The EMT in Boyle Heights
By Rodger Jacobs
The problem with a city like L.A., Ray began, is that it’s too far flung.
“Not only that,” Ray explained to Ella as he poured another double shot of Stoli, “it’s too fractured. Too many immigrants who don’t want to … what’s the word?”
“Assimilate?” She tucked one bare leg under her on the sofa, hoping he might notice the wax job she had done on her legs that morning. But those double shots of Stoli said something happened on the job and he needed to talk, to unburden.
“There’s Korean grocery stores and Armenian stores and Russian neighborhoods, black, brown, blue, everyone wants to live near their own kind and no one wants to assimilate anymore.”
He downed the double shot, wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his EMT jacket, and pondered what to drink next because the vodka burned going down. An early – or perhaps too late – symptom of esophageal distress. As an L.A. County Emergency Medical Technician he knew the symptoms of every breakdown of the human body imaginable. He was practically a doctor and often thought that he should have gone for the full MD certificate because doctors don’t have to see what he sees.
Ella motioned for Ray to join her on the sofa but he ignored the gesture and hovered near the wet bar.
“One people, one culture,” Ray sighed. “Standard rules. This is how you do this, this is how you do that.”
Ella had heard this screed at least a hundred times over the last three years. But she was luckier than the cop’s wives and girlfriends she knew; they tended to get beaten when the rage and frustration boiled over. The significant other of a paramedic only had to look on while the rescuer became a victim of narcotics.
Ray returned from the bathroom of their two-bedroom tract home in Chatsworth with a bottle of Demerol in hand. He shook one loose and knocked it back with a brandy snifter filled to the brim with Bailey’s.
“What happened, Ray?”
She wanted to get it out in the open post haste, get it over with so they could regroup and move on to the next crisis.
“Boyle Heights,” he said, lips twisting into a knot.
East of downtown L.A., Boyle Heights is home to one of the largest clusters of working-class Hispanics in the United States. The upscale Belvedere Gardens once stood north of the Heights; in the late 1950s most of it was paved over by the Pomona Freeway and what remained of Belvedere was co-opted by Boyle Heights.
“We got the call just after midnight,” Ray said. “Baby not breathing. We get one the scene and these people don’t even live in a house of their own, it’s a garage converted into an apartment, not even up to code.”
Ella scooted off the sofa. For what was coming she knew she would need a drink. She gave Ray’s firm biceps a squeeze as she skirted past him to reach for the bottle of Stoli.
“The mother was only 19-years-old, a Salvadoran, not a word of English, except ‘yes’, ‘no’, and ‘Oh My God’.”
It was a five-month-old baby girl, Ray explained dispassionately.
Ella pressed the glass against her lips and waited for the devastating punchline.
“The baby wasn’t breathing at all, an obstruction in the airway. The mother’s all panicked, screaming in Spanish and stuff, there are neighbors all over the place trying to help, and it’s sheer bedlam.”
Ella swished the vodka in her mouth to deaden the pain of an exposed nerve in a decayed wisdom tooth. She hadn’t worked in ten months and since she and Ray were not married she couldn’t share his medical and dental coverage.
“The baby was dead?”
“Dead as they get. Y’see, the mother, the 19-year-old, she wanted to stop the baby from sucking her thumb. So a neighbor tells her what always worked for her was putting chili powder on the baby’s thumb. The mom tries it, gets impatient that there are no immediate results so she just adds a dash more and a dash more and another and another. There was so much chili powder in the baby's throat that she couldn’t breathe.”
“Jesus God,” Ella muttered. She poured another shot of Stoli, swished it between her teeth, then stared Ray dead in the eyes.
“Ray,” she said in a half-whisper, “we need to talk about finding me an affordable dentist.”
© 2004, Rodger Jacobs
All Rights Reserved