat face with Vera’s Lemon Cookies.

In his defense, them shits are bomb. Secret ingredient? Cake batter.

So there I was, out in the December cold in Chicago with a life-threatening brain injury, slumped over in some bushes. And I was beginning to fall asleep…

I do not know how long I was out there. Could have been 20 minutes, could have been an hour. All I know is that someone found me. They ushered me to the ER, which was two fucking blocks away. In my state (eyes half-opened, fluids leaking from my face) it might as well have been in Never Never Land.

So close, yet oh so far.

The ER attendants took one look at me and rushed me to the head trauma unit. I was able to mumble out my father’s cell number as he worked downtown. He was at my side within the hour with the usual confused, disbelieving look I’ve seen on his face oh, about two dozen times or so. The only words I remember him repeating were, “They left you where?!?

I received a CAT scan and the results came back pretty quickly. Right there in the center of my brain, about the size of a dime, was a white circle.

Turns out, the doctor said, that was a small pool of blood! He said that if the pool of blood got any bigger that they would have to perform emergency brain surgery on me. They would continue to take CAT scans every two hours because there was a chance my brain would heal and naturally drain itself of the blood.

I’m assuming I’d be flown out to an oil rig to start drilling on this thing.

I couldn’t eat anything, I couldn’t get up and walk around and I definitely could not sleep. Two hours go by, another CAT scan. The blood’s still there. It hasn’t gotten any bigger, but it hasn’t gone away. I’m dying of hunger and have to go to the bathroom. My dad had run across the street to grab me some magazines. So Einstein here decides he’s going to get up under his own power and find a bathroom, hoping none of the doctors notice.

They definitely noticed and plopped my concussed ass in a wheelchair, which they took me to the bathroom and back in. Completely humiliating. Didn’t they realize that I had driven a 24-foot delivery van from Union Station to River North with the equivalent mental capacity of a seven-year-old with his eyes closed? Yeah, in retrospect that was stupid, but hey! Brain injury.

Two more hours go by. The spot is getting fainter. At this point, my digestive acid is eating away my stomach lining. It’s gotten dark outside.

After another two hours, there is great news: the spot is completely gone! The hospital agrees to release me, under the condition that I don’t sleep that night. My father insists on wanting to bring me home to the ‘burbs. I insist that he take me to Portillos. That night my buddy Neil comes by and we stay up all night rebeating Ocarina of Time.

Happy ending, right? All’s well that ends well, right? Couple of scary moments but you got out of it okay, right? Wrong, Facebook friend or random person from the Internet.

At my follow-up appointment 24 hours later, the doctor told me that the part of my brain that I damaged directly was my temporal lobe. He said that some of the side effects I would experience were: headaches, fogginess and some short-term memory loss. It affects everybody differently but the effects should wear off in weeks, maybe a few months.

He was right, I did experience some headaches and my mind was certainly pretty foggy in the weeks after that. The short-term memory loss that was supposed to go away eventually? Pleased to meet ya.

During the last half of my senior year of college, I locked myself out of my apartment over 30 times. I started just climbing in through my bedroom window. Many times I would completely forget where my class was. Not like, “oh, which room number is it again?” More like, “am I in the right building?” I’d get on the El and suddenly be gripped with terror realizing I didn’t know where I was going. It was some real Memento shit.

My long-term memory is perfect. Everything that had happened to me before the injury I remember clear as crystal. I still know every word to Kid Rock’s “Early Morning Stoned Pimp,” and not because Will and I text it to each other before bed every night. These days? I can’t remember names and it’s impossible to remember numbers. If you were to tell me a sequence of five or more numbers and promised to give me a million dollars if I recited them back to you a minute later, I would lose every time. I take notes like a nerd. When my boss asks me a question about ANYTHING that’s happened within the past two days I have to scramble for my notebook. A really neat disability to have when you work in sales and do stand-up in your free time.

Should I have sued? Probably. The side effects seemed temporary at the time. Six months later when I fully realized how scrambled my brain was Alberto and the managers I worked for had been long gone. Plus if I tried looking for a payday then I would have had to get medical documentation of my memory loss. Thus fucking me for insurance for the rest of my life (#PGP).

So thanks, Maggiano’s. Your average chicken parm and buy one-take one home pasta may have everyone else fooled. But I know you for what you truly are. Now if I can just remember what that was.

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