When I was in college I regularly would drive down to my folks’ place in San Diego. I can’t tell you how many times late on a Friday night I would be driving down the Freeway with my car door open watching the lane markers slowly go by as I was essentially driving blind in a thick coastal fog. It was actually damn scary.
Have you ever wandered deep into the woods on a dark and moonless night only to stop suddenly, realizing that you had no idea where you were or if you were about to step into a prairie dog hole and break your leg only to be found three-days later half-eaten by drooling carnivores and nibbled on by ubiquitous insects.
Heavy fog is much like the black of night.
I used to have vivid, unsettling dreams about these excursions through the fog. Long before Carrie Underwood I imagined putting my feet up off the pedals and letting the steering wheel go, letting Fate take over. Here I was lost in the fog, the straightforward pathway lost to me.
Fortuitously, I drove slow with my eyes on the dotted line just outside my door and I survived.
I thought of this feeling of uncontrolled forward motion while reading Joe Connelly’s very entertaining novel, Bringing Out the Dead. Two reoccurring themes pervade the text: the existential approach to death and mayhem, and living a life seemingly out-of-control but with powerful, beneficial results.
Take a ride:
There’s no better cure for the blues than driving an ambulance extremely fast and without direction, red lights beating against storefronts, sirens screaming for you, gas brake turn, gas brake turn, circling a block four times and then straight down the avenue. Guaranteed to cure you if it doesn’t kill you. Drive as fast as you can and then go faster. Turn only at the last possible moment and without reason. If you have to hit a car, make sure it’s one that’s double parked.
It’s not foggy, but it is New York City. Back in the Seventies I travelled from New Jersey to Queens on a regular basis and learned rapidly that the only way to survive mid-town traffic was a heavy foot and a balls-to-the-wall attitude. Twenty years later, taxi drivers rushing me to an early curtain at the Met re-emphasized the importance of speed, driving skill, and batshit crazy when it comes to driving in Manhattan traffic.
The other theme, demonstrated in many varied scenes depicting the life of a dedicated Paramedic, is a close and often clinical approach to death and dismemberment.
Consider this extended revelation from the novel:
I have done CPR in grand ballrooms on Park Avenue and in third-floor dance halls uptown. On Park they stand tall black panels around you to shield the dancers from an unpleasant view, while the band keeps up their spirits with songs like “Put on a Happy Face.” Uptown the music never breaks and the dancers’ legs whirl around you like a carnival ride. I’ve worked on the floors of some of the finest East Side restaurants, serenaded by violins while the man at the table next to me cut into his prime rib, and I have worked under the gory fluorescence of basement diners where taxi drivers can order, eat, and be back on the road in ten minutes. I’ve watched Broadway shows from the front row, kung fu pornography from Times Square balconies. I once brought a bartender back to life on the top of his bar while Irish dance music played. The patrons moved over for us, but no one stopped drinking.
One of my first cardiac arrests was in the Graceland Ballroom. I’d been there the Friday night before, to pick up a young man shot in the head, but this was Sunday afternoon, when families come from all over the city to talk and dance. A salsa band was playing, and the crowd of dancers made a path for us without losing a beat. The man lay dead in the middle of the floor, dead but not lifeless, because nothing could be lifeless in a room so full of laughter and dancing and music that sounded off your heart. We had a backup unit behind us and my partner and I moved perfectly—intubated with an epinephrine on board in twenty seconds. I took over CPR, my hands rising and falling into the rhythm of the music and the dancers’ feet stepping nimbly around us to the salsa beat, a pulse of life. On the monitor I watched my compressions become perfect beats, and when I took my hands away the beats continued. “He has a pulse,” I shouted, and stuck my thumb up in the air. The man started breathing on his own, and as we pulled the stretcher out the crowd cheered and slapped us on the back and the dancers filled in behind.
Walking from that room I was blessed by life. I had purpose for the first time and it carried me through those early wild years. Only much later did that beat begin to fade, and only recently did it disappear, leaving a cold stone in its place.
This novel is based on the experiences of the author as an EMT in New York City. It is both entertaining, disturbing, and thought provoking. Not great literature but a good, solid read.
I have not seen the Martin Scorsese film based on this novel but a few short clips have convinced me I should, even with Nicholas Cage playing the lead role. If you wondered why an ambulance driver and EMT would be bringing out the dead rather than driving the dead in to the medical facility, here is a clip that might help explain the book’s title.