Ghent, New York
Body/Soul | Fiction/Memoir
20 November 2021 11:57PM
Ralph Gardner Jr.

I swallowed hand sanitizer last week. But it’s not what you’re probably thinking. I wasn’t seeking some home pandemic remedy. I’m fully vaccinated and boostered. It was all a mistake and a relatively expensive mistake at that.

I’d had a mid-morning doctor’s appointment, fasting, on the Upper East Side. By the time it was over I was moderately ravenous so decided to drop by Sant Ambroeus, a swank Madison Avenue café known, among other things, for its fine baked goods and capable espressos and cappuccinos. My plan was to score a couple of croissant and an iced cappuccino and then head to the boat pond in Central Park – the one Stuart Little made famous, just south of the Alice In Wonderland statue – to bask on a bench in the sun with my companion croissants; one jam-filled the other with an enticing hazelnut crust.

But when I took a sip of my iced-cappuccino it tasted slightly off, as if it had been lightly infused with lemon-scented Joy Ultra Liquid Dish Soap. This can’t be, I told myself. Sant Ambroeus, which started in Milan, Italy before spreading to Manhattan and Palm Beach, is almost as famous for its unrelenting quality as for the upscale crowd it attracts and its equivalently high prices. Speaking of which, my iced cappuccino bore a $6.99 hole in my bank account.

I took a few more sips, trying to remain focused on the chewy goodness of the croissant, the warmth of the late morning sun, and whatever breaking news I happened to be reading on my phone. But the human olfactory system possesses a shrewd genius for detecting poison, especially when you’ve ingested it, so I decided to retrace my steps. Figuratively at first, and then literally, while continuing to take increasingly more modest sips of my drink.

I’d ordered my beverage at Sant Ambroeus’ espresso bar, crossed the aisle to purchase the croissant at their extensive bakery counter, and returned to find it awaiting me in a handsome lidded Sant Ambroeus to-go cup. Gracefully sliding down the bar, I made my way to the condiment area where I found a crystalline dispenser beside the packets of sugar, Splenda, straws, etc. Assuming it to be simple syrup, and by that I mean fast-dissolving liquid sugar, I gave a few squirts into my frothy, inviting iced-cappuccino and stirred with my complimentary plastic straw.

It tasted no sweeter, which didn’t come as a big surprise since I require lavish amounts of sugar in my morning coffee. So I applied a couple of bonus squirts and finally made my way out the door, past all the swells, into the brilliant light of an unimpeachable autumn New York City morning.

There are people that can order a cheeseburger deluxe and fully consume either their burger or fries before attacking the other. My palate requires them to work in tandem, producing a symphony of flavors. Same goes with breakfast. Baked goods without a beverage or vice versa, in alternating bites and sips, is a compromise my metabolism isn’t prepared to make. So it constituted a major concession when I finally set aside my radioactive iced cappuccino, finished my croissant, and made my way back to Sant Ambroeus to confirm my suspicions.

Indeed, I’d mistaken hand sanitizer for simple syrup, the barista confirmed, as he delicately moved the dispenser a safe distance from the condiment area, and apologetically offered me a replacement beverage. I accepted, but recouping my investment was the least of my concerns at that moment; especially since I was feeling a little off, as if my stomach enzymes were making the acquaintance of something foreign and rallying their defenses.

I wasn’t incapacitated. I wasn’t tempted to call 911. I made it home fine. There, I opened my computer and performed an Internet search employing terms such as “What should you do if you drink hand sanitizer?” It turns out there’s an entire literature devoted to the subject. That’s because it ranks among the plethora of quack treatments Americans have turned to in the age of Covid.

I was particularly concerned to read that some hand sanitizer contains methanol; during May and June fifteen people in New Mexico and Arizona were hospitalized after consuming it, according to the CDC website. Among its symptoms are headache, blurred vision, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, loss of coordination and decreased levels of consciousness.

Gratefully, I experienced none of those so far, while nervously hoping that whatever quantity of hand sanitizer I’d consumed had been diluted down to non-toxic levels in my tall, if energetically-stirred, glass of iced cappuccino. My wife, who happened to be home when I returned and with whom I shared my story, was modestly sympathetic. She attributed my mistake to the fact that I haven’t spent much time in the city lately and was out-of-touch with Covid-era protocols and condiment-adjacent disinfectants. In other words, I was an idiot.

I’m pleased to report that I’ve fully recovered. I couldn’t find any recommendations for antidotes online. But I did at our local pizzeria where a lunch slice of their overloaded vegetable pizza – fresh olives, mushrooms, onions, peppers, broccoli, spinach and mozzarella – took my stomach by the shoulders and showed that hand sanitizer who’s boss.

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