My clock radio went off at seven even though there was no reason to get up. It was spring break, and I was home from college, isolated from most of my friends, and had nothing to do. Facebook had not been invented yet. I lay there in my twin bed in my childhood bedroom letting the dulcet tones of Morning Edition wash over me. President Bush was saying something asinine again, the stock market seemed to be going well. In local news, absolutely nothing was happening. Except there would be a meteor shower tonight.
Astronomy is not normally my thing. I built a pretty rocking paper maché model of the solar system back in the day, but that is where my interest ended. It didn’t matter. This sounded like a reason to get out of the damn house.
Baltimore City is not exactly an area of low light pollution. I could not think of anywhere in the city that it would be dark enough to actually see stars. From my parents’ house the night sky usually looked like a dark orange smear. But outside the city, out in the suburbs where my grandparents lived, there was a baseball field where I knew the turned off all the lights by about nine. The meteors would not be at their peak until midnight or so.
I called my friend Shannon, who was still in high school but also on spring break. She was game, as was her boyfriend, Matt. I would pick them up around eleven, and we would head out of town.
I stewed at home all day, complaining loudly about how bored I was. My dad, who works from home, has an amazing ability to tune out human speech, and I am sure this was the only reason he did not strangle me.
Finally it was the appointed hour. I bundled up and headed out to my car, Gay Lightning. Gay Lightning was a champagne-colored 1991 Nissan Stanza sedan with a cranky transmission. She had been so christened because of a rainbow lightning bolt decal that I had placed on the rear windshield. The car had automatic windows that only worked on the left side, and a CD player that stole and repeated CDs for months at a time, refusing to eject. Gay Lightning had selected Savage Garden as the soundtrack of choice for spring 2003.
I picked up Shannon and Matt at her folks’ house, and they climbed into the car with flashlights and snacks. We headed on out of town.
When we got to the field by my grandparents’ house, it seemed pretty dark. We rolled out our blankets and stared at the sky. Nothing. We lay there in the grass and ate the snacks and talked about the meaning of life and what we would do if we were in charge of the world, and wouldn’t it be nice to start a commune someday? We didn’t see a single shooting star.
By 2:00 am, clouds were rolling in, and it was obvious we weren’t going to see anything. We packed up our blankets and finished up the crackers and apple slices. We drove back into the city.
I love driving through the city at night. It seems empty in a friendly way, and I like all the lights and infrastructure without all the people and traffic. We were cresting a hill on Cold Spring Lane, which had been part of my regular commute to high school, when I saw it. A man darted into the street right in front of us and dropped to the pavement. I had to slam on the brakes on Gay Lightning to avoid hitting him. The three of us sat there for a split second in shock.
I put the car in park and jumped out. The man was lying in the road right in front of my car, clutching his shoulder, which was oozing blood. Not spurting, but oozing at a good clip. I hadn’t hit him, had I? It took a long time for my brain to realize that he had been shot.
Hmm, shot seemed bad. I looked up. The street had filled with people, most of them on their cell phones. I assumed the calling 911 was covered. No one else was approaching the victim; I guess they figured I had that covered. I squatted next to him. “Hey, are you ok?” Stupid question, really, since the rapidly expanding pool of blood I was squatting in seemed to indicate that no, he was not ok.
“Think so,” he grunted.
“Good,” I said, “What’s your name?”
“Hi Michael, I’m Mali. Are you hurt anywhere other than your shoulder?”
“Don’t think so,” he grimaced.
He tried to shrug in response. Shrugging being a shoulder-based action, this did not seem to go so well for him.
I had taken basic first aid, and I thought that I should apply pressure to his wound. I also knew that I did not have any latex gloves on my person, and that I didn’t really want to touch this guy’s blood. I always thought I would be cooler than that, more self-sacrificing – that in an emergency, “universal precautions” be damned! But I had a strong sense that I should not touch his blood, and so I did not. There didn’t seem to be a lot I could offer him.
“You keep taking deep breaths, ok? I’m going to go check on why the ambulance isn’t here yet.”
I stood up and walked away from him. In the front row of the crowd of onlookers, one woman seemed to be shrieking and turning an unnatural shade of green. I walked over to her and she grabbed my arm as if she was drowning. I guided her to the curb and had her put her head between her knees and take deep breaths.
I much preferred this non-bleeding patient. The deep breaths seemed to be calming her.
“Do you know Michael?” I asked.
“No, I don’t know either of them, but that one back there looks bad. I don’t think he’s gonna make it. I never seen someone look so bad,” she pointed down the side street. “This one looks ok,” she said, pointing to Michael. She had a lilting Caribbean accent that I hadn’t expected.
I nodded. I decided I didn’t want to see the one that didn’t look so good.
The police arrived before the ambulance. They put on latex gloves but still didn’t touch Michael. They didn’t walk into the pool of his blood. They took statements from us, asked us what we saw, scribbled in their little notebooks, ignored the squawking of their radios. The ambulance came and the EMTs tromped through the blood puddle to strap Michael onto a stretcher. I went back to his side while the EMTs fussed with the straps and oxygen tubes.
“Good luck,” I told him. What else do you say?
He nodded at me.
A little while later another ambulance came and loaded up the body bag from the side street. It drove away without sirens.
Shannon and Matt and I looked at each other. Before I climbed back into Gay Lightning I tried to rub the blood off the soles of my sneakers onto the curb. We drove home, silent except for the Savage Garden soundtrack.
I don’t really know what lessons to try to glean from this experience, about myself, about my city, about violence or race or the actions of crowds. Two men were shot. One died. I am not sure if they shot each other or were shot by someone else. I don’t know what happened to Michael. The shooting was not reported in the paper.
Years later, with four years of medical training behind me, I think I would do the same thing. I wouldn’t touch his blood. I always thought self-sacrifice was something to be valued, something noble. I always thought that a white girl being afraid to touch a black man’s blood would be a mark of irrational racist fear.
And maybe it is. Maybe I’m not as anti-racist as I think I am. But I know enough about blood-borne pathogens to know that while the risk of HIV transmission is incredibly low, the risk of Hepatitis transmission is higher. Neither of these risks are zero. It’s not a risk I am willing to take.
I got tired of thinking about this, pondering its meaning. I bought a box of latex gloves and put them in my car.