At 9:15am today I saw the new Star Trek at Lincoln Square. At 1:00pm I saw Belvedere Castle as I walked north through the park. At 2:45pm I saw Memorial Day picnickers when I transferred to the Greenway.
And at 3:05pm I saw a dead body in a bag.
The scene was idyllic: a lovely sunlit path by the Hudson’s waters, cyclists in family groups laughing at inside jokes, and a light breeze rustling the leaves in the maples.
And two police cars. And three policemen. And a slew of purple medical exam gloves tossed haphazardly to one side. And a large black garbage bag with a slightly swollen foot sticking out.
Ah, and yes – the breeze that was rustling the leaves brought with it a fragrance too fine to put into mere words. A fragrance that yielded a lush bouquet of various bodily functions and sun-ripened processes, all having matured while marinating in the green-grey waters of the Hudson Valley.
Who was the owner of this water-logged hairy leg, I wondered. Some poor kayaker bashed against the shoals upstream? A jilted lover who had had enough of the world? A drug deal gone awry?
Later, as I reflected upon this event, I was reminded of a time when I had thought I would see another dead body mere inches from me. Journey with me into the past…
The year was 2011. Barack Obama was the president. The world had not yet been introduced to the Internet memes of Lil’ Bub or Grumpy Cat.
I was working (as I still do today) as an Assistant House Manager at Second Stage Theatre, a job that allows me the opportunity to witness the inner soul of humanity on a daily basis and run screaming in the opposite direction.
It was a Wednesday matinee, and we had a school group coming in: High school. Inner city. Tough kids.
I was upstairs in the theater, watching the audience take their seats, when I heard Jenny the ticket-taker’s voice over the headset (it’s in a Welsh accent, P.S.): “Artie, we need you downstairs right now! Medical emergency!”
Now, for those of you who may not be aware, I’ve served as a medic in the New York Army National Guard for a few years. Nothing too crazy or outlandish, but I have my EMT certification and a basic skill set for helping those who are in immediate need of medical attention. Although I have this certification, however, I’ve never really had to use it. Sure, I’ve given the Heimlich a couple of times, and I treat minor burns, bumps, bruises, and bellyaches when playing Army, but no “real-world” experience, per se.
So you can imagine my total soul-crushing fear upon hearing those words being screamed at me through a two-way radio. Suddenly I was the one who was responsible for whatever was going to happen. Suddenly I was the one who was supposed to do something.
My first thought as I ran down the stairs was that it was one of our subscribers. Bless their little hearts, most of them are geriatric timebombs waiting for the one day that something doesn’t go quite right so they can leave us all behind. In my head, I went over the steps for CPR: “30 compressions at 100 per minute, two breaths, check pulse. Or is it two breaths, then compressions? Or is it pulse?” I got out my phone from my pocket, holding it at the ready, waiting to hand it off to somebody and shout “Call 911!” in their face.
When I reached the lobby, I scanned the area. I saw no dead body, so that made me feel a little better. (Although, let’s be honest – if someone’s already dead, there’s nothing I can do so there’s a lot of pressure that’s taken off my shoulders.) I saw no blood. I saw no guts. In fact, nothing seemed out of place. There was very little in the way of audience activity down there, as most were already up in their seats. I spotted Jenny and sprinted to her side. With a sigh of relief, she directed me to a young man by the front doors.
“He says he feels like he’s going to die,” she told me with a slight tremor of fear. Then she quietly resumed her tearing of the tickets, reminding audience members to please turn of their cellphones. I ran to the boy, which didn’t take long because he was only two steps away.
He was definitely from the high school, as he couldn’t have been more than sixteen years old. He was thin and gawky – as high school boys are – and was showcasing his fly fashion sense by allowing his beltloops to droop down to about the lower-thigh region of his leg. His arms were crossed and he was pacing in circles by the box office window. His eyes were wide and his head was shaking.
After greeting him and asking him how he was feeling, he responded with “I dunno man. Something’s wrong. Something’s wrong.” Not to worry, young man. I, proper medic that I was, went through a prescripted evaluation in the hopes of coming across his ailment. He continued his pacing while I interrogated him.
When did you start to feel like this? What exactly do you feel like? Are you in any pain? Have you ever felt this way before? Would you feel more comfortable sitting down?
About halfway through, he apparently got tired of answering my questions. Brusquely, he grabbed my arm and pulled me out onto the street. “Look,” he whispered. “Can you keep a secret?”
I responded with the ever-elusive “What is it you want to tell me?”
Nervously, the youngster looked around. “I bought some brownies, man. Across the street. I think there’s something bad in them. I think I’m dying.”
I nodded my head, solemnly. “And where did you buy these brownies?”
“From a guy.”
“You know this guy?”
“My friend does.”
“Where’s your friend?”
“In the theater.”
“But he had some brownies too?”
“Yeah, and he’s fine. So’s all the other guys who bought some.”
I continued to nod, ever the medical professional. I put my phone back in my pocket. I didn’t think I’d need it at the ready anymore.
“What was in the brownies?”
“Pot, man. Weed. But I don’t know. I don’t think I’m supposed to feel so weird.”
“Have you ever had marijuana before?”
“Have your friends?”
“Yeah, they’ve all smoked it before. Said I should try it.”
“So you tried the brownies?”
“Yeah. But now my body’s doing weird things and I don’t feel like I felt earlier.”
“Before you ate the brownie?”
“You feel different?”
“I’m really thirsty.”
I got his teacher’s information, and made the kid sit on a bench. I radioed for them to send the teacher down. I told the concerned woman what was going on. She looked at me with incredulity.
“So he’s just high?”
“It appears so. Yes.”
She punched the young man’s arm and laughed.
I recommended that she take him to the hospital if he really felt like he wanted to go, but that it would probably pass and all would be well. And that the next time he ate a similarly-baked brownie, he would probably be a little calmer about the whole thing. They remained in the lobby for the duration of the performance.
I saw him again once more – at another show. Apparently his school comes to most of them. He saw me and shook my hand in a very cool way that the white man I am dares not replicate. “He talked me down,” he bragged to his friends. “I was mad trippin’, yo!”
And then they entered the theater to witness the beauty of the spoken word.
I had to tell him and his punk friends three times to stop texting during the darn show.