Sunday, June 26, 2011

Fall 1995 - Feeling like a Minority and the Black Jamaican

My orientation week for Newark EMS included classes and time riding as third to make sure I wasn't so stupid that I would get myself or someone else killed.  My first night shift (7p-7a) was in October of 1995.  My partner, a Physicians Assistant student who grew up in Newark was late, leaving me to memorize where all the equipment and supplies were kept in the ambulance.  The Chiefs would always pair the newbies with a veteran to keep us out of trouble and show us around.

My partner blew through the door apologizing for being late, then physically took my arm and hustled me out to the bus (regional slang for ambulance).  The days of sitting around a nice station house watching cable TV while waiting for a call were out the window, running ~14 jobs a night and upwards of ~20 during the day in 12 hour shifts, you don't have much time to sit around.  She had her own orientation planned for me which started with a rundown of the different ethnic groups and their characteristics.

"The blacks are dumb and lazy.  The Hispanics will act like their leg is cut off when it is only a scrape.  The Portuguese Down Neck are loud and..."

She had no bullshit pretense to her and I guess when you are from the city and a member of one of the groups you are stereotyping you get a pass from the PC police.  What it felt like was after you have been in a place (school, company, city, ...) for so long that you start to see from within all the similarities, how the place flows.  The stereotypes tend to be narrowly applied but widely accepted if only for their comedic value in the moment.  I was clearly in her capable hands that night.

At the time the only other countries I had traveled to were the UK and France.  Hardly places where a white American will feel like they are part of any minority group.  The prep school I attended was mostly white and asian with a handful of black students.  I didn't attend Howard or Morehouse colleges so you can guess that my university years were about the same.  I always wondered what did it feel like to be one of the two black students in my high school class of ~120?  To be in a situation where you look around and you are not in the racial majority.  It's impossible to really know what it feels like until you are surrounded by the situation, by the moment, else you can at best be sympathetic.

"104. Ambulance 104.  Respond to Essex County College for a girl having an asthmatic attack.  Meet your escort on University Ave. near Market Street."

I don't remember if that was our first job of the night, but off we went, not too far across town from where we were.  Meeting up with our escort they led us to the back entrance of the school near the auditorium where a rap concert was being held.  Rappers from all over the state had shown up to compete on two stages.  The escort was either a local cop or security guard from the college and he told us that the crowds at the front door became worked up waiting to get through the metal detectors and started to surge forward crushing a few people in the process.  We had 4 girls waiting for us to check out.

Walking down the hall the music was pounding through the walls.  We walked past the auditorium and in a moment I could see the act on stage, the crowd chanting and singing along, it felt so powerful and uncontrollable.  And it was at that moment that the feeling overtook me, the feeling of what it was truly like to be a racial minority, to be locked in a place with pulsing energy, outnumbered 1000 to 1.  So this is what it feels like?  Except it isn't what it feels like because I'm not black and my experience lasted about 10 seconds only because I put myself into the moment.

We arrived at the room and by the time we got there two of the four girls had left to go back to the concert.  My partner started with the physical assessment of each girl as I wrote up the call sheets.  They had been caught in the surge and were more anxious than anything else.  After a few puffs of her inhaler she and her friend were ready to go back to the concert when our next problem presented itself.

"So we can take you to the hospital or release you here.  How old are you?"


"Okay, so I didn't hear you correctly.  You know that if you are under 18 we can't release you, that we have to take you to the hospital and call your parents.  How old are you again?"

"Oh, 18. We are both 18."

"Excellent, so you both need to sign this form that states you are refusing additional medical care and releasing us from, blah, blah, blah."

In reality I think it took my partner a few minutes to get the girls to finally say they were 18 because they couldn't quite understand our lack of hearing at first.  The girls were fine and my partner schooled me on the art of triage which in a city is critical to keeping the system (emergency room's) unclogged.  We left, sans-patient, and called back into service.  The rest of our night was pretty anti-climatic.  A few more jobs until the midnight lull.  An espresso at a mob-run coffee shop on Bloomfield Avenue.  The bars let out and we handle a little more craziness until the early morning quiet settles in.

At about 6:45am we were heading back to base.  My partner was taking a left off of Central Ave when this crappy little Nissan or Mazda comes flying over the hill and just rams into us, striking the back of our truck and spinning us about a quarter way around.  The guy who hits us, jams his car into reverse and then speeds off.  We radio in that we've been hit but are fine and before we clear the scene a woman comes running up to the ambulance from down the street and before catching her breath tells us:

"I saw who hit you, I saw who hit you!  It was a black Jamaican.  It was a black Jamaican."

We burst out laughing as my partner kindly thanks the woman for her help and asks her, "Have you ever seen a white Jamaican?"  She gives us this quizzical look and just walks away.  I guess you really shouldn't tool on people who are trying to help you.  We drove back to base, handed off to the next crew and my first official shift on Newark EMS was done.

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