On The Street
There are several ironies in writing this blog that can’t be escaped. They come to haunt me; taunt me. The patch that is my featured image is one that I actually, legitimately wore. From 1984 to 1988, almost 1989, I was first an EMS EMT, and then I again went back to school to become a paramedic.
When I just downloaded the image of the patch, I was simultaneously hit with regrets and PTSD. It’s too lengthy to explain right this moment. Anyway, it is ancient history. I will share that for the most part of my service, my territory was Harlem and Spanish Harlem. I worked for eight hours a shift, sometimes double shifts, in the poorest parts of New York City.
As I have immersed myself into Junius Kellogg’s life, I realize that I patrolled the streets and visited many of the places Junius came to love and serve. We were both servants to New York City’s poorest, and for a brief time, we served at the same time. We never met. He worked under five mayors. I worked for only one of his bosses, Ed Koch. I did once meet Koch, so did thousands of others. He shook my hand at paramedic graduation.
It needs to be said that some of my partners were phenomenal human beings. Some were lazy bastards. Some were officious loudmouths who thought they were cops. Some were flat-out racists. Some believed I was a racist.
In the final analysis, I was mostly a serviceable and compassionate paramedic. Several were better than me, several more were worse. I burned out and had to leave.
In Harlem I got to observe things most white people never saw. It doesn’t make me special. Harlem was safe for me while I was on the job and in uniform. They say that Harlem is now sanitized and gentrified. When I served, it was raked with AIDS, crack, heroin and violence. I saw tenement buildings, projects and welfare hotels that were portals to hell. However, I also saw love — lots of it; more acceptance than I may have deserved and justified anger toward a completely dysfunctional healthcare system.
Harlem is not so much sanitized, by the way, but gentrification that pushed many poor people out without so much as a bus pass. Gentrification should not mean celebration. Poor people were displaced by a lot of white collar crooks.
Proudest of One Thing
I was proudest in that for the most part, I got through each shift by being authentic, kind and decent. But I wasn’t always like that. I am still ashamed of things I did or said that were wrong while I was on the job. I have apologized many times over to myself and to God. Maybe my making amends is through writing “The Man Who Saved Basketball.”
The more I have delved into Junius Kellogg’s life, the more I have been forced to look at the forces of racism and privilege. When I was a paramedic in Harlem I saw ugly things, unjust things and depressing things, but I was also in the middle of a maelstrom. On busy nights we reacted, but thinking and feeling were “bad.” Paramedics have little time for reflection when trying to save a life. Reflection may come later, sometimes years later.
In witnessing Harlem I saw, but didn’t see. Harlem is a lot of good things, but Harlem was the net result of racism, along with greedy landlords, substandard education, double-digit unemployment, failed social programs and white indifference. I couldn’t verbalize it then, but the more I have attempted to view the world through Junius Kellogg’s eyes, the closer I come to feeling the injustice.
Yes, of course there are a million caveats. I am not black, I am white. I was not raised poor, but middle class. I did not grow up in the Deep South, but in the north. I am Jewish. I understand what it is like to be disliked, excluded and mocked. My mother, the second youngest of ten, was raised quite poor. We lived in a lower middle class community where Antisemitism always bubbled beneath the surface.
My father had a small business in a white privileged Long Island community. We could work there, but as Jews we couldn’t live there. Several of my relatives were Holocaust survivors. I heard their stories. Interestingly, some of Junius Kellogg’s classmates and teammates were from the area around where my father had his shop. They were, I am convinced, subvert and overt in their racism.
I see and feel these things now as I write about Junius Kellogg that I didn’t embrace it when I was “on the street.” In conducting several first-person interviews, reading books and articles, going through archives, I begin to see the thousands of micro-aggression’s and aggression that Junius endured every day; every week. I know how it shaped me, but what about him?
We’ll talk of it more next blog. Thank you.