Yesterday Sesame Street introduced Lily, a one-time character to illustrate “food insecurity” — poverty-induced malnutrition. She’s not the only Sesame Street character to experience the harsh realities of urban life.
Oscar the Grouch’s pulse was weak but steady, which was a relief to all of his friends from Sesame Street who were crowded in the tiny hospital room. It was crowded because his life as an itinerant vagrant with an unemployable trash fetish had left him penniless and unable to cover his medical bills, and there were fucking heaps of medical bills, because Oscar the Grouch had AIDS.
It was horrific, no doubt. “A tragedy!” That’s what people called it. But, of course, when they were lying in bed at night, alone with their thoughts, they knew that they couldn’t chalk it up to some mysterious twist of fate. New York was a big city! A big city with some very big problems, and two of the biggest were drug abuse and AIDS. For years, the residents of Sesame Street had dismissed Oscar’s preference for living in a trash can as a harmless peccadillo when it was, in fact, a stark and obvious reality that all too often AIDS and drug abuse went hand in hand and junkies couldn’t always be trusted to dispose of their infected syringes properly. Sometimes they just tossed them into the closest trash can, and that was just life! And on one occasion the closest trash can had been Oscar the Grouch’s home.
Oscar hadn’t thought about it too much at the time; the deadly needle was just another gloriously collectable piece of refuse. But months passed and Oscar’s green, furry body became covered in painful boils and his mouth and throat filled up with sores and then, one morning, Oscar found Slimey in the bottom of the trash can, limp and unmoving, his tiny form not much more than a bloody smear. That’s when he’d gone to the hospital.
There was a voice from the corridor. “How many patients in this rrrrrroom, nurse?” The Count had arrived. “ONE! Ah ah ah ah!” His exuberance was grating, but he couldn’t really help himself, and anyway he’d been paying for the hospital care so what were you gonna do.
Oscar nodded weakly and pressed the buzzer that meant he wanted his pen and notepad. His throat was too swollen to talk right now. Bert handed them to him grimly, and Oscar the Grouch scratched out a few letters and passed them back.
HOW ARE THE CHILDREN, the note read. I MISS THEM.
Alice Snuffleupagus began to cry. “Aww, don’t cry, Alice,” Grover said as he led her out of the room. “Let’s go sit together and calm down and think about all of the good times we’ve had with Oscar.”
“The children are fine, Oscar,” Ernie told him. “Miles is in a band now. Gabi is studying at college.”
Oscar pressed the button again. PLEASE TELL THEM I AM SO SORRY FOR BEING A GROUCH, he wrote. WHEN I’M GONE PLEASE TELL THEM I LOVED THEM.
“We’ll tell them, buddy,” Ernie reassured him. “Don’t worry about that. We all know ya didn’t really mean it.”
Elmo looked up at Big Bird. “’When I’m gone’? What does that mean, Big Bird?”
Big Bird shuffled his giant feet awkwardly. “Uh, well, that means that one day soon, our friend Oscar is going to leave us and go to heaven, which is a wonderful place where play time is all the time and no one ever has to take a break.”
“And cookies are an all-the-time food,” Cookie Monster added. Everyone ignored him. He’d misjudged his audience.
Elmo tugged at Big Bird’s feathers. “Always playtime and no break? I want to go there too! Can I go with Oscar, Big Bird? Can I please?”
It was very difficult for Big Bird to keep the tremor out of his voice, but he knelt down and looked Elmo in the eyes and told him that one day, if he was good, he could go there, but not today and that today was the day that they told their friend Oscar how much they loved him.
Elmo ran over to Oscar’s side. “I love you, Oscar,” he said. “I hope you have a fun time in heaven!”
Tears welled up in Oscar’s eyes and he opened his mouth. “Thank you all so much”, he tried to say, but a gurgle was all that came out.
“WHAT DID HE SAY? DID ANYONE CATCH THAT?” Herry Monster bellowed.
Oscar the Grouch looked around the room at all of his friends and smiled, one last time, then leaned back into the pillow and closed his eyes and felt eternity wash around him.