By Tamim Ansary
Back in my mid-twenties, I volunteered at a crisis hotline in Portland, Oregon, for people who desperately needed someone to talk to in the middle of the night. Once a week, for about a year and a half, if you called “Crash Crew” between 7 pm Thursday night and 7 am the next day to talk to some faceless stranger, you might have talked to me.
I was there because I had survived a dark period and figured I owed the universe. Crash Crew operated out of a suite of shabby rooms above a free medical clinic called Outside-In. The rooms were furnished like a low-end vacation rental: thrift store couches, a few scarred tables, a lumpy bed, some bookshelves stocked with a handful of dog-eared books left behind by previous volunteers…
I remember two striking episodes from my time at Crash Crew. Curiously, they both happened on the same night. I realized this only recently when I ran across a scrap of journal from those days. That night, like most nights, we started with a crew of five or six manning the lines. By 2 or 3 a.m., we’d be down to me and a balding, round-headed little man named Carl: the two all-nighters. By policy we didn’t take walk-ins at Crash Crew. But we got them anyway. That night, we had a guy whose face seemed held together only by worry lines. He was worried about long-hair. Were the fifties coming back? Would long hair be outlawed? Could he go to jail for having long hair? He grilled those of us who had been to the East coast recently: what had we observed? Were there fewer long-hairs there now? And what about this secret government plan to round up all the long hairs and kill them?
Carl was on the phone with chronic caller Tim who got in touch regularly to boast about his heroics. Tonight, he was telling us he’d just been in a bar fight to save the honor of a girl. “They were pulling her clothes off!” He listed the blows he struck: “I hit ‘em on the arm. Hit one of ‘em on the neck. Got one in a chokehold. Kicked his knee.” Finally, the cops came. Tim was hurt but the men he’d been fighting? They were in the hospital. Tim was an occasional walk-in, so we knew him. He was soft-spoken, amiable, pudgy, and timid.
Then Kathi took a phone call in the back room. She emerged an hour later wiping her forehead. Her caller was a disabled Korean War veteran confined to a wheelchair and living alone with his dog. Half his face had been blown up in the war, so he rarely went out. He tried to paint but couldn’t translate his great visions to canvas. He was lonely and depressed. Kathy gave him an hour of sympathy and then could give no more. She told him she had to go but said he could call back in a few minutes if he still needed to talk. The phone rang, and she looked at me.
I took the call in the same back room. It took at least ten minutes to coax anything but monosyllabic grunts out of the man. I couldn’t use what I’d learned from Kathy to start a conversation. It didn’t make good fodder. I hear you got half your face blown off in Korea. How’s that feel? I had to stay vague.
He gave short responses to my questions or none at all. When he did talk, he mumbled so badly I couldn’t understand half of what he said. Mostly, it seemed like incoherent rambling. After many minutes, I found out he liked dogs better than cats; after several more that he’d stepped on a land mine during the war; then that liked to paint. then that he didn’t care for TV. He preferred books. Poetry. Did I like poetry? I said I did. He asked me to recite one of my favorites and I had to confess I had none memorized. “Do you want to hear an original by my favorite poet?”
“Sure. What’s his name?”
“Anonymous. You want to hear it?”
“Poems are wrote by fools like me. But only a dog would piss on a tree.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“Here’s another.” And he recited the first three stanzas of Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Jail.
“Wow, that’s great. You’ve got good memory!”
“That one’s crap,” he snorted. “Want another by my favorite poet?”
When I said yes, he started in. I knew he’d be quoting himself. I braced for trite doggerel, but the opening lines threw me.
Have you ever thought
of the sorrows brought
by gaunt and solemn men…
Slowly, haltingly, sometimes pausing at random places, he recited what turned out to be the philosophical introduction to a long narrative ballad. The prologue ended by enjoining the reader not to blame or pity these “gaunt and solemn men: They’re just the victims of their times.”
Then began the body of the poem. A derelict man is standing at a window.
In the turgid gloom
of a mud-walled room
in Juarez, Mexico…
He’s staring out over the Sonora River. Birds are flying over the broad, flat waters. The day is hot and overcast. He puts some opium in a pipe and begins to smoke. His mind drifts back. He remembers Lorraine. The next 15 or 20 stanzas rhapsodize about this woman, her beauty, his love for her, the story of the life they shared. In the course of the rhapsody, it becomes clear that the lovers are junkies.
Kathy stuck her pretty head into the room and held up a note: “Sorry.” I shook my head. No need to apologize.
The man on the phone was still reciting:
Dope’s the thing
Like a wedding ring
More binding than a rope.
A man may stray
to his wife’s dismay,
But he cannot cheat on dope.
Now the couple are lying on some floor. He’s preparing a fix. He ties her arm off and hits her with the “hollow spike”, then does the same for himself. As he’s nodding out, he has a vision: he’s in hell and Lorraine is there too: .
In a crimson spire
of Pluto’s fire
she danced on Satan’s knee.
The vision fades away. He sees that Lorraine is on her back, dead, her face covered with vomit. He knows he can’t stay. The police will be coming. “Lorraine would understand.”
My caller was speaking fluently now, fluidly, reciting his poem with unaffected dramatic fervor. The poem comes back to the mud-walled room. It’s the end of the line for this character: the future has nothing for him but more dope and this empty room.
When he ended his performance, he let-out a wild Bacchanalian laugh. “I’m just an old wino, me. Disabled in Korea. I can’t get around much. I have visions. I can’t paint because my fingers are fucked up.”
Did he write the poem, I wanted to know?
He skirted the question. “When I was young, you know, seventeen, I met this girl, see. First time I ever see a girl I like so much. I wrote her a postcard once. You want to hear it? Here’s my postcard to that girl.”
A summer glow lies upon your dimpled cheek,
but in your heart is winter, cold and bleak.
This will change hereafter, as the years do their part.
There’ll be winter on your face, my dear,
and summer in your heart.
Kathy had talked to this man for an hour. I had talked to him for another two. He’d been on the phone with us for three hours. Now, his energy was spent, and he said goodnight. Had we helped him at all? I’ll never know. He was just a disembodied voice in the dark of night to us, and we to him.
I napped for a bit, then went out front again. Kathy and the others were gone. It was down to Carl and me. The phone rang, and Carl looked half asleep, so I took the call.
A woman was groaning. “I’m flying.”
“Dying. I took them all. I took all the pills. I took them all.”
Oh my God.
Strictly speaking, we didn’t do suicide prevention. But once you say: call me if you’re in trouble, you can’t control who calls in what kind of trouble. We volunteers had each gotten a few weeks of bare-bones first aid training–how to clear an air passage, how to bandage a wound—we were not qualified to save lives. But we did have a paramedic on call, Joe Conti, for emergencies. Now I scribbled a note for Carl: SUICIDAL WOMAN. OD? CALL JOE.
Carl got on the phone and soon wrote back: HE’S COMING. KEEP HER AWAKE.
I was trying. With nonstop jibber-jabber, I was trying: What’s your name, Cheryl huh, like that name, I had a roommate named Cheryl, I’m Tamim, what pills did you take, where are you right now? stay awake, McLaughlin Street? been there, which block, stay with me…
As I was jabbering while she kept up her morose mumbling: I’m ugly, I should be dead I’m so fat … flying away…” Most people overdosing on drugs can’t talk; this one couldn’t stop— sooooo fat. I can’t stand up, no one can stand to look at me. I am sooooo heavy. I want to die. No one loves me I’m ugly….”
By the time Joe arrived, I had gotten an address out of her. He listened in on our call for a few seconds and his face went pale. “We gotta’ get over there right now. Carl, call the cops, give them the address.”
We jumped in Joe’s car and went speeding through the sleeping city. We pulled into the parking lot of an attractive middle-class apartment complex. The address was on the ground floor. “You go in first,” said Joe. “You’ve established rapport. If she’s dead or unconscious, come get me at once. If she’s conscious, scope the situation—don’t spook her. If you’re not out in ten minutes, I’m coming in. Cool?”
“Okay.” I headed toward the apartment, heart in throat, unable to shut out the memory of her voice moaning that she was too heavy to stand up. I pictured a 400-pound woman lying on the floor. What if I had to turn her over: could I? The door was unlocked. I knocked and pushed it open slightly, “Cheryl. It’s Tamim. Are you there?”
A moan came from inside. So she was still alive. I stepped cautiously into a living room lit by two fat candles and a table lamp with a red bulb. The room looked nicely furnished in a store-bought way. On the couch, where I expected to see a half-conscious 400-pound woman was a girl about my age. She looked like a model in a car ad, someone whose job was to make potential buyers think of sex while looking at an automobile. She had auburn hair. She looked sleepy. She was wearing a filmy smoke-blue lingerie.
Clearly, I had misunderstood the situation. “Cheryl? Are you okay.”
“He’s gone. He’s never coming back. He’s with her.”
“David’s never coming back. I’m tooooo fat.” She lolled back to dramatize how unattractively fat she was. I saw a bottle of prescription medicine on a side table. The top was off. It wasn’t full, but it wasn’t empty either.
“Who’d marry me—I’m too fat. He’s flown away. What’s your name? Give me those pills. I need more pills.”
I was more unnerved now than when I thought I was rushing in to save a 400 pound woman’s life. One thing I was pretty sure of: this woman wasn’t going to kill herself anytime soon. I ducked out and signaled Joe to come over. “She’s okay, I think. I have her pills.”
“You’ve done great, Tamim. I’ll take it from here.”
Inside, he did a double-take at the sight of Cheryl, who was huddled at one end of the couch, clutching a pillow and pretending to sob. “I’m fat,” she was whimpering. “I’m ugly.”
Joe sat down kitty corner from her, then happened to glance down at the coffee table. I followed his gaze and saw, as he did, a baggie full of marijuana, some rolling papers, a roach clip, and five or six burnt matches. And the police were coming. Because we’d called them.
Joe said, “We’d better get that out of sight.”
Too late. The door banged open, and a uniformed cop walked in. ”Portland police,” he announced, holding up his badge. He wasn’t much older than me; a rookie, I’m guessing now. He took in the scene: Joe and me, the woman in the lingerie, the candles, the bag of dope. “Who called the police?”
“ I did, officer,” Joe said. “The young lady was having a problem, but it’s all good now, no emergency.”
But this policeman wouldn’t be hurried. He glanced at the dope, then gazed at the scantily clad woman, then moved in. “What seems to be the problem here, ma’am?”
At that moment, Cheryl stopped clutching her pillow and sat up. She peered at the police officer, and some sort of recognition dawned in her eyes.
And in his. His face lit up. “Cheryl? Hey! It’s Eddie. Remember me? Beaverton high school. You were one grade behind me. We were in Mrs. Thompson’s English class together.”
“Eddie?” Her face lit up too. “I remember you!” Suddenly, she was not woozy, nor feeling fat and ugly. The cop sat down on the couch next to her. The dope on the table was the furthest thing from his mind. He was having the best night of his life. He and Cheryl began trading anecdotes about the good old days back at Beaverton High. The attraction between them was palpable. We were looking at the beginning of a beautiful connection.
Joe stood up. I got the hint. Our work here was done. “Officer,” said Joe, “we’ll leave you to it.”
On our way out, we brushed against a fellow on his way in. He was a rugged, good-looking jock-type. He paused, looked at us, looked at the police car, looked Cheryl’s apartment door. I had to ask. “Are you David?”
“Yeah… Who are you?”
Joe explained briefly and we hightailed it out of there. David walked into the apartment, where his girlfriend and the cop she went to high school with were getting to know each other, next to a table covered with drug paraphernalia. I never learned what happened to any of them.
Copyright 2016 by Tamim Ansary. All Rights Reserved.