At work one day (I’m a paramedic in New York City), I was called to a Subway sandwich shop by a manager concerned over a customer. He met us outside and said it was about a lady who had been there all day, and whom he found unreceptive when he went over to talk to her. The police arrived just behind me and my partner.

The lady sat near the back, her head resting on the table. She had two large suitcases next to her. When paramedics and police arrive, if we don’t make “an entrance” for everyone in the place, something is wrong: either the person is confused and can’t realize we are there, or there’s some agenda about not wanting us there.

Her head continued to rest. “Hey…” I shook her a bit to get her to wake up. Many things about her at a glance told me she was not particularly sick. “Hey, can you look up at me?” I gave her another shake and she waved me off, shoo-fly like. “Sorry, no, I need you to get up. We are the paramedics, they called us to see if your’e OK. Just show me you’re OK.” She mumbled something. Likely she was drunk.

She was about fifty, was once pretty, appropriately dressed, but too dirty for a normal functioning woman. Men (especially widowers) can be in this condition without much concern, women nowhere nearly as much. It was reasonable to suspect she was having a psychotic episode along with her bender. The two intertwine; I always think of the pathologies twisted together inseparably like a DNA helix. And the suitcases pointed to her being homeless, likely newly so, since she had not lost or had them stolen yet.

A useful tip: approach a person who is down from the top of their head, and if they get agitated, retreat straight back, since it takes quite awhile for them to figure where you are, get up, turn around, and start after you. When someone is sitting like this, figure the arc of their legs if they kick, and have the table there. Sure enough, when I annoyed her with a bit more vim to get her awake she threw a kick at where she thought my man-parts would be. She barked her leg on the table hard enough to make her sandwich wrapper bounce.

“Hey now!” Said a policeman, starting in after her. He was angry over to the shoo-fly part already. “It’s fine.” I said. He would have gone back at me but she was talking. Talking all at once. Very probably too-all-at-once (it’s called “flight of ideas” and indicates the disorganization of mental illness).

We went on with her for a while, with us reaching a three-cornered deal with patient, the police and us: she was a public spectacle, she would create 911-call problems in the future, the manager of the store had to have her out, she was in no condition to go wandering off and do it all over again in some other store, she was quite possibly psychotic, quite possibly a danger to herself, and very likely a danger to others. She was eligible for jail for assault, vagrancy, and public drunkenness, but the hospital for sobering was the better deal.

She was shit-faced for a reason: indeed she was newly homeless, I found out later (she had an ice cream maker stuffed in her suitcase).

Later, the cop told me there was no way in hell he would tolerate getting kicked at, and was mystified why we would put up with it either. The laws protecting agents of city administration are very tough. It was a good thing she didn’t try it on him, since she’d be off to jail.

And here’s the revelation: ten minutes later she was my bestest best buddy. All huggy and kissy. Declaring I was unbelievably cool.

I’ve seen this many, many times, and want to say it takes seeing it a hundred times before you fully realize that some people, usually chemically distorted people, but not always or necessarily, can have their memories erased like a computer reboot. Like a magic trick. You say to yourself “how can she possibly not remember throwing a vicious kick at my balls?” After my hundred-plus times I’ve seen it, I can attest that it is no “act.”

If the ball-kicking episode were transported into the setting of a psychiatric ER, there would be no debate of punishment or responsibility whatsoever. It would have been just her dumb luck that she threw that same kick at the wrong person, for the same reason, but in the wrong place, with the result of life-changing jailing. It would have been “assault on a police officer.” What overworked public defender would fight it out for a poor vagrant against the wrath of the police? Which is not to say that the police do not deserve the special protection they are accorded under the law, they most certainly do. But intents and incentives, wisdom and judgement matters a great deal. Such was the thin margin of a poor, crazy, drunk lady’s future.

The human brain is the most sophisticated thing in the known universe, but it is still an organic ball in a soup of very exacting chemical balances of temperature, PH, glucose levels, minerals, and oxygen levels. It must also be free from poisons to work correctly. I’ve had toxicologists tell me that, technically, alcohol intoxication is a poisoning, since it is a chemical impairment of normal organ functioning. I have seen non-crazy people made crazy by something simple like low sodium. The organic ball-brain in its exacting soup simply cannot perform its miraculously complex functions properly sometimes. This is not debatable.

She would have sobered up in jail, with no clue as to how she got there, with no memory of her crime. “You assaulted an agent of municipal government, very bad news,” she’d have been told. There was no intent, so there can be no penitence, so there can be no reform. How can you repent of something you can’t even remember? Can we say she needs to be held up as an example so all society can see the law is good and just and should be followed and respected?

A big part of our media distortion is that Americans think of Hannibal Lecter when they hear “criminally insane,” but for every one of him (rather, unexaggerated non-fiction versions of him), there are thousands, likely tens of thousands, of our ice-cream-machine ladies. Few schizophrenic patients are dangerous, a drunk person, living in a poor neighborhood, without a history of mental illness is more prone to violence. Our jailing of mentally ill people alongside “true criminals” represents a huge portion of our incarceration crisis. No other Western nation does this.

Jail and future-erasure does not help with mental illness or homelessness. It is our society’s caprice of Zeus that she kicks a guy two feet to the left and it’s ruin, a guy two feet to the right and it’s a proper exploration of her brain’s correct soup levels, of her history of mental illness, of possibly alcohol intoxication, with the possibility of treatment. Which is not too far from redemption.

This is my Christmas message (granted, thrown like a knuckle-ball): the Redeemer calls us to live our lives by his example. Mercy and empathy are biggies. No Christ I ever knew would abide seeing a sick person, this needy, thrown into a cage. To be destined for nothing but more cages and destitution for the rest of her days. That our society will pay so much to jail her so blindly should be considered God’s just punishment on us for our not wanting to see Christ’s light.

Eugene Darden Nicholas

About Eugene Darden Nicholas

Eugene Darden (Ed) Nicholas is from Flushing Queens, where he grew up sheltered from the hard world, learning the true things after graduating college and becoming a paramedic in Harlem. School continues to inform and entertain in all its true, Shakespearean glory. It's a lot of fun, really. In that career, dozens of people walk the earth now who would not be otherwise. (The number depends on how literally or figuratively you choose to add). He added a beloved wife to his little family, which is healthy. He is also well blessed in friends and colleagues.

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