How Do You Mislay An Entire Chapel?

Yesterday I was supposed to be thinking about my next writing project. Instead, I was clicking links on Facebook, posted by friends I’d never even met. That was how I discovered that two ex-employees of Blackwater had just accused its founder, Erik Prince, of murder. Then, as I perused the Times online. I stumbled on an op-ed he’d written, hawking his new mercenary army as the cure for our never-ending war in the Middle East. How strange, I thought. He seemed nice enough in his email.

2014 August/ I post on Facebook:/Does anyone have a lead on what happened to the Chapel?/ The Sisters of Charity thought it was disassembled and moved to the west or midwest/ but that's all they know. I would appreciate any rumors, leads, etc.

Spike was present when the Chapel was dismantled/but he didn't remember what company handled it/or where it was bound./“Talk to Carlos. He knows everything.”/And what Carlos didn't know, he could find out./He should have been a gumshoe, not a Patient Liaison specialist.

I couldn’t track down information about St. Clare’s in the normal way, by checking the records. There were no records. In fact, as far as I could tell, no one would admit to even being in charge of the place after 1982 when the Cabrini Nuns had de-merged from us us. Even though St. Vincent’s supposedly took over in 2003, they assured me after we closed that it was, “a merger in name only.” 

The Chapel was sold to someone in Virginia/who installed it at a training company/that provided security in Iraq.//A-ha! Direct Hit!

I had to research everything the old-fashioned way. Or, the semi-old-fashioned way, at least.

I googled military contractors based in Virginia./There sure were a lot of them./The first one sounded mighty small./Their phone didn't even have a hold button./I heard the man shuffling around talking to someone/before he reported that no one knew anything about a chapel./The next three didn't answer their phones.//I fired off a few emails. Two had never heard of St. Clare’s./But the one I was sure had the Chapel was dodging me.

Academi, formerly Blackwater./A 600 acre special-ops school/in the Great Dismal Swamp/on the Virginia-North Carolina border. /Run by a former Navy Seal named Erik Prince/who resigned and fled the country in 2009./Reported to be working in Hong Kong/as the Executive Director of Frontier Security Group.

I sent the following to the only contact link on their website:

Hello,

I'm hoping you can get this email to Mr. Prince for me. I am a writer and long-time 911 paramedic who is working on a book about the hospital I worked at for twenty years, St. Clare's/St. Vincent's Midtown. The hospital was shut down in 2007, and in either 2007 or early 2008 the Chapel was sold to a private security firm in Virginia, and was moved to their grounds. From what has been described, I am wondering if the firm was Blackwater, and if Mr. Prince would know anything about where the Chapel is now, and if it's being used. I'd also be interested in knowing why he chose that particular chapel.

I would so appreciate any help you could give me with this! If Blackwater was not the company, it would be helpful for me to know that also.

Best,  Maggie Dubris

The next day, this was in my inbox.

Yes, I did purchase the contents of the chapel before the planned building demolition. My  [loved one]  had received extensive treatment for her cancer there, and the chapel was a special place to the both of us.

My intent was to install the contents of the [St.Clare's] chapel into a new chapel I had planned to build on the Blackwater Compound. The chapel would provide a Christian military outreach to the thousands of US service members that trained there prior to deployment.

Due to the political onslaught we endured, I sold the entire business and donated the chapel items to Priest friends in Michigan and West Virginia where the artifacts now proudly adorn active growing Catholic parishes today.

Sincerely, Erik Prince

How perfect for my book!/Of course the Chapel would never have been bought/by an ordinary patient. It had to wind up/in the hands of the most notorious contractor in the country./then somehow narrowly escape a place called "The Great Dismal Swamp”/only to be "translated" like a martyred saint/into bits and pieces/some of which would come to a final resting place/in my ex-home state of Michigan.

it's my party

In the early eighties, everyone did whatever they wanted to their apartments. My old drummer Billy just moved every time his place got too dirty. Another bandmate had a leak that no one would fix, so he made a fountain sconce of a pissing greek God that dribbled in the general direction of the sink. My own apartment had been plastered by someone who was obviously tripping; the walls looked like a lava field. But there was also a painting on one wall of a doorway opening into a garden. I left it there for years. We wrote poems in crayon on my neighbor’s kitchen walls, and I knew someone whose entire bathroom was wallpapered with Chinese newspapers. When it got messed up, she plastered on another layer. 

The landlords never fixed anything up. When you moved in, half the time there was a bunch of furniture there, or a red chandelier, or a hole in the floor so you could watch your neighbor snore and stare at the TV. That was the fun of moving. You never knew what you might be getting into.

When I walked down First Avenue, I always heard music, coming out the cracked windows and up through the opened metal doors in the sidewalk. Bands rehearsing. That was a good way for landlords to get money, as they couldn’t count on tenants paying their rent. Since all the amps and drums were down there, they could get a new padlock and hold the equipment hostage if the rent was late.

My band rehearsed for a while in the basement of a club called Paddles. A sign on the door said, “The friendly S&M club.” The building was owned by Giorgio Gomelsky, who managed the Rolling Stones early on, and produced the Yardbirds. He had a rehearsal studio in the basement, Paddles on the first floor, and a recording studio on the top floor. Sadly for the bands, the bathroom was also on the top floor. We had to pass through Paddles to get there, then stand on line with a bunch of fat blondes with Nazi hats on. Once I saw my downstairs neighbor onstage wearing only a dog collar, getting whipped. It was an unpleasant surprise. He didn’t see me. It was kind of hard to pass him on the stairs of my building without that image popping into my head. 

Everything was stacked on top of each other in those days. My landlord ran a dusty old store on the first floor of the building, selling appliances, color televisions, and various nails, screws, and light-bulbs. If my bulb blew, he would root around and find me another one. Next door was a tiny Puerto-Rican bodega that didn’t really sell food; all the cans had half an inch of dust on them. On every block were shops where the proprietor lived behind a curtain in the back. Shops selling only painted eggs, or old-man shoes, or books of poetry, or coffee and dolls, or glass eyes, New York was block after block of endless and endlessly odd manifested dreams. 

A Bit of a Twit

I’m trying to think if I ever really loved a president and I don’t think I did. Johnson was a baby-burner, Nixon a killjoy and a sneak. Ford, meh. Carter, double-meh. As for Reagan, I couldn’t stand him. We had all these dying AIDS patients and he acted like there was no epidemic. One night Lucy and I were driving around waiting for something to happen when we saw a guy with one of those big cardboard cutouts that people pose with. He had an instant camera, so we got him to take a picture of us pretending to molest Reagan. Lucy had her stethoscope on his groin and I had my scissors out. A crowd instantly gathered to cheer us. Everyone thought it was so hilarious that medics did anything but be medics. as if we came out of a box like action figures and didn’t have any other life. I wonder if I’m part of someone’s New York story. How years ago they came to the city and saw two lady medics clowning around with Reagan, and how strange and only-in-New York it was. 

1981June 5     Los Angeles, California.

(Report of PCP cluster,  pg 2, CDC weekly newsletter)

1. Previously healthy 33 year old man developed pneumocystis carinii pneumonia and oral mucosal candidiasis March 1981. He died May 3rd.

2. Previously healthy 30 year old man developed pneumocystis carinii pneumonia in April 1981 after five months of fever. Pneumonia responded to a course of TMP/SMX. As of latest reports he continues to have a fever each day.

3. 30 year old man was well until January 1981. In February developed pneumocystis carinii pneumonia that responded to oral TMP/SMX. Esophogeal candidiasis recurred after pneumonia was diagnosed.

4. 29 year old man developed pneumocystis carinii pneumonia in February 1981. He had been diagnose with Hodgkin's Disease three years earlier and successfully treated with radiation alone. Pneumonia did not respond to treatment and he died in March.

5. Previously healthy 36 year old man diagnosed in April 1981 with pneumocystis carinii pneumonia. He is still being treated.

All the players in history have stories, though. Even if we’re just props for someone else’s tale. I know I’m in a bunch of far-flung people’s life and death memories. And some people are in mine. Nameless, with their faces mushing together. Who was Lazarus? Just a man born to be raised from the grave?

All five were active homosexuals./All five used poppers./None of the men knew each other./None had sexual partners in common.

I think I only remember molesting Reagan because I have that photograph. 

Just a few paragraphs on the second page of a dry newsletter./Not news. An oddity, a strange confluence of events. 

It seems like what happens is, a few things get haphazardly frozen in time like that, but the rest I have to spend months reconstructing. Because I didn’t know it was going to be important.

In west-coast gay world, a vague sense of unease./Blinking in the morning sun/Venice Beach no longer entirely bakes away the effects of the night before.

I keep thinking I should keep a journal. Right now, of the Trump times. Document how no one I know can sleep, how we obsessively flit from one newsite to another. The way I wake up every morning wondering what he did while I was lying in bed, staring at the inside of my eyelids.

Before, the five men were: a hairdresser, a freelance model, a drug-addicted swinger, a publicist, and a hardworking man in a monogamous relationship.

That sounds so normal. Like it could be five men today. Except for the drug-addicted swinger. He’d be a drug addicted loser now, and people would be trying to get him to reform himself before he OD’d.

What became of the three who still lived?/I don't know. All had thrush./Deranged white cell counts. Fevers and sweats./They must have died soon after./But that's just speculation/ based on my expectation./It doesn't have to be true.

Part of me thinks, it must be on the internet. Everything is. I even found a death notice for my great-great-uncle who drowned January 7, 1906, in Dawson Creek in the Yukon. 

I search and search, trying to find a reference online/as to what became of the men./ Nothing./They’re not men. Not anymore./When they got sick/they stopped being human, and became a part of history./Who they loved, who lost them,/Who cares? They're only our beacons now/Blinking a warning into the fog.

I AM LEGEND

A while back I was thinking about mythology and heroes and all that. For awhile, I was an actual legend myself. Here's how it happened:

The ambulance world in 1980 was a world of legends. My first week, I heard about a medic who had intubated a man upside down while hanging from his knees on a crane job, about an EMT who had gotten into a brawl at the scene of an overturn and single-handedly sent five drunken firemen to the hospital, and about an old midnight corpsman who had so many weapons strapped under his uniform that if you accidentally bumped into him you would probably get impaled on something..

The Boro Chief had been thrown out of the morgue for using the morgue truck to transport whores to city hall parties, but had a hook so deep no one could ever get rid of him. The Captain lived in a bizarre religious cult where everyone was required to have sex with everyone else every night. The medical director once defibrillated his own head as a joke, the charge nurse had been stomped into cardiac arrest by an irate patient but got revived, and one of the MVOs raced funny cars at Raceway Park on his days off. There were nothing but legends, as far as I could see.

I, however, was the farthest thing from a legend that anyone had ever met. Short, skinny, quiet. And worst of all, a woman. There were only two kinds of women legends at EMS. The EMS Mamas, fat middle-aged ladies who had been booted out of dietary for some infraction and refused to carry anything heavier than a clipboard, and the EMS Sluts, girls my age who supposedly slept with every man they worked with and every cop ever who offered to help them carry the lifepack. I was outside the mama category, and managed to avoid being labeled a slut by refusing to wear nail polish, but aside from that I wasn’t making much progress.

All the men had nicknames like, “Killer,” and, “The Flash.” My unfortunate nickname was, “Little Bit,” and when the Boro Chief/ex-whore-procurer saw me he always shouted, “Look, it’s little Maggie from Met.” Meanwhile, legends continued to sprout up all around me. A medic named Bruce who just seemed like a little punk before had somehow managed to commandeer a city bus to transport a cardiac arrest into Harlem Hospital. One of my own classmates broke into a burning trailer to save two toddlers and wound up on the front page of the News. As for me, I toted drunks and heart attacks to the hospital, and got told by the lieutenant that I really ought to shine my shoes once in a while.

Then one night, about nine, I was riding around with my partner Bob when a medic began screaming over the radio. 

“Ten-thirteen, shots fired, one-oh-four and Park, in the projects.”  Bob drove faster than I had ever seen him, taking the corners on two wheels, We were the first ambulance to get there. 

“Stay here, I’ll be back,” he said.

 I jumped out and followed him, running up the nine flights of stairs, and down a hallway filled with housing cops. The medic who had called for help stuck his head out of a doorway. “In here, in here, Little Bit.”  Bob and I ducked into the apartment with him and his partner, and we all stayed in there watching television with some little boys until the cops caught the shooter.

The next day when I walked into work, one of the MVOs greeted me. “Hey girl, I heard you ran right into those bullets last night.”  

“Little Bit got some balls,” an EMT said. 

The medic who called the 10-13 threw his arm around my shoulder. “You can be my partner anytime, baby, you got my back better than any man here.”

As the days went on, the story got better and better. I heard that a bullet had whizzed right by me and I just kept running in. That the door of the apartment we’d hidden in was riddled with bullet holes. A few weeks later, when I crashed the ambulance into a bridge abutment because I had never really driven before, I acquired the legendary nickname, “Mad Maggie,” for the speedy, fearless driving style that fit right in with my newly acquired legendary personality.

 

A Newfangled Irish Lilt

A few weeks ago, I was in midtown, taking pictures of the "new" St. Clare's. It's been tarted up so you can't even tell there was a hospital there. But on the west side of 52nd Street, things look just like they always have. The apartment where Bobby and Grace lived appears empty now; the window glass is mostly covered with black paint, and there's no light peeking through. I could almost be back in 1995, listening to the radio chatter, staring up and wondering what they could possibly be doing with themselves, since they weren't in the ER. They've both been dead for a while now, but below, through the beauty of song, I preserve their memory.

 

Across from St. Clare's, on the second floor of a nondescript tenement, stood an urban outpost of darkest Appalachia. The apartment itself was a mechanical impossibility. Every grease-coated wall leaned inward. Every faucet dripped. A bulb screwed into the ceiling gave almost no light, but somehow illuminated each spatter and smear. This edifice contained not a single bright or decorative object. No salt and pepper shakers, no little statuettes. No pictures. Nothing. Only two jobless, toothless inhabitants. Grace and Bobby. Mother and son.

Bobby was a skinny, inbred looking man with pale skin and no muscles. He had pinched features, and in spite of having picked him up hundreds of times, I can't remember what color his hair was. In my memory, it's see-through. Grace wore garments made from sweatsuit material and communicated in an indecipherable patios particular to that hundred foot patch of the city. Her pants always sagged. She wore them for days, until they fell halfway down her butt.

There was no music in the apartment, but if there was it would have been banjo. A lilting balad, picked by a man with a tail and a cleft palate. Sung with a warped Irish tinge.

Come sit and listen you medics new/Hey down, down, and a'down/That mirth do love to hearAnd a story true I'll relate to you/Down, down, and a'down/If you will but draw near

In elder times, when old Koch ruled/And debt was on the chase/Were two rogue dwellers many knew/And all called Bobby and Grace

Upon a time it crackled so/Bold Bobby was merry disposed/His time to spend he did intend/On the stoop with a beer and a radio

Then he got up with his worm-white skin/And hair as drear as a winter day/Threw a seizure (fake) and grinned a grin/And lay upon the sidewalk gray

O take him to Emergency/Whack fol-lol-de-ra, fol-lol-de-ra/Get the chair and roll him there/As he squeaks and squeals and claims to be/A man with numerous maladies/Whack fol-lol-de-ra, fol-lol-de-ra/Whack fol-lol-de-ra, fol-lol-de-ra/O boy won't they be happy to see/Bold Bobby here! Again! 

"I'm sick! I'm sick!" cried whey-faced Bob/"And I have baby-skin it seems--"/"Get your drunk self up out of that chair!"/The nurse she fairly screamed

Old mother Grace, potato face/And sweatpants down around her knees/In floppy shoes did moon and pace/And cry for her sweet Bob-bee

There's nothing wrong with your smelly lad!/He's but a faker on the step/And he'll go home as he has before/And drink til off to bed you've crept

"Drink on, I shall," said Bobby then/"This game well pleaseth me."/For every blow that Grace did give/Bobby gave buffets three

And the medics there, full tired and sore/Did bear him round the town/From grease-stained room in which he dwelled/Onto the staircase down

"A beer, a beer," said Bobby then/"For twenty years have passed me well/Twenty years of these four walls/And St. Clare's halls my exile hell."

And he rose again with his worm-white skin/And hair as drear as a winter day/Threw a seizure (fake), grinned a merry grin/And twitched upon the mattress gray

O take me to Emergency/Whack fol-lol-de-ra, fol-lol-de-ra/Get the chair and roll me there/Across the street, Whack fol-lol-de-ra/As I squeak and squeal and claim to be/A man with numerous maladies/Whack fol-lol-de-ra, fol-lol-de-ra/Whack fol-lol-de-ra, fol-lol-de-ra/O boy won't they be happy to see/Bold Bobby come round! Again! Again!/Old Bobby come round again.

Why Not?

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about sense the past few months. Like, does the world make sense? Does one thing actually lead to the next, a set of stairs that can only wind up in one place? Or are events thrown down all topsy-turvey like pick-up sticks, then precariously balanced and no one knows when the whole mess will fall again. Only that it will.

This post isn’t going to end up in the book. I wrote it when I was profiling a Japanese surgeon who started working at St. Clare’s near the beginning of World War 2, his parents still in California, interred in a camp in the Utah desert. He used to carry a gun to work under his lab coat, and was touted in the press as, “the only man who can stitch a wound, smoke a cigar, and play gin rummy all at the same time.” But I took his section out of the final cut; all that was left was this post. It didn’t make sense anymore.

————————————————————————————-

 I went to a field recording workshop in the Sierra Nevada this past June where they taught us to stalk birds. One thing they said is that birds can actually see sound. I wonder what the bluebirds saw when we were in the Yuba Pass gathered around a thermos, having our coffee. Some sort of web that none of us knew existed, connecting us all? There's no way to know. The day that I got diagnosed with multiple sclerosis I was walking home from the doctor and saw so many people with canes. They must have always been there. It was me who was different, noticing what could be my future for the first time. 

1969 Eighth grade. Civics class./Two summers have come and gone since the Summer of Love. I don't smoke pot yet./But I'm learning many facts that I was unaware of as a child.

When I was in elementary school, all the kids looked at the map and noticed the continents fit together, like a puzzle. But they weren't teaching this yet, so I was told this was just a coincidence. One that, as it turned out, people had been proposing as fact for almost a hundred years. But no one believed it. Because, how could giant land-masses float?

My teacher, Mr. Coash, informs us that/ in 1963, we had a clandestine coup in the United States./Kennedy was shot because he wouldn't play ball/Our country is now run by something called the Trilateral Commission/and they consider the president to be the head towel-boy.

I asked my Dad once, "How could people let the death-camps happen?" He said, "You don't understand. At that time, it was unthinkable. Germany was the most civilized nation in the world, the country that gave us Beethoven and Bach . . ."

In addition, the Germans weren't the only ones who built camps./We imprisoned a hundred-thousand Japanese-Americans during World War Two./Why have I never heard of this?/My head is so full of thirteen-year-old outrage/it almost pops. But then the semester ends./A new class, a new teacher/and it's back to the glories of Columbus and the horrors of Communism.

I want to be a visionary, but I don't think I am. My mind automatically goes to the possibles that have already happened. Calculating the odds. It's life as I know it. But what I know keeps changing. Slime mold can steer a mechanical conveyance away from the light. There's a hive intelligence human beings can't understand. Senses I don't have. The dirt is full of microbes. Is it alive? Maybe the magic old world was more accurate; where rocks felt malice, and trees watched the doings of women and men with disdain.

Ambulance Holidays

I just figured out I've spent about 3500 nights on the ambulance. 20,000+ calls. Then all the driving around in between calls, hanging out with cops or homeless people, meeting the men who built shacks on the pier, bullshitting with other units. It's a lot to remember.

New Year's Eve, East River Drive, 5am./Bare hands in the underpass wind./Puked-up whiskey. Gasoline. Blood sizzling on the engine./Did anyone turn off the ignition? ESU sparks fly./Cutting away the cradle. Rocking into heaven. Or hell./A concrete pylon. An accordion car. Seven boys tangled inside./Four dead. Three likely. Grinding and pounding./Glass in the snow./I'm trying to hold the driver's head still./Everything's mushy and slippery. I can't get a grip./He keeps screaming about his legs, turning towards me./As he does the outer layer of flesh pulls away./He looks like an anatomical model. Screaming./All the white tendons and ligaments. Don't be afraid./Don't be afraid. I'm taking care of you, don't be afraid.

The starkest things pop up fastest; homicides, people under the train, jumpers. But the rest is there, I know. I'll be biking by a corner and think, oh, there used to be a boxing club on the second floor here, where the men were all black and Spanish and the coaches were white. We had a berry aneurism in one of the rings.

St. Patrick's Day, green beer, green hats, kiss me/I'm Irish! Too-ra-loo-ra. Skipping over pools/of green vomit. A bulky man from Long Island tumbles/down the steps. Is that a sheleighleigh in his hand?/Wha' happened? Wha' happened? Wha' happened?

It seemed like it was going to last forever. My nights were ambulance nights. My holidays, ambulance holidays.

Christmas Eve. 1982/Blow wind blow, where will Santa go?/A man slams his car into the North Pole/Amsterdam Avenue a field of snow./Where does the street end and the sidewalk begin/Lights and siren. Driving slow./By the time we get there, the ESU cops/Have the man in a metal basket, loaded/into the back of their truck./“We figured you'd never make it. Nothing's moving.”/A cop boosts me in. I crawl around hacksaws and body armor./The man's hair is matted with blood/his pupils fixed and dilated. Gurgling breath./A cop lies beside him, trying to keep his neck still./No room to sit up. I curl around the top of the basket/metal digging into my arms. Thread a tube into his trachea/as the ESU truck slips and slides its way to St. Luke’s./All the saints are just hospitals here.

International AIDS Day: The day after

 

Yesterday was international AIDS day. Here in New York, it all seems so far away. Men just live with HIV, and I don't worry about my gay friends anymore. I was thinking about a letter we got from GMHC in 1985 after we responded to a cardiac arrest for a man with AIDS. I can't figure out how to paste the letter in, but the gist of it was that the director knew so many horror stories of how AIDS patients were treated, he wanted to commend us for our compassionate and empathetic care and extend to us the gratitude of the man's friends and "the community who has suffered the blunt of the ignorance of this disease." I still have the letter. I still can't decide how I feel about it.

1985 February 2

A cold night. Busy./We get sent from Times Square to the Roosevelt Area/for a cardiac arrest. A man lies on the carpet/pink froth draining from his mouth./Pulmonary edema. Essentially, aerated blood plasma/that filled his lungs and overflowed./The EMTs do CPR. Lucy tubes him./His peripheral veins are collapsed so I start a central line/sticking a long needle into his neck/until I hit the internal jugular./Blood flashes back, and I thread the catheter into his heart./We all know he has AIDS./It was the first thing the friend who let us in said./But he wasn't expected to die so soon.

Each of us made a deliberate decision to do the things/we would have done automatically for someone who didn't have AIDS./The patient died. He'd been down for too long./After we pronounced him, we cleaned him up and put him in the bed./Sopped up the blood and mucous as best we could/pulled out the tubes and needles/and tried to make it look as if he'd died a peaceful death./Like we did with all our patients.

I felt proud when I got the letter/But then I felt bad for feeling proud. Why was I proud/when it was just a decent thing to do?/To treat a man like a man/and be kind to the person who loved him?

©2016 Maggie Dubris

 

 

A Bird or a Shadow?

Life is a passing shadow, says the Scripture. Is it the shadow of a tower, of a tree? A shadow that prevails for a while? No, it is the shadow of a bird in flight. Away speeds the bird, and there is neither bird nor shadow.

In the almost-dawn we park in front of our hospital./Not much is happening./Men go in and out of the cock-fighting place across the street./The dealer stands on the corner./Two teenagers make out for hours on the stoop down the block./Same scene every night this summer.

After the Trade Center got hit, I started thinking about what really lasts. In a thousand years, will people even know about it? Maybe we'll be like the fall of Rome, but it’s just as likely we'll be like the fall of the Mayans. Vanished into a tangle of jungle and myth. This poem is about 1995, one summer in one city. To one medic. Will anyone care what one medic saw? Other people were watching the trial of O.J. Simpson obsessively, being slaughtered in Bosnia, fleeing a volcano in Montserrat. But I can only be in one place in one time.

Enter Yolanda. Long-time Aide in the ER./Each night, on her break/she walks across the street/and down the steps of one of the tenements, into the basement./Half an hour later she comes up a different set of steps/a few buildings away. I have no idea what she's doing./She's a middle-aged Hispanic woman/who seems like she might be religious.

Sometimes I feel like we're all just little bits of God. Like eyes. Blinking into this earth and blinking back out, making our tiny corner of the world visible to some Being we can't begin to imagine. 

"Yolanda has all the connections anyway," Joe says/"Her ability to go in and out of doorways/is just one more manifestation/of her ability to connect with the universe.”

ManTraps

9/30/2016

I’ve been thinking about how the city used to be. One summer in the late eighties or early nineties I went into a store on Ninth Avenue called The Fun Emporium, made my way through the joke vomit and fake police badges to the back, and bought a book called Mantrapping. It was an entire book of detailed instructions on how to construct man-traps. To trap and kill people. The Fun Emporium was right next to Show World, this kind of sad-sack peep show place with a facade like a circus tent and a plaster lion on top. 

But what was it like, really? Those wild west, blow-your-head-out times that everyone wishes they were a part of.

Like a pot, like a plow

“There was heroism every night of the week. the patients were so poor, everyone was poor, people were desperately poor. The nurses aides washing patients night after night. The kindness was incredible to me.”  —Tom English, SCH ER Nurse

Like a winnowing basket

“What is this little bitty place where everyone knows each other? I’ve lived in the city my whole life and I never heard of it.” —Mike Rosenblum, SCH Paramedic

Like a plowshare, a pestle

“I never even met the supervisor who hired me. He was already gone. I just came in and started work. Never had a physical or in interview or anything. I never had to get a TB test the whole time I was there.  There was never any administrative stuff. Ever. —Diane Sendra, SCH Paramedic

A mortar, a brush . . .

“I felt like I’d joined a crew of pirates.  —Chris Summers, SCH Paramedic

Why did I buy that mantraps book?  I know I had a reason. 

In a flash-bang of color, this is what I remember:  

1988 Summer skating up Sixth Avenue dodging the trucks and west on 51st night not yet fallen asphalt radiating heat through the double doors into the smell of baked-on filth past Frank and Otis two skels I know from the street tied into wheelchairs drooling as they sleep off the afternoon’s drunk across the ER in my skates Joe from security growling Maggie how ya doin’ like he always does as I whiz past into the ambulance room supplies stacked every which way and the day guys rumpled and sweaty hand me a pointy hat they bought at the Renaissance Fair on their day off slow it down slow it down

2016. I took a class in field recording in the Sierra Nevada. The instructor told us that birds have a much more acute sense of time than we do. When he slowed down a sparrow song that just sounded like a high-pitched motor at normal speed, it suddenly became an intricate, perfectly timed melody. Crickets are the same; that insect buzz turns into an exquisitely tuned choir if you slow it down enough. We live too long. Maybe I need to slow down events to make sense of them. To see the connections. Find the harmony.

1992. Slow it down. Slow it down./We don’t have to punch in anymore. The time clock’s broken./The bus is overheating. Our supervisor pops in to tell us that/contrary to popular opinion, the A/C is working./We just don’t understand the nature of air-conditioning./It doesn’t necessarily make the air cool, he explains./It only takes the temperature down ten degrees./So if it’s 100 outside, which it is, it will be 90 inside the bus./Such is the nature of air-conditioning.

Then we hit the streets. Driving west into the wide pink sky./Kids play in the rush of an open fire hydrant/spraying the ambulance with a bottomless tin can as we pass./Men slap dominoes onto a card table in front of the Social Club./A viejo sells piraguas from a cart on the corner. /You have to order by color. Red. Green. Blue. Yellow./The street is my summer. Spanish music from an open window./Melting tar and fried chicken and a jar full of ice.

We park on 42nd Street./A French tourist stops to pose with us for a picture./A homeless man needs a cup of peroxide for his blistered feet./A jazz band sets up on the corner and starts playing/and half a dozen Chinese portrait artists get ready/for another night of drawing white people from the midwest.

A cop leans agains my door, chatting./He’s stuck on foot post, hot in his uniform/hoping something will happen and hoping it won’t, just like me./Slowly the pink sky goes purple, the commuters vanish/replaced by hustlers and boys looking for fun and trouble./We sit in the bus with the engine off and the windows open/eating grapes, with no idea what this night will bring.

 

 

 

 

No More Strange Days

When I write about my early years in the city, I feel like they were less choreographed. I was always stumbling across things I never knew existed. Or maybe it’s just that I’ve been through so many moments I’m less easily surprised now.

An orphaned kitten pushes its head against my stomach./We follow the cops through a bumpy field/Tall grass parting/as we lurch along./A homeless couple stares from an abandoned truck-trailer./A skinny man stands on the concrete platform/where passengers once lined up. 

Now, when I go places, I feel like most of what I see has been thought up and approved. Scripted, so that anything unexpected is just someone else’s entertaining plot-twist. There’s less room for a penniless, out-there person to really make their own world. 

Ricky the animal man. Faded orange hair/blue eyes and a rooster tattooed on his bare ankle./He lives in the station waiting room/with a tin stove and a scuffed-up easy boy./Out front, four dogs lie in the sun.

That was one of the things I liked best about working on the ambulance. Moving in and out of scenes where I really didn’t know what was going to happen next.

Sitting on the edge of the platform with the August sun bearing down/and nothing to see but the sky-blue sky/Ricky tells us stories of the others who live here./The gingerbread men. Every morning they emerge from the slots/beneath a parking lot that abuts the field.

Sometimes I wonder what happened to the people that made the city so strange in the eighties. I can’t picture them surviving now, when all the space is filled with stores and buildings and it takes so much money to live. The homeless people I see around look so much more beaten down. Like they fell out of the visible world, and all they want is to get back in. 

What's actually interesting?

8/4/16

As I’m working on revising and cutting today, I keep wondering, what’s actually interesting? Does anyone care that my partner Errol at Met used to have dreams in 1981 that guided us when we played the numbers? Now that there are no numbers, and hardly anyone remembers Ching-Chow. 

In the year of our Lord 1927, an inscrutable cartoon/entitled “Ching-Chow” appeared/in the New York Daily News.  

We never actually hit, but we always came close. That was what kept us going. Some of the others guys at Met used Ching-Chow, but they didn’t have any better luck than us. I remember someone teaching me how to do it one night. It had to do with counting the horizontal lines.

For 63 years, Ching-Chow’s elliptical captions/graced those pages. If you knew what to look for/if you had the knack, you could predict the outcome/of the daily numbers game.

There was a place we would drive to, I think on 2nd Avenue, where you could put down money—for us, $3— and then periodically stop by to find out which number had come in. The first one, the second one, then by the end of the shift they had all three.

Everyone played the numbers./That brokedown brick road to riches.

We’d get the first two, then the rest of the shift we’d talk about what we were going to buy with our loot. Now that there’s the legal lottery games, no one plays the numbers. Is it interesting that we did? That it was so woven into life in the eighties, no one even thought about it? At some point, everyone who played the numbers will be dead. Then, will people want to know the details? Or will it just be like vacuum-cleaner bags. Like, who cares?

The Santeria Princess

3/23/16

1984/Crossing in front of the ambulance is a woman dressed entirely in white./A Santeria princess, walking among us./On Ninth Avenue is a small store, filled with candles, room spray, and statues./All the magic is here, in Hell’s Kitchen, baking in the summer heat.

How did we know she was a Santeria princess? Somehow, all these facts and legends from the neighborhooded permeated the hospital. Eveyone knew about Santeria, about the longhaired derelict who was a DEA agent gone bad, about the Westies keeping disembodied hands in their freezers.

In a fifth floor walk-up apartment/a man collapses on the worn rug, barely breathing./A candle flickers on the altar/The only bright spot in the room/St. Barbara’s face illuminated by flame/stark as the lightning that struck her pagan father dead.

Part of trying to capture a time in my writing is trying to sink back into the soup of givens that made up the world then. I guess you would call it, “common knowledge.” Except of course common knowledge is always restricted to one culture in one time. So it’s not common at all.

O Saint Barbara protect me/From the miserable people who lurk in the shadows/Seeking to harm me.//O virgin Saint of revenge/I know we must pray often/Against a sudden and unprovided death.//O Chango, God of lightning/Of war and drums and lust/I know we must bathe often in roses and cinnamon.

There used to be a Santaria store run by Rastas a block from my apartment. They had candles and room spray and all, but if you went to the back and stood in front of a mirror, a drawer popped out and hit you in the stomach. If you dropped twenty bucks in and closed it, it would pop back out with a bag of pot in it. How did the entire East Village know to do that?

Watch now, the flames behind your eyes/lit by your servant, who dies/on the floor beside your feet./Two medics kneel beside him/Trying to wrest him from your hands.

                      from BrokeDown Palace

Did that really happen?

3/16/16

Writing is so much about remembering. Or more accurately, re-feeling. But sometimes when I’m going over my past, working on a poem, I think, “Did I just make this all up?” Like it’s some story I told and somehow the world believed it and it turned into memories. 

1983 July 4 

52nd Street. The abuelos play dominos on a TV tray/Boombox tuned to Spanish music/Little boys tumble in the fire hydrant spray/On this hot afternoon black-cat smoke up to my knees./We have a stat transfer. St. Clare’s ICU to Bellevue. Critical./Could there be a place grimmer than the St. Clare’s CCU?

Yes. Directly across the hall/The ICU lacks even flimsy privacy curtains/And is stuffed full of neurological casualties. There’s no staff./The place where the doctors and nurses sit/Surrounded by plexiglass similar to the bulletproof enclosure at a liquor store/Is over yonder. In CCU.

Our transfer is on a respirator, surrounded by a tangle of wires and tubing./I look at his chart. From what I can make out he was on the floor/Crashed, and got rushed to ICU./His blood pressure is being maintained with drugs./He has uncontrollable arrythmias./He must be transferred to Bellevue as soon as possible.

                        from BrokeDown Palace

 

I know this call really happened. But it seems so absurd. How could there have been an ICU where the medical staff is across the hall behind two closed doors? Maybe it was only that way on holidays. The other strange thing about that day was there was only one doctor covering the ICU, CCU, and all the floors, so they didn’t have anyone to ride with us. I know it wasn’t like that usually. But my friend Bonnie went to visit the AIDS ward with a group of singles one afternoon in the early 1990s and they never saw any medical people. She said the entire place seemed to be run by guys in hospital gowns who were smoking, drinking beer, and playing poker.

20,000 Ambulance Calls

Today, I calculated how many ambulance calls I did in my life, and it’s around 20,000. Then all the driving around in between calls, hanging out with cops or homeless people, meeting the men who built shacks on the pier, bullshitting with other units. It’s a lot to remember. The starkest things pop up fastest; homicides, people under the train, jumpers. But the rest is there, I know. I’ll be biking by a corner and think, oh, there used to be a boxing club on the second floor here, where the men were all black and spanish and the coaches were white. We had a berry aneurism in one of the rings.

Below is what I was writing today. As I worked on it, I suddenly remembered there was an apartment on West 30th Street inhabited by albinos. The twin girls were drug addicts, the 20 year old brother was on oxygen and smoked crack, and the oldest sister had an enormous ovarian cyst that made her look nine months pregnant. I can still see the brother’s room in my mind.

 

Across from St. Clare’s, on the second floor of a nondescript tenement, stood a peculiar urban outpost of darkest Appalachia. The apartment itself was a mechanical impossibility. Every grease-coated wall leaned inward. Every faucet dripped. A bulb screwed into the ceiling gave almost no light, but somehow illuminated each spatter and smear. This edifice contained not a single bright or decorative object. No salt and pepper shakers, no little statuettes. No pictures. Nothing. Only two jobless, toothless inhabitants. Grace and Bobby. Mother and son.                    (from BrokeDown Palace)

trying not to revise the past

BrokeDown Palace is a history in poetry. The history of the hospital I worked at, and the history of myself and the people who came before and along with me to build it. I was there for the 1980s, the 1990s, and the 2000s. Right now, I've organized the poems by decades and those are by far the fullest. But in a certain way they're harder to write. If I write about the world of St. Clare, for whom the hospital was named, I can build a world from distant history. Maybe it's the way it was or maybe it's not, but I'm not revising it trying to please my picture of myself.

You were born in the Mongol years/You could have met the son of Genghis Kahn./Eleven years old when the crusaders sacked Constantinople/Who were you? A noble child, wrenched by love/of poverty in her rough tunic/St. Francis in the moonlight, eyes like torches . . .

When I get to poems about the 1980s, I have to fight off the desire to improve my past. In light of what came after. It takes so many drafts to get beyond this, and I don't know if I always do.