The Mind Altering Substance Mystery

Thanks for indulging my fascination with Sherlock Holmes. When I was running 911 calls out of the Allen’s Avenue firehouse, Baker Street was our first cross street, Moriarity was a frequent caller, a mastermind at homelessness and a number of Lestrades tortured me. All of my partners could have been Dr. Watson’s to my Holmes.

This is a true story, I changed the wording to evoke Sir Conan Doyle’s prose. I hope you find it as enjoyable as I do reading the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes…

As I sat at my desk contemplating mankind’s fascination with mind altering substances a crisis occurred in a home on the other side of the city. My own penchant for opiates and laudanum notwithstanding, it never fails to fascinate me how we as a species are willing to dance on the threshold of death’s doorway, bloodstream filled with substances that dull our senses, distort time and deaden emotion.

Perhaps this last is why we take such chances with our lives, for this can be a trying existence.

“Rescue 1 and Engine 12, respond to 323 Joseph Street for a man unconscious.”

I subdued my melancholy immediately and hit the pole, opening the overhead doors to Baker Street and waited for my companion, Dr. Watson.

Ten seconds later he appeared, opened the driver’s side door to the Ford F-450 and climbed aboard.

“Dr. Watson, well, met,” I said as we roared out of The Yard and sped toward our victim. “Another game is afoot!”

“You look rested, Holmes, the break did you good.”

“Never enough my good friend, rest is an elusive fish I can never seem to fully grasp.”

The truck radio sparked to life;

“Engine 12 to Fire Alarm, we have a thirty year old male, unconscious, no trauma.”

“Receive that Rescue 1?”

I keyed the mic.

“Rescue 1, received.”

“Odd. An overdose in that neighborhood is unusual,” said Dr. Watson as we sped toward the victims home.

“Unusual, yes, but not unprecedented. Recall if you will the grandmother whose bottle of pain pills mysteriously vanished an hour before her bout of unconsciousness.”

“One never knows the depths of despair a person will try to wrench themselves from with pharmaceuticals.”

“Indeed.” I keyed the mic as we rolled to a stop in front of a gracious colonial, well kept lawn leading to a brightly lit doorway where a frantic young woman waved.

“Rescue 1 on scene.”

“At 2344.”

Watson retrieved the necessary equipment for extrication from a rear compartment, I slung the med bag over my shoulder and hurriedly walked the walk toward the unconscious male.

“When was he last seen awake?” I asked the young woman at the door.

“About eleven thirty. We were playing cards with some friends, he seemed tired, then he just fell asleep. We can’t wake him up, Hurry!”

In the kitchen a couple stood off to the side, near the refrigerater as the crew from Engine Co. 12 assessed and treated the young, unconscious male.

“Glucose 128, BP 96/50, respirations at 6. Looks like an overdose but I don’t see and tracks or evidence,” said Captain Lestrade, the man in command of the crew of firefighters.

“Look more closely, ” I said.

The unconscious man’s friends stated that he did not take drugs, and never did. Nonetheless I had Dr. Watson draw up a vial of narcan and immediately administer 2 mg through the IV the firefighters had established.

“What are you doing! He needs to get to a hospital!” the nervous wife shouted, and her friends agreed as the patient’s color faded and he stopped breathing.

We bagged him then, forcing life-sustaining oxygen into his lungs, keeping his 02 levels above 90.

“I’m afraid your friend has overdosed,” I said to the concerned group.

“Impossible! Preposterous! You fools!” they responded. “How dare you accuse this fine, upstanding young man of using illicit drugs!

“Elementary,” I responded as the patient began breathing of his own accord. “There is a walker in the corner, near the door. It has not been used recently, but not long ago enough for cobwebs to form. The obituary on the refrigerator, dated last week indicates that this young man lost somebody close, and the dead man’s date of birth puts him at an age to be the father of this very young man!” I pointed to the victim who was now shaking cobwebs of a different sort from his drug addled mind. “In addition, there is a faint odor of a medicinal nature that lingers here, I have surmised that you cared for the person who died, right up until his dying breath?”

She looked at me then, pain in her eyes, but relief as well as her mate regained consciousness. “My father in law died here last week. He was a wonderful man, he died of cancer.”

“I am very sorry for your loss, I said. “Was he medicated?”

“Morphine. Sublingual. We put a dropper under his tounge every four hours.”

The young man who just returned from the other side looked sheepishly at the floor, then reached into his pocket and handed me an empty vial. I clasped my fingers around it, nodded my head knowingly in what I hoped was a gesture of understanding and not accusation and put it into my pocket. Dr. Watson and the firefighters cleaned up and returned our gear to our apparatuses, which gave me a moment alone with the young group.

“Sadness propels us to do things we would otherwise never consider. You will not be the first, nor the last to indulge in a dead persons medication. Some don’t have the courtesy to wait until the person needing the narcotics dies, and help themselves to it while their loved one suffers in silence. May I suggest you find somebody to talk to, clergy, a therapist or even a friend. There were almost two deaths in this home this week, had we arrived a few moments later the outcome would not be a lecture, but a body bag.”

We talked for some time, finally coming to the conclusion that this was a terrible mistake, a grief stricken young man dulling his senses with his father’s medication. He had put a drop under his tongue every hour for the last five, sometimes more than one drop. It nearly cost him his life.

“Stay close to him, take care of him tonight, and get help tomorrow,” I said as we departed, never fully comfortable in these scenarios, but confident enough that the best course of action is family help rather than an emergency room full of drunken college kids, gunshot victims, blood soaked stabbing recipients and the like.

As Watson and I drove back to Baker Street, evidence of the fragility of our existence and frailty of our sanity weighed heavily upon us.

“What madness allows a man to take his dead father’s medication,” asked Dr. Watson as the midnight hour came and went. As the hands of the clock pass twelve, an eerie calm descends on the city, lasting sometimes an hour, sometimes a minute, but it is discernable, and I am always grateful for the reprive.

“The same madness that allows a fifty-nine year old father to be taken before his time, my good friend. The madness of existence.”

We rode in silence then, I filled my pipe with a sweet Turkish blend, and stared down, into the bowl as I puffed, mesmerized by the glowing tobacco and comforted by the familiar aroma as smoke swirled wistfully through the cabin.

Mensa Park

A mile from my house, about twenty minutes if I’m walking the shore is place to rest. The locals named in Mensa Park some years ago, and sometimes the members are there and I join them for a bit before moving on.

It’s a pleasant bunch, much like the dayroom table at every firehouse in every city and town, where the only requirement for admission is a quick wit and some thick skin.

The banter is timeless and knows no boundaries, no topic is forbidden and the laughter is quick and contagious.

The members are mostly men; women are likely engaged in something productive, and countless hours have been spent at this spot solving the problems of the world.

Knowing that places like this exist, and groups of men converse there instills a profound sense of peace deep within me, and as I walk away a little smarter than I arrived, I am thankful.

The Work

“Everything is political.”

If I had a dollar for every time I heard that I could start a bonfire. The job is definitely political. Thankfully, the work is not. There are no asses to kiss, no quotas to fill, no people to appease or right things to say.

There is only the work.

It stares you down and dares you to attack it. It does not care who you are, who you know, what you know or how you identify. It simply is. And it will grow, and strengthen, and destroy everything in its path.

Until it meets people doing their job. Whether or not those people have what it takes to do the job is the only thing that matters. People who are not afraid to sacrifice all to get the job done are not politicians, or political appointees. They are people with fire in their hearts, and ice water in their veins, and honor, purpose and integrity in their brains.

Those people are firefighters.

Image of Engine Co. 3, Providence Fire Department, sometine around 1992.

Not your average Joes.

Public safety jobs were once reserved for the best of the best, derived through rigorous testing, background checks and psychological screenings.

The pool of applicants was vast because the pay was a little better than average and the benefits far better. Healthcare for life and a pension after twenty years of service were common.

When those benefits were reduced, and the pay did not keep up with other vocations fewer people applied for the positions. Standards were lowered to increase diversity in the ranks, and many police and firefighters were no longer the best of the best, just average Joe and Jane’s looking for steady work.

Well, a desire for steady work with average pay and benefits doesn’t cut it for public safety. Punching in and punching out eight hours later, and leaving work the same way you began doesn’t happen.

We get what we pay for, and if we are not willing to pay for excellence we will suffer with less than exemplary people with power to detain, fine and subdue the public, and others not 100% committed to saving the lives, well being and property of their fellow man.

And that is not my opinion, it is simply the way the world works.

Quiet Desperation

“Rescue 1 and Engine 13, respond to The Highrise for an emotional, suicidal female with a knife; stage for police.”

The cops got there first.

“She needs to get those legs looked at,” said one of the three officers who stood in the corridor outside the patient’s apartment. She was in the corridor as well, sitting in a wheelchair, a bloody towel on her lap. A little ankle biter barked non-stop inside the apartment; I peeked in and saw him, inside his cage, protecting his territory as best he could.

“She’s not going to want to go with you guys. I hope you can talk her into it,” said one of the officers, his demeanor making it clear he would prefer to be anywhere but here.

I walked toward the wheelchair bound person, crouched down and made eye contact. Then I looked over my shoulder at the circus behind me. Three cops and four firefighters had responded to the call, along with me and Brian. Then I looked back at her, a 24-year-old lady with tiny legs, clean clothes, highlights in her shoulder-length hair and a half smile on her face. She was amused with all of the commotion she had caused.

“Strong work,” I said, and grinned.

Her smile grew.

“What happened?” I asked.

“I was frustrated after arguing with my boyfriend last night. He wouldn’t leave me alone, or leave my place. I can’t throw him out,” she glanced down, “I don’t know why, but I did this.” She lifted the bottom of her pants, pulled them over her knee and rolled the material back. First one, then two lacerations stretched from one side of her thigh to the other. They were deep enough to require stitches.

“You have to come with me and have those looked at,” I said, keeping the shock out of my voice, and eyes, I think.

“Why?” she asked.

“Because those are serious wounds, and they’re self-inflicted, and you need some help.”

“I manage just fine.”

“What happened to your legs?” I asked. They were half the size they should have been, atrophied and useless.

“Spina bifida,” she said, bravely, as if it were just an annoyance.

“Do you have feeling in them?”

“A little.”

“Did you feel it when you sliced them open?”

“Not really.”

“How about when you stitched them closed?”

The wounds on her thighs had been savagely stitched together with sewing thread and needle. A dozen pinpricks—covered by red welts waiting to fill with pus as infection invaded—bordered each side of the sliced flesh, and bloody thread held the skin together.

“I didn’t do that. My boyfriend did. He wouldn’t leave me alone until I let him.”

“Did it hurt?”

“Oh yeah,” she winced. “It hurt a lot.”

Her boyfriend had taken a needle and thread, and sewed her up. Just like a torn pair of jeans. The pain would have been unbearable to most, but her life of pain had made this latest injustice bearable.

“That leg will get infected, and you might lose it,” I told her. She gave me the strangest look when I mentioned she might lose a useless leg.

“I’ll go,” she said after giving it some more thought, and likely realizing that she was going whether she agreed to go or not. Then she me the most genuine smile I’ve seen in a while when I let the police and firefighters go. We took her to the ER and she told me about her “boyfriend” of six months, who stitched her leg and told her not to call anybody, because he would take care of her.

“And where is Mr. Wonderful now?” I asked.

“Out taking care of my disability check.”

Her home has become a prison, her body making escape impossible without help. The only person she has to help her is too busy helping himself to be of any use to her, but he is all she has and she will let him back into her life, and suffer in silence. I left her at the ER. It took dozens of calls and dozens of patients before I was able to clear her from my mind and move forward, admittedly not as quickly as I once did, or as easily.

Station Dog

Cocoa was our station dog, and she lived among us, ate too much, didn’t know any tricks and smelled kind of funny, but she was loyal and present. The comfort a good dog provides cannot be understated. A local vet took care of her for free, we all chipped in for her food and treats and she had a good, long life.

The forty-four people assigned to the Branch Avenue Fire Station, home to Engine Co. 2, Ladder Co. 7, Rescue Co. 3 and Car 23 were her life, some of us loved her, some did not, but she belonged, and was a respected member of a group of firefighters who were my family in the nineties and remain in my thoughts to this day.


Never underestimate the strength of the human spirit . . .

Three flights of trash filled stairs, cat urine overwhelming, barricaded door, filthy floor, empty fridge, a kitchen void of food, five hungry kids, girls with no shirts, babies with no diapers, hospital sheets instead of blankets, empty wall sockets, nothing to fill the plugs, no TV, no radio, no blow dryers or cell phone chargers, no dressers, small piles of clothes, some in stacks, some drying on the porch that overlooks a litter filled street, no beds, bare mattresses, things crawling under my feet, no room for the bugs inside the walls, no fear of light, desperate for crumbs that are not there, the bugs become playthings for kids who have no toys, pets if they can catch them, and put them under a plastic cup, bare lightbulbs swinging from extension cords as I pass, and find a mother breastfeeding her baby, who is sick enough to die.

Yet somehow, they smile at me, and speak to me in their African Language that very few here will understand, and touch me as I pass, and pick the baby from the mother’s arms, and take her to a place that to these people must appear magical.

The Rooster is Coming

Not too long ago a person with average intelligence could fix their car, remember thirty phone numbers, read a map, make a dinner and tune their guitars. It gave us power over our the natural world, and a sense of pride. As complex as things appeared, with a little thought and some work we could claim dominance over the oppression that progress created. It was liberating to know that we truly were capable of overcoming most of the difficulties we were faced with.

Now, we are at the mercy of technology. If we lose our phone, we lose contact with our connections. If our car won’t start we wait for AAA. If our GPS is down, we wait, or get lost on the roadways.

It may seem small, but losing control of the things that we depend on is catastrophic. Being helpless is no way to live. We can’t hunt, can’t fish, can’t shoot and can’t grow a garden without Google and genetically modified seeds.

Dating without an app is too hard, talking with strangers is just weird and parallel parking is simply impossible. We communicate through keyboards and create with computer assistance. Writing is a breeze with spellchecker and grammar assistance and the ability to delete or add words that are recommended by unseen or understood forces.

And this is just the beginning. Our technology that we do not understand is now capable of creating technology that will never be understood by the average, and even above average mind. That it could all end with the pulling of a plug plunging mankind into darkness and true anarchy eludes us, and we remain glued to our phones, pecking away like a flock of hens waiting for the rooster to take control.

Blizzard of ’78

When we got buried in ’78 I was fifteen. Three feet of snow, all at once. Well, maybe all in a few hours, but man what a storm! The state stood still for days afterward as people dug out, got out and reached out. It was truly a memorable time in the life of anybody old enough to remember it.

There will be another snowstorn sooner or later. I hope we get three feet. We need a catharses, something to get our collective heads out of our collective asses, ie. Facebook and the like. I’m hoping cell phone towers come down, and the lights go out for a few days, and people are given the opportunity to show what they are made of.

We weren’t much different forty-five years ago, people don’t change that much, but our distractions do. Don’t let anybody kid you, and tell you this generation is the end of civilization because it isn’t. If my generation didn’t destroy everything then everything is pretty much indestructible. And that’s the truth.

I had an ounce of Columbian Gold, and Larry’s Liquors was open for business, and money was falling out of the sky in the form of eight foot high snow drifts, and I smoked and drank and dug and made a mint. Imagine some stoned fifteen year old coming to your door and asking if he could shovel you out in this bizarro world we live in. He’s be arrested, or in re-hab quicker than you could drop a hit of acid, and you would still be under a mountain of snow.

…sorry, little flashback there…

When the snow comes down, and the world stands still, and people need each other, and friendships are made, and relationships begin, and trust builds, and neighborhoods congeal – that’s what I’m hoping for. I’ll be the guy with the P Diddy Snorkel coat, goofy hat, big old mittens and my giant red snow blower making my way through the streets, digging people out and loving every minute of it.

And if the kids come out of the strange little worlds that we helped them create, try not to judge too harshly, they may be a bit much with the thumballina stuff, and video games and twittery things, but give them a shovel and see what happens. I didn’t stay stoned forever, these kids are going to grow up too. There’s nothing like a big snowstorm to get the ball rolling.