THE DOWN LOW
The first day of February finds me sitting in the Pharmacy waiting for my meds to be ready. Every month I have to go down to the Long Beach CHC to pickup my meds. They used to be free, but now I have to pay for them (I make more than the $1100 a month cutoff point…but I could still qualify for food stamps, if I wanted to). So every month, I head over and get in line. Usually it takes about an hour. I take a crossword puzzle to pass the time. I’d like to chat with my compadres but my Spanish isn’t any good.
So there I am, waiting for my number to come up, when this young guy comes stumbling through the door, heading towards the counter…but he never makes it and ends up collapsing on the floor. Mi gente (my people) and I look down at him lying on the floor, then up at each other, then back down at him. There is a general tsking and murmuring of “pobrecito” amongst the women. One older black woman gets up with a look of annoyance, as if she’s thinking, “Oh lordy, just what I need, a stupid white boy screwing up my morning;” and wanders out into the hall, presumably looking for help.
After a few moments I get up and go to the window…
“Excuse me,” I say to the woman behind the glass (she has the longest damn fingernails I have seen in a long time), “there’s a man lying on the floor out here.”
“I said there’s a man on the floor…man down!”
“Oh my!” She exclaims, hitting the panic button.
Suddenly the room fills up with clinic staff, wheeling in carts from the two doors that service the waiting room. Next thing you know there are six or seven people swarming all over the guy; trying to take his vitals, and asking him his name and other questions that the medicos ask when they don’t know what else to do.
The guy, probably in his late twenties or early thirties, doesn’t look good. He seems to be turning a reddish purple and is muttering inaudibly something about not being able to breath. He doesn’t know where he is or what his name is, or doesn’t understand the questions that are being fired at him. He’s your typical Long Beach hipster: tattoos, Chuck Taylor’s, jeans, Pendelton, black rimmed glasses, purple face (well, that part isn’t typical). The medical ID band on his wrist says his name is Darryl A. but beyond that little is known about him.
The gallery and I watch the unfolding drama with concern, all the while maintaining our distance from it. We are fascinated, but at the same time, we don’t want to be inconvenienced by this guy’s troubles, either. What if he’s got some kind of communicable disease? What if we all have to move out while they do their business (thus losing our places in line)? What if he dies? The pending inconvenience of this thought is sobering, to say the least.
Darryl isn’t looking too good. He’s sprawled on the floor with two doctors and several nurses/clinic staff leaning over him. Someone calls the paramedics, and while we wait for them to come, keeps asking him where he came from. The medical bracelet is from St. Mary’s Hospital which is about twenty blocks north of us, but, apparently Darryl couldn’t get any help there, so he magically showed up here.
About ten minutes later, the boys from the LBFD showed up. There were five of them, two carrying toolboxes (presumably loaded with medical gear & supplies). They all had their fire gear on except for their coats and hats. I only mention this because whenever I see the guys from the Fire Dept. getting their morning java, they always have their coats on. Their coats have their names emblazoned across the back…no coats, no names. Perhaps it was just a coincidence. Perhaps not.
The doctor gave the lead fireman all the info that he knew: name, BP, respiratory, pulse, lung sounds…while the other fire guys surrounded Darryl on the floor. Then they began to take his vitals and ask his name and what was wrong with him, as if they didn’t believe what the clinic doctor had just told them. They poked him and nudged him with their feet as if he had just passed out on the sidewalk. “What’s your name?” “How much have you had to drink?” “How’d you get here?” “Do you know where you are?” “What’s the matter?” All this to a man who was practically comatose.
At one point, one of the firemen said to Darryl, “I’m gonna sit you up, ok? Give me your hand.” And when Darryl feebly raised his hand the fireman pulled him up by his arm into a sitting position. The thing is, Darryl was clearly not able to sit up on his own and as soon as the fireman let go, he fell right back down. It seemed to me that these guys weren’t treating him with much compassion. Maybe I don’t understand their jobs very well…I thought they were there to help people in their time of need, regardless of their circumstance. I may have misunderstood.
One of the firemen found a sheet of paper in Darryl’s pocket and proceeded to read it outloud to all of us in the room. Maybe he assumed that we were all frightened poor folk who spoke little English, or that we would want to know what a loser this guy was, maybe to distract us from our own miserable lots in life. I don’t know what he was thinking as he read the paper and commented on its contents to Darryl: “Why, you’ve been a very busy boy, you’ve been arrested at least fifty times all over L.A. for being drunk in public.”
Darryl mumbles something about not being drunk and rasps out; “I’ve got Pancreatitis.” Of course, if you look up the symptoms for Pancreatitis, you see that it is often brought on by a drunken binge (which is, of course, another trait of the classic Long Beach hipster crowd – I know because I was a raving drunk myself, not too long ago).
You can tell that the firemen have already formed an opinion about our boy Darryl, and it’s not a good one. He’s a bum; living off someone else’s good will or on the county dole (as are most of us in this room). He’s part of the dregs, a bottom feeder. In short, Darryl isn’t really worth the effort. His existence is almost an affront to them. It makes me wonder what they must think of the rest of us, seeing as how we are all in the same room, waiting for the county handout.
Eventually, they got him on a gurney and rolled him out to the wagon. I guess they took him to Harbor/UCLA, where all the poor emergency people end up. I know, that’s where I went a while back.
But the whole episode has bothered me all week. Granted, I understand that being a fireman, no, dealing with the public in general can make one cynical and pissy, but if you don’t like it, don’t do it! We look to firemen and EMTs for help and sure, sometimes our need for help is pretty silly (the old cat up a tree image comes to mind), but that’s part of the job description. What happened the other day seemed awfully insensitive to me.
Being suddenly struck down by some unknown ailment and losing your “control” is a scary thing indeed. It can bring the ‘scared bunny’ out of even the biggest, tough-as-nails, SOB. I’ve been incapacitated and confused by a medical emergency, I know how scary it is to have shit happen to you and not have an explanation for what or why. Doctors, for the most part, don’t seem to know what the fuck is going on and really don’t know how to interact with the patient (maybe it’s the result of being detached emotionally that fucks everything up), but we turn to them in times of trouble for answers. Same with the “first responders”; we may really be just frightened bunnies looking for some assurance, even if it is totally erroneous, but we need it. And all I can say is I sure hope these guys don’t come to my rescue, in my time of need. And I can hear you naysayers out there saying that I should be happy if ANYONE comes to my rescue…and maybe you are right.
We’ll see how you fare when you don’t get the treatment that you think YOU deserve…we’ll see how you react when you find out that you are an insignificant speck of dust in the way of someones having a good time…
BTW a day later, I see our boy Darryl, with a couple of other low-lifes cruising down the street, as if nothing had happened. Maybe the firemen were right about him after all.