Archive for November, 2010|Monthly archive page

A Day in the Life of a 911 Dispatcher : 4

In Uncategorized on November 29, 2010 at 12:04 am

Photograph of Super Bowl after-party, Shadyside.

8:29 – Williams borrows three Ibuprofen from a colleague. She has a headache. In such a dark room, with so many glowing screens, so much tension, headaches are common – plus watery eyes, leg-cramps, indigestion, all kinds of discomforts. Emotions can shift as a rapidly as the situations. No one worries about a stolen ATM card in Elizabeth Township, or the anonymous report of loud stereo in Carnegie, or even the woman who hit a deer on a country road and can’t give precise directions. But around 8 p.m., a man was shot in the head while driving his truck through Mt. Washington. He swerved and hit two kids with the grille of his pick-up. No matter how much the heart races, the dispatchers have to stay clear-headed. They may work up to 16 hours in a single shift, taking short breaks for cigarettes or sandwiches, but they must stay alert and organized. They work on holidays. They have turkey dinners on Thanksgiving. They have grinders on the Super Bowl. For the dispatchers, most of their waking lives will unfold in this dark room. And when they leave, they still stick together – barbequing together, bar-hopping together, trading messages on MySpace. They weather prank-calls and raging floods and all-nighters in the situation room. “We’re like a family,” Williams says. “As much as we yell at each other and make fun of each other.”

9:58 – Williams starts to compile her day’s work. “Everything we do, we have to log,” she explains. This helps police write reports. It provides evidence for court cases. They are succinctly coded, and the screen reads like a very brief crime novel: VANDAL, THEFT, SERVIC, TRESSP, DOMES, SUSP. Williams seems almost disappointed that the evening has been so light, but disasters have been averted. At 10:30, she will go home, assured that a cat was saved, a car was towed, a PFA was served to a stalking boyfriend. And tomorrow she’ll come back at 3 p.m., and start it all over again.

A Day in the Life of a 911 Dispatcher : 3

In Uncategorized on November 29, 2010 at 12:03 am

Photograph of Super Bowl after-party, Shadyside.

5:10 – Like clockwork, rush hour begets a string of accidents – a collision in front of Ruby Tuesday’s, an abandoned car parked in the middle of the street. Schools have let out and sports practices are ending, and minors are now flooding the streets in the city’s 120 neighborhoods. Some kids are threatening to fight in Brentwood Park, and at least 30 minors are egging them on. A woman’s pug is loose. An 80-year-old woman, living in a nursing home, has been unconscious for 20 minutes, and her blood pressure is rapidly dropping. An 11-year-old called 911 by accident, panicked and hung up. Williams has to call back. An adult has to confirm that the call was an accident, that all is well, or else she’ll have to send an officer to the scene. Even a bumped speed-dial has to be treated with diehard seriousness.

6:43 – Sometime between a noise complaint (loud music knocking pictures off a neighbor’s walls) and a possible heroin overdose (reported from a third party by text message), Williams receives a quizzical call from a 954 area code, which services Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. The call vanishes before she can answer it, and she only raises an eyebrow, wondering how the number reached here. But stranger things have happened. For the past decade, smaller call centers have closed down, consolidating into this single, enormous room, where every operation in Allegheny county is orchestrated. On September 11, a dispatcher named Randy Tedesco received a call from a woman in Munhall. The woman’s brother was a U.S. marine stationed in New York. He had located two survivors buried in the wreckage of the Twin Towers, but the deadlocked cell-phone traffic meant that he couldn’t make contact with the local 911 dispatchers. Tedesco faxed the marine’s information to the New York dispatchers, and the two men were saved. According to colleagues, Tedesco is very modest about the event. On such an overwhelming day, the call easily could have been dropped, and those two men might not have survived, and the film World Trade Center would not have found its inspiration. As 911 Chief Bob Full succinctly put it: “Anything’s possible.”

7:01 – After a few minutes of silence, Williams sighs. “Yeah,” she says. “It’s dead tonight. You should’ve been here yesterday…” And she tells the story of a young man who went biking and didn’t return by his curfew. A common occurrence, except that the young man had autism, a disability marked by rigid schedules. Williams and her colleagues dispatched police officers, dogs, and even two helicopters. When they found the boy, he was asleep on the bike trail. His chain had broken, he’d suffered a mild panic attack, and he’d passed out. Now that was a night.

A Day in the Life of a 911 Dispatcher : 2

In Uncategorized on November 29, 2010 at 12:01 am

Photograph of sign in slots-machine game room, West Virginia.

4:06 – There is a car accident on a bridge in McKees Rocks – a collision, some injuries, but no entrapments. Mostly the cars are just stuck there. Here the true power of the 911 dispatchers is brought to light: With the tapping of a few keys, the bridge is now shut off. First-responders are deployed. Traffic cones and signs are diverting traffic. It’s suddenly evident how much a dispatcher can accomplish, and how quickly. Williams is now working with law enforcement – every call she receives will be police-related – but on a different night, she could also order fire-trucks to a burning house, or advise a child how to give CPR. All of this is a verbal interaction – there are no surveillance cameras, no satellite pictures. She never refers to a map. The call center doesn’t even have windows. In this all-verbal job, clear communication means the difference between life and death, survival and maiming. And for most calls, once she has dispatched, the police or rescue workers handle things from there. She may talk a victim through a crisis situation – stalking or fire or drunk-driving – and never know what happened once she hung up the phone. Did the victim survive? Williams might never find out.

4:15 – Williams runs the plates of a dump-truck. She doesn’t know why, but an officer at the scene is suspicious of the dump-truck’s driver. “It could be anything,” she says. “He might have run a red light.” She discovers that the dump-truck’s registration has expired, and that the driver’s license is suspended, and that he has no insurance. Williams grimaces. She explains that there is a voyeuristic element to this job – sure, she wants to help people, to save lives, but as long as disasters have to happen, they might as well be interesting. Once again, she doesn’t know the fate of the dump-truck driver – only that he’s in a whole world of trouble. She faxes the information to the officer’s precinct. Somewhere far away, a report will be filed later tonight. And that’s that. Nearby, just as Williams presses the “fax” icon on her screen, a nearby CB crackles: “Disregard,” an anonymous rescue worker says. “The cat has been found!”

4:46 – A peculiar silence falls over the call center. Williams recounts the basic job requirements for a 911 dispatcher: They have to pass a hearing test, they have to demonstrably type at least 25 words per minute, and they have to train for six weeks, sometimes taking field trips to accidents and particularly vulnerable neighborhoods and highways. Then there’s a personality test, designed to weed out mentally unsuitable applicants. But the dispatcher’s personality is a rare one – nearly every one of the call center’s 200 dispatchers is a native Pittsburgher. They specialize in different regions – Williams covers Brentwood, Jefferson, Pleasant Hills, and South Park, plus her native Baldwin, where she has lived all her 28 years. The dispatchers can seem clinical, scientifically objective, but they are also dealing with crises close to home. Williams’ father is an EMS chief. She grew up with the strange hours and the calls in the middle of the night. Her older brother is a paramedic. And when she dispatches a police officer to one house (domestic disturbance), the officer is her younger brother who arrives at the scene.  “We were always around it,” Williams says proudly. “We knew what it was like to have our dinners interrupted. What’s hard is for our families to get used to it.” Her daughter, now three years old, will always see her mother as a dispatcher. Williams plans to retire with this job. But to her husband, a graphic designer, it’s a learning experience. “This job isn’t like any other job,” Williams adds. “Most people know when they’re going home.”

5:03 – Williams clears her board. All emergencies have been resolved thus far. News of a particularly weird emergency – a bleeding scrotum – is rapidly spreading from cubicle to cubicle, followed by laughter (there is no explanation for the bleeding). Williams sits back in her chair. Everything is calm. “Not for long, though,” she says. “Rush hour’s about to start.”

A Day in the Life of a 911 Dispatcher : 1

In Uncategorized on November 29, 2010 at 12:00 am

The following is a story I wrote for Pittsburgh Magazine in 2006. This feature is my proudest contribution. It concerns a day in the life of a 911 dispatcher during the holiday season. Photograph of missing person sign, Bloomington, Indiana.

3:39 p.m. – Marissa Williams sits in her tall ergonomic chair, and her eyes are large and attentive, gazing intently at her five computer screens. Dressed in a navy-blue commando sweater, Williams spends the entire night wearing a headset – one ear covered by a radio, the other ear free. The headset has a control pad that dangles from her neck, and she presses a button to respond to her first major call of the day: A “drive-off,” meaning a driver who filled his car with gas and then drove off without paying for it. The station attendant reads the license plate to her, and she types it into her computer. Suddenly she can read all about this car – whether it’s registered, insured, to whom it belongs. “This happens all the time,” she says. “People sometimes just forget to pay for it. We track them down and remind them to go back and pay. It’s not a big deal.”

3:43 – Leah, who dispatches nearby, taps Williams on the shoulder and asks if she wants take-out. This is a nightly ritual – Williams and her 40 to 50 colleagues sit in the enormous, low-lit call center, answering the calls of victims and police officers, firefighters and EMT’s. And each night, between shootings and car accidents and seizures, they order take-out from any of a hundred restaurants – pizza, Chinese, wraps, hoagies, anything that will fill them up, keep them energized. They have a black binder full of take-out menus, labeled “South Zone Menu.” Tonight, Williams decides not to order – she has two french-bread pizzas in the break-room refrigerator. Instead, she takes her Pepsi bottle, which is now full of tap water, and empties a packet of flavored powder into it. Williams and her colleagues call these “shakies,” and they’re all addicted: Hawaiian Punch, Lipton iced tea, lemonade, Gatorade, the options are endless. “I also love Red Bull,” she says. “I don’t know what I’d do without it.”

3:49 – A caller notifies Williams about a parked car by the highway. The engine is emitting smoke. By the time police arrive at the scene, the smoking has dwindled. “Police on scene,” she types into her log. “Nothing showing.” When asked to rate the night so far, on a scale of one to 10, Williams just giggles. “This is like a three,” she says. “This is nothing.”

A Play is Born

In Uncategorized on November 28, 2010 at 10:29 pm

Photograph of hotel bar, Sosua, Dominican Republic.

Last spring, Duquesne University commissioned me to write a stage-play called Speak Now. The drama will be performed by the Red Masquers in 2011. I can honestly say that this is my toughest playwriting project, a script that has evolved dramatically over the past 10 months. What began as a satire of oil-drilling families later became a satire of New England yuppies and the Robin Hood legend, and for the past half-year has become something completely different.

This afternoon, I finally finished the first full draft of Speak Now. The story is a typical guy-meets-girl, guy-dates-girl, guy-dies-in-house-fire, girl-meets-new-guy, girl-and-new-guy-try-to-get-married-in-Caribbean, first-guy-comes-back-from-dead romantic dramedy. Because I’m pretty happy with the result (which is, to put it mildly, a weird, weird play), here is an excerpt to get palettes whetted.

            STEFAN: I’m gonna punch that guy.

            DORY: Are you?

            STEFAN: I would.

            DORY: You can. Go for it.

            STEFAN: What are you saying?

            DORY: I’m saying you can. If you really want. Go for it. Punch that guy. He brings you free booze, waits on you hand and foot, give you a fucking flashlight – hey, why not? Knock his lights out.

            STEFAN: Why are you being a bitch?

            DORY: Why are you being a douchebag?

            STEFAN: I… LOVE… her.

            DORY: I… KNOW.

            STEFAN: Is nobody on my side, here?

            DORY: Stefan… I’m here… for Kathryn. I’m here for both of you. I took off work. I paid my airfare. And I did it because I love you guys. So can you not go crazy? (Pinches fingers together). Little bit, not crazy?

Stefan sighs and opens bottle. He pours two shots, offers one to Dory, who accepts.

            STEFAN: We’re getting married tomorrow. Come hell or high water.

He knocks it back.

            DORY: Good.

Dory knocks hers back.

            STEFAN: I never loved anybody. Not like her. She’s the real deal, Dory. If I don’t have her, I got nothing.

            DORY: Have her?

            STEFAN: Jesus… to have and to hold… till death do you blah-blah-blah. Yes, have her. Just like she has me. Believe me, she has me way more than I have her.

            DORY: I think she just freaked out.

            STEFAN: Well… (pours another, just for himself). Who do you turn to, when you freak out? The beach? Or the guy who you said yes to?

Breakneck Falls

In Uncategorized on November 20, 2010 at 9:32 pm

Summer now seems long expired. But in memory of warmer days, here is an essay from August 2010. Photograph of the Breakneck Falls ravine, McConnells Mills.

The climb to Breakneck Falls is treacherous. We take slow steps, from rock to rock. We cling to the worn hillside, lowering ourselves down ladders of tree-roots. The vertical slopes drop into a dark ravine, whose depths are obscured by evergreens. Far below, boulders lie at odd angles. None of us are expert climbers, but step by step, we descend the cliff, slide down a muddy escarpment and approach the waterfall.

None of us expected to be here on a Sunday afternoon. But Kylan, my longtime girlfriend, decided to go on a whim.

“Let’s go to McConnell’s Mill,” she said a couple days ago. “I want to go camping.”

The proposal surprised me. Kylan grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs, and before we met, she had never pitched a tent in the woods. She’d never seriously paddled a canoe or strapped on snowshoes. To be fair, I had never really dusted or scrubbed a bathtub, and we have since traded these skills. But this was a new one: In five years, Kylan has never been the first to volunteer a camping trip.

“Really?” I asked.

“Yeah. I’ve been working all summer. I just want a vacation. Even if it’s only for a couple days.”

Kylan isn’t the only one who’s needed some fresh air. Her co-workers, Johanna and Jen, spent most of July in a research lab at Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh. Kylan has toiled for months on her doctoral research in the same cramped office. There have been no road-trips, no roller-coasters, no beaches or boats. And now summer wanes. Next stop, autumn. No time to waste. Jen conscripted her boyfriend Pete and both their dogs. We packed our cars, made a reservation at the state park, and bombed down the highway for McConnell’s Mill State Park.

We made camp in a sunlit knoll, and by 2 p.m. we were hiking along frothy Slippery Rock Creek. Pennsylvania is known for its dull foothills, its bland expanse of forests, but McConnell’s Mill is truly scenic. The rapids rush over rocks, sizzling dramatically in the humid air, and the trails rise and fall along the riverbank. The hiking is relaxed, and so are the hours we spent on the pebbled inlets. It’s against the rules to swim, but Pete and I waded out anyway, subsuming ourselves in cool stream-water.

This would all have been nice – a nice outing, a nice sit around the fire, a nice night wrapped in sleeping bags. But as our party ascended the long road back to camp, Kylan spotted the path to Breakneck Falls. Such a climb was more than nice; this was real adventure.

“You want to go?” Kylan said.

Again, I was delighted to see her leading the way. “Let’s do it.”

Johanna, Jen and Pete have never before descended the ravine, and as they slide down the muddy slope, taking care to find firm handholds, I feel a surge of pride. I’ve visited Breakneck a dozen times. I’ve guided Kylan past the overhangs, across primeval boulders and into silty pools. And now Kylan is guiding her friends, a new generation of explorers. We take pictures in front of the falls, which splash like a heavy rain over the smooth stone. Then we climb the rock face and slip into the cave beneath the falls. The space is like a murky shelf, and climbers can spend hours sitting on a ledge, gazing at the misty canyon.

“This is exactly what I needed,” Kylan says.

With a view like this, who needs roller-coasters?

Downtown All Night

In Uncategorized on November 18, 2010 at 5:27 pm

In honor of Thanksgiving, some reflections on overland travel. Photograph of rural Maryland, taken from an Amtrak dining car.

DuPont Circle, Washington, D.C.

Just remember, if you’re ever in Washington, that the Metro stops running at midnight. On Thanksgiving morning, it doesn’t run until 7 o’clock, so if you’re depending on it, make hotel reservations. When I arrived at the Greyhound station at 11:52 p.m., I didn’t know these things. I walked past the Capitol, ready to sleep in the bed my Grandmother had dressed in her comfy Silver Spring cottage.

Halfway down the Mall, just a couple blocks from the Washington Memorial, there’s an easy-to-find Metro station; this is the one I track down every year to catch a train to Silver Spring. This time, at the bottom of the long escalator, a cage-like metal frame had dropped from the ceiling, sealing me out.

I just started laughing. Of fucking course the Metro was closed. Why the hell not?

So I started trekking toward DuPont Circle, which is in a college neighborhood, which means young, partying people. When I finally got there (Washington can be very confusing for a planned city), the clubs were jammed with college kids; the lines were long and full of sparsely dressed young women – all talking on cell phones, everybody dressed to the nines, all of them glaring at my backpack and chuckling.

I decided to go to a Grown-Up Bar. Screw these kids. First, a stop at the MAC, which was encased in a glass enclosure – the fortress-like ATM that you only find in ritzy downtown areas. Inside, I took out $20 and tried to open the door.

The door wouldn’t budge. I yanked again, then again. I tried the other door. I tried the side-door (which, because of the glare, I didn’t see led into an office). I stood there, taking deep breaths. Was I seriously stuck inside an ATM kiosk?

A woman knocked on the glass. She was brown-skinned, wearing a suede Prada coat. I waved helplessly. She waved back, then pointed to the green button on the wall. It said, “Handicapped Access Only.” I pressed, and nothing happened. She pointed to the door, and I pulled; the glass swung open, resisting only slightly.

“I know,” she said, laughing. “I got stuck in one myself.”

I thanked her and headed to The Front Page, a posh little restaurant-bar where a man named Sergio fed me free beer and shots. When he poured me a second kamikaze, telling me it was on the house, I asked him why.

“Because you’re here,” he said. “It’s a slow night. Just happy you guys are here, is all.”

Insanely, last call in Washington is 1:30 a.m. – a half-hour before Pittsburgh’s last call and three hours before New York’s. People on the street claimed that there were no after-hours clubs, no all-night coffee places, no Howard Johnson’s – literally, not one place where I could nurse a cup of coffee for a couple hours.

So I went to the Mall, curled up on a park bench, and slept for a few hours. No police bothered me; no squirrels danced around my shoulder. For November, the weather was very warm – a full 60 degrees – and the sky was a forgiving overcast. The only disturbance was the plodding of a jogger, which finally woke me around dawn. I walked to Union Station, where everything opens at 7 a.m. The police were friendly, pointing out the Metro station and the Au Bon Pain. I bought a bagel, rubbed my eyes, and determined, fuck it, I’m getting too old for this.

Pills and Horses

In Uncategorized on November 18, 2010 at 5:16 pm

In honor of Thanksgiving, some reflections on overland travel. This following is from The Pittsburgh Monologue Project, c. 2007. Photograph of rural Maryland, taken from an Amtrak dining car.

Pills and Horses (New York)


An older man is sitting in a Greyhound bus, holding a giant carpet bag.


Hey, hey, kid.

Where you headed?

All right, all right, good, good…

I’ m headed all the way up – Northeast Kingdom. Got a girl up there. Girl I met in high-school, we’re talkin’ thirty years ago. Ran into her in Union Square. Can you believe it? Hasn’t changed a bit. Has a horse farm. We’re gonna ride some fuckin’ horses. How about that? Can you beat that?

Yeah, didn’t think so.

Hey, hey – you wanna gimme some eye-contact, here? I’m gonna talk to you, I’m talking to your face, not your fuckin’ earlobe. Get it? A man who doesn’t show you his eyes, doesn’t show you respect, you got that?

Eyes, huh? (Beat). Good.

Greyhound. Can you believe this shit? These people – parolees, dealers, deadbeat dads, the works – fucking gypsy caravan is what it is. How you gonna deal?

I’ll tell you how you’re gonna deal. Gotta self-medicate. Right? Huh?

Whadda you got?

In your bag. You got pills or what? (Beat). Well how the hell you gonna survive this trip kid – ya don’t got pills? It’s like eight hours. See this? (Opens carpet bag). See this? Yeah – I’‘m carrying a fucking pharmacy. Xanax, Paxel, tranqs, beta-blockers, this speedy diet pill shit – arthritis stuff, run-of-the-mill Tylenol (mimes jerking off), and, ya know, that male enhancement stuff – ‘cause if I’m going all the way to podunk Vermont, and I’m gonna ride some goddamn horses with this girl, I’m gonna be getting some ya-know-ya-know. Right? I didn’t wait thirty years to show some limp-ass cartilage – I’m bonin’ up, you know?

Eyes! (Raises fingers to eyes).

Don’t be such a Puritan, kid. It’s natural as birds, bees, and corn-dogs at a Yankees game.

And you know why I can do this? Take three weeks off to ride a fuckin’ Morgan horse in Vermont in beautiful autumn? Rent control. That’s why. Rent control. (Beat). And I bought this shithole apartment building in Brooklyn in 1978, and now it’s worth three million dollars. I don’t mess around.

Hey, so you a rapper, or what?/

You like a rapper.

You got your hooded sweatshirt, and that ghetto fuckin’ hat. I just assumed.

No, it’s cool if you are. I dig it – homes. I’m down with the spirit of hip-hop, hip-hop. I’m down, dawg. (Laughs to himself).

Oh, you’re a writer.

Oh, like the Great American Novel? That’s sweet. That’s adorable. So, hey, write about me, huh? Mr. Steinbeck. You gonna write about your crazy Brooklyn Greyhound friend, crazy fucker in row six? You gonna write about the horses and the pills and all that? Tell ya what – I give this to you. Take my life. It’s yours. L’Chaim.

(Laughing cynically. Looks disconcerted). Hey, kid, I’m just jerking your chain. You seem like a good kid. Tell you what – you put up with me, I’ll give you a percoset. (Beat). Come on, split it with me. Makes the ride go by like (snaps).


All right, okay – suit yourself. You take care of yourself. I’m taking a little trip. (Opens pill bottle and shakes pill out).

Hey, eyes! (Smiles. He swallows pill morosely). That’s what I’m talking about.

Dining Car

In Uncategorized on November 18, 2010 at 4:17 pm

In honor of Thanksgiving, some reflections on overland travel. Photograph of rural Maryland, taken from an Amtrak dining car.

Dining Car


In light so dim

the blue seats and tables

halo hazily.

The windows’ black glass

blitzes headlights here,

a warehouse lamp there,

peninsulas of brightness

extending from the black hour.


We rock,

feel the tracks’ million segments,

watch the chairs swivel

as if sat-in by anxious ghosts.


I force-chew

a mouthful of garden-burger

that tastes like the plastic

it was microwaved in.


So far from signals,

my cell-phone is a stone

in my pocket,

and even my pulse

feels stilled.

Oakland Fireworks : 5

In Uncategorized on November 14, 2010 at 5:23 pm

Smoke spews mysterously from a former warehouse, Strip District.

But I also remember the Fourth of July, and my heart aches.

I remember sliding open the window and climbing the fire-escape to the roof. I brought a thermos of Tang and walked across the tar, just as the sun disappeared over the horizon. All around me, the roofs of South Oakland blackened, and just as a gloaming violet conquered the cloudless sky, I watched fireworks rising in the distance, exploding above the Downtown skyscrapers. Then more fireworks, over the hills in Lawrenceville. Rockets exploded in Homewood and Schenley Park, above the South Side and Mount Washington. These flashes were distant, but their blasts echoed through the humid air, a chorus of light and noise. Sitting on a rusted air-duct, watching a dozen shows igniting in tandem, I felt the city was rejoicing in my own humble independence.

Sometimes I think of going back there, climbing that fire escape and finding that roof. But I think better of it. There is only one first time, and that alone must last.