We had good crews. People I would trust with my life to this day.
We had a run up on Kelly Street, a couple of blocks from our building. A woman cut her wrist. There were bright red splatters on the wall, the bed, the curtains. She seemed surprised to see us. There was no implement in the wound and I clamped down with my hand and raised her arm. Things were suddenly looking better. Geno checked the position of my hand on her wrist and nodded. There was a grey man sitting on a wooden chair. He was awake, disturbed, slowly rotating one arm. On a nightstand were needles and a blackened spoon. We took her to Lincoln General Hospital.
Lincoln General had the feel of a war zone with a waiting room full of refugees and wounded. There is a certain amount of physical distress all humans can expect to experience. Beyond that, people in the South Bronx were punished for the crime of being poor in a backward nation where healthcare is designed for profit and rationed on the basis of ability to pay. Lincoln’s hallways see a daily rolling inventory of the ways money humbles the poor. The ragged battle line of the war on poverty cuts a jagged course through the bodies of the poorest of our poor. It was quickly obvious people were not getting the medical attention they needed. This isn’t about being statistically obvious. I’m talking sick, damaged, and dead in your arms obvious.
Most everybody who lived in the Bronx was poor and working a job or some hustle to make a little money. Tom Brown fixed cars at the curb in front of our building. Another guy we shared our building with was a cab driver. Once, when he was present, the local car guys were talking fast and telling me what a dangerous neighborhood we lived in. There was one terrible story after another. I said, “What about letting the police handle it?” They were incredulous. The cabbie started waving his arms, “The po—leeese? The po—leeese! Ah shit man, you can’t call them.” He stuck a finger into his mouth and pulled back his cheek showing a wide gap where teeth should have been. “Police did that. Traffic stop. Red light. Out ta cab and BAM with a stick.” Then each of the men stepped up in turn and told about their run-ins with authority. Every one of them had been physically injured by New York City cops. I looked up and down Fulton, where at any given time, there were dozens of men working, walking, talking. It was simple multiplication — thousands of black men experiencing thousands of acts of police brutality. This is the sickness of the system manifested; where law-and-order becomes oppression.
One of the strongest supports of our Plenty Ambulance Service basic budget was money we made installing storm windows on apartments and offices in Manhattan. The first part of the installation was relatively safe. We’d angle the storm window out the opened standard window and hand-hold it in place while the easy to reach screws went into the window frame. This was before cordless screwdrivers and we used a nonelectrical Yankee screwdriver. The Yankee converts the pushing motion of your hand into a turning motion via a spiral groove in the shaft. Your hand moves back and forth and the screw turns. The awkward part was reaching the top screws. Driving the top screws required stepping out on the window ledge while holding onto the window frame with one hand. There was no way to attach a safety strap or belt. The danger of falling was ever present. Our crew agreement was: if you don’t feel like going out on a ledge, for any reason, then it is just fine to not go out on the ledge. The lore was: any fall from thirteen floors and above was certain death.
The highest window I ever did was with my friend Bob Hughes. Anywhere in New York, I felt safe with Bob. He’d seen all the crazy stuff and knew how to stay cool. A couple of hours after lunch we would hit a local bodega for Entenmanns chocolate chip cookies and some hot black coffee. Then we would roar through the afternoon. The caffeine was pumping when Bob and I climbed out the windows on the thirty-ninth floor of an apartment building on 55th Street. It was a grey day in Manhattan. The sound of traffic below us was muted and distant. Cars appeared the size of a pinkie fingernail. We were standing side by side on different windowsills. Bob was laughing and nodding and working his Yankee driver. Wind was lifting wild yellow hair up around his headband. He was yelling at me, “Hey Ja-Ray! Have you evah been this high?” I remember paying extremely close attention to the location of my feet. The breeze in my armpits. The feel of the interior window frame in my life-or-death grip. Bob, carefree as a pigeon, wanted to know, “Are you having a peak experience?” Afraid moving my lips would throw my balance off — “Yes, Bob,” I said telepathically.