I may have mentioned this before, but I enjoy walking in the middle of the road. It’s not just the juvenile delight in minor rule-breaking — free as a lark, kind of like walking on the train tracks — but something else: When the road is closed and the traffic detoured for a special occasion, the horizon opens up and you, the pedestrian, are returned to your rightful place. Main Street in East Hampton is wide and there’s a lovely feeling of spaciousness.
We who live in tourist towns go about our daily rounds tolerating a low-boiling sense of being under attack. I mean, literally, I believe the pressure, the crowding-in of unfamiliar faces, triggers something way back in the darkest nooks of our curly brain stem, some primitive alarm mechanism that tells us we’ve been invaded and overrun. (Scientists should do a study on cortisol stress reactions on Nantucket, or something.) Walking in the middle of the road sounds stupid, but you’d know what I’m talking about if you tried it for yourself.
And guess what? There is a way you, too, can become a middle-of-the-road walker: It’s one of the modest perks of joining the fire department, ocean rescue, or ambulance corps. Join and you get twice or thrice-yearly opportunities to escape the quotidian elbow-jostling and commandeer the street: the Memorial Day Parade, maybe a Fourth of July Parade, and the Holiday Parade in early winter.
On Monday, I arrived at the “barn” — as the old-timers call the ambulance headquarters on Cedar Street — extra early for the Memorial Day Parade, because, four years into service as an emergency medical technician, I still didn’t have a uniform and wasn’t sure if I would be able to march in just my E.M.T. pullover. We were supposed to have come in on Saturday night to collect any missing bits and pieces of our uniforms — and the chief cast me some side-eye for skipping that appointment — but I’m an imperfect E.M.T. and had been stuck at home with my two kids who were coughing their lungs out with something the doctor insists isn’t Covid-19, and not only missed uniform-collection hour but missed opening night at the Sag Harbor Cinema, my two tickets to see Carole Lombard in “Nothing Sacred” going completely to waste. In any event, one of our youngest members, Tia Weiss, rooted through the racks in the closet and kitted me out in a jiffy with the requisite clip-on tie, navy blazer, collar bars, Mickey Mouse gloves, and uniquely unbecoming gray slacks that have made the fortune of some manufacturer, somewhere in Middle America, who supplies said unbecoming slacks at jacked-up prices to first responders from the mountains to the prairies to the oceans white with foam.
The East Hampton Village Ambulance Association marched in pairs behind two rigs, a flag-bearer, and a banner. As we turned the corner from David’s Lane onto Main — Laura Van Binsbergen singing “I don’t know but I’ve been told” boisterously — it occurred to me that we have had a hell of a year in the volunteer medical field, and that I was proud to have done it.
Mind you, I’m not in a position to brag. I believe I’m competent as an E.M.T, but I’m hardly the best. The other evening I had a total malfunction and unscrewed the green plastic nozzle when switching an oxygen tube for an albuterol tube; sometimes, even on an uncomplicated run, your mind flies out the window and you do something incorrect, clumsy, or useless. Even the most skilled paramedic bungles something sometimes. Learning to stumble and bumble and keep on going until you reach that point of safety or success is a lesson for living. Both firefighting and E.M.T.-ing grant some insight into the chaos at the heart of any great endeavor (war, pyramid-building, protest movements).
My dedication is not exemplary, either. I haven’t run hundreds of calls in one year, like Sheila Dunlop or Tom Bock; I certainly haven’t run 5,000 calls over decades of service, as some in the E.H.V.A.A. have done. This sort of volunteerism educates you on your own imperfections. But imperfect volunteerism is perfect volunteerism, if you understand me. We need more imperfect volunteers.
On Monday, I marched next to Teri Bertha, everyone making jokes about waistlines and belts and tucking or not tucking shirttails that create lumps under the slacks that cause jackets to flap out over behinds like the rear end of a duck. A fellow standing with his family on his front porch wearing a star-spangled, red-white-and-blue suit waved at us. Several small children stood at the side of the road with stick flags in their fists. Hardly anyone comes to the Memorial Day Parade, these days, mind you (in comparison with, say, 1982, as documented in a short vintage film posted on Facebook this week by LTV). The crowd was meager, but it was nice.
“It’s been a long year, huh?” a bearded man in the street by Dylan’s Candy Bar called out. Spectators started mouthing “thank you.” A few of them started shouting “thank you.” And Teri said, “You know what? It feels good to be thanked.”
“You know what?” I said. “It really does.”
Volunteer E.M.T.s frequently hear incredulous remarks like “Aren’t you squeamish?” or “Blood makes me gag!” or “I’m too selfish, myself.” I try to explain that they’ve got it wrong: Being a volunteer is fun. I do it for fun. How many new endeavors can you embark on in your 50s, 40s, or even 30s? Ambulance duty takes you out of the humdrum. Generally, you aren’t called on to be a hero — that is something you learn immediately. But even when you’re just doing what we call “basic transport,” answering an alarm brings a small dollop of meaning to an otherwise dull day.
My joke, which isn’t actually a joke, is that E.M.T.ing is “my Me Time.” I love a reason to drop everything I’m doing, leave my kids home alone with an instruction not to use the stove, and head out on a call. Strutting straight into strangers’ houses, checking out their collections of Staffordshire china dogs.
Now that Covid-19 has delivered unto us the Class of 2020 — all these new year-round neighbors, city refugees who decided to stay and send their kids to school here — I’m curious to see if many will make the leap into community in this way. A lot of Latino residents have, notably, become volunteers over the last 20 years. Because they’re here as a part of the community, have assimilated to this core part of our Bonac culture, rather than remaining aloof in the jet stream up there as vacationers. We’ll see.