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.