We’re in the garage below Woodhull Hospital. A city block sized iron and concrete monstrosity that erupts out of the ground on the border between Bushwick and Bedford Stuyvesant. They had designed it originally as a prison. But today it is a city hospital of ill repute. It’s the 21st of December, the KDT says. I punch in our numbers. I type ‘GOD’ in as the third rider. It’s a superstitious thing. It’s old school. The rookies don’t have a god anymore.
My name is Scott Sevastra. I’m 33, that’s allegedly when Jesus did his best work, so they say in the newer parts of the bible. I’m salt and peppered. I’m slightly overweight with silver freckled hair and spectacles. I wear spectacles, not glasses. That’s different. Adon and I both work out of Station 35, Woodhull Hospital on something called vacation relief, which means we hardly ever work the same unit, with the same person twice. Vacation Relief is a fancy way of saying ‘people not showing up to work relief’. If Adon has a friend on the job, that buddy would be me. I used to be a firefighter in Schenectady. He never lets me live that down.
Adon and I work out of the Woodhull Hospital’s garbage hangers where 35 is based, the so-called ‘Belly of the Beast’. That would make sense maybe if north meant down, and the belly was called Bed Stuy, and the lower intestines and organs were Crown Heights, Brownsville, East New York, Canarsie, Flat Bush, East Flatbush; and the nefarious beast was black people. Who do seem to call the ambulances more than anyone else.
The whole Woodhull complex looks like the death star, all cast iron exterior, towers and flood lights. It looks like a place to die. One would suppose the worst of the beast is called Bedford Stuyvesant, Brownsville, Crown Heights, Flatbush and East New York and we do about 7 jobs in 8 hours. Those BLS units assigned to these neighborhoods. The South Bronx is really busy too, but not Central Brooklyn Busy.
Bedstuy is still a real strong arm shit hole. No matter what color you are. Gentrification can try and fail to change that Bed Stuy “do or die” into Bedstuy full of fucking long ahired hipsters, but the locals still like to pistol whip kids and take their iphone. It’s a bunch of dirty row houses that get no light and the people get no opportunity to do more than collect government money and get into shoot outs over stupid beef, meaningless turf wars over red and blue flags, and of course universal staring problems.
To some this work is like a calling. We were all drawn here for different reasons, some were quite noble, and some were not. Tammany Hall is fifty years dead but being an Irish grandson of a firefighter still opens a few doors. They call it ‘legacy’. It goes in a file, then without being officially recognized other than a checkbox will wind a new EMT in Station 43 Coney Island then over to the Rock in a year to “promote” to fire suppression. There are a myriad of systemic problems around here. But you have to have a fairly analytical mind to see their connectivity.
After the towers fell a wave of civil service activism-romanticism swept the nation and the FDNY were once again working class rock stars. A brief era of patriotism took hold and the ranks of the emergency services were stocked with young men and women who might have gone white collar except for the collective ejaculation of national trauma. The FDNY, the greatest full time-part time job secret the Irish and Italians ever kept were quickly recouping man power and by 2003 the waiting list for the Fire Suppression open competitive exam was nearly 25,000 deep. EMS was the expeditious way to cut that line if you weren’t legacy, hadn’t passed high school, and may or may not have been in the top of your physical class.
In 1996 Giuliani merged various emergency services to cut the costs of their respective civilian bureaucracies. FDNY was 99% white, catholic and male while EMS was heavily integrated. FDNY with a force of nearly 12,000 fire fighters couldn’t justify keeping that many trucks in the field. EMS was already doing nearly a million calls a year with a force of under 3,000. The merger was toxic to everyone involved and it took another decade for the firemen to even look us in the eyes when we arrived on scene.
I wasn’t here for most of that. I was a paramedic and a volunteer firefighter in the city of Schenectady upstate. I earned a degree in Fire Science and was promoted to Paramedic via my volunteer company. Everywhere but NYC becoming an EMT or a Paramedic is a promotion. In the city of many lights you “promote” into fire fighting. I became an EMT because my uncle was a Paramedic and my Mom was a nurse. I grew up in the glow of emergency lighting. I was built for all this mentally. In the words of technician Adon; “I possess the constitution to take this as far as it needs to go.”
There is absolutely no money in all this freakish ambuland. That’s everyone trying to get out. Right now, both in our second year here; Sebastian and I are making around $16 an hour. We probably lose AT LEAST 8 brothers and sisters a month to just about any other thing hiring. Attrition continues to thin the ranks. Studies report a disproportionately high rate of divorce, alcoholism, and suicide in EMS comparatively to Fire or Law Enforcement. We are asked and often mandated to work 12 to 16 hours a day in adverse conditions, in some of the most depressed regions of the country with outdated low-bid equipment, little public support, and virtually no encouragement from the city we serve. Morale is so low that the national statistics report that the average span of an EMS career is a little under four years. The department asks us for 25. Run the numbers and that’s why we’re always at 60%, that’s why you can find as much overtime as you can swallow.
Out of the 8 that leave each month, 5 quit, normally within their second year. 2; their number came up on a civil service test; normally PD, Sanit, Correction or Suppression. The last one sustained a line of duty injury; real or concocted to get them off the streets on LODI for a few months to collect AFLAC benefits. We lose members far faster than they can recruit. There is a virtually endless pool of EMTs to draw from, but most worth their salt go work for a Voluntary Hospital and can triple the wage we make. Others just know that the department will bleed you dry chasing a pension and a dream. They have recruiting posters in city shelters if that says anything.
The critical systemic problem is twofold. First because of low pay, hard hours and appallingly low morale we lose our toughest and bravest to the firefighter promotion at a rate of a few hundred every three years. We lose our brighter and more ambitious members to the private sector and the field of nursing. This leaves us with a broken mish mash of skells, burn outs, a few zealots and a high rate of obesity in the ranks. The other side of this is the lowered expectations to close the staffing gaps. That means on a segment 1-3 priority call you might get a truck load of CFR and long board trained fireman or a waddling glob of minority goo with a gold chain and an untucked shirt.
“This job is a calling, you either believe that or you’re on your way out,” I say to Sebastian Adon. But Sebastian is staring off again into the night. He’s chasing ghosts from the past again.
“You can’t have an unrequited love affair with a whole people! Not for a whole damn country,” I tell him.
He doesn’t hear me, he’s not the old him. Not the charismatic rebel who started the Banshee Association. In November of 2009, Adon, myself and eight other EMTs started a quasi-clandestine group, a new otriad called the Banshee Association, an EMS fraternal organization grounded in Human rights. We’d put out three issues of our newspaper citywide and made quite a name for ourselves as a ‘Jew-Commy conspiracy to ruin EMS for white people’. The Brothers and the Latinos, who make up way over 3/5 of the force of 14,500 seem to support it though. There’s really only one newspaper for true blue EMS sedition, and that paper is “the Banshee ”.
Our editorials rant along the lines of:
“They say there’s no rest for the wicked, but I haven’t done anything that truly bad in quite some years. These streets will run you ragged. Bleed you dry if you’re inclined to let the reaper take you.
But on a long enough time line everyone is going to die. Oh, Technician Adon sings the blues! Our mission, in so far as our misnamed, disheveled, browbeaten lot; can call the nature of our trade a profession with a mission; is that when you die you may do so in warm bed, surrounded by Jewish doctors, West Indian nurses, attentive and curious, cute, young internists, and of course your family, all around you pouring out that thing called love before your long kiss goodnight. It has been said that on a long enough timeline our kind will lose all ability to feel. That one of our number might stand above a mass of splashed and splattered organs, avulsed intestines scattered across a black tarmac in the glow of streets cast upon our troop; to then light a cigarette, make a stupid fucking joke; and then take a camera phone picture of your son’s dismembered corpse. There are rules against such conduct, but not one in our number would turn away. If your son’s body lay splayed across the freeway, before that thing called god one at least or more would say a silent prayer, reach down their blue gloved hands and wrap a hospital sheet shroud over the body, close his eyes. And perhaps the one of us with the camera phone might say something crude or racist, normally to a cop doing crowd containment, to show our compatriots he or she felt nothing. But when your son or daughter fell, ingloriously in a bloody heap it was us who carried their bodies off that street, it was us who had gang rushed, blaring in that dead of night racing brave to save them. And we’d do anything in our means to bring them back to you for just one moment more.
I don’t want you to try and call us heroes. We just want you to know that we have given everything to our trade, every drop of our sweat, every ounce of our blood drained; to our or third or second marriages, to our child support bills, to our black lungs and swollen livers, before we find pension we’ve poured out upon these streets our humanity for you in the 25 years of servitude to our city of many, many lights.
We don’t want a Daily News two page Spread on the four through six; and I don’t think you’d buy a calendar of me topless in my PPE out-city, ‘heat resistant’ post-911 fireman pants to raise money for our fallen soldiers. Well maybe of you would. We don’t need their medal ceremonies, their cheap metal bars to pin about our blue collared breasts. I just want you to know we exist, and that we’re coming as fast as we can, and that we’ve sacrificed ourselves completely, become a changed people trying to help, and remember; you called us.”
So read the preamble ramble, the editorial of the Banshee Newspaper, issue 3, the only rank and file controlled EMT-Paramedic Newspaper. A paper cofounded by me, Scott Sevastra and Adon in November the year prior. Along with the Communist Chris Jacobs and the Jamaican gangster Michkai Dbrisk. The paper made the Department mangement fucking crazy. But, since the Israelis worked him up in Lod Prison. Since his girl Maria left him and he can’t get over his friend’s death. Since he may in fact be “bipolar”, well Adon isn’t talking so tough anymore. Our other Banshee Association leader Mickhi DBrisk, an EMT over at Transcare called me.
“He ain’t got no woman. He ain’t got no homeland. He despises his job and slinging these papers ain’t gonna save him from himself. You better watch his ass,” DBrisk had told Scott Sevastra, “just the slightest thing could set him down an eager road to self-destruction.”
It was Nearly New Year of 2010. We were all a little worried about Technician Adon. The Department has him on a black list for slated termination and so does the State of Israel maybe. He has a bad habit of making new friends in all the wrong places.