By Michael Morse
We begin most shifts now hoping for quiet. It wasn’t always that way; years ago, thousands of calls ago, we would come to work and hope for all hell to break loose. Experiencing living hell tempers the spirit, and thoughts of heroic rescues are replaced with hopes for quiet. It seems like yesterday we would gather on the apparatus floor, new firefighters mostly, waiting for the bell to tip. That the bell was replaced years ago with state-of-the-art tones matters little; the floor is where most new people congregate. Us old goats prefer to stay in the comfort of the day room and wait, hopefully for the shift to end but, more likely, for somebody who needs us.
It’s late, we got our wish, and things were quiet until now. The tones send us out into the night, just the rescue; the engine and ladder companies roll over and continue their after-midnight drills. We’re headed to a place we often respond to, a high-rise on the East Side where the elderly reside, with a few younger, disabled folks. Somebody is having an allergic reaction to medication. Every now and then these calls end up being the real thing, and an anaphylactic reaction waits on the other side of the door, but more often than not somebody is having trouble opening the medication or simply doesn’t feel well and blames the medicine.
These places are much the same everywhere, little communities within bigger ones, with plenty of intrigue, gossip, and scandal. Little old ladies prowl the hallways from 0600 til nine or so, changing shifts, keeping the flow of information going. Their colorful housecoats are worn with pride, pressed, starched, and in good condition. It is the uniform of The Housecoat Brigade, and no high-rise is safe without them.
The Housecoat Brigade is done for the night when we arrive, conspicuously absent from the halls. We wheel the stretcher to the elevator; the doors close to an empty lobby, and we begin our ascent.
He sits and waits, patiently. He’s learned to be patient. Living alone does that to a person. Years of activity, kids running around, a wife with a laundry list a mile long and him frantic, looking for a moment’s peace, are a distant, fading memory; now there is nothing but quiet. He hears the truck arrive from his eighth-floor window, which he has left open, the night noise his only company in these lonely hours between sunset and sunrise. The elevator makes the usual hisses and groans as it climbs toward him, containing the only human contact he’ll have all day. He prefers to avoid the community that lives and thrives within the confines of the high-rise; gossip was never his thing. He waits, then, a knock on the door.
“Did you call?” I ask the old man sitting at his kitchen table in no apparent distress.
“I did,” he responds, straightening in his chair. We leave the stretcher in the hallway and enter his home. It is a modest place, ’60s-era furniture filling the cramped space, books and magazines spread around haphazardly, it seems at first glance, but I suspect the old man could find a particular LIFE magazine from 1972 if I asked him. Pictures of a little girl fill most of the front of his refrigerator, and a different girl from a different generation takes up the rest. The pictures are old and yellowed, from another era. The little girl is probably married now, the other in her 50s. He sees me looking.
“My daughter and granddaughter,” he says. I nod, wondering where the pictures of his wife are. It is painfully obvious that there is no female presence in his life, nor has been for a long, long time. The signs are everywhere: the scattered magazines, the kitchen void of spice and flavor, no doilies, no flowers, nothing pretty, just functional things. There are no Father’s Day cards around, no crayon drawings, nothing but old guy stuff.
“Why did you call 911?”
“I had a stone blasted last week, the pain is too much.”
“Do you want to go to the hospital?”
“What for?” he asks in an Eastern European accent and shrugs his shoulders.
“They can help you.”
“Perhaps you can help me?” he asks, hopefully.
“Maybe we can.”
We spend 15 minutes with him, going over his medications. He took some old Vicodin for the pain and is worried that if he takes the new one’s he’ll overdose. I play along, knowing he just needs some human contact, somebody to talk to. A swimsuit calendar hangs on a kitchen wall; November’s model is particularly beautiful.
“Nice calendar,” Brian says, smiling. The old man grins, smiles wistfully, and says,
“Every month, the pages turn, and they leave me too.”
We wish him well and close the door behind us. I can only speculate as to the cause of his isolation. Was it drink? Cheating? Gambling? Or simply a desire to be left alone? If that were so, he certainly got his wish.
It’s two-thirty in the morning. We hope the rest of the night will be quiet.
The little old man closes his window, turns out his light, and remembers when things were not.
Michael Morse is a captain with the Providence (RI) Fire Department and the author of the books Rescuing Providence and Responding. His articles are nationally published and widely read. He lives in Warwick, Rhode Island with his wife, Cheryl.