Being a medical examiner is weird… if you don’t start out that way… you certainly become that way pretty damnned quick.
But it’s a weird you don’t feel happening. It’s subtle as opposed to acute. A smouldering heat as opposed to a sudden, scalding burn
It’s not like waking up one morning with a razor-cruel case of strep-throat… it’s more like the gradual growth of a cancer. You certainly don’t notice the symptoms, or at least you can explain them away. That soft, feather-like blurriness to your vision was simply the result of getting up too fast. Maybe you’re a bit dehydrated. You don’t quite remember where you left your keys or you’re searching for the correct word that dangles a whisper outside of your mind’s hearing. You justify, you dismiss, you rationalize… and then one day a doctor tells you there’s a tumor nestled into your head like a dinosaur egg. It’s some strange, petrified object with a dormant monster inside. No telling what it might decide to do. Probably nothing…
Being a medical examiner is something like that.
One day you realize that there’s a city of dead people in your head… and it’s much like any other population of people. Some are addicts and criminals, some are children, some are kindly old folks who can’t find their glasses. One day you realize that the concept of mortality isn’t so much of a struggle anymore and you understand that everyone around you could die at any time… of virtually anything. And it’s not like you understand this on a existential, emo-music kind of level… I mean you KNOW it. To the degree that every now and then you call to check on your friends and loved ones, just in case.
One day, you realize that carnage hardly bothers you anymore. You might see a head split open by a car-wreck like a melon that fell off a picnic table… or a severed limb… or a guy who’s been decomposing in a bath-tub for a few days… and it doesn’t affect your appetite at all. In fact isn’t it time for lunch? There’s a new pho place around the corner that’s supposed to be pretty good.
That one day came not too long ago… and I was on vacation when it happened… the one time that you’d think I WOULDN’T have to worry about mortality.
I had never been to the UK before.
London had never been very high on my destination list. Reportedly, every street stank of urine and you could expect to hear the word “cunt” used as often as any pronoun or preposition.
Neither of these reports really endeared this legendary city to me, however my friend and fellow medical examiner from another local county, Emily, and I were on a European adventure to Greece and figured we might as well toss London into our itinerary while enroute. It was a nice little English-speaking stop-over on our way to the cradle of civilization… and since both of us were well-rounded international travelers, we figured that navigating this mighty metropolis was well within our skill set.
Nothing out of the ordinary happened, really. Except surprisingly and contrary to my previous travel experiences , I discovered that this time around I had absolutely NO tolerance for jet-lag. Consequently I spent the first 48 hours of our London adventure mired in a seemingly endless wasteland of foggy ennui, (or… now that I think about it, maybe that’s just London) During this time, Emily’s sadistic side came out and she convinced me that I really needed to sample a plate of eel pie and mash. It’s hard to say which was more dismal, the early spring weather, the greasy, slop of pastry that made up this local delicacy… or my mood as I was subjected to both in one day.Fortunately, by day three I was back in the saddle, ready to fend off Emily’s other culinary suggestions and eager to immerse myself in some British culture. And as luck would have it, my spirits lifted just in time for the two of us to seek out pretty much the only destinations we had planned out prior to actually getting on the airplane:
1) First of all, we were off to visit the tower of London, the reputed last domicile of doomed queens, discarded royal advisors, heretics (of both the Catholic AND protestant pedigree) and anyone else who unwittingly stumbled into a king’s ill favor. Basically, I wanted to see where Anne Boleyn lost her head to her husband’s temper and an executioner’s blade. If nothing else, I wanted to stand upon the ground where the psychotic, power-mad, sociopathic King Henry VIII had a truly remarkable woman murdered… and proclaim a victory for fiercely unrepentant females everywhere.
We’re like dandelions. You may cut us down, but our roots run deep, our seeds fly far and we’re as stubborn as spring… stampeding into summer whether you like it or not.2) We wanted to have a drink at the site of the “Winchester Tavern”: the haunt of the unwitting, bumbling anti-hero, Shaun in the classic zombie movie “Shaun of the Dead.”
How’s that for a slice of fried gold?
Unfortunately, it turns out the pub is closed and the building has been converted into “flats”… which is a fancy, British term for the far less sophisticated reality: “apartments”.Our last destination, and the one I was REALLY looking forward to, was the “Jack the Ripper Walking Tour” through the streets of the Whitechapel district.
It occurs to me now, that every single one of these events had something to do with murder and mayhem, and one may be compelled to ask why the hell two medical examiners would travel to the other side of the world, just to indulge in more of what they already do for a living. I don’t really have an answer for you. Death is death, more or less… but this was a chance to hear about it in a cool accent.
So, for those of you who don’t know, Jack the Ripper was a fearsome serial killer in Great Britain who committed his heinous crimes in 1888. By today’s standards, what with horror movies, YouTube and all, Jack’s exploits were relatively tame. But for his time, he was a figure of unspeakable depravity and violence. You can read all about him here. Have fun!
Anyway, despite the advent of far more brutal and sensationalized killers, Jack the Ripper is still a figure of mystery and conjecture, largely because he was undeniably sadistic, but also because he was never captured or identified. (Recently there have been some developments regarding Jack’s identity. If you like, you can read about them here. Have fun!)
Anyway, it’s a big, fat tourist industry in London. Every night there are local historians dragging groups of locals and foreigners, alike through the gruesome tracks of Jack’s heyday. Our tour-guide was a lovely “bloke” who graciously described each of the victims and the circumstances of their bloody demise as we wandered from one crime scene to the next. It was interesting, but not exactly chilling… seeing as how most of the murder sites are now, “flats” or parking lots in what appears to be a relatively clean and quiet neighborhood. I’m not sure how it was for the others on our tour, I’m not even sure how it was for Emily. But at one point, as the tour guide was describing the evisceration of a victim… it struck me that I actually HAVE eviscerated people… and technically, I’ve eviscerated more people than are credited to Jack the Ripper. And I felt this gave me some insight into the theories about who Jack was and what inspired his activities. Of course, I didn’t share my ideas with the tour because I figured I wasn’t the one getting paid to lead it and I was on vacation, after all. But I will say that the theory that Jack had a working knowledge of anatomy is not terribly astute. Just because Jack managed to remove some organs while in the throes of his blood-lust doesn’t imply that he was looking for them… nor does it imply that he actually knew what they were when he stumbled upon them. So he found a kidney… So what? That’s not so hard.
Also, I disagree with the allegation that Jack was, undoubtedly, a man. The senior pathology tech at the medical examiner’s office is a dainty little 60-year-old Asian woman named Barb. And despite her diminutive size and sunny personality, Barb can dismantle a large human corpse faster than a Marine sniper can field strip an assault rifle. She’s terrifying.
(If you’d like to know more about Barb, you can read about her here. Have fun!)
Anyway, all these thoughts were cascading through my head as our tour-guide unveiled his coup de gras. He had been carrying a folder around with him all night and as the tour wound down, he decided it was time to march out the crime scene and autopsy photos. But before he started passing around the pics, he warned everyone that they were gruesome and awful and if you’re of a weak constitution, you oughtn’t look and blah blah blah.
Well, the photos came to me and… I mean… they’re not anything I would show to my mom. But I guess I’ve been ruined for the average murder. They were gross, I guess. I dunno, maybe it’s because they weren’t in color. But in a now-characteristic lack of self-control, I leaned over to Emily and muttered, “Dude, I’ve got photos worse than this on my phone right now.”
It was true. In the not-to-distant past one of my illustrious co-workers had dropped and broke our work camera, the one we used to take scene photos. Our boss still hadn’t given us the funds to buy another one, stating that he had no intention of shelling out for a new camera until we could offer him a “good explanation” for what happened to the last one and prove that we could take care of our equipment.
We had been without a functioning camera for some time since the best explanation we could come up with for what happened to the last one was: “gravity”. And the concept of “essential equipment” was apparently lost on administrators who hadn’t left their office-chairs in 20 years. So, without another option provided by our employer, we had been taking scene photos with our cell phones… a solution that was far from ideal. In fact, I’m pretty sure taking scene photos with cell phones is one of the biggest breaches of confidentiality you can commit as a medical examiner… since often, people’s cell-phone photos are uploaded to some”cloud” or something and end up on Facebook. Fortunately that hadn’t happened to any of us so far. But still, it’s a dicey business. Especially when you forget to erase the pictures and you’re scrolling through your personal gallery, showing your buddies pics of your dog and suddenly everyone gets an eye-full of a fatal motorcycle accident… the kind of thing that would even make old Jack flinch.
I expected Emily to agree… or at least sympathize. But it would seem she works in a county where they can afford to replace broken equipment, because she just gave me a weird look and passed the Ripper pics to the next tour participant.
And I felt weird.
I realized I was weird.
I am weird.
It’s weird to have human evisceration in your wheelhouse. It’s weird to have pictures of dead bodies on your phone. It’s weird to come to London and only want to see places where people either died… or where movies were filmed of people dying.
But you’re weirder… you’re the one reading about me.
Wanna see some pictures of my dogs?