One of my oldest friends (I'll refer to him as "Sam," because of the job he does) was up here in Rochester these past few days as a lecturer to a conference of police hostage negotiators. Sam and I grew up in the Bronx together, met in high school, and have been friends for over 30 years. We have a lot of shared history between us, and though we do communicate somewhat frequently via e-mail, Facebook, etc, we haven't seen each other in a while due to the distance from here to back home in NYC.
Sam is a NYPD detective, which if I were to get into a time machine and look back 30 years on, would have been the most unlikely job that I would have expected him to be involved with. We (meaning friends of his) used to make jokes at his expense along the lines of "They're going to let you carry a gun?" As the years have passed, it seems obvious that Sam chose the right path for himself.
I still remember where we met; We were part of the running crew of "Fiddler On The Roof," which was being staged during our junior year of high school. He was brash, bombastic, outspoken, and knew what he was doing, from a technical standpoint. We became good friends pretty quickly, and he introduced me to the wonders of CB (citizen's band) radio, where I was acquainted with an entirely different circle of people that I would become friendly with. We both joined the local citizen's patrol team, and he joined the local volunteer ambulance corps. I was not to keen on that idea, riding on an ambulance, until the summer of 1976, when I saw an elderly woman get struck and killed by a city bus. I felt helpless, not knowing what to do, and it was Sam that prodded me to take a first-aid course with the corps. Little did I know at the time that it would be my gateway into my 22-year career in emergency medical services.
Sam and I were rambunctious, especially when it came to women. It was the 70's, the age of experimentation of all sorts. We shared many things, including jobs, drugs (nothing too heavy), and girlfriends. I remember his brown, 1974 Grand Torino. I especially remember the backseat on many a night in the parking lot at Orchard Beach. If that backseat could talk...though Sam kept himself occupied with his girlfriend in the front seat as well.
I remember the time we "borrowed" one of our volunteer squad's ambulances, drove it to Orchard Beach around midnight, and pulled up behind a van - very quietly - all lights off. We got close enough to the rear doors, turned on the emergency lights, and yelled over the PA system, "WHERE'S MY DAUGHTER?!!!"
It was fun watching the bodies fly up and down in the back of the van while we peeled away. Nope, we didn't get caught.
Sam became a cop in 1987, the same year I started working in Brooklyn. He had been in the medical field for a time, and was even in physician's assistant school. It was however, not to be. A series of events, including a woman that was psychologically abusing him, dashed those hopes.
Sam made his mark with NYPD, first as a patrol officer, then plainclothes, and then his fascination with communications came back to help him, as he got involved first with the Office Of Emergency Management, as a communications tech supporting multiple specialty police units. The big test of his skills came in on Feb. 26th, 1993, when a bomb was detonated underneath the North Tower of the World Trade Center. This was the scene:
Sam was in the middle of all of it, trying to coordinate all the various agencies that responded to this disaster. One of the problems was that there was not one single frequency that they all could communicate on. It was all a bit chaotic, but Sam was directly responsible for getting everyone involved in understanding each other. It was because of his work this day, he was promoted to detective investigator. He became in demand as a speaker worldwide, and then in 1998, he became part of TARU (Technical Assistance Response Unit), which backs up the Hostage Negotiation Team. (NYPD has the oldest such team in the world.)
Through all this, he has survived divorce, amongst other personal disasters, and then came 9/11. Sam survivied both towers coming down, but spent 12 days in that pit, photographing bodies for identification as they were pulled from the wreckage. It was that event, amongst some other ones that brings us up to today.
The Sam I saw here in Rochester is a shell of the man I knew even just a few years ago. The bombastic, supremely confident (sometimes overly so) over-the-top guy was gone. There were flashes of it when he was lecturing to his fellow officers, and when he would be talking amongst them at the after lecture party, but away from them, with me, he retreated into a shell that I never saw him have at any point in his life.
As it would turn out, he told me that he had been battling depression for some time, and only recently started taking medication to combat it. He is also looking for a therapist to help him. He did battle this once before, while undergoing his divorce, which drove him to the point of putting his gun in his mouth and almost pulling trigger. What saved him, which he related to me back then, was thinking of his kids. He seemed to pull himself together after the divorce, as it was in many ways a weight lifted off his shoulders. As with Sysiphus however, the stone soon rolled back.
Looking into his eyes, I saw parts of myself, of my own battle with depression a few years back, of issues in my life that drove me into therapy, and how I vowed never to go down that rabbit hole for anything - or anyone - ever again. I mentioned that term to him, "rabbit hole," and he liked it a lot. He said that it perfectly described how he was feeling. It was the first time in a long time that we found a common connection in this way.
As I showed him around the city I have called home for the past 10 years, bringing him to my theatre, my house, and having him take myself and Mrs. N. out for breakfast before driving him to the airport, it occurred to me that I needed to keep closer tabs on my old friend.
I called a mutual friend in Long Island, who is still friends with another person that was part of our circle of friends from back in the day. That person is a therapist, and I'm going to see if I can get Sam in touch with her.
All I can do now, is hope.
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