The Bronx was burning, literally. I definitely cried myself to sleep some nights not just because I was sad or wanted to go back to Tennessee, but because it was so bombarding. The energy level and intensity level was bombarding. I loved it. We loved it. Doing ambulance calls was amazing and thrilling.
I think of one call in particular. We had a lady who lived down the street from us, a sweet African American lady, who had a baby boy. She called us and said her baby was having trouble breathing. She lived down on 167th near Franklin. She met us downstairs and handed me the baby. He looked terrible. He was a small kid, maybe six months old. He stopped breathing on the way to the hospital so I gave him mouth to mouth. We got him into Montefiore but the nurses didn’t pay us much mind when we came in at first. I told them, “This baby already stopped breathing twice on the way in.” They came rushing over and took him. Then I saw the mother a week or two later in the neighborhood. She was about my age and had an older kid too, Richard, who was about four or five.
Long story short — she got some services that helped her. Her baby boy had night apnea and he would just stop breathing. They put him on monitoring systems that would set off alarms if he got below a certain respiration or heart rate. That winter I stayed in touch with her. It was so cold in her apartment — no heat, no electricity — the monitor system did not work. I took her into my bedroom so she could keep that machinery plugged in, working and keep that baby monitored and alive.
Years later my partner and I had twenty panels of artwork on display at the first annual Arts and Crafts Festival on the Grand Concourse in the South Bronx. We took first place with our book collaboration — she had done the story and I did the artwork. This lady walks up to me, I was looking at her, going through my mental rolodex — “I remember your face, where do I know you from?” She had recognized me right away. I looked similar, I hadn’t cut my hair at that point. It was six or seven years later and the mother is standing there with this young lad of about eight. She says, “This is the boy you saved.”
It was pretty amazing. That was a ‘went well.’
You knew you were on the frontlines you were making a difference, you had the full support of the South Bronx community.
— Bill Barto
When called upon, we responded with the fast, compassionate, and professional care that was our trademark. Everyone was treated with dignity while being provided top notch, kick-ass emergency care. We were well respected by the police and fire departments, as well as the local community. Our graduating EMTs quickly got jobs within the EMS system because of Plenty’s reputation.
— Kathy Connors
“The Police have noticed our faster response time and have taken to calling us rather than the city units.”
— Call for Ambulance Volunteers, Recruitment flyer circa 1980-81
Still in the Bronx
What changed me? Everything. I’m still here. I’m still in the Bronx. That says something. Much respect to the Bronx. I was eighteen and a half when we got married. I really don’t know if it was straight up naïveté, I wasn’t thinking — well thirty years or forty years from now — I thought I’d live on the Farm forever. Not even so much as the way I would live, but that I would be on the Farm forever. I was the last of my family to agree to come to the Farm and the last of my family to leave the Farm.
My sister had a baby on the Farm. Her boyfriend came eventually. She was married on the Farm. My mother was on the Farm. My little sister was two at the time. It was a weird fractured sort of family that was trying to come back together, it didn’t work very well, and some of us sort of peeled off. I ended up at the teen center at the Adobe with Peter and Kay Marie, Pricilla, and Gerald. Good times — definitely.
When I was dating Richard, and I use the term ‘dating’ loosely, Gary Rhine stuck his head out of the ‘50,’ the building where we had the Farm Ambulance hut next to the clinic. He stuck his big red bushy head out the window and said, “Hey! You want to be a dispatcher?” I thought that was hilarious at the time. I said, “Sure.” So I trained to be a dispatcher. Richard and I took the EMT class together.
Not only were we a kid-less couple, which was a somewhat strange and rare commodity on the Farm, we actually had a skill. Taco (Edward Sierra) took to courting us very heavily. We’d be walking down the road we’d hear Taco pulling up in his truck, I’d hear the engine rumble, he’d slow down, idling his engine beside us, saying, “Hey. They’ve always got margarine and sugar in the Bronx.” Then he would drive off. Hilarious.
The next time I’d see him he would say, “They go to nightclubs sometimes, and see live music.” Then he would drive off. Just hitting on us.
He was working us shamelessly. Really, there was no reason we couldn’t go or shouldn’t go except that we lived on the Farm. That was how I’d always seen us —living on the Farm. We finally said we would go. We went sight unseen. This was around the ‘lead time’ when the women and children had to evacuate very quickly, temporarily left the scene and there was a deficit in just what it took to run the operation.
We drove up to the scene in a big brown pickup truck with junk in the back. We got in on Memorial Day and it was mind blowing — very intense. The closer we got to the City it gets more urban and more urban and urban and then we got on the Cross Bronx. It was like some kind of futuristic movie. Crazy. Intense. Hot. We pulled off onto Webster and came up 167th and all the fire hydrants were open. The kids were dancing in the street, music was everywhere, and the people looked extremely happy. We were blown away because we’d been expecting super horrible, you know, “the Bronx is burning.” And it was okay, it was hilarious. It was Par-Tay! Completely fascinating.
I was twenty. I’d had really just learned to take down all the walls I’d built up — to be open, receptive, and not be an independent operator — be a good group mind person on the Farm and I get to the South Bronx and it is raw. It is just raw. During the day it was hot and raw. I would walk around, not carelessly, but just being a twenty-year-old girl, although I probably looked to be more like fourteen, to be honest. What blew me away at first was guys saying, “Hey, Baby, how you feel?” I took that quite literally, I thought they wanted to know how I feel. It was so strange.
We did a lot of crazy nerve racking stuff, winding up in basements, realizing all of a sudden, “We’re in a basement. We’ve seen enough movies.”
Ambulance calls were everything from the saddest old people to babies who had just been born and babes about to be born. One of the very last calls I did was for a nice white couple on their way to their son’s wedding. He had a heart attack on 95 or the Degan and just pulled off. They were from someplace else on their way to someplace else and the heart attack came in the South Bronx. We probably got that call from the cops.
We had serious fun. It is interesting living communally, a lot of times you don’t get to pick who you live with so just begin to deal or not as the case may be. When you take that recipe and put it in the pressure cooker of the South Bronx, it plugged us all into the wall. Like electricity, and personal relationships. How it worked on the Farm was, “I’m going to call a house meeting because you gave me bad vibes when I asked you for the salt at dinner.” You take that and plug it into the South Bronx, New York City. Intense. It was great. I’m so glad I did it. For me it was college.
It was a far out scene. We drank a lot of Manhattan Specials (caffeinated sodas). We could always get Manhattan Specials in the Italian neighborhood over on Arthur Avenue. There were a couple of little delis where we could find them. It was like in Tennessee when we drank Sun Drop. We would get so cranked. We had amazing times. Kim Bissell and I would definitely partake and then drive down to China Town for tofu and soymilk. We’d put buckets and buckets of ice in the trunk of the Dart. Then we had other buckets so the tofu would be surrounded by ice.
We had a lot of fun. We played hard and we deserved to. We listened to a lot of loud music. People would look at each other and Wham! We’d shove the tables back and there was massive dancing and pogoing. This was at the beginning of a new age in music and it was heady times in New York City. We had a house band that involved anybody and everybody. Wild parties where we would put space blankets up all over the walls on the fourth floor. We’d all get duded up in some weird Salvation Army wigs and black lipstick. Everybody had to wear black lipstick. It was fabulous.
We played hard and then we put our selves into ambulances with little to no backup and saved people. It was intense. I got pregnant there and had my son, Degan, there. In that building. He was born in the South Bronx on the second floor. My midwife was Gerry Sue who had come up from the Farm for my birthing.
I was sad when the Ambulance Service broke up. Nobody was more surprised than me that I didn’t really think for a second about gong back to the Farm. The Farm was in the throws of the beginnings of the changeover. I couldn’t deal with that.
It was different, being in New York, putting our work ethic and our interpersonal agreements with each other, how we are with each other, and how we treat each other and frankly, I still live that way. I’ve had to adjust it. You can get so goddamned disappointed in people. You can’t really expect everybody to be kind to you because it is the right thing to do — you will be disappointed all the time. We still live that way. We just do it in the city. There is just more concrete.
I did see Ritchie and Megan off and on over the years. I would see Megan many mornings riding her bike on my way to work. It absolutely broke my heart when she was killed. She was one of the good guys.
I raised my kids here in the Bronx. They were both art majors at La Guardia High School in Manhattan. My son is twenty-seven and my daughter is twenty-four. I’m the artist in residence at a private nursery school, get to do all the big-ticket science and music. I’m getting to do music and art when I’m not trying to put my body back together. Ten days ago I had an ACM replacement. I had the meniscus of that knee repaired last summer when I did the original injury. In 2007 I got my annual teachers’ check up. Every year I was a quarter of inch shorter — lost three inches in height between 2000–2007. It was discovered I have scoliosis, which I never knew I had. I got twenty-two titanium pins and two rods in my spine. The back is now a non-issue. I’m completely over that, which is amazing. That was a big deal, as you can imagine. A ridiculously long and arduous rehab. I fought back from that, although it is really fucked up to not have knees. In compensating for having a bad back, I blew my knees out. Other than that I’m strong and healthy — just putting the pieces back together. I work it hard, put it away wet, and use it till I break it, put it back together and go back out and work it again.
Richard switched over after leaving Plenty, easing right into EMS and was then absorbed by the fire department. He just retired after 25 years as a paramedic in the South Bronx. We never left the South Bronx.