The Daily Dead

Up until my c-spine went south a few years ago, I logged a decade riding as a paramedic in some of the sketchiest, drug and crime-infested pockets of Hamilton County.  It was not uncommon to face multiple shootings (mostly drug deals or marriages gone bad, or some permutation of the two) on a single 12-hour shift, along with other random assaults and drug overdoses; and while I made a mindful effort to be a compassionate and competent medic, it was hard not to get jaded after years of riding in those neighborhoods.  One night, clocking in for a night shift, I found my partner sitting in a Lay-Z-Boy in the duty room, scanning the local paper.  He was reading an account of a run we had both responded to the evening before--a 30-something scoundrel of a  man who had been shot five times with a small-caliber pistol during--need I say it?--a drug deal gone bad.  Luckily, he survived--none of his wounds were life-threatening, and I had managed to get him pretty well stabilized by the time we arrived at the hospital.  

But the victim--we'll call him "Roscoe"--would not let me put an IV in his arm.  "I can't stand needles," he had snarled at me as I started hunting for a vein.  I remember looking at him, incredulous, and replied--"Sir, you've got five bullet holes in you--what's another little one in your arm going to matter?"  But he was adamant, and I honored his wishes.

Anyway, back to the squad room, and my partner with his newspaper.  I asked him:  "Anything else going on?"  He looked from his paper, yawned, and replied, "Nope, just reading the daily dead."  I went into my bunkroom, pulled a piece of scrap paper out of my wallet, and wrote: "The Daily Dead--song title.  A newspaper written for and by paramedics."

Two years later, I wrote this song--combining stories of several memorable runs I had as a paramedic.  Note to file, guys--if you plan on assaulting your wife or girlfriend, make sure you're not bringing a knife to a gunfight, because your significant other can buy a Glock just as easily as you can.  After all, we live in 'Murica.  Freedom!

 

Fade to White

There are many difficult pieces to life as a paramedic, but none worse than breaking the news to someone that a loved one--a spouse, son or daughter, beloved grandparent--was dead, and could not be resuscitated.  Several of those times, in particular, haunt me to this day--breaking the news to a frantic mother that her son was dead (heroin overdose), and could not be brought back to life.  "It's more than I can bear," she had wailed, while I stood there, feeling impotent and stupid.

Or frantically working, unsuccessfully, on a 19 year-old boy who had been shot and run over  (with his own car, no less) in--you guessed it--a drug deal gone bad.  The ER staff at the hospital pronounced him dead; and afterwards, one the nurses casually invited me to an after-shift house party, advising me first to wash off the blood that covered my arms and torso.  "You're a goddamned sight," one of the older docs had said to me as the nurse handed me a hot, damp towel.  I cleaned myself off, but I never went to that party.

As a film buff, I always loved the director's "fade to white"--closing out a crucial scene with a slow fade to a bright, blank screen.  I used to fantasize that I could do that in real life as well.  Dead kids?  Husband with dementia in an Alzheimer's unit?  No worries--just fade to white, rework the script a bit, and start afresh.  But sometimes, a director would fade to white as a way of signaling to the audience that a death had occurred; and I began to think of my metaphorical  director's chair as a double-edged sword, to see myself less as a savior, and more as an angel of death, because when you're a paramedic, the bad stuff just sticks to you like old chewing gum on a shoe.  

 

Someone's Going to Be Sorry Tonight

Back in the 1960's and 70's, my mother's little brother, my Uncle Ed, pretty much single-handedly kept the Graves County, KY sheriff's department occupied.  He was a drinker, a brawler, a bruiser, and a womanizer; I'm pretty sure the present-day county justice center down there in western Kentucky has a wing named after him, and paid for with his many fines over the years.

He was a sad man, in many ways, and I could have written a sad song about him.  (I actually did write a sad song about him, but it's not on this disc.)  But I already had plenty of sadness on "Fade to White" (don't be too much of a Debby Downer, was my wife's advice), so I decided to write a happier, more up-tempo tune about Uncle Ed, trying to imagine a single night in his life as a young hell-raiser.  

Uncle Ed did not live to see or hear this disc--he died a few months before its release.  I like to think he would have smiled if he had heard it.

 

My Own Lovely Heart

My son, Nathan, was born in 1986, 16 weeks premature, and needing extensive surgeries to correct a congenital anatomical defect.  He spent most of his first 3 months on this earth in the neonatal ICU at Children's Hospital, clinging precariously to life as surgeons and specialists battled to address his ailments.  He nearly died on several occasions;  but somehow, against all odds, he always managed to survive.

After a successful surgery at 3 months of age, his physician had some further bad news for us: Nathan had been born with extensive brain damage.  The trauma of birth had been too much for his fragile skull, and he had suffered a brain bleed--"cerebral palsy"--and the damage was irreversible.  Nathan would never walk, and with the developmental deficits that often come with such damage, would never be able to live independently.  My son, now a young adult, will always have the mind and the outlook of a 5 year-old child.

That was 28 years ago.  Nathan still lives at home, and I am his primary caregiver.  Despite the many challenges and limitations that he faces, my son is a loving and generous spirit--caring, good-humored, affectionate, and grateful for every moment of the small and circumscribed life granted to him by whatever cruel gods decide these things.  Because getting around is difficult, and his eyesight is poor, Nathan spends a lot of time (with my help) calling our friends, and checking up on them.  He is on a first name basis with every cat, dog, horse and canary that our friends possess, and if he happens to get their voicemail, he'll usually leave a message and tell them that he loves them.  When anyone dies--human or animal--Nathan insists on calling and expressing condolences.  He feels loss keenly, even if he doesn't quite understand what death is.  Truth be told, I don't really understand it, either.

A couple of years ago, a good friend of ours lost a cat that she had had for many years.  Nathan called, as is his way, to tell our friend that he was sorry for her loss, and our friend thanked him for his call.  I asked Nathan if there was anything else he wanted to say before we hung up, and he replied: "I'll always remember Doodle (that was the cat's name) in my own lovely heart."  

To have had so much taken from him in this life, and still possess such a generosity of spirit--well, it's one of the many things about my son that I cherish and admire.  "My Own Lovely Heart"--yes, his heart is a lovely thing to behold, and I wanted to write a song that would do justice to  that moment--a song about love, loss, remembrance, and selflessness.  I hope I succeeded.  

 

Calling Mister Chambers

He was a homeless, african-american gentleman that my partner and I had picked up at an abandoned service station. We took him into our paramedic ambulance to check him over, and quickly realized that he--well, let's say that his relationship to objective reality was unique. He was polite, talkative, excitable, and shod in purple, faux-alligator shoes with no socks. He had no wallet, but as he showed us the contents of the black plastic garbage bag that served as his valise, we found a provider card for the VA. Conversation as follows:

Me: "Sir, I see that you have a VA card. Do you want us to take you to the VA hospital?

Patient: "Maybe...I got to check first with Mr. Chambers."

Me: "Mr. Chambers? Is that a family member?"

Patient: "No, he's right here." (Reaches into his sweat pants, grabs his penis, and starts talking to it like a close confidant.) "What do you think, Mr. Chambers? Are we going to the VA?"

And so forth, all the way to the hospital. In addition to the VA card, we found in his bag an old tuxedo; a photo of the Dalai Lama, torn from a magazine; and some of his medals and ribbons from his Vietnam service. He told me that the cheap, non-functioning watch on his wrist was "Pentagon-issued," and that it had secret properties that he couldn't discuss. He also had a dagger the size of a forearm. When I asked him if he had a wife, he told me that his "mail order bride" from Russia had not worked out, but was vague as to the precise nature of the problem.

We dropped him off at the VA hospital's emergency department. We said our solemn goodbyes, and I thanked him for his service. It was 2am, and the bored unit clerk looked up as my partner and I were headed out the door. She asked: "Any family for us to contact?"

My partner gave me a "don't do it" look, but I couldn't resist. "Well," I replied, he mentioned a guy called Mr. Chambers. Ask him about it--he'll tell you."

We left, put our ambulance back into service, and headed for Lincoln Heights--there had been yet another shooting at the Sugar Shack, and our services were required.

 

Camp Denial

Back in 2007, at the height of the treachery, deceit and thuggishness that defined the Bush/Cheney White House, I was not--to put it mildly--fit for polite society.  I had been vehemently opposed to the invasion of Iraq before the first American boots were on the ground there, and I'm certain that even my closest friends found my company tiresome in those days.  At the Lookout Joe coffee shop in Cincinnati, my morning coffee buddies took to hiding the shop's copy of the New York Times before my arrival, hoping to avoid the string of obscenities and invective that inevitably followed my perusal of the front page.

But one good thing that happened during those dark days was my engagement to Sherri, and we had decided to celebrate our new life together with a trip to Alaska, with hiking in the Denali reserve.  Sherri went online and requested information from several travel agencies, and our mailbox filled up quickly with brochures and flyers.  I came home one day, tired and frustrated, to find our mailbox crammed once again with travel brochures, and as I climbed the steps of our porch, I saw the return address on one of them, sticking out of the top: "Camp Denial."  And I remember thinking--Christ, I could use a trip to just such a place, which I envisioned as a bucolic retreat on some Michigan lake--a camp where I could swim, canoe, hike, sew leather wallets, with all newspapers, television and internet access strictly forbidden, and spend a week in complete, utter denial of the global catastrophes playing out around me.  Heaven!

Except, of course, that my mind's eye had tricked me--the brochure actually read "Camp Denali," and my own private retreat from reality was not to be.  But I sat down that evening with my Fender Jazz bass and an acoustic guitar, and recorded scratch tracks for what would eventually become this song--"Camp Denial."

 

Your Stupid Minds

For reasons unexplainable, I have always been fascinated with 1950's B-movie sci-fi--those low-budget gems with cheesy special effects, inane dialogue,  nonsensical scripts, and terrible acting.  The undisputed master of the genre in early post-war America was a man named Edward D. Wood, Jr.

Ed Wood had served as a Marine infantryman in the Second World War, and had seen some horrific combat in the Pacific theatre.  When the war ended, he went to Hollywood, and spent a couple of decades trying--with much enthusiasm, but little success--to carve out a career for himself as a film maker.  The movies he did manage to make--low-budget, amateurish clunkers like "Plan 9 From Outer Space," "Bride of the Monster," and "Glen or Glenda"--were mostly ignored during his lifetime, relegated to second or third-string drive-ins and theaters in limited release markets.

A chance encounter in the early 1950's with Bela Lugosi led to a friendship between the two men that was a close as it was unlikely.  A matinee idol in the 1930's and 40's (much of his fame rested on his mesmerizing screen and stage portrayals of Dracula), Lugosi was a largely forgotten has-been by the time Ed Wood made his acquaintance.  With his career on the rocks, addicted to heroin, and living in squalid obscurity in an anonymous Los Angeles suburb, he turned to Ed Wood for work.  Lugosi appeared both in "Glen or Glenda" and "Bride of the Monster," and even his death in 1956 did not prevent him from appearing in "Plan 9 From Outer Space."  (Ed Wood structured the plot, such as it was, for "Plan 9" around a few minutes of footage he had shot of Lugosi a few years earlier.  When it came time to shoot "Plan 9" after Lugosi's death, Wood recruited his girlfriend's chiropractor to stand in as a body double for Lugosi, and the results were unintentionally hilarious.)

Ed Wood died from complications due to alcoholism in the late 1970's, still obscure and mostly forgotten.  But in the decades since his death, a cult following has sprung up, consisting of--well, people like me--film buffs who are drawn to the magnificent and unapologetic awfulness of the Ed Wood oeuvre.  I would not want anyone hearing "Your Stupid Minds" to think that I am making fun of Ed Wood; I wrote the song as an admiring tribute, and I hope it comes across that way.  Ed Wood was a combat survivor who spent the rest of his days doing what he loved best--making movies.  He never knew fame, fortune or critical success during his lifetime, but he never let that stand in the way of his single-minded pursuit of a dream.  He was by all accounts a loyal friend, loving husband, and a noble soul who lived life on his own playful terms.  Would that we all could follow his example.

To the extent that Ed Wood is known these days to a broader audience, it is due in no small part to Tim Burton's marvelous film "Ed Wood" (1994)--an affectionate, quirky and mostly accurate account of the man and his life in Hollywood.  I wrote "Your Stupid Minds" one evening last year after watching this film (for the 5th or 6th time) with my wife Sherri.

 

Next Stop, Loserville

Deeply autobiographical tune, and enough said.

 

New Hope for the Dead

A song about an unforgettable encounter I had one day with a homeless man in Cincinnati.  This particular chap was a familiar sight around the University of Cincinnati campus in the 1990's--a ruddy, sunburned man of indeterminate age who was living rough in the Burnet Woods park in Clifton.  He clearly suffered from a mental illness of some sort, which had filled him with delusions of religious grandeur.  He would often march up and down Clifton Avenue during the middle part of the day, clad in what I called his "prophet suit"--a dirty white sheet with holes cut out for his head and arms; and he had fashioned a shepherd's staff for himself out of a long stick covered in scrap tinfoil.  With his long mane of dark, filthy hair, and unkempt beard, it was not hard to imagine him as the biblical prophet he fancied himself to be.  He was either Jesus or Moses, depending on his mood on any given day.

 A nurse friend of mine who was familiar with his case told me that he had been institutionalized at one point in his life; but, like thousands of mentally ill people across the United States in the 1990's, he was booted out onto the street during the drive to close down most state-run residential facilities, and left to more or left fend for himself.  I got into the habit of slipping him a few bucks whenever I encountered him.

One day, as I walked down Clifton Avenue from the university, this putative prophet burst out of the woods with no warning, and stood before me on the sidewalk like a deranged apparition.  I assumed he needed money, and reached instinctively for wallet; but before I could get it out, he launched into a stream-of-consciousness tirade about the coming apocalypse which portended the end of the world--or perhaps it wasn't coming after all;  and the prophet was ambivalent about whether this was good news or not.  ("If it ain't the end," he told me, then we gotta put up with this crap"--gesturing all around us with a sweep of the hand--"pretty much for fucking ever!)

I told him: "So, it sounds like, either way, we're all pretty much going to die, right?"  His reply: "Maybe, but either way, there's always hope for the dead."

Posted
AuthorPeter Obermark