Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Best/Worst Day Ever

July 24

Saturday starts off with two best-day happenings: my callback for NYMF's Show Choir! The Musical and a free dance concert in Central Park.

Central Park is a pretty fabulous place to be during the summer.  Through sponsorships from several major corporations, the city puts on what's called SummerStage--a lineup of free world-class arts events.  On the calendar for July 24 is the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre.  This is one performance I simply cannot miss, especially since it's free.

I'm on the crosstown bus and to Rumsey Playfield a half hour before curtain.  Bad idea.  The place is packed.  I'm a fairly small person, all things considered, and I figure I can just squeeze myself into almost any 3x3 square.  Yeah right.  It's a challenge finding just enough room to sit cross-legged.  But I manage. 

The program is fabulous.  It opens with a blues set, moves into some more contemporary material, and finishes with a set of dances to American spirituals and gospel music.  I can't believe I'm here, seeing all this for free.  Thank you, New York City. :)

On the way home, I jump on the 66 cross-town.  I crack open Greg Mortenson's Stones Into Schools--you MUST read this and Three Cups of Tea--and ride the bus to the last stop.  Only when I look up, I'm on the wrong side of town.  How did I get all the way to the West Side without realizing it sooner?  Sheesh.  I get out and walk down a block to catch the same line back to my side of town.  

After just a minute or two at the bus stop on the corner of 64th Street and West End Avenue, I hear the strangest sound.  It sounds like someone whacked a heavy metal door.  Out of the corner of my eye, I see a minivan slamming the breaks, and for a few seconds, I think the guy has taken out a corner trashcan.  But before I know it, there's a man thrashing about on the ground with a mangled knee.  He's dragging himself around and screaming, "Oh my God!  Oh no! Oh my GOD!"

Oh my God.  I can only echo him.  That’s not a trash can.  I sprint to the corner where, already, people are gathering.  The driver of the minivan paces in shock.  My brain registers the scene in fragments--snapshots, really.  Motorcycle.  Screaming man.  Glass.  Blood.  Woman.  Oh my God.  Echo.  Oh my God.  Oh dear God.  In the middle of the street is a woman, sprawled on her back.  The screaming man—the driver of the motorcycle—is at her head, crying and screaming for help.  The woman hardly blinks, and I know she’s going to be unconscious in a matter of seconds.    All of this has happened in what must be less than a minute, but she’s bleeding like nothing I’ve ever seen.  There’s blood gushing from her mouth and nose.  I half-pray to God that I’m in a movie or something.  This is just too surreal.  This can’t be happening.  Frozen with shock, I don’t react until I see that there’s another man already giving the woman CPR.  I’m certified, but there’s nothing I can do if someone is already doing the job.  Suddenly, I panic.  What if no one has called 911?  Oh my God.  I have to call.  It’s the first time I’ve ever called 911.  

By this point, I’m pacing the sidewalk and sobbing.  The woman on the other end of the line seems to take my call in slow motion.  I have to repeat the location three times before she gets it.  "64th Street and West End Avenue!  Oh my God!  This woman is in horrible shape.  She’s gushing blood.  Please send someone now!"  I'm told that ambulances are on the way.  And all I can do is wait.  

There's no way to describe how slowly time moves in the midst of a life-and-death crisis.  I feel completely helpless to do anything.  The man with the mangled knee is alert and still shouting, so I know he's nowhere near critical condition.  But the Good Samaritan administering CPR rolls the woman over to empty her airway of the blood that is surely choking her to death.  Beneath her is a pool of blood.  I feel like I'm staring into the face of death.  No one should be able to lose this much blood.  Oh my God.  She's going to die.  Please God, please.  Don't let her die.  Don't let her die, God.  PLEASE!  God, please don't let her die...

I'm not supposed to be here.  I'm not supposed to be here.  I should be at the corner of York and 67th, walking home.  But I'm here.  And the only thing I feel halfway capable of is prayer.  I call Mom, sobbing to the point of hyperventilating.  I sit curled up on the edge of the curb, rocking back and forth, as Mom prays for this woman's life.  She's at a church potluck, and back on the west coast, there's a kitchen full of women praying with us.  Seconds seem like years, and I get angrier and angrier as they tick by without the arrival of any ambulance.  I'm cursing under my breath and pacing and wringing my hands and wiping my salty-wet face.  "Where the hell are they?  Oh my God.  There's no reason it should take this long.  She's going to die."  She can't die.  This wasn't supposed to happen.  Oh God, don't let her die.  The pool of blood only gets bigger, glaring in the lamplight, as horrified faces look on from the curbside.  "This is bullshit!  Where is the ambulance.  Where ARE they?  Oh my God.  This is taking too long.  Where are they?  Fuck!"

I probably sound like a hypocrite, simultaneously praying and cursing.  But I don't even feel like I'm in my own body.  Who am I?  Where am I?  This can't be happening.  This kind of out-of-body experience is the most terrifying, existence-rattling phenomenon imaginable.  No one should ever feel like this.  I'm not afraid of death, but tonight, I realize I fear death for the sake of others.  She's 39, the broken man tells us.  She's 39, and I'm afraid she might be a mother and a sister.  Either way, she's someone's daughter, and 39 is too young to die.

The ambulance finally arrives after twelve excruciating minutes.  I'm livid.  The cop who asks me for a report repeatedly tells me, "Just calm down.  Relax.  Try not to be so emotional." I want to throttle him.  "Stop telling me to calm down!" I rail.  "I'm completely lucid!  My brain is fine, I'm just having a very gut-level reaction to what's going on here!"  Calm down?!?  Bullshit!  You may see people die like this every week, but I'm not supposed to be here.  I'm not supposed to see this, and she's not supposed to die.

After what seems like forever, the paramedics drive away with her.  I'm told I can go home, but I'm so shaken up, I don't even know how to find the bus.  It's probably been re-routed anyway.  I walk a few blocks east to Lincoln Center and wait for the bus there.  I feel the eyes of the people standing there with me.  I must look like hell.  But I've seen hell.  

I walk home, numb and still crying.  It all took too long.  There's no way she made it.  I'm a pretty positive person, but in this moment, right now, I feel completely hopeless.

It's close to midnight, but sleep is out of the question.  I clean the apartment, alternating between phone calls and google searches as I try to figure out where they might have taken this woman.  Because I'm not family, no emergency room is going to give me any information. And the police department's non-emergency line abandons me to automated messages and an endless wait.

At 3am, I try to fall asleep.  It takes a long time.

Two days later, I get up the courage to do an online search about the accident.  There are a few brief articles.  The broken man is alive.  But a motorcycle is no match for a minivan.  She was pronounced dead on arrival.  

Her name was Lisa.

I cringe every time I hear sirens and daily curse the New Yorkers who get in the way of ambulances as they race across town.  

Life is fragile.  Never ride a motorcycle.

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