Matt Sinclair puts both lies and truth to paper. He's the president and chief elephant officer of Elephant's Bookshelf Press, which publishes...read more short stories and novels (and eventually will add nonfiction), and has been a working journalist since before graduating college in the previous millennium. He gets paid to cover how rich people give money away and how charities spend the funds they get from the rich and not-so-rich alike.
The last time I saw Glenn, his liver was about to burst through his abdomen. Cirrhosis can do that to a man. As an emergency medical technician (EMT), all I can do at that point is transport; chief complaint: pain. Never a pleasant conversationalist, Glenn kept mostly quiet on the ride to the hospital, though he accurately predicted I wouldn’t be seeing him again.
The rare times I look back on close to thirty years as an EMT, it’s the folks like Glenn (not his real name) who come most often to mind. The Shameless. The Dirty. The Homeless. The Guileless. The Blunt.
People sometimes ask what the worst calls are that I’ve been on. It’s the wrong question.
I know what they mean and I understand why they’re asking. They are curious what horrors I’ve seen. Aren’t we all? Perhaps they’re also curious whether they’d be able to handle the blood and gore they imagine. I do suburban EMS; there’s not a lot of blood and gore. That said, I’ve seen eye injuries that still make me cringe. I’ve also seen the eyes of the dead, and the displaced bones of the living. Yes, to a degree, those images stay with you over the years. But I don’t remember the names of any of those people.
All my life, I’ve had an excellent memory, but I often forget EMS calls within hours. When the new shift comes in and asks how many calls we’ve had, I struggle to remember. I shudder at the thought of how my interactions with people were just blips in my short-term memory, but to be honest, it’s a blessing at times.
What I remember are the derelicts and dropouts. The guys – they’re almost always men – who’ve decided they don’t need to give a damn about society’s norms. Perhaps it’s the “there but for the grace of God go I” aspect of their situation that lingers with me. I’m familiar with not having enough money in my wallet to get a cup of coffee whenever I wanted one, though I’ve never been so destitute that I couldn’t afford to eat or feed my family. I recognize their despair, their anger. Sometimes I wonder if I could handle their life.
During the winter, they get themselves arrested; it’s safe in local holding cells. They get a meal and a warm cell. Perhaps even some conversation, though I doubt there’s much. And when the cops don’t play along, sometimes they drink themselves to the point where they can no longer stand, which is when I usually meet them and take them to the hospital. They’re deemed a danger to themselves.
The nurses aren’t happy to see them; they all know them by name, too. These guys stink of feet and piss, their pants rarely cleaned, the urine dried out by sunshine and time. Salt stains on their threadbare jeans mark the past like the rings of a tree. Needless to say, they don’t have any money to pay for hospital care. It wouldn’t surprise me if the administrators of nonprofit hospitals around the country are thankful for the homeless in their emergency rooms; the unpaid care probably helps justify the organization’s tax-exempt status when politicians find it expedient to argue about how hospitals should pay property taxes.
Peter (again, not a real name) recently lost part of his foot to frostbite. Alcohol deadens the ability to feel the cold, and winter plays no favorites with the people living outside. He was in a rehab facility for weeks; I can’t imagine who paid for that. The next time I saw him, he was walking slowly up a hill, his face as ruddy and weather-beaten as ever.
He might survive to see next winter. If he doesn’t, few will miss him. Yet, when that happens, the train station and the suburban streets he traversed will feel a little different. But not for long. There’s always another man ready to be forgotten.