THE FUGUE

Around this time last year, I went to a therapist and got EMDR for my PTSD. Everyone I know has PTSD. I think it’s a side effect of modern life. We’re not meant to experience this much. In the sessions, I had to imagine a place that was totally safe, where I would always feel good. I imagined a garden, with a rough stone wall, and two fig trees. The sun shining down the way it had at the beginning of all time. Plants change so slowly. There’s really nothing to keep track of.

Summer. 2001. My day off. All of a sudden three or four hours were gone. Walking down Broadway. Things that shouldn’t have taken any time, then I look at my watch and it’s almost night. What was I doing? Inside the emergency I was fine. And in the bus. As long as I had my medic uniform on I was right there. I knew what to do. And what I might have to do a couple minutes later. I could always do it. 

A typewriter striking. Tick. Tick. Tick./The O full with ink, like the moon.

Sometimes I really do think that none of this was real. Twenty years working the busiest medic bus during the crack years. Then go home and not ever talk about it. After the first year I only talked about work to my partner. I think I forgot something and all of a sudden it shows up again.

Is raining?/Yes is raining.

We were the most violent unit in the city for a while. It’s like it all got mashed into a spotlight and the spotlight is inside me and when it turns on I see little things I didn’t even know were there: A man who looked like he had small barbells driven into his face to deform it. The woman under the stove. A girl with the swastika carved into her, a boy in a car, New Year’s Eve, screaming, all his skin was gone, like Mister Invisible. Dead boys on top of him. I have flashes of Lucy and me running towards something, but it’s all in flashes; my fist around the scoop climbing someplace. How my boots looked standing on a toilet seat as I lifted a dying man off it. 

Taped around a lamp-post uptown./All the crazy posters.

In the club there were guns everywhere. The victim was large, lying on his back I was the only one talking to him, the others were getting the backboard. He asked if he would ever walk again. He got shot 30 second before. He couldn’t move his legs. “You might,” I said. It was such a small bullet hole in such a huge back. How did it hit the exact spot to transect the spine like that? All for fight over a girl. In a bar we had to walk the path a bartender was marched to his death. He was cuffed, his eyes covered. They led him there. He gave them the money and they shot him in the back in front of the open safe. Sometimes I feel like I’m mixing it all up. Did I really open the bag and see the foot in it, under the Conrail? Or was that some other leg we found to reattach? It had red painted nails. When I walked I mainly didn’t pay attention to my thoughts which is why I lost so much time. I must have been walking and walking but never getting anywhere.

Is raining hard?/Yes is raining hard.

A PIGEON’S TALE (in honor of Armistice Day)

An American pigeon named Cher Ami was given the Croix de Guerre in World War One for meritorious service. Nowadays with the drones targeting people on the other side of the planet, that seems so innocent. Cher Ami carried messages in a little cannister across enemy lines. She saved an entire battalion, was shot in the chest and lost a leg, died of her wounds, and was stuffed. Her one-legged corpse is perched jauntily in the “Price of Freedom,” exhibit at the National Museum.

One! Two! Three! Four! Charlie Chaplin went to war/He taught the ladies how to dance/And this is what he taught the/Heel, toe, over you go/Salute to the king, Bow to the queen/Turn your back on the submarine. (jump-rope rhyme, NYC, 1939)

Who doesn't love the brave little pigeon?/Petite Cher Ami, l'savioress des perdus./Voler la-bas bleu/you’d need d'un coeur de malachite.

Years ago I met a man on 4th Street who raised pigeons to race. He kept them in a big wire cage attached to his window-frame, so they were only half outside. “I love ‘em dearly,” he said. His wife left him because of the mess. He seemed like a man from the past. With his big slabby hands and his musty bird smell.

In March, 1939, a pet canary is delivered to St. Clare's Hospital/via carrier pigeon to cheer up ten-year-old Margaret Gillen/who's been in the hospital for six weeks/ Her father works for the WPA./She's going to name her canary “Darling.

I like the idea of those old skies. With pigeons streaking across instead of drones. In Kabul, Afghanistan, pigeon training is still a popular sport. Flocks dive and spin, conducted by a man with a cloth flag standing on a rooftop. The Taliban banned bird training, bombs shattered homes, and still the pigeons fly. Like they have since the time of the Mughal Empire in the 1500s.

The carrier pigeon flew 20 miles in 42 minutes./He's being groomed to assist the Army Signal Corps,/ferrying maps across enemy lines. Should war come./And war always comes./It's the brink we built our home on./ Teeter-totter. Teeter-totter.

THOSE WHO IGNORE THE PAST ARE DOOMED TO HAVE SLOPPY HANDWRITING

It’s a strange week in America. We’re all suspended in time, waiting for Election Day. So much has happened, but it’s as if someone’s thrown endless handfuls of malignant confetti into my life this past year. Impossible to keep track of it all. I don’t save things the way my parents’s generation did. Sometimes I want to, but where would I keep it all? 

2015/My brothers and I are cleaning out my parent’s house./In the attic we find boxes of things my mom saved./One box for each child./In mine are baby shoes, a doll from a great-aunt in Scotland, drawings, a finger-painting,/ and my old report cards. I look at everything/and throw most of it out. I suppose some remote descendant/ might be interested in the fact that for my entire elementary school career/ not only was my handwriting sloppy and illegible/I also didn’t seem to care./Well, if they are, now they know.

I vaguely remember handwriting being an actual concern of mine when I was nine. I was afraid it might indicate a major character flaw. But to admit that I cared would only magnify the problem. Now, that all seems so far away. The past is dusty and still. I’m impatient when I think about it. None of it matters anymore.

When the Cabrini nuns took over in 1980/they threw out old papers and objects from St. Clare’s early days./I wonder what I would have discovered/if I’d been there to root through that dumpster./Letters to Mother Alice? Photographs of the Founding Sisters?/ But I was in East Harlem then, eating goat roti and drinking phosphorescent soda./Even if I’d known, why would I salvage/something I wasn’t going to care about for another thirty years?

I really would like to see those old files. Even though all the nuns who wrote them are dead, the patients long disappeared into graves and old-folks’ homes. There’s something solid about tracing the imprint of ink on the page. And the smell of paper, rustling for the first time in decades.

After the Chapel was disassembled, Angelo found /old newspapers stuck behind the walls./That’s where the past is able to survive./In between walls, or in a forgotten box in an unused room./Maybe the comics were there: Little Orphan Annie and Dick Tracy/Dots of ink, preserving the faint imprint/of Mother Alice’s eyes.

(Mother Alice founded St. Clare’s, and read the comics every night before bed.)

IF WISHES WERE HORSES WHERE WOULD THEY TAKE ME?

Today I was going through my old hard drive, looking for photos to give to SubPress (the press that’s going to publish BrokeDown Palace.) Amidst all the jpgs, I came across this. It’s been lost for a long time. I kept wishing I had written something right after the Trade Center, and it turned out that I did. Now it’s been so long since it happened. There are people who’ll be able to vote next year who weren’t even born then. For them, it’s like World War II was to me. That day still chips at me a little, but I did EMDR last year, which finally got it out of my heart. Now it’s a historical event that I took part in. Still, when I read this, I remember how it tore me up. froze me inside. And I think, I’m glad I didn’t know how it would all play out.

September 21 2001, Trade Center Recollection

     On September 11, 2001, I responded to the destruction of the World Trade Center. My partner Steve and I were off-duty. We knew that the South Tower had collapsed, and hundreds of rescuers had been killed. We thought most of our friends were dead. All our equipment was at the hospital. We couldn’t get there. I had a pair of kitchen shears, and Steve had a flashlight. We were in our uniforms, wearing baseball caps. We hitched a ride in a private car to Bellevue, but no one from EMS command was there, only an ambulance that had just brought in a patient. Two EMTs we didn’t know took us down to the disaster site. We lost track of them instantly, and wound up about half a block southwest of what had been the south tower. It was hard to tell where we were. Everything was covered with white ash. There were papers lying around, and floating in the muddy water, which was warm and filled with thin planks of metal. We couldn’t see into the water. There were no people. No bodies, no medics, no ambulances. We walked past a fire truck with the windows blown out, covered with the white ash. It was in the air, sifting onto our clothes and skin, so we looked like we had fallen into vats of confectioners sugar. But it stung, and I realized later part of it was made up of pulverized glass. All those windows, but there was no broken glass anywhere. Only some jagged metal that used to be the south tower, and a brown cloud that used to be the north tower.

It was hard to walk. No part of the ground was solid or smooth. We waded through water up to our thighs. The protein bar I had put in my pocket got soaked. I didn’t see any trace of people. No purses, no watches or shoes or even office equipment. No blood. It was all gone. Only the white ash covering everything, and small fires all around us, every building on fire, smoke and the smell of burning, like woodsmoke, but what was actually burning I don’t know. I felt like I had gone forward two thousand years, and was in the ruins of a place I used to know, but everyone was dead, and all they had done gone to ash.

After a while we found some firemen. We took equipment from some bombed out ambulances. We didn’t know where the crews were. The windows were blown out, and inside and out covered with half a foot of ash. We dragged the equipment onto a pile of rubble, backboards and an ambubag, some bandages, a tube kit. Triangle bandages that we tied around our faces to keep the smoke and dust out. The firemen were digging for their friends, but they never found them. Sometimes they yelled medic medic, but then when we went over nothing was there. We rinsed out their eyes and gave them Oxygen. Four hours later, the fire lieutenant thought the overpass was going to go, and moved us all back. We found an ambulance and joined up with them. They were called forward triage. Around four or five, 7 world trade center collapsed. There was a noise like a freight train coming, and a rolling cloud of black smoke and dust. I didn’t see a supervisor until 7 that night.

WHAT DO WOMEN WANT?

Am I an angel? Did I survive the fall?/Am I a daughter of Eve/or just nothing at all?

When I was a chunky little 8th grader, one of my classmates was Iggy Stooge's girlfriend. I don't know exactly how long they lasted. By 10th grade it was over, and it was all downhill for her. In the books about him, sometimes she gets in as a footnote. A couple of sentences, a girl without a last name. I heard she became a drunk and died twenty years ago. He was the central thing in her life. She was thirteen. But she was only an event in his. 

I like being a woman, mainly. It's all I've ever been. But I know I could never live on the pier like Angelo did. Even old women got raped or beaten. Unless they let themselves be infested with bugs and get so filthy men are afraid touch them. It's just how the world is. I didn't think it was the slightest bit strange that Betsy was sleeping with the local rockstar who was a grown man. None of us did. She was untouchably cool to me. 

1980.  June. Metropolitan Hospital./“Do you have a boyfriend? Do you let him touch you?”/Lukewarm beer breath, alone in the locker room./Pushed against the wall. Look from above/like you were a bad angel/perched on some dusty locker./A man, dark green pants, light green shirt. Mean fat over his muscles./A woman, a girl maybe. Five foot three, a hundred and ten pounds./Kick. Kick. Kick. She's too close to hit anything/but his knee. He stumbles back. "Little bitch./Nice titties. Are you a dyke?”

Sometimes people ask me what it was like to be a woman on the ambulance back then. It was such a different time. A lot of my friends in the East Village were topless dancers. That wasn’t some prestigious job, owning your female power. It was half a step up from being a whore. There was no such thing as manspreading or mansplaining. We lived in a men’s world. I remember someone saying to me, “The street rubs off on you. You don’t rub off on the street.”

Better keep her mouth shut. No one wants to work with her anyway./There's no women around here./Just EMS sluts, EMS dykes, and EMS mamas./You're too young to be a mama. So which one are you?

I didn’t feel defeated. Or powerless. I felt strong for being one of the few women on the ambulance. But it wasn’t my world. So I had to learn the rules.

Good thing she's not at Bellevue. Manhattan Command./Flagship of the EMS system./The Boro Chief there makes the females give him blow jobs./If they refuse, off they go to midnights in Bed-Stuy.

That’s true. A lot of things that were true, people say to me, “How could you let that happen?” Here’s how. He had a hook. My shop steward told me they had sent in a woman with a wire, and recorded a tape of him harassing her. But it didn’t matter. He never even got disciplined, except once he was bounced to the Bronx for a month.

Well well well. That she is me./In my brave new life as a genuine certified paramedic./If I had kids I'd qualify for food stamps on my salary./My lieutenant, a sweet, very elderly black man named Mr. Bailey/tries to take care of me. "How are things going?/Are the men treating you well?”/I can't tell him./The only thing worse than a slut or a dyke is a rat.

It sounds scary and grim when I talk about it, but it really wasn’t. There were a lot more good things than bad. I wouldn’t have stayed if there weren’t. I still look back on those days as fun. I guess partly because I made it out, walked that tightrope and got to the other side. It was such a strange, compelling world. The heart of the dark city. Every night, something new happened. Something I’d never seen before. And I got to be a part of it.

When he notices I'm not shining my shoes/Mr. Bailey makes a shoeshine box shaped like an ambulance/and fills it with brushes and polish. /"I love to do little projects," he explains/ "Anytime you want to use this, just come on in./It's for all of you."

He puts me with Bob and Goody./Goody says, "I love working with women./Why, my best partner was a woman./Miss Somebody-or-other. She's retired now./She used all her savings to open up a numbers parlor/for elderly people, right here in Harlem.”/He beams at me. Well, not exactly beams./Bares his teeth and crinkles his eyes.

Old Miss Whatever-her-name-was made less than me./How could she possibly have saved any money?/She was a mama. She wore a skirt to work/And had been thrown out of some other hospital department./Just like Goody. 

NEW YEARS EVE IN THE ST. CLARE'S ER

It's New Years Eve and I'm thinking about all the New Years Eves I worked on the ambulance, with the sound of revelers in the background, cheap horns blowing and the bus inching its way through the crowds. And my friend John Brennan, who worked every New Years Eve in the Clare's ER. Here's a poem from BrokeDown Palace I wrote for him.

FLANDERS FIELD

Dr. John Brennan, the bub, was born on my birthday. In the infant dawn, 1950. On the flip side of the world.

Dr. John Brennan, the billy-lid, was a model train buff, dodging mass to create elaborate track layouts with his brother Peter.

Dr. John Brennan, the happy little vegemite, was an ace squash player and card shark.

Dr John Brennan, the bloke in the white coat, punched holes in the walls of his Upper West Side apartment, so his trains could really let it fly.

Dr. John Brennan, my friend, died in Australia in 2002. I found all this out after he died.

It's what people write about, once someone is gone./The little things you can put into words, that made them special. Words to try and make the world feel what you feel./Sometimes on the ambulance, late at night I'd find myself getting angry with a patient. Because I was tired./Because they called every night. It doesn't matter.

I didn't want to be that person./The burnt out medic, the tough girl. So I asked a question about their lives. Where did you grow up?/What did you do before you fell on hard times? It didn't always work./But a lot of times the smallest peek into their past a scrap of what they once had been/dissolved my anger./Let me see the skel, the junkie, the crackhead as someone real. Like me.

I guess that's what I'm doing now

Relaying fact after fact about John Brennan Trying to make him a man again/instead of a phantom, fading with the years.

But maybe all that matters is that one New Year's Eve every stretcher filled, the hallway lined with puking drunks, bloody noses, slashings and broken wrists/The memory of a homicide from an hour before still burnt in my mind

And Dr. Brennan at the center of it all, in his perfect tux, his bow-tie and butcher's apron Whispering to me that there's a bottle of Moet et Chandon in the lounge, and I should take a break and raise a toast. A toast to life, in all its chaotic glory.

TIME HAS COME TODAY

When I was eight, my parents gave me a diary for Christmas. I liked writing little story-books, making construction paper covers for them and stapling them together, so they were sure I’d love it. It even had a tiny lock and key, to keep others from discovering my secret thoughts. The only time I ever wrote in the diary was on Wednesdays. Every Wednesday, I printed very carefully, “I ate an ice-cream sandwich today.” That was the day we got extra lunch money to buy dessert. 

I wish I’d written more. I can’t remember my thought processes at that age, or what I did. The only thing I remember clearly is dreading the prospect of writing in that diary. I’m reading The Innocents Abroad, by Mark Twain right now. Here’s a quote: “If you wish to inflict a heartless and malignant punishment on a young person, pledge him to keep a journal a year.”

However, for about three months in the early 1990s, I did manage to record my calls when I got home from work. It was painful. Getting off at 7am with my skin aching from being so tired, biking home, and then trying to remember what happened during the previous twelve hours. I was going to do it for a year; I thought it would be a great record of the times. I’m sure it would have been. Here are some calls from those three months:

We had an 8 year old boy knocked down by a car who did twenty push-ups to prove he was all right, and refused to give his address or his mother’s name. Finally the cops loaded his bike into the trunk and took him to his grandmother’s up in the Bronx. An old sailor with emphysema, wearing a baggie white undershirt, his ribs popping into sharp crescents each time he breathed. A junkie who ran off as soon as we revived him, and old woman who had banged against the sink, tearing her tissue paper skin from elbow to wrist.

A kidney patient who had gone into arrest. We used the shunt to start the IV and when he got a pulse blood shot up the tubing.

A 13 year old knocked down by a cab. She lived in Brooklyn with her 17 year old cousin and her cousin’s 32 year old boyfriend. The boyfriend was a dealer, covered with gold, every tooth capped gold. We told him to say he was the girl’s uncle so she could get treated. Her parents had thrown her out and wanted nothing to do with her.

A small Peruvian girl with a broad flat face dressed in a white blouse and long plaid skirt, simple and country looking, sitting at the bench at the precinct, her face expressionless, tears rolling from her eyes. she had been kidnapped in the Bronx at one in the afternoon, driven around in a van and repeatedly raped by three men, then thrown out into a vacant lot, after which she had taken the train home, taken a shower, then told her aunt and cousin what had happened so they brought her to the precinct. The girl was 15 and spoke no English. I asked the cousin was she bleeding and the aunt said to the cousin, ‘la primera vez’. There were no women cops and no one came with her to the hospital. The sergeant was having an argument on the phone over what precinct should take the report since it happened in the Bronx.

A drunk old man who got rowdy in a sex shop on the Deuce, just out of prison, where he had been for 42 years. A girl who got her arm caught in the roller of a pressing machine, the bone wrenched from its socket, she knelt on the floor screaming. A Chinese man dead in his bed in an apartment that had been sectioned into small cubicles, like a beehive, so that twenty men lived there. A baby who ate a battery. 

A man standing naked at the intersection of 34 and Broadway who claimed that a mouse had run up his pants leg and he had to leap out of his clothes.

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.