They has the dumb

So, what do these three people have in common?
A woman who opens her driver’s side door and leaves it open.
A guy on a bike that swerves into an intersection.
A guy at a crosswalk, head buried in his phone, who decides at the last second to cross the street.

Answer? They all has the dumb. And, they all did their dumb in front of me while I was driving today. One being dumb is bad enough, but three? Well, they say bad news (and deaths) come in threes, so why not people being dumb? It also validates my belief that so many of the calls I responded to in EMS were people who caused their own problems because…they has the dumb.

Fortunately for them (and more importantly for me) my emergency vehicle (EVOC) training kicked in, and I was able to avoid what might have been a disaster all three times, of course at the expense of a little more wear on my brake pads. Small price to pay in the grand scheme of things.

So, I beg all of you out there to not have the dumb, and learn from the examples above.


Jewish Telegram: “Begin worrying. Details to follow!”

So before anything else, let me say that I love my mother…dearly. She is an incredibly strong woman, having endured so much in her 87 years of life.The death of two husbands, beating back breast cancer three times, among other challenges. And, oh yes, her older child’s (that would be me) frequent health battles, starting in childhood.

This being the case, it still drives me mad when she worries about things that either haven’t  happened yet, or that she has no control over. She makes Howard Wolowitz’s mother (from Big Bang Theory) look like a rank amateur. Case in point: Coronavirus.

Now mind you, I spent 23 years in healthcare. I’ve been exposed to everything from TB, to HIV, to Hep C. It came with the territory. Using PPE (personal protective equipment) was par for the course with being a paramedic. My mother knows also that given my immune system being suppressed because of my liver transplants, I’m not one to take chances when it comes to hanging around potentially sick people.

All that however has gone out the window now that coronavirus is the latest illness du jour. No, I’m not making fun of it. I understand that it is a potentially pretty serious disease. BUT, my mother is taking things to extreme. She is worrying herself sick that I’m going to catch it, even though there have been no reported cases in my neck of the woods. All that means nothing to her.

She is the epitome of the Jewish mother. If she didn’t have things to worry about, I think she would be bored to tears. I love my mother, I love my mother, I love my mother….

Beauty, horror, and the bones of St. Clare

Maggie Dubris, like me, is a retired NYC paramedic. Also, like me, she worked for a hospital that was contracted to the NYC Emergency Medical Service, prior to and after the merger of EMS into the fire department (FDNY). “Voluntary hospitals,” in NYC parlance. Of course, there is nothing voluntary about them. We all got paid for working with our respective EMS departments, in two totally different environments. It’s simply a term to describe a hospital not owned and run by the Health and Hospitals Corporation, that runs all the city owned hospitals.

Maggie’s EMS units, operating out of St. Clare’s Hospital, covered the Hell’s Kitchen area of Manhattan. This is the area just west of Times Square, running from approximately the early 50’s, down, through high 30’s. It was made famous through musicals such as West Side Story, and the book and movie, “Bringing Out The Dead,” the latter of which was written by Maggie’s former colleague and friend at St. Clare’s, Joe Connelly. My EMS units worked out of St. Mary’s Hospital in Brooklyn, and covered the Bedford~Stuyvesant, and Crown Heights sections of Brooklyn.

“Brokedown Palace” is the most recent non-fiction novel that she has written, and while I’m only just past the halfway point in the book, it has flooded my brain with memories of my own time in EMS. “Brokedown Palace” is a stew, or rather a stock, of personal family history, of EMS calls and experiences, and of the history of St. Clare’s itself. The bones that make up this stock are the people, EMS personnel, patients, hospital administrators and others. Like any good stock, it is a story that has been simmering since the early 80’s when Maggie began working as an EMT for St. Clare’s. But it’s more than a simple story of life in EMS. She weaves poetry and prose into imagery that will make you laugh, cry, and a host of other emotions.

Maggie’s ability to paint with words is apparent from the first page. She is able to transport you out of the book, and into her world. You can smell the stench of both the streets, and the hospital interiors. The sights and sounds have triggered my own memories of my own time in Brooklyn. Her recounting of the AIDS crisis hit home like a jackhammer. While we were both there from the beginning, I had a more personal insight as HIV killed my father in 1988 from a blood transfusion he received during cardiac bypass surgery in 1984. The prejudices she describes that the patients she encountered I experienced firsthand with my own father.

The junkies, and other denizens of Hell’s Kitchen were not unfamiliar. They existed in Brooklyn as well. Only the location and circumstances have changed. What is practically identical is the camaraderie, closeness, and outright love for the hospitals we both worked for. We both worked for places that were straining to provide medical care under the most difficult of circumstances, to an under served, often poor population.

St. Mary’s and St. Clare’s. Maggie writes about the bones of St. Clare being somewhere buried in the hospital itself. I never had any idea where the bones of St. Mary were buried. Both hospitals however, are now both dead and buried, the victims of a changing healthcare scene, and of poor management practices.

All we both have left are the rich memories that have impacted both of our lives, some beautiful, some horrific, but all very real.

Six decades and couting

At the end of July, I turned 60 years old. 60. At first it was a little bit of a tough concept to grasp. I’ve been thinking about it, and as I watch other friends an acquaintances in my age group also approach it, or already have turned it, the range of reactions varies wildly. Some bemoan it with a sense dread, longing for their youth. Some seem to be indifferent to it: Just another day, and just another year. Still others embrace it with a sense of joy.

As for me, I guess there is a lot of joy to be had. After all, I almost didn’t make it to sixty. Hell, I almost didn’t make it to forty for that matter. I am indeed grateful that I’m still here, even with the health issues that I’m still up against. Yet in the back of my mind, there’s still this feeling that I’m racing against the clock. It’s not something that overwhelms me, or occupies my conscious thinking on a day-to-day basis, but I know it’s there. I think that it is the thing that keeps propelling me forward, that still makes me want to accomplish more.

I don’t necessarily have an actual bucket list – though I’m not fond of the term – but I have a sort of unofficial group of things I want to get done. First on that list is getting a kidney. It really is the key to being able to accomplish a lot of the other things, unencumbered by the need to be tied to a machine three days a week.

So I go on, headlong, into decade number seven.

Will the Force be with me?

I’ve been contemplating writing a work of fiction for a long time. Why haven’t I tried getting it off the ground? Well, quite frankly, the idea scares the hell out of me. It’s more of my comfort zone to write non-fiction articles. I know how to do that, I know how to research them, and what it takes to put them together. Creating a story and characters from scratch? Well, that’s a task that just seems so daunting, I have thought however, if I were to do it, what genre would be most familiar and interesting to me? What would provide fertile ground and familiar themes that  i could jump into? The answer it seems, is Star Wars.

Now, I’m not the type of fan of Star Wars that is a collector, or a cosplayer, or video game player. I have however, been a reader of several of the novels, both those that are the movie tie-in’s, and those that explore other aspects of the SW universe, but relate to the movies in one way or another. I have also received encouragement from an actual SW author: Daniel Jose Older.

Older wrote the novel “Last Shot,” a Han Solo/Lando Calrissian piece that explores their relationship during the times after the “Solo: A Star Wars Story” movie. It was quite a good book, and I thought his approach was interesting. But, on top of all this, I learned to my surprise, that for a decade he was a NYC paramedic.

I contacted him via Twitter, and eventually brought up my thoughts on possibly pursuing a novel. I related my fears, and my past writing experiences. He understood completely, and offered this advice: “Just do it. You might surprise yourself.”

With that in mind, I’ve started flushing out some ideas. Let’s see where it takes me.

We few….we band of brothers…and sisters….

We’re dying. When I say we, I mean those of us who worked EMS in NYC during the time of 9/11. That doesn’t include me, as I had already moved out of NYC two years earlier. That I also happened to be down in NYC that day, due to being at a former paramedic partner’s wedding a few days earlier is inconsequential. However, on that day, and in the years hence, our numbers have been thinned precipitously, mainly in those years hence. The horrors of that day keep taking and taking. All many of us can simply do now is wait and watch to see who will be next, as it seems as though weekly – at some times daily – comes the news that another one of us has died of a 9/11 related illness.

On September 1st, a few weeks before the time of this writing, it claimed one of my best friends, Ray Thielke.

I was sitting in my dialysis chair when I found out. It was as though I had a knife driven through me. Ray had been admitted into the hospital here in Syracuse about a week or so earlier with symptoms he had before, related in part to the leukemia and COPD he developed from working on the pile.*  It was complicated by his cardiac issues from a long ago battle with Hodgkin’s Disease, that he beat, but whose radiation treatments did damage to his heart. I thought that he’d simply get through it like he did numerous times in the past. Then, his wife told me he was in kidney failure, and was getting emergency dialysis. Somewhere deep inside, I knew he was in a lot of trouble as this had never happened before. I still held out hope. It was dashed faster than I could have thought.

Ray and I struggled through our respective illnesses, doctor visits, and hospitalizations. We had a system set up, so that when one of us went into the hospital, we’d text the other one with, “Tag, you’re it!” It got to a point when were we were in so much, we called ourselves “The HMO Twins.” We’d laugh at it. It was our ability to laugh at some of the absurdities of our situations that got us through it. Now, learning that he died, all I could do was cry.

Ray was beloved not only by his NYC EMS family, but by his local EMS and law enforcement family here in central NY state. He was well known as both a provider, and instructor, and from his time with the NY State Department of Health’s EMS bureau. The outpouring of grief from both communities was palpable. He was lain out in his local EMS uniform at his wake. I put in the white NYC paramedic patch we both wore in his casket, taken from one of my old uniforms.

No more than a week later, another 9/11 death came across the Facebook EMS boards. In an article a few weeks prior, it was noted that the total number of post 9/11 deaths would surpass the actual number of those killed that day. This includes those who were first responders, and those who were simply in or near the Trade Center that day.

There is no telling who will be claimed next. We try not to think about it. Just a week before I wrote this, there was a huge reunion of those who worked EMS prior to the FDNY merger in 1996. It was held on the grounds of the EMS Academy in Queens, at Ft. Totten. It was in part organized so that we who remain could gather at a happy occasion instead of seeing each other at funerals. I drove down from Syracuse, and both my brother and I attended. It was an incredible, uplifting experience. The joy at seeing old friends, colleagues, and instructors was highly satisfying.

9/11 was our St. David’s Day. Even for those who weren’t there, we are still part of that band of brothers and sisters who fought, and who continue on the job, from now will be remembered.

*(For those who are not aware, “the pile” is the term used by those who were actually working at the Trade Center. Not Ground Zero, but, the pile.)

Table for one…

I didn’t know Anthony Bourdain. He didn’t know me. Yet, I loved his work. He was a breath of fresh air in a seemingly vapid television landscape that was only filled with pretenders. Bourdain was the real deal. He was honest to a fault. He could cut through all that nonsense of others and get straight to the heart of a subject. He adopted a “bad boy” persona, which was true because he didn’t try to be something else for the camera. it reflected on screen what he had written about in his books.

I became acquainted with him quite by accident. I had never heard of his book, “Kitchen Confidential,” but stumbled on to his show “No Reservations” on the Travel Channel one day, and I was hooked from the beginning. Here was a different kind of cooking show. He didn’t simply stand around a stove or prep table and show you how to do things. No, to simply call it a cooking show was a misnomer. This was a show about how food, life, and culture intersect. Here was this brash NYC chef, bringing to perhaps a largely uninformed American public how other cultures are more like us than we think. We all eat, sit around a table, and discuss events. That’s when I think he was at his best, when he would go into people’s homes in different countries and simply talk around the table with families.

He was a risk taker. Beirut, Iran, Istanbul. Places that were not always friendly to Americans, he would go to try and open up the lens on them. He would never try to impose his views on the people there. He merely asked questions, often very pointed, direct, but never with any kind of superiority behind them.

His show, “Parts Unknown” is a staple of my TV week. I look forward to every Sunday, and even will occasionally binge on previous episodes on Netflix. His friendship with fellow chef Eric Ripert provides some of the best in both entertainment and knowledge. He loved to terrorize Ripert with spicy foods. Just watch the episode where they travel to Sichuan province in China.

I have Bourdain’s cookbook, “Appetites.” I had been thumbing through over the last few weeks to try to select a recipe that I could make (and that Patti would eat), and settled on the bluefish recipe. I’ve yet to tackle it, but feel compelled to do so now. It’s just hard to fathom that Bourdain won’t be around for me to at least send him a tweet on how it turned out, even if he never might have acknowledged it.

Bourdain was candid about his personal demons, including being a heroin user, and having depression. Given his success, one might have thought that he had them conquered. His suicide shows that perhaps, the demons never really leave you. They lurk in the background, whispering in your ear all the time. For Bourdain it would seem, for whatever the reasons, he chose not to ignore them this time.

We are all the worse for not having him here anymore to keep us honest. As my friend Dan Ryan noted, he was truly an example of American exceptionalism, especially when there’s so true little of it around.