The PA system hums for a moment, then the tones go off, followed by the dispatcher’s voice:
“Rescue 2, a still alarm, Rescue 2.”
We have a few moments to drop what we are doing, tune our ears into the message coming from the speakers and head for the ambulance. The Hartford Avenue firehouse is two stories, the living quarters above the apparatus floor. I take the pole. Before my feet hit the ground the rest of the message is transmitted.
“Rescue 2, respond to The Projects, on the first floor, apartment 1001 for an elderly female who is vomiting.”
We leave the station with the hum of the speakers still in the air and turn left toward the address. I can sense the place before I see it, gloom and oppression ooze from the walls of the run-down apartments, chain link fencing, chains and giant locks are everywhere, bars cover the first floor windows making the place look more like a prison than a place to live and raise a family. But somehow kids keep filling the apartments here, more often than not left to run the place as they choose with little or no parental supervision. Gangs run the show, and the kids who choose to not participate live their lives in fear.
We find the apartment. It is a tiny first floor place, one bedroom, one little bathroom and a kitchen connected to a sitting room. It is full of stuff, but immaculate. Three teens have gathered in that little sitting room, two girls and a boy. One of the girls pets a scruffy little dog that looks at me as I enter, cocks his head and wags his tail. The girl holds him tightly, and tells me he’ll try to run out the door if she lets go.
Another teenage girl stands outside the bathroom, the door cracked a little. She appears to be the eldest, and in these projects that usually means she is in charge.
“I think she has food poisoning,” she tells me. “She ate some fish at a restaurant an hour ago and can’t stop throwing up.” She whispers, so the others won’t hear, “and she has diarrhea.”
A little old lady sits on the toilet, soaked with sweat, one end in a bucket, the bottom full of vomit, the other end on the toilet, which she reaches back to and flushes. She looks like death warmed over. The three kids stay in the living room, the old lady vomits some more and the other girl tries to help.
The old lady asks the girl to have the other kids step outside for a minute. They do without a complaint.
“She has HIV,” the remaining girl tells me, softly so the other kids won’t hear. “And she can’t stop going to the bathroom.”
“Does she speak English?” I ask.
“Just a little.”
“Tell her it’s okay, we’ll take care of her.”
The girl says something to the old lady while Brian gets a few sheets and lines the stretcher with a chuck. She appears to relax a little, and submits to her fate.The other kids come back in, and gather around. We wrap the old lady first in her robe, then in some sheets and walk her through the crowded apartment and onto the stretcher.
“What is her date of birth?” I ask.
All four kids answer at the same time. The lady lies there, on the stretcher looking miserable. The kids are concerned. Genuinely concerned. They are polite, respectful and worried.
“Is she your grandmother?” I ask.
“No, she takes care of us.”
I look around me, and what I see is remarkable, considering what lies on the other side of the door:
-The food in the kitchen
-A little TV in the corner
-Little rubber matching bracelets on the kids’ arms
-Their clothes, clean and almost new.
I feel the oppression melt away as the impromptu honor guard forms around the stretcher, and we wheel the little old lady with the heart of a lion into the cruel world outside her little oasis. The clean little apartment in the heart of the projects where murder, mayhem and misery normally rules is a beacon of hope in a violent place, a safe place where young people don’t look like thugs, have manners and actually care enough about a little old lady to know her birthday without thinking.
They surround the stretcher as we wheel it toward the ambulance. One of them, the oldest, comes with us; the sick little old lady leaves her door open so the rest of the kids have somewhere to go.