Do you remember that scene from “Blade Runner” in which Roy Batty, the replicant played by Rutger Hauer, makes his death speech? “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe,” he says, as the rain pours down and the sewer smoke swirls. “Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. . . . I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. . . . All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”
That’s one of my favorite cornball moments in one of my all-time favorite movies, and I would guess I am probably not alone among first responders in thinking of this speech when out and about in the nighttime world, seeing things average citizens don’t see.
Of course, it’s hardly C-beams glittering and the shoulder of Orion, in the volunteer fire department or ambulance service, but we do get a window on another world, a shadow world between 1 a.m. and dawn, and we do get access to private lives lived beyond thresholds we’d never otherwise cross.
I joined the fire department almost by accident, back when I lived in Nova Scotia. (I’d say it was serendipity, if serendipity weren’t a word that I’ve always edited out of other people’s writing, for being way too twee.) I happened to mention at a dinner party with new neighbors that I’d always wanted to be in the fire department, and the next thing I knew a guy named Brian — who I recognized from the furniture store on the half-shuttered Main Street, and who was too nice to hang up on — was phoning to invite me down to the fire hall. The need for volunteers in rural Nova Scotia was real.
Sometimes, maybe twice a month, my emergency pager would go off in the dead of night and I would have to leap out of bed to go on a fire call. This was far less heroic — or even admirable, actually — on my part than it might sound. My truck, Number One, had open-air backseats, and I got to go on thrilling firetruck rides up snow-covered roads, through forests of white pine and birch, in the moonlight; and all that was required of me, on the average call, was to stand around in the snow while the guys from Truck Two carried a smoking toaster out of someone’s house, or to stand around in the snow while the burly fellows from Truck Three peered with disgust up a sooty chimney.
Almost all the activities I’d expended time and energy on, to that point in my life — being cool in bars, owning the coolest lunch boxes and records and go-go boots, knowing the coolest people in the darkest corners of Central Europe, having the coolest résumé — were patently useless in Nova Scotia. But I eventually gained some competence, was promoted, and became at least marginally useful behind the wheel of Truck One. It carried me into trailer parks and to lakeside cabins and the homes of the Bluenose worthies, where the old lobstermen kept mini-galleries of schooner paintings on their walls, pining for the olden days before the cod fishery died.
Anyhoo, I gave up the fire service when I moved home to Accabonac Road in 2015, and transitioned eventually over to the other side, getting trained as an E.M.T. in 2017.
Ambulance rides here in East Hampton are less picturesque — rattling along in the back of the rig, with the bright overhead lights and a faint smell of disinfectant — but certainly working as an E.M.T. does tell you the full tale of two cities. I have seen things you people wouldn’t believe: $41,000 refrigerators and wood-fired pizza ovens glittering in kitchens on Further Lane . . . bedrooms where kind ladies in their 90s lie, gathering bedsores, surrounded by the dusty magazines and worn-slipper detritus of neglect . . . Bonac abodes where shotguns still lean on the doorjamb and water dogs bark by the garden gate.
One of the greatest compensations for losing sleep on squad night is driving home through empty streets and then walking slowly up to my stoop from the driveway in the still of the night. When was the last time you have stood on your lawn and listened and heard no traffic, no leaf blower, no air-conditioner, no man-made machine under the faraway stars, just the high wind in the high trees?
This summer, I must admit, the magic of the shadow-world has been disturbed somewhat by certain neighbors on a nearby street who love nothing better ‘round midnight than to flip on the switch that pipes Euro-techno-Muzak — the sort you might hear by the “toptional” pool at the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas — to their deluxe outdoor speaker system. But September is coming in, and when the party’s over I can hear the ocean, half a mile south, from my front yard.