Black and White

Two ceramic penguins, a Tiffany glass lamp and a book of matches from the Two Boots pizza joint rested on the Mission-style side table that held my camera bag. Adjacent to the lamp was a cup from The Donut Pub over on 14th and 7th; next to that, a lone fading photo. The framed, slightly overexposed 5×7 image showed a 40ish man sitting with a smiling boy on the gullet of a motorboat.

When I would go into apartments with the St. Vincent’s paramedics, my mind would automatically assemble little narratives out of the personal effects before me. In this case, the table indicated classic modern taste, an appreciation for nice things; the one, small photo: a slightly repressed sentimental streak. The stuff from the pizza and donut places told me the guy was not a big spender. I’m pretty sure the boy in the photo was the man’s son, yet the tiny West Village apartment was way too small for more than one person. Divorced.

I was about 12 weeks into what turned out to be an 18-month-long photo essay on these paramedics. This was the first time I had accompanied them to a cardiac arrest. My mind wondering around the gray zone of the patient’s life story contrasted sharply with the black and white rhythmic intensity of the resuscitation effort.

This was a few years ago. I had been over-absorbed in my career and was looking for an outside interest.

Summiting a mountain, training for a marathon, competitively swimming around Manhattan or executing some other dramatic life-balancing rite de passage was logistically not in the cards for me.

I was always interested in photography so I bought a camera and enrolled in an evening program at the School of Visual Arts. I selected a photojournalism class whose assignment was to document a less heralded aspect of city life. St. Vincent’s Hospital – located in the Greenwich Village section of Manhattan – was a client at the time and their public relations woman was a big supporter of the hospital’s paramedic program. Soon thereafter, I was seated in the back of a white, modular-looking ambulance, fully loaded with a bag of lenses and 400 ASA black and white film, some antibacterial wipes, an official-looking hospital identification badge and a stack of release forms.

I would ride with the medics after work on Mondays and Thursdays, distributing photographs to my subjects on subsequent evenings. I could not and would not take pictures of or around any patients unless they gave me specific permission to do so. Much to my surprise, this permission was granted regularly. A newspaper photographer who advised me on the project told me this would be the case. ”People like attention,” she said, “even under the weirdest of circumstances.”

Over the 18 months, there was no shortage of weird circumstances, although my project did take awhile to get up and running.

For the first month, I was viewed distantly as an odd curiosity: part buff, part voyeur, some sort of liberal with time on his hands.

Odd curiosity evolved into ”White Cloud,” as the medics correlated a dramatic drop in call volume with my arrival on Monday and Thursday evenings. Night after night during those first few weeks, the medics would regale me with tales of trauma and complex medical intervention from hours past. They would tell these stories with passion, detail and enthusiasm, only to sit parked with me as an invisible safety blanket descended across the borough.

In time, things picked up and I became acquainted first-hand with the complex mix of medical cases characteristic of lower Manhattan.

The routine calls, the “street jobs,” the “in front ofs,” — as in “unconscious, intoxicated male, in front of…” such and such address — would be punctuated by the “hot jobs:” stabbings, chokes, shootings, someone who wasn’t breathing, anything involving kids, the calls that came with a palpable urgency and often involved racing opposite the flow of traffic.

While every call had its own unique demands and nuances, some cases were just bizarre:

-A 60-year-old woman developed a potentially life-threatening arrhythmia while undergoing a $150.00 exorcism.

-A bearded biker-type lost consciousness in an East Village tattoo parlor. He fainted while the artist amended a shoulder-etched design consisting of a middle finger and the inscription “COPS” to read “OOPS.” He was getting married a few days later.

-A man painted himself orange; a woman painted herself blue – each a separate incident involving body art and each a dangerously toxic condition.

-A severely dehydrated woman passed out face-down in her consommé amid a packed lunchtime crowd at the trendy Balthazar restaurant.

The Balthazar job ended up becoming somewhat legendary. For reasons unknown, the woman’s companion and the restaurant staff had left her face down in the soup until the first responding fire company helped reposition her upright in a chair. It was proudly announced that the firemen had acted with uncommon valor in heading off what was just seconds from being the restaurant’s first drowning.

The paramedics came to accept my regular presence and I think appreciated the appreciation. I came to know them as a wonderful group of men and women. Some were among New York City’s very first practicing medics – a talented crew who were on the street in the ‘70s and ‘80s when there were far fewer units and quadruple-digit murders.

Unlike what I often encountered in my professional life, these guys looked at the world in very direct, unfiltered terms and could boil any issue down to simple humorous witticisms.

Being affiliated in with the Catholic Church, the financial woes of the hospital could be most effectively addressed with a few extra Sunday collections;

Every motor vehicle accident involved two cabs and a cab;

And when responding down tight, double-parked downtown streets, the ambulance would get narrower and narrower the faster the medics drove;

Their lives were grounded by a code of basic truths, black and white, life and death.

On April 9, 2010, several years after I had displayed my photos at a small gallery on East 23rd Street, St. Vincent’s board of directors announced that the 160-year-old medical center – the hospital that treated survivors from the Titanic and both World Trade Center attacks — would close.

Mired in $700 million of debt stemming from exorbitant operating costs, declining reimbursement rates and a failed merger with another financially insolvent hospital system, St. Vincent’s had succumbed to the realities of 21st century health care economics. Despite Washington’s promise to reform the nation’s health system and the rapid infusion of relief money from New York State, St. Vincent’s was no longer viable economically. Black and white.

The paramedics ended up saving the man with the ceramic penguins on the Mission-style side table. I was curious as to what became of him. ”We just get them here; after that it’s someone else’s job.”

Black and white

Posted by: Sean Cassidy, President