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End of the Line

He got on the Ravenswood el at Armitage--an elderly, birdlike man, smartly dressed, with an impeccable white goatee. He took the seat next to mine and fussed for a few moments with his worn leather briefcase. I didn't pay him much attention. He seemed normal enough. He looked like a music teacher, or a curator at a museum: someone who'd been riding the el into the Loop every afternoon for decades. But I did get the feeling he wasn't well. He acted tired, as though he'd had to run for the train and it had taken more out of him than he'd expected.

The train clattered around the curves south of Armitage. My seatmate sighed a couple of times and let the briefcase hang listlessly between his knees. I continued to ignore him. I was in no mood to talk. I was uncomfortable myself: as we cleared the shadows of the buildings along the tracks, the car was filled up by brilliant light, the sort of silent furnace that sometimes makes you feel as though the el is taking you too close to the sun.

Then we slid back into the shade on another curve and pulled into Sedgwick station. The doors opened. My seatmate suddenly started up--I figured he hadn't realized what stop we were at. But he never made it to his feet. He tumbled face down into the aisle as though he'd been hit over the head.

Nobody moved. I don't suppose anyone ever does when something like this happens on the el--you don't want to get involved too quickly if the odds are it's just a drunk nodding off. The doors closed; the train started up again. I ran to the front of the car and hammered on the door for the motorman. We hadn't yet cleared the platform; he put on the brakes and cracked open his door.

"You got a passenger who's collapsed," I said.

"Collapsed?" He seemed relieved, almost jovial. "Oh, well, that's OK then." OK that I'd stopped the train, or OK that it wasn't a man with a gun? He called for an ambulance over his walkie-talkie as he followed me back into the car.

Everybody was still sitting where they were, not talking, as though embarrassed. The man still lay where he had fallen. A woman who'd been sitting behind us finally got up and leaned over him. She asked loudly, "Are you all right?" He didn't move. "Are you all right?" she shouted into his ear. He still didn't move.

I crouched down beside her and we turned him over. That was not a moment I'm going to forget. His eyes were staring upward and his mouth was hanging open wider than I thought it was possible for a mouth to stretch, revealing a perfect ring of yellow teeth. His nose had been broken by the fall and blood had run over his cheeks. His skin had turned a grayish purple.

The woman said, "I think I feel a pulse." She leaned over and shouted in his face, "Do you understand me? You're going to be all right!"

"I don't think so," the motorman said to me. "That isn't a good color, is it?"

The woman looked up at us and asked, "Do you know CPR?"

The motorman shook his head; I turned to the other passengers and said in my firmest voice, "Anybody know CPR?"

A man in a black turtleneck stood up, as though shaking himself awake, and said, "I learned it ten years ago but I've never done it."

"Well, now's the time," I said, and made way for him.

The woman bent forward to breathe into the gaping mouth; then the man in the turtleneck pushed open the fallen man's overcoat and began to knead at his elegant striped shirt. After a minute the woman said to me, "My hands are shaking so much I can't tell if there's a pulse. Could you try?"

I felt his wrist and his neck. His skin was warm, leathery, and yielding, and I couldn't believe that's how he'd feel if he were dead--but there was no pulse. His face was still frozen in that same stare, his teeth wide as a predator's maw. His nose had stopped bleeding. Behind me the motorman said into his radio, "I'm asking for the third time now. I need an ambulance." The radio answered, "We're working on it." The woman looked at me and I shook my head. I wanted to say "I think he was dead before he hit the floor," but I stopped myself: what if he could still hear me? The woman said "I think we should keep trying" and bent over his mouth again. The man in the turtleneck waited, as though deciding whether he should go back to his seat; but he picked up the rhythm again at the right moment.

There was nothing I could do but get in the way; I went out on the platform and took a deep breath. A woman came bustling out of the second car and glared in through the window at the huddle of people. "Is this going to take long?" she demanded. "It better not. I'm in a big hurry."

Without thinking, I said, "Lady, the man is dying. You want to cut him a little slack?"

She peered in through the window again and turned back to me. Whether it was because I'd made her look callous or because she really was upset about missing her appointment, I've never in my life seen such a venomous expression of hate.

Somebody else came up and said, "What's taking the ambulance so long? You know, there's a hospital a block from here. Let's call them and get an ambulance."

The motorman, who had also drifted out onto the platform, answered, "The ambulance is on the way."

"It should have been here by now. Something's wrong. I'm going to call and get an ambulance."

"Don't do that," the motorman snapped.

"I am. I'm going to call them right now and get an ambulance."

"Look," the motorman said tensely. "I call the dispatcher. He calls 911. They have a list of locations near here that are even willing to send an ambulance. He calls the first one. If the ambulance isn't out on a call, it comes. If it is out on a call, he calls the next one on the list. And so on. That's the only way the ambulance ever gets here. Ever. So don't call. They won't help you. You're only going to confuse things. Don't do anything at all."

So none of us did anything at all. We stood on the platform and looked down at the traffic moving peaceably through the intersection. The air was clear and quiet. There were no flashing lights hurtling toward the station; nor, for once, was there the sound of a siren anywhere in earshot, not so much as a car alarm to disturb the chattering birds. The conductor's voice came over the PA system: "We apologize for the delay. We have a sick passenger."

Idly, I walked down the platform. The doors were open all along the train, but no one got out. They sat or stood as they always did when waiting out an inscrutable CTA delay. Somebody in one of the middle cars asked me if I knew what was going on, and I said, loud enough so everyone could hear, "A man had a heart attack and they're waiting for an ambulance." Then I said, "I don't think it'll do any good, though." I don't know why I said that. No one answered me, but there was a weird movement in the car, a sort of collective flutter, as if everyone had shifted in their seats all at once.

I came to the last car. Another train was creeping up the tracks toward the station as though sneaking up on our rear. Beyond it, in the haze of distance, there was a third train poised on the curve. There had to be other trains stacked up behind that one: we'd been here 20 minutes already. The paralysis might have spread all the way back to Kimball. I pictured a string of stopped trains spread out along the line, deep into the north side, among the pale silhouettes of rooftops and water towers and church steeples. It made me feel better, somehow. It was almost a kind of acknowledgment: a moment of silence the length of the Ravenswood line, to commemorate a frequent rider.

Restless now, I started back. One or two more people had come out of the train, and they stared down at the far end of the platform like worried gophers peering out over the rims of their holes. Everyone else was still. At last a clatter sounded from the stairwell as two paramedics came sauntering up, carrying a stretcher between them and laughing at some private joke. They disappeared into the first car. Behind the glass the huddle broke up, and the paramedics bent down to their work.

More passengers had come wandering out onto the platform. They did what I expected they would do--but what I had somehow, forlornly hoped they wouldn't do. That is, they complained. They complained about how long this was taking, of course; more than one, with hands thrown up in limp resignation, said "Well, I'm screwed now for sure." They were made livid at the languor of the paramedics--"Did you see how slowly they were walking? It's outrageous! They ought to run." They blamed the CTA and the city for some unspecified but universal failing-- as though this were exactly the kind of thing we shouldn't have to put up with, as though the government were responsible because someone had died and we were inconvenienced by it.

It depressed me to no end: but then it occurred to me that we were complaining because we had no idea what else to do. No one knew if we were supposed to bow our heads, or send for a priest, or just check through the man's pockets for ID. We weren't in the habit of dealing with a death in public. People were supposed to die out of sight, like squirrels and pigeons do. Somewhere out there in the clutter of rooftops were rooms set aside for such private affairs, luxurious rented rooms where death could be handled by professionals and attended by invited guests, like a catered dinner party. But we couldn't even get the car to come out and pick up the host; we had to watch his life end as though it were another missed appointment. We could only do what we always do: stand around helplessly and whine about how screwed up and inefficient the system has become.

Inside the car, the paramedics had given up. With their stretcher folded like a lawn chair they heaved the body up and strapped it in. A path was cleared before them, and they carried him out like servants bearing a king on his throne. They hadn't covered his face. I got one more look as they disappeared down the stairs: the skin was a pale lifeless gray, and the eyes and mouth were still locked in that mad glare. It wasn't a look of pain, or surprise, or even anger; it was a kind of unreadable, unearthly hostility.

We all got back on board, and the doors closed. As we glided out of the station the conductor's voice came over the PA system: "Thanks for your patience. We're sorry for the delay. We had a passenger who was...really very sick."