Late October, that sort of L.A. evening that claws at your throat: grit in the air, gritted smiles. Drivers caged in their cars to protect one from the other. Station attendants who would just as soon toss a lighted match in your tank as to fill it with gasoline.
Andy leaned against the meat wagon smoking a stub. A nurse summoned me to the ER phone.
“I’m calling for an ambulance.” Soft-spoken, matter-of-fact, no trace of panic.
“Sir, what’s the nature of your emergency?” I asked.
“I need an ambulance.”
“Fourteen-hundred Tipton Road.”
“My crew’s got to gear up. Can you describe your problem?”
“You get here soon. Name’s Jiffy.”
The line went dead. Even before being called to the phone I had my first clue to the oncoming disaster: he rang up the admissions desk in the emergency room. In times of crisis most folk dial 911. These exchanges are recorded and, in criminal cases, anything the speaker says can and does get used as evidence. The paranoid and the lawbreakers, all those out to game the system, invent dodges around this including contacting lines inside the hospital.
Beyond that, in an authentic cry for help, the first words uttered speak to the nature of the crisis. The urgency and drama of the incident, the distress and anguish and the fact the caller has connected to someone who can help, these merge in a plea of shrill desperation: “I’ve been shot,” or, “I’m having chest pains,” or, “My kid is barfing blood.” The suffering is conveyed even before places and names.
The clincher: I recognized this address. For the last five years while working as a paramedic out of a trauma center in South Central, I had explored every sector on the map and a few that remained uncharted. The one-two punch of failed wars on drugs and poverty had transformed certain tracts of Los Angeles into No Man’s Land. Tipton was such a place, a string of weedy lots and burnt out crack dens. The fourteen hundred block dead-ended up against the Harbor Freeway.
I relayed a summary of the call and my concerns to my crew. At fifty, Andy had been trudging the emergency beat for a quarter century. Generations of his family had been living in LA since the days of vaqueros and missionaries. Coffee-skinned and gray-haired, he was no-nonsense. Trina was all nonsense: twenty-two from Malibu. Although fair-faced and freckled, she was convinced she possessed an urban soul. Whenever she had the chance, she cranked up the rap. Andy loathed the music and barely tolerated her, insisting she grow up or find another meat wagon.
Trina was a fresh-out-of-school EMT-B, base grade emergency med tech, just breaking in, still riding third-wheel tag-along. She was at that foolish age in which she imagined she was bulletproof, ready and willing to answer all calls.
Andy expressed the most reluctance. “If he really ‘needs an ambulance,’ he can phone again, a proper call.” He directed his plaintive eyes my way. “But, hey, you’re the lead dog.”
I don’t consider myself a particularly reckless guy. I outranked Andy, but he had a few dog-years of experience over me. Besides, even dogs are savvy enough that they don’t appoint the head of the pack according to who has what certification. In spite of my reservations, I argued against my instincts, saying, “I don’t like it, but this is our job. We often respond to risky calls: crimes in progress, gunfights. In this instance, we don’t even know if there is any danger.”
“During crimes in progress,” Andy said, “we’ve got the cops at our side. In the case of shootouts, we take cover outside the police perimeter. And we’re already well beyond the line of fire by staying put here.” Upon realizing I was determined, he raised his hands and jutted out his lower lip in mock surrender.
I instructed the desk clerk to inform the police of our destination. Not that it would make a difference. Without a reported crime the cops were hardly about to play babysitter or bodyguard.
I took the wheel and flipped on the emergency lights but not the siren. Andy kissed his St. Christopher medal. We headed out.
The lingering skim of sunlight slunk beneath the horizon. Our flashing lights cut a passage between the nose-to-nose traffic.