Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Secret

“...Yossarian was cold, too, and shivering uncontrollably. He felt goose pimples clacking all over him as he gazed down despondently at the grim secret Snowden had spilled all over the messy floor. It was easy to read the message in his entrails. Man was matter, that was Snowden’s secret. Drop him out a window and he’ll fall. Set fire to him and he’ll burn. Bury him and he’ll rot, like other kinds of garbage. That was Snowden’s secret. Ripeness was all.”
—Joseph Heller, “Catch 22”

Here’s what I know:

Sometime after midnight while we were on some bullshit medical run, I heard dispatch tone out an engine for a single-vehicle traffic collision with fire on a freeway onramp in our first-in. It would have been our call, if we hadn’t already been on this band-aid run, so the other other unit got it.

Maybe a half an hour later, after we were back in quarters and trying to get back to sleep, we got toned out to the scene of the car fire. They needed a truck company to extricate a body. Turns out it was a fatality fire.

When we pulled up, there were half dozen CHP cruisers blocking the intersection, and the county arson investigator’s unmarked pick-up. Fifty feet up the now-closed ramp was the burned out shell of a compact sedan. Highway patrol officers stood around indifferently, waiting.

Seems there were a lot of unanswered questions: What caused this late-night single-car accident on a relatively remote onramp? Why did this car that sustained seemingly minimal damage from collision show such heavy fire damage? Although the engine compartment showed little signs of char, the passenger space had clearly been fully engulfed—an unusual pattern. Was an accelerant used? Was the victim murdered and his car then deliberately set on fire?

No one wanted to claim jurisdiction. Local PD dumped it off on CHP and left the scene; CHP was now trying to pawn it off on our county sheriffs. While unseen chief officers on the other end of crackling police radios and cell phones dickered, we climbed off the rig and met up with our arson investigator.
He explained that after the cops sorted out jurisdiction and the corner’s van arrived, our crew would have to cut the car apart and get the body out. So we ambled up the ramp to size up our task and peered inside the blackened sheet metal.

I’ve seen my share of dead bodies—from infants to old people—and even some burned ones. But this was different.

The driver’s seat was just a black wire frame now, but slumped deep into this outline was a charcoal-colored heap; there were no discernable body parts. No ghastly silhouette of a head, torso, and extremities. Instead, just an ungathered mass, spilled out like some terrible secret.

In terms of extrication, it would be routine: Either spread the door, or cut the A and B posts to flap back the roof. It would only take a few minutes to give the coroner full access.

But it soon became clear that it was going to be a while before decisions were made, so the arson investigator sent us back to our home quarters. He’d call us back out when we were needed.

But he never did.

Later the next morning the intersection was clear.

Like so many calls I’ve been on these past 17 years, I never learned what happened—either before or after the event

—or why.

But for a few moments in the middle of an otherwise nameless night, 

I was called out to witness one small, grim piece 

of some larger, unfathomable mystery.

Sunday, February 12, 2012


"No man is an Island, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine… any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee."
—John Donne

The Grammys, The Oscars, The Emmys, The Tonys, People’s Choice, Golden Globes, American Music Awards, BET, CMAs…
Celebrities certainly do like to celebrate themselves. Can you think of any other occupation so preoccupied with itself? Can you imagine if other professionals possessed the same level of self-congratulatory hubris?

“And now accepting the award for Best Junior Account Executive…”

Cue adulatory applause.

Pop culture assures its celebrities that their lives are extraordinary, special. And if their lives are so significant, so must be their deaths.

Last night, someone texted me that Whitney Houston died. I thought, “How much should I care?”

Now don’t get me wrong: I’m sure she was a beautiful person. I assume that in this world she faced her share of challenges, took satisfaction in her accomplishments, and was no stranger to personal tragedy and loss. In other words, she was just like the rest of us. But having a three-octave range is no more of an achievement than graduating vocational school. (Perhaps Houston leveraged her considerable wealth and influence for charitable or humanitarian causes, but its not mentioned in any of the late-breaking news reports I’ve seen so far.)

Everyday, decent, hard-working, selfless people die anonymous deaths—their passing barely noted by anyone save a few close family members. My job has brought me into an uncomfortable proximity with this cold fact.

Poet John Donne once wrote eloquently of the immutable connection we humans share, our interdependence upon each other. Everyone matters. But Hollywood has subverted that noble truth: In today’s culture, no one matters except the very beautiful and famous.

Tonight’s award program will feature an unabashed celebration of Ms. Houston, I’m sure. Perhaps fans will hold a candlelight vigil, or place teddy bears and roses on the sidewalk in front of the Beverly Hilton. But such outpouring has always given me a certain existential dysphoria.

By idolizing the one, we diminish the “all.”

Friday, February 3, 2012

Mom, February 3, 1935-April 13, 1990

She was driving that little red hatchback to a routine appointment when she started feeling dizzy, and pulled over. A few hours later she was sitting upright in a hospital bed, having just learned that the afternoon’s scans and tests revealed she had brain tumor.

Surgery, radiation, chemo. It did little to slow the inexorable progression of a high-grade astrocytoma.

She had sent six kids through Catholic school. Her mothering skills were a deft combination of pediatrician, short-order cook, janitor, cab driver, party planner, and armchair psychiatrist. She wasn’t perfect, of course; what mother is? But she had spent years wrestling with the demons of her own past—an estranged father and overbearing mother—and struggling chronic, debilitating health problems, all while raising six kids of her own. The life had left her exhausted and understandably high-strung.

But now she had finally begun to relax. She took satisfaction in watching an elder son marry, just as her youngest daughter was transitioning into young adulthood. At last she could sit back and savor years of hard work like a maturing fine wine.

Until that afternoon in December cut everything short.

Sixteen months later, I stood at her bedside in a nursing home, clutching her frail hand. The hallways reeked of industrial-grade antiseptics, bland institutional food, and stale urine. She held me with a vacant gaze—did she still recognize her middle son?

Later that night, the ringing phone by my bedside startled me from a dreamless sleep. A call that we had all come to expect, come to accept.

Sometimes it's hard not to fixate on those days and nights.

But when the weather turns cool, and gray clouds blanket the winter sky…

I’m pulled back in time to that little home in a small town in upstate New York…

…a warm amber glow emanates from the kitchen, the sounds of pots and pans clattering, the sweet smell of supper made from scratch…

and I am once again

(and forever)

…her little boy

Thursday, February 2, 2012

When I Look at the World...

“When you look at the world
What is it that you see?
People find all kinds of things
That bring them to their knees...

When there's all kinds of chaos
And everyone is walking lame
You don't even blink now, do you
Or even look away…

I'm in the waiting room
Can't see for the smoke
I think of you and your holy book
While the rest of us choke…

So I try to be like you
Try to feel it like you do
But without you it's no use
I can't see what you see
When I look at the world…

Tell me, tell me, what do you see?
Tell me, tell me, what's wrong with me”

(“When I Look at the World,” lyrics by U2)