I know you’ve seen them. The damn things are everywhere. Those ridiculous little lists that state, “You know you’re a _____________ when ___________.” And there you have some inane little anecdote about a particular demographic. For example, “You know you’re a Nurse when you wash your hands before you go to the bathroom.” or “You know you’re a redneck when your family tree is a wreath” (I didn’t make those up- if I knew who did, I would give them credit, so please don’t sue me.)
Well, I recently had a shift during which I realized that I had really arrived professionally, not that “arriving” as a medical examiner is a profoundly glamorous or impressive achievement. Rather, it’s a realization that you’ve truly morphed into a strange, animal… one that flails miserably at what’s considered “normal interaction”. You’ve become a creature that offends and repulses other members of its species with deplorable manners and horrific subject matter, one that scurries about in the shadows like a scarab; always at work and always hiding.
What have I become?
I am a Medical Examiner, through and through… and I…
I do strange things… I say strange things… My brain is decorated with skulls and pin-wheels. There’s a funeral march played by kazoos in my head wherever I go.
So here it is.
“You know you’re a medical examiner when … : A journey to self actualization in three acts and one shift.”
I hadn’t managed to get any coffee on my way to the office, but I was okay. I had been planning on getting a nice little designer espresso beverage at the coffee-stand just outside our building. And after getting this longed-for coffee, I had intended to spend the morning taking care of some paperwork and filing; two tasks that I look forward to the same way I look forward to removing unsightly body hair… in that I find both of these activities inane, redundant and ultimately pointless, but I do both for the sake of appearances. However, on that fateful, career-defining day, Henry stumbled in to our cubicle, handed me the county pager and informed me that there was a fatal MVA holding for me in the south end of the county.
I wasn’t exactly pleased with him for dumping that blood-spattered fiasco in my lap, but I couldn’t really blame him. Taking this case would have meant at least 3 hours of unwanted over-time tacked on to a 48-hour shift that, judging by his blood-shot eyes and rumpled clothes, hadn’t been an easy one. And after all, here I was, fresh-faced and clear-eyed… or at least I would have been if I’d had some fucking coffee.
I trudged out to the death scene tragically under-caffeinated and when I got there, I was greeted by a dozen fire-fighters, 6 county deputies, 4 MVA investigation and re-creation specialists, 2 detectives, our public information officer, a fire-department chaplain and no less than 4 news vans, filled with pushy reporters who apparently had nothing better to do. (I swear to God, reporters are like sharks, they can smell blood on the pavement 50 miles away.)
Oh, and there was a dead guy, too.
The MVA at hand was a head-on collision between a panel truck and a mini-coop. The mini-coop driver had swerved into the oncoming lane and the “specialists” estimated that both vehicles were going approximately 60 miles per hour when they hit. What this essentially meant was that the panel-truck driver got to take a super expensive helicopter ride that he would never remember to the closest hospital, while the mini-coop driver… well he wasn’t going anywhere without the help of some heavy machinery and the fire department- the fire department that was cheerfully firing up the jaws of life like they were tapping a beer keg as I approached.
“Hey Chaplain Bob, what’s going on?” I wrapped my arm around the shoulder of the wizened, old bear of a man as he stood by, watching the mini-coop get shucked open like an oyster.
That’s the way things work around here. If you want the low-down on any emergency situation in the county, you talk to the man-of-God first. Officially, I have no idea what our county chaplains’ job description actually is. But I fancy that their employee manual probably consists of one sentence:
“Hang out and handle shit.”
… Because that’s exactly what Chaplain Bob does- like a boss.
“Hey girl!” Chaplain Bob guffawed as he returned my hug. “How the hell are ya?”
“I’m utterly without coffee. What have we got?”
Chaplain Bob gave me the complete scenario. He’s good at that. While cops are solely focused on the legal aspects of a situation and firemen are focused on the medical/safety side of things, Chaplain Bob is keenly aware of the guts of a situation. He keeps the end-game in sight and watches as every plate spins. He’s also, like me, concerned with the human interest facet of a death. However, unlike me, he’s actually deeply concerned about people’s state of mind, whereas I just don’t want to get sued.
Our dead guy was a solo driver. He was on his way home from work. He lived alone and family was in town, but had not been located or notified yet. Bob explained all of this as we observed chunks of mini-coop being bitten off the wreckage by “the jaws” until, finally, the gooey center of the whole tragic jelly donut was revealed… Our dead guy.
I’ve seen worse, but still, this dude wasn’t going to have an open casket.
“So wait,” I turned back to Chaplain Bob after taking a quick preliminary look at our dead guy before he was fully extricated. “If this guy’s by himself and the family hasn’t been found yet, what are YOU doing here? I mean, I’M always glad to see you, but technically, there isn’t anyone here for you to… uh… chaplain-ate”
He gestured at the firemen, who were now peeling back the lid of the mini-coop like a sardine can- not because they needed to, of course, but because they could. “I’m here for the guys,” Chaplain Bob told me in a warm, doting tone. “Extrications can be hard for them… emotionally… psychologically…”
I glanced at the fire-fighters, who all wore expressions of jubilant glee, like grade-schoolers who had just been dismissed for the summer.
“Uh… yeah. MAN… they’re really messed up about it.”
Chaplain Bob either didn’t catch my sarcasm or chose to ignore it, Probably the latter. And the two of us watched as the mini-coop continued to disintegrate at the hands of our nation’s heroes. Of course, as we waited for the decedent to be fully unraveled from the car, I couldn’t help but wonder why no one was ever even slightly concerned with MY emotional and psychological well-being. I supposed giving a damn didn’t make our department budget again this year.
Of course, I was so busy watching the fire-fighters’ psyches splinter beneath the strain of doing their goddamned JOB, that I didn’t notice the news crews were also doing their job. Behind my back, the hi-def vultures had circled inward and wheedled their way past the yellow hazard tape and into the actual debris field. I turned to find a cameraman and reporter perched no less than 50 yards from the annihilated vehicles, sucking up all the video footage and photos they could absorb.
“Oh, HELL NO!” I hollered as I stomped over to the closest police officer and demanded to know who the hell had let the media snuggle into our death scene like a house-cat in a sun-beam.
“What the fuck are they DOING there? They’re getting shots of the car, the dead guy, the license plate… EVERYTHING!”
The officer gaped at me in confused terror and stuttered out that he had allowed the media to converge upon us and commence coverage of the whole spectacle… But only AFTER he had secured their solemn promise not to broadcast any footage of the mini-coop or its driver until AFTER the decedent’s family had been notified.
As though on cue, my pager began buzzing at my hip. I pulled it off my belt, scrolled through the message, swore loudly and then turned to the cop and, out loud, read the message which I had just received from my home office:
“(name omitted) called at 09:04 stating that he just saw his brother’s car on the news, reporting a fatal accident. Please call him back at 555-URSOFUCKED”
The cop worked his mouth like a dying fish. Chaplain Bob gave him the “I’m-so-disappointed-in-you” look. Whereas my disapproval wasn’t quite so subtle:
“Motherfucker, I am going to PUNCH you on the fucking THROAT!”
In perhaps his first display of good judgment that day, the cop did not argue or attempt to defend himself. He hung his head in shame and looked as though he kind of wished I would punch him in the throat rather than leave him to face a gauntlet of jeering co-workers when this gaffe made its way around the station.
You know you’re a medical examiner when you can threaten a cop with bodily harm and he just cowers and more or less agrees that, yes, he probably is due for a good, solid ass-whuppin’.
-Stay tuned for act II and III