Stories from the Streets: Repeat Visitor

Street folks know the buzzwords chest pain, difficulty breathing and suicidal work much better than alone, tired, hopeless and cold


A little break in the action, just in time. I’ve been running since 0700 hours. No downtime today, a steady stream of people needing help.

“Without all these people this job would be a piece of cake!” I once joked with a partner. In reality, without all these people there would be no cake at all. It’s “the people” who make it possible to work the long shifts with so little rest. They come and go for me, most forgotten as soon as the folks at the ER take over, but some stay on my mind for hours, even days after they leave. A special bond forms between the sick and injured and the people taking care of them, if you let it, and much can be learned simply from sharing the experiences of those we treat.

My head hits the pillow, and I’m gone, sweet blackness, no dreams, no tossing, no turning, just me and unconsciousness. I call it death sleep. I’ve never actually been dead, but days like this lead me to believe it might be preferable to consciousness.

My body has melted into the bunk, and the mattress, bought after the blizzard of ’78, feels like a priceless feather bed, not the plastic-coated, springy thing it is. It is amazing what 30 hours of constant awareness does to a person’s needs. I could sleep on anything now, and as the minutes of unconsciousness add up, the body begins to recuperate.

Blinding light wakes me. I’m not certain how long I’ve been out, but it must have been a while. I’m refreshed and ready to roll. The tones are far better than the bells that would rattle my bones all those years ago. It seems like yesterday, my bunk directly under the Gamewell Giddyup, lying on top of the bunk, more tense than the spring in the bell, waiting, waiting, waiting…

Some nights it never went off, and I actually would doze off and on till shift change, but it took me years to relax enough to fall asleep under that thing. A veteran firefighter once told me there was nothing we couldn’t handle, so relax and get some rest. It took me years before I believed him and stopped imagining the unimaginable things that could happen on my watch and how best to respond. He was right: Whatever happens, we can handle. We may not always save the day or somebody’s life, but we do what we do with what we have, and go as far as our training allows us, and we do our best.

Twenty years goes by in a blink of the eye, and I rub the sleep from mine. The digital clock on the dash reads 4:23. Little birdies start their chorus early this time of year, and their song escorts us out of the building and into the predawn solitude. Nobody is on the road, not a soul. A few lights burn low in the houses we pass; a stray dog, some rats and a gentle breeze pushing the previous day’s litter away from the curb are our only companions.

It’s Gayle who called. She lives on a folding chair next to an abandoned building. Sometimes her niece lets her stay with her, usually at the beginning of the month, when the disability check makes its monthly appearance. Her niece spends the $700 on men, booze and lottery tickets, according to Gayle, and when the money dries up, she’s out, back to her chair.

She sits there most of the day and into the night, occasionally shuffling into a store for a bite to eat or to get warm for a minute, but she is a large woman, and homely, and wears the aroma of street living. The proprietors of the shops quickly dispose of her, giving her something to keep her quiet, because if they don’t, she will make such a fuss the police will be needed.

The cops don’t know what to do with her, so they call us. She’s a hard woman, mean as a snake and bigoted beyond belief, calling me “white boy cracker” and my Asian partner “the walking wonton.” She is not fond of the Latino population either, and continually ridicules her fellow African-Americans, calling them Uncle Toms or worse.

She likes me. I have no idea why. Other than the white boy stuff, which she says out of habit more than vitriol, she’s polite and cooperative. But she’s also 400 pounds, and her home is broken, the tiny legs finally giving up and collapsing under her weight.

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