17 December 2020

In Security

I had good days and I had bad days working security at El Cerrito Plaza, but most of my days were neither. I checked doors, I answered the phone, I told people not to skate or bike through the common areas. I did walk-throughs of stores, I ate Hot Pockets microwaved in my office or called whoever I was dating at any given time on my break. I talked to people, listened to people. I dressed up as Batman and handed out stickers and candy to kids for the Plaza’s Halloween trick-or-treat event. When there were problems, I tried to solve them peacefully. Most nights I’d finish and go have a few drinks at the Mel-O-Dee and bullshit with whoever was sitting around: very often cops from the next town over, some of whom, legend has it, got drunk and shot out the streetlights in the parking lot one night. Despite its proximity to Oakland and a population of 25,000, El Cerrito was very much a small town. The Plaza, at least then, was a small town in a small town. 

Occasionally there’d be a major incident – we had a couple of armed robberies, a few fights, a suicide on the edge of the property, an elderly driver who crashed his car into the doughnut store – but for the most part, security at El Cerrito Plaza was mundane: “nothing to report at this time,” as it read on my daily activity reports. Even when I was running towards a call of drunks fighting at Chuck E. Cheese or the undercovers wrestling with a shoplifter at the grocery store, I was never really scared at work. Stressed out? Sure. Tired? Definitely. Scared? No.

Except once. 

The sun was shining and since I wasn’t carrying a radio to talk to the chief or the management office, it was likely a Saturday afternoon in the summer of 2000. I had just finished a semester-long First Responder – emergency medicine and advanced first aid – night class certification at City College. I was on foot patrol along the east sidewalk, walking toward Lucky grocers when I saw a small crowd of people gathering around something in the parking lot. 

Then I heard someone screaming. 

I ran towards the crowd. As I got there, I saw what they were staring at. 

It was a girl, 19 or so, lying on the asphalt like she had simply fallen from the sky and crumpled there. She was motionless. Her face was blue. Her boyfriend was kneeling next to her, shaking her arm, and begging her to wake up in whimpering sobs. There was a desperate fear in his eyes and when he looked up at me, pleading and broken by fear, I went fucking cold. 

For that split second, I wasn’t just scared, I was frozen sick by the dread and terror and grief that was pouring from this kid in waves – and then I felt something inside me contract and expel it, replacing it with this warmth and light that I can only describe as grace. 

While intellectually I understand that it was a cascade of endorphins, hormones, and neurotransmitters flooding my brain to override my paralysis, there’s another part of my intellect that embraces the sheer mathematical impossibility of that moment – or any moment, really – as something miraculous, as something worth calling grace. 

And in that moment, I remember feeling like I was outside my body, watching myself from a distance, issuing commands as I knelt beside her. But more than that, I remember feeling an inexplicable love – mercy – for this girl and time slowing down, shutting the world out. 

I didn’t need to put my cheek to her mouth to know that I wouldn’t feel the soft exhalation of her breath and so I gently cupped her chin in my right hand, placed my left on her forehead, and tilted her head back to open her airway. 

I remember the tenderness I felt for her as she drank that light from me, the summer air filling her lungs and returning the color to her face, and how she seemed so small, and how grateful I was to see her eyes reflecting the sun welcoming her back to life. 

Adapted from a longer essay. – KSA