The Siren's Call

by Andrew Grossman | 11/25/98 6:00am

The call of danger, the din of distress. For a few seconds, the anxious strobes halt relaxed dinner conversations. Quickly, the incessant chatter resumes, sentences resumed, topics retrieved, as though nothing has happened. Well, nothing really has, in front of Collis, anyway.

Every time an ambulance runs the traffic lights on the corner, I find it somewhat harder to lapse into the mundane; although with the frequency of these interruptions, they seem to have become everyday fare. Normal responses to what are hopefully normal accidents.

I always wonder what brings the ambulances through Hanover at such breakneck speed. For such a tiny community as Hanover, there seem to be a lot of emergencies. It is a college town, of course, but does over-intoxication merit such a quick response? Do the drivers and medics even differentiate between the urgent and non?

For every passing ambulance, a sick joke comes to mind: "Donut run." More wishful thinking than anything else. No one wants to contemplate the misfortune that would cause another to need an ambulance. Car crashes, overdoses, falls from ladders, from stairs, from sanity, beatings, assaults, murders. Never a "Hi, how are you doing?" or "Thanks for picking up my groceries, young man;" at least, I hope not, but only on the most superficial level. Being able to maintain the illusion that this trip might just be harmless is what allows us to go back to life so seamlessly, with only the hint of tragedy in the back of one's mind. I'm sure that the bare minimum of selfishness required for basic sanity also helps: out of site, out of mind; somebody else's problem.

As a driver, the lights and siren are, at worst, an annoyance. "Why today, I'm late?" and "Dammit" are probably two immediate responses, both perfectly justifiable. Still, everyone seems to make way for the emergency, clearing a path through even the densest jungle of urban traffic. Big brother is watching, in the form of the police cruiser invisible behind the wail and flashing. Peer pressure also makes an appearance through fellow motorists: what kind of jerk wouldn't get out of the way? Finally, thrown into mix is plain and simple decency. The cars part like a biblical metaphor, the procession passes and life resumes, but why? What kind of recipe makes a driver pull over?

From the Collis porch, the disturbance fades quickly into the din of life. Questions, unanswered, join thousands of others that shouldn't and won't be. Some people buy police scanners for the story behind the story, the humanity of the mechanized response, but end up with only incomplete sketches. Codes and abbreviations fly through the ether, just as fast as any radio show although often less telling. "We've got a 451 and he's a real bleeder." "Roger, bring him to DHMC." I will never buy such a scanner. I just don't want to know. Knowledge only begets more of the same, and who wants to share in everyone's personal tragedies? Keep an eye on the ones listening too intently.

Sure, we see the statistics every day. "There are up to 300 deaths per day from prescription complications in the U.S. alone," reads one article. Last time I checked, this morning, I was still among the living, as were many of the people I saw today. Relatively uninjured, too. Is their any way to quantify the pain involved in every breakneck trip across town? Some sort of average? Not that it would matter, anyway. Statistics just can't bring home the concepts of loss and suffering. Four million, 300 per day and 10 just yesterday all say nothing. Perhaps instinctually embedded in our psyches is some sort of mechanism for ignorance. From a survival point of view, it wouldn't be unlikely.

I don't mean to say that, as a community, we don't care enough. Nor do I mean to imply that you should drop everything and skip class every time an ambulance rolls by. Chances are that you are in no way linked to a passing ambulance. The statistics bear it out. It's really just something to think about, on top of everything else. By examining our own motives and responses, we can only get a better idea of who we are and how we came to be. A sort of self-sociology experiment, perhaps. We are incapable of dealing adequately with every tragedy that drives by. Thus, it's a good thing that we don't. Besides, last time I checked it was fairly warm outside; I think I'll be heading towards Collis.