MY BUDDY CHRIS is busy, so I can't forage through his fridge. "If you're broke, go to the Harborview Hospital Cafe," he says. Pardon? I know that if I'm smooshed by a falling satellite or bitten by a puff adder, I'll be taken on a thrilling helicopter ride to their world-class Trauma Center. Or when I finally lose my marbles and spend an afternoon swinging a samurai sword at local law enforcement--that's where I'll end up. I'm also aware that they'll treat anybody in their ER. Insurance be damned! But fine, inexpensive dining?

Chris explains that a pal used to have breakfast there every morning. A cup of coffee and a bagel for $1.10. Not a bad deal. "You could get a retired-egg-salad sandwich and pan-fried coffee. And if it's closed, I'm sure the folks lurking outside will be roasting a goat on a spit. Unless they've caught a boar or a wildebeest."

Approaching the towering Art Deco building through a cold rain, I notice it's not only hunger that has my stomach in knots--it's fear. "If you step inside this place, something very, very bad will happen," insists a hysterical voice from some lower, more lizard-like area of my brain. That's the truth flip-flopped. This is the place you step inside when something very, very bad has happened. Unless, of course, you just want lunch.

The automatic doors slide open with a sigh. I am astonished. Who knew that Harborview hid one of the most beautiful design experiments in the city? If the Titanic had been a space ship, it might have looked like this. I march confidently into the elevator.

It drops and opens and I am again in a place that makes me shiver: a long white hallway with doors marked "Radioactive Materials: Do Not Enter!" and gurneys parked ominously, randomly along the walls. "Are those the straps that go across your chest and legs to hold you down as you convulse?" shrieks the little voice. Thankfully, we are both soothed by the unmistakable stench of frying food.

Only $6.26 for salad, soup, and a bottle of water. I contentedly crunch my iceberg lettuce next to a woman wearing a robe and matching slippers. She has something unidentifiable on her plate. When she shuffles off, leaving behind a pile of it untouched, I reach over to take a bite. The voice in my head shrieks "hoof-and-mouth!" and I nearly dislocate my shoulder yanking back my hand. Obviously, if I am to conquer this fear of hospitals, I need to go farther than the cafeteria with its reassuring rows of low-fat yogurt and hygienic, hairnet-wearing staff.

Though I'd pictured blood-spattered concrete walls, the ER is perfectly innocuous. I sit in a cheerful blue chair, and slowly it all comes rushing back. I brought the crazy performance-artist ex-boyfriend here after the meat-cleaver juggling accident. One hand pricked with an IV, the other mangled, he sat completely immobilized on a gurney in a hallway for six long hours. "I'll be back to give you an antibiotic shot in the butt," the doctor finally said. That's when the ex whispered, "I'm wearing a garter belt and fishnet stockings and I'd rather the entire hospital didn't get a peek." I had to reach up into his pant legs and tear the damn things off.

I wonder if there are any kinky jugglers with death wishes here tonight, but everyone seems--ordinary. I catch the eye of a lanky kid with ice on his ankle. I ask him what happened. "I'm here in town taking a stunt course. We learn high falls, bull-dogging, horse work, all that stuff. I was doing a fight with a guy. Let's see... how did it go? Knees to his chest, choke him with a stick, cut to the stomach, and then I heard it pop."

A stout bleached blonde with pink lipstick applied near the vicinity of her mouth hobbles over. "I drank a bottle of wine and I guess I blacked out, cuz the next thing I know, I'm running down the freeway!" Her ankle spills out of her sneaker like a puffed-up Ball Park frank. Though the little voice is screaming out the precise locations of the exits, I do not leave.

I approach a slender young security guard weighted down with a black leather utility belt and ask about his gadgets. "CPR shields, people-hurter with extendible baton, handcuffs, and some other stuff," he explains. "We're a breed apart from those other yahoos up at Swedish dealing with yuppies coming in with their tennis elbows," he says proudly. "I was a Marine, so this comes natural." I shake his hand and murmur, "Semper Fi." "Semper Fi! Kill! Kill! Kill!" he exclaims with a strange grin before disappearing behind a set of swinging doors.

I slump back down next to a tanned and fit older man talking on his cell phone. "They had to cut the door off to get her out," he says. The television behind him flashes footage of a car chase that ends in a "spectacular crash!" and the voice deep inside finally wins out.

Almost jogging as I try to find the exit, I glance down at part of a poem by Jorge Luis Borges etched unexpectedly into the floor. They bring me to a sudden halt. "You will live and die in this prison, so that a man I know may look at you and put your figure and your symbol in a poem." The tumultuous din inside my brain goes suddenly and blessedly silent.

Outside, the rain has stopped and though the sun is going down, its slanted light has turned the clouds into gold and pink peonies. It will last only a few more moments, so, with a grin, I stop to watch the show.