this is one of 20 random little stories I’m posting in advance of my 20-year anniversary in new york city, which will hit in the fall of 2013. Click here for more background, and feel free to share your own stories in the comments – randomer the better!
At age 26, working for an HVAC company was far from the worst temp job I ever had, and after a few months there I grew dangerously comfortable. The office was full of what you might call “characters”, from the two owners – brothers – who were prone to yelling adorable things like “I’m gonna tear you a new ASSHOLE!”, to the handsome engineers who loitered around the reception desk and campaigned for me to be hired as a permanent employee. Yet despite the fact that it was a consistent gig and an entertaining one, I had no plans to stay. Showing up every morning by 8am was beginning to exhaust me, especially since I spent my free time rehearsing elaborate slapstick comedy shows, drinking too much, and commuting back and forth from Astoria.
It hadn’t been a particularly eventful day, but few were: the job consisted of answering phones, typing up – on a typewriter – work orders, negotiating an outdated DOS computer program, and deflecting the shockingly persistent visits from door-to-door salesmen. At times the job was delightfully old school, but mostly it was just dull and repetitive.
Once day around mid-afternoon, arguably the dullest part of the day when morning seemed like a foggy dream and 5pm a distant tease, a woman’s voice broke the silence in the hallway outside our office. I was used to the owners yelling, but this was very different. She sounded hysterical, unhinged, desperate. Like something out of a movie she was screaming, “Help! HEEEELP! Somebody please help!” I had never heard anyone yell those words; it seemed theatrical, impossible that they were ringing against the dingy walls in such a mundane context.
Those of us within earshot looked up from our desks, then at each other. But at first none of us moved. We were all afraid to open the door and see what was in the hallway. After a moment it seemed ridiculous that no one had risen from their chair; the woman was still screaming. My supervisor and I and I moved towards the door. I let her open it, on the premise that she was my superior and, well…more of an adult. Maybe this sort of thing happened all the time.
We peered out into the hallway and at first didn’t see anything. The door to the next office – a textile manufacturer – was open and we could hear a voice inside, still wailing. I took a few steps into the hallway and called out a tentative response. The woman emerged from the office; she was of middle-age, with long frosted hair and fussy, layered clothing. She was sweating. Upon seeing us she shouted that there was a man having a heart attack in her office – her stream of words still sounded like dialogue from a movie. She kept urging us to do something. She asked if either of us knew CPR.
I did. I had learned CPR as part of my previous job teaching performing arts in an after-school program, which also included reading books and teaching crafts to under-threes in a playground. We were required to learn CPR but none of us imagined we would need to use it. Or we did imagine it, but the reality of actually resuscitating a child was too frightening to contemplate, so we reassured ourselves we would never have to. Once I brief stint as a teacher was over I thought I was safe.
I hesitated a long moment in the hallway, long enough that it seemed wrong and selfish not to speak up, so I did. My voice sounded unsure in the dense silence that suddenly enveloped us. But to her it must have sounded confident because she ushered me into the office. I urged my feet to move, saying to myself that this woman needed me; I had to try and help. All the while, a warning from our CPR instructor played on a loop in my head: that if you don’t know exactly what you’re doing you could hurt the person you’re working on, kill them even. In the year or so since my training I had forgotten nearly everything. I couldn’t remember the number of compressions you were supposed to do in order to keep air moving in and out of the lungs, or the correct hand positions; I only knew that both were precise, and deviation from the prescribed method was worse than doing nothing at all.
But I had already said I knew CPR. I had given her hope. I had stepped forward and now there was no stepping back.
I entered the room. The air was close, warm, likely due to the rolls of carpeting and fabric that lined the walls. The floor was also thickly carpeted and in the center was a man, slight and blond, younger than the woman who called us in, lying unconscious with his head propped awkwardly on a tasseled pillow. I hesitated again; I hadn’t expected him to be unconscious. But it seemed ridiculous, cruel, to just stand there so I went to him.
The only thing I could remember from my CPR training was “A.B.C.”: Airway, Breathing, Circulation. You are supposed to check a person’s vital signs in that order. I knelt, and took the man’s head onto my lap. He didn’t open his eyes, and it occurred to me that I could be holding a dead body. I took the back of his neck into my right hand and, as gently as I could, raised his head so that his airway was straight instead of crumpled forward. I eased his jaw open with my left hand and looked inside his mouth. There was nothing blocking his airway. Honestly I hadn’t expected there to be. I was looking purely to ensure that I was checking his vitals in the correct order, to buy time. I was more afraid of making a mistake than of letting this man die.
The next step was to check his breathing, but I could already tell he wasn’t. I moved my left hand from his jaw to feel his neck for a pulse. Nothing. I had no idea what to do next.
I returned to the task of keeping his airway straight by slightly adjusting the position of my right hand behind his head, and suddenly something happened. The man’s mouth dropped open and he gasped, inhaled with a deep shudder that I could feel against my knees. It startled me, and a jolt of fear ignited my whole body. I adjusted his head again, and again the gasp came. I had no idea what was happening or what to do – should I begin chest compressions? Give him mouth-to-mouth? I was paralyzed by the idea that I held this man’s life literally in my hands.
I looked up at the doorway where my supervisor was standing, just staring at us. The woman who had called us in was leaning against the wall in a corner of the room. She was whimpering, or praying. Even from my vantage point I could see her hands were shaking. She had seen the man inhale and was waiting to see what I would do.
Mercifully I didn’t have to make a decision, because at that moment two paramedics showed up. (It hadn’t occurred to me to ask whether they had been called, and this was before I had a cell phone.) I felt strange and guilty sitting there with the man’s head on my lap, so I began a clumsy explanation of what had happened, of what I had tried to do. They sidled through the doorway so casually that for a second I thought perhaps the situation wasn’t as bad as it seemed. They were professionals. They would fix it.
I stood up slowly, placing the man’s head back on the pillow, and walked out of the room, wanting to say something reassuring to the woman whose name I didn’t know but who had witnessed one of the most frightening moments of my life. For her, the moment wasn’t over, and her eyes never left the man on the floor. He was now surrounded by the paramedics, who were still exhibiting what I hoped was professional cool and not indifference.
My supervisor and I returned to our desks. She didn’t seem to want to discuss what had just happened. We didn’t even exchange the head shakes or long exhalations of breath that might have been expected given the circumstances. The building walls had seemed paper-thin to the woman’s screams but I didn’t hear another peep from the hallway; only the ‘ding’ of the elevator as the man was taken down to the ambulance. I was quiet for the remainder of the day and so was our office. At least that’s how I remember it.
The next day I walked into the building even more reluctantly than usual. I was afraid to encounter the woman from next door in the hallway, afraid of not knowing what to say, afraid of her answer if I asked how the man was – the man I had vainly tried to help. But I wanted to know.
As it turned out, despite the polite silence that existed between all the tenants of our floor, the almost stubborn reluctance to become involved in each others’ business, there was news. The man had died. The woman was his wife. The door to the textile company’s office was closed, and there was silence behind it. Now there were plenty of head shakes, exhalations, but I couldn’t bring myself to join in. I could still feel the back of the man’s neck cradled in my hand, the fineness of his hair, and the rattle of those breaths against my legs. I wondered if they had been his last.
My temp job at the HVAC company continued for another few months. I never saw the woman from the textile company again. The twin doors to our respective offices remained closed. I think about that day and try to conjure a precise picture of the woman in my head. It gets progressively blurrier with time. I wonder if she remembers anything about me, the stranger kneeling in her office, unwittingly sharing the moment when her husband died.
 The recommended order has since been changed to C.A.B.: yet another reason why you should not take CPR advice from me!