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First Responder

Michael A Martin
Associate Editor

To Be Published in DowntownLALife Magazine

This Story is not mean to characterize the behavior or actions of first responders. Rather, and perhaps contrarily:

It is meant as a tribute to them,
each and every one,
and the unfathomable work that they do for all of us,
each and every one.

One Year Later…

You know, you hear about the stages of grief, or that thing about “Time heals all wounds,” something like that. It seems that all the other guys eventually worked through the horrific events of that fateful Friday morning, that is, eventually. I mean, they returned to work at some point. Maybe I’m the wimp, the weak guy that just couldn’t cope.

Yea, I was one of those ‘first responder’ people; being a paramedic or EMS, whatever. I didn’t know what to do after high school- brain surgeon, nah. Maybe a civil engineer, nah. First, my parents didn’t have the money for such things; second, I’m not some sort of brain-trust to tolerate that kind of schooling. So I got into this. Third, seriously, I thought I could help the world in some way. So I got into this…

Anyway, I ended up tending to the sick, the dying; the first guy on the scene. And it wasn’t like those sanitized environments, like an emergency room or something. We had to deal with the nitty-gritty. You know, a car accident where some dead soul’s arm was dangling out the window, or some body charred like a blackened fish, spread-eagle on the ground, or some elderly person stinking up their dingy apartment- found in bed or on the floor, deader than hell. Surprisingly, those are the worst.

You would thing that those government safety nets or family would protect our old people- for me, we so often saw were these people sadly hidden away in their apartments alone. And you know, found that their cupboards and refrigerators had very little food, that their trash was strewn about everywhere. I guess at some point, they were never able to put it out. The worst thing was when these people had bedsores from laying around too long. Don’t know if you’ve seen a bed sore, but it’s this giant cavity on their lower abdominal back area- hollowed out, showing their ‘inner workings,’ stinking to high heaven. Eventually, you grow calluses to that sort of thing, seeing it so much and all.

The second thing was the hours. My God, working those long hours, waiting for the next death to happen- just gets old after a while. And no, I’m not unique: Everybody bitches about the hours.

Disregarding all this, having such a strange job and all- life was still pretty docile, normal like. And you often found comfort from these horrific scenes ‘cause you have a partner with you, and you often see the same cops when bad stuff happens. Not like they become friends or drinking buddies. It might have been good to have a few beers with them now and again, where we could talk this crap out. But they were never like good friends- just special people, like therapists to each other on the scene; then boom, we went our separate ways.

Prior to that horrible day, and the months that followed, I had a live-in girlfriend: Jenn. For about a year and a half, we got along pretty good; she was a real looker, you know? I think she hung around because she thought my job was cool- exciting or something. She got angry sometimes because I wouldn’t talk about a lot of the horror I saw; but hey, it’s really hard to unwind when you have to rehash this stuff at home. And sometimes I had bad dreams, and she would wake me up saying that I was screaming in my sleep. Most of the time, what few dreams I remembered, it was about bedsores? Crazy eh?

Anyway, that Thursday night, Jenn and I got into an argument about gifts for family. She was running behind on her shopping; and as usual, I wanted to go cheap. You know, sometimes she got a bit out of control with her credit cards. Well screw that. To be honest, she was always out of control with her credit cards. If I had known what awaited me that Friday morning, I would have had her buying more gifts for everybody- especially her nephews. And hey, a lot more.

You know, it was Christmas after all. I realized later, just how important Christmas had been. I also remember that it was the first Christmas that I stayed in bed the whole time, fighting bouts of crying, and other bouts of wanting to take a ply bar to our entire apartment.

But it all started as a normal day that Friday; and with me lucking out by winning day shift, we didn’t see near as much as the night folk. The first three years, they had me on graveyard: That sucked. Most of those incidents involved people drunk out of their minds, having just battered the crap out of their wives or kids. We were often called because of cuts from knives, swollen faces, stuff like that. But being a small town and all, we didn’t see too many of those; more like the old people thing.

Anyway, that Friday was just humdrum. Jenn had called to sort of make things right about the fighting the night before. Everything was humdrum, just a regular day.

Jim and me had just walked into one of the town’s two Starbucks for our caffeine jolt when we got the call.  A school? What the hell. It sounded sorta urgent. At the time, we suspected a kid fell on the playground; maybe a teacher fainted for some reason. Still, even though it sounded important, we really didn’t know what was going on. My God, we really didn’t know.

When we got there, two of our people, Bob and Sarah, were already there. They were standing next to one of the five or six police cars. All Bob said was that there had been a bad shooting, that all he knew was a couple of people, teachers probably, were dead in the hallway- and that the police wouldn’t let us go in because they were waiting for SWAT. At that time, Bob, the police, everybody was quiet. A shooting; my God, a school? This wasn’t normal; our town is a docile, innocent sort of place, and this was one of the wealthier communities.

So we waited. SWAT arrived and went in. Ten, fifteen minutes, we waited. Then two SWAT guys came stumbling out the front door. I’ll never forget that, never. One was crying, I men actually wailing. The other had his hand over his face, that is until he leaned over and threw-up all over one of the shrubs.

Then Stan staggered out; he was one of the head SWAT guys. I knew him from several calls in the past. His helmet was off, and in the shadows of this sunny, cold day- it was obvious that he was white as a sheet. He stood there, quiet. Then he finally stammered, “All clear.” That was all he said.

Accompanied by a younger officer that I didn’t know, we entered the school. Oh my God. In the main entrance hall, we saw several bodies: Two or three… maybe. Frankly, I didn’t see how many were lying there, but several. I was too overwhelmed by the amount of blood on the walls- for that matter, all over the fricking place.  

One SWAT guy, to this day, the most serious face I have ever seen, said something like, “Come with me.” Those in the hall were already dead, but God, what is he saying? Maybe, just maybe some of the others might be alive somehow.” Others? What? Others? What the hell is going on here?

This is where I have to stop. Everybody knows what happened, what took place in that classroom. The whole world knows.

I believe in God now. Ironic isn’t it? These are the times that usually rob people of believing in any sorta God. And I don’t believe in God ‘cause it’s some sort of fallback; you know, that there has to be a God- a place for all these young souls to go- a heaven, maybe a paradise even. No, it is that, but it is more. I’ve always thought that everything is a paradox; that no matter how terrible something is; everything is backwards. People act like egotistical jerks because they lack ego. Some bad event happens, no matter how bad, some sort of good comes out of it. Like that old woman we found on Chestnut Avenue, still alive. We came to find out later that her son in Toledo had no idea that she was in such bad shape. She had hidden it from him. He took her to Ohio to live with him. One day, he had the dignity to call and thank us. He told us about buying her this monstrous flat screen TV for her room; how happy she was. Jim and I laughed that day, felt like we had done some good. And that is another weird example of the irony, how good stuff often comes out of bad.


But that was no good for me this time: The wimp boy, the boy that can’t cope. After all of the Xanax and anti-depressants and therapy: I still wasn’t ‘right.’ Jenn finally left. See, I didn’t talk much after that. I hardly talked at all. They gave us paid leave for several weeks, then told us we had to report back to work. Report? You’re kidding me; just to wait somewhere, scared out of your mind- waiting for the next horrific tragedy? I think not. To hell with’em. Screw this.

Anyway, I guess you know that meant ‘I quit:’ No notice, no nothing, just didn’t show up. Several calls afterward, I knew it was them wondering where I was, wondering if I was okay. Jim even stopped by one day; knocked on the door for close to thirty minutes. Then left. After a while, they left me alone. Yea right, leave me alone.

Several months later, Jenn left. I know we loved each other, well sorta. Hell, we probably would have married. But it wasn’t like anybody could live with me, I was a mess: Never talked to anyone, didn’t even shower for days on end.

Nine or ten months later, I left. Just like that. Packed a bag, got my father’s old Rossi revolver, jumped in my beat-up Honda, and left. Now I’m in New York, Manhattan even- living the good life… that’s funny. This was no Jack Kerouac vagabond adventure trip. Using my credit card, I’m living the good life… real good. Room service, the works.

See, I’ve made this little decision. Tomorrow, I’m gonna blow my brains out all over that landscape painting in this fancy hotel room. Not like it’s nothing dramatic- more of a wimpy act for a wimpy guy. Just another New York City suicide: Anonymous. Nobody has to know who I am, who I was. I don’t want them to know: I just want to fade peacefully. Yea, there’s nothing peaceful about a gunshot to the head; but it is a hellaciously fast way to go. But during this last day, these last days, I’ve lived like a king. Why not?

So I’m writing this for the record. Can’t stay anonymous forever. Not that I’m a John Steinbeck or something. Even though I want to be anonymous now, maybe there will be some sort of record; some sort of chronicle of my existence- some message that I do believe in God, however backwards that seems-but I do need some peace really, really bad. But memories are short in a fast world- and I know this will be like a fart in the wind. “Oh, he was a first responder of that horrible thing. You know, that guy that blew his brains out in that fancy hotel suite. Wow, terrible, just terrible.”
Then after a couple of weeks, any memory of me will be long gone.

Ugh. Been a change: A very strange, mysterious sort of thing.
A weird twist of events since I wrote what I wrote. See, even though I’ve been staying in this immaculate place, I have had a hard time eating: Go figure. But it’s not like I’ve been hungry drinking all this Grey Goose vodka. Living the high life, eh? When it starts tasting like water, I know I’ve almost arrived to that special place of numb.

It was about 5:30 in the afternoon. I was nursing a hell of a hang over. I had to be over it soon or my eventful next day will suck. So I’m sitting there, in another Starbucks, looking out the window in some sort of trance. I’ve done that a good bit over the last week. Listless, hypnotized. After about an hour or two, I usually took a walk down to another hotel’s bar and started all over again. But not today, not this day- I’ll take a walk but I have to stay sober for tomorrow. I’m just about to leave when this woman arrives at my table with a ten year old in tow. Well, I’m assuming that this little girl was ten or there about.

“Don’t I know you?’

“No, I don’t think so.”

She paused, staring at me. You know, a long pause. God, I really didn’t feel like talking to people. She kept staring and it was really becoming annoying.

“Oh my. I do know you. You were there. My God, you were there that day. I was too. Oh God this brings it all back. I remember you coming out of the school carrying that little girl, she was soaked in blood. You laid her there and started screaming, something like ‘She has to be alive. She has to be alive!’ They had to carry you off. I remember it ‘cause it made such a big impact on me. It was you, it has to be you.”

All I could do was look down. I figured if I didn’t say nothing, she would get the hell away from me. God, this was all I needed. Almost funny, if it wasn’t so painful. I was all gearing up to tell her that she was terribly mistaken, then the tear escaped and gave it all away. It raced down my cheek to my jaw and dripped on the floor. It was a dark tile floor so it was more than obvious, reflection and all.

I looked up, “yea.” That was all I could say.

“What are you doing here? What a coincidence. Of all things, this is just too strange.”

I was thinking at the time, ‘Yea, what a coincidence. Great, now let’s go our merry way.’

But she persisted. “We’re here for Christmas. This is my daughter Jenn; coming to New York is her Christmas gift this year. She lost a cousin last year… you know. She’s been struggling to recover ever since. She was there that day.”

My God, why is she telling me this? And why is she saying this in front of her kid? And what is this coincidence that her daughter’s name is Jenn?

Everybody is just standing there by that window in Starbucks. A minute or two passed. This little girl’s eyes were watering sorta. Well, we know what that’s about. Red leotards, green dress, a blue ribbon sort of thing in her flaming red hair, holding a Schwartz toy bag: Such a cute little girl.

She stared at me. “Mister, you could be with us, we’re here alone. My dad isn’t with us anymore. It’s just me and Mom.”

Then the mother said, “Jenn, that’s a wonderful idea. What’s your name sir? By all means, we could do dinner this evening. How ‘bout it?

Jenn, “Please sir.”

At this point, the Mother looked down at Jenn, “Honey why don’t you get that red mug over there, I think I might buy it.”

Jenn left us, walking across to the shelves. This Mother, I didn’t even know her name, leaned over and whispered, “She’s had a horrible time. Therapy hasn’t helped. She’s been home schooled this year. Home schooled, that’s funny. She stays in her room all the time. This is the first time she’s taken to somebody. It’s so strange.”

We all know how it goes. Well, maybe we don’t know how it goes. I went up to prepare for this strange dinner, wrapped the Rossi in newspaper and hotel towels, went to the hotel dumpster hidden in the back, and heaved that deadly piece of crap into the can.

That little girl saved my life that night.

Funny how it works. Well, not funny but you know what I mean; or maybe you don’t.
I left my elegant hotel room several days later and returned to town; rented a little apartment right in the business district- the second floor of a hardware store- one of those shop house sort of things.

I see Jenn three or four times a week now… Okay, okay, I see her Mom too. This cute little girl was really weird, withdrawn at first; but now she won’t shut-up, even talks about returning to school. I got a job delivering for UPS, and have started thinking about getting back in to school as well.

I know that I have helped Jenn a lot. Even her Mom, Issa (short for Melissa), is amazed at the change.

Strange, how everything is irony, paradox, even strangely funny.
See, I haven’t helped Jenn, not that much. Not really.

See, what it’s really all about is that she’s helped me. Helped me? Hell, she recovered a drowning man- drowning in a pool of his own tears, and those of others.

You see…  That little girl saved my life that night.

Thu Dec 20, 2012 at 3:03 PM PT: THANKS TO ALL. This diary is now Published on the Magazine.

Please encourage your friend to read it, now that it is more readily available.

Most of all, thanks to those that do this work.

Originally posted to downtownLALife on Wed Dec 19, 2012 at 01:00 PM PST.

Also republished by In Support of Labor and Unions, Personal Storytellers, and Community Spotlight.

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