As a child of the television culture, I‘ve seen just about every sort of gruesome or tragic event replayed or re-enacted by reality-based TV, or by the evening news. You’d think that this bloody overkill would have desensitized me when the real thing happened in front of me. Isn‘t desensitization what politicians cite as a root cause of violence?
Well, guess what? I’m not as desensitized as I thought — though I was ashamed to discover how uncaring the institutions of our city can be.
The journey to this epiphany began at 9 p.m. on Thursday, March 30, as I was making my way out the door of the community center where I attend an A.A. meeting. The intensity runs high during our 90-minute gatherings, and so most people, me included, like to unwind outside the front door — some smoking, some chatting, some hanging out waiting for rides. Directly across Bates Avenue is the bedraggled Sunset Pacific Motel. Which, for some of the assembled, harbors nasty memories that bear directly on their need to be in A.A. Some people know of the place as “the Adult Movies motel” after a sign that promotes this attribute; others as the “Bates Motel,” re-christened in homage to Hitchcock‘s Psycho.
Just then, a resident on the motel’s second floor decided to put on a little burlesque. Gyrating as if on a runway, she writhed and wiggled at the window, and soon the whole group was fixated. Making her way to the window, she leaned out and removed her top, flashing her breasts over the railing. “Ignore her,” someone shouted. “Maybe she‘ll stop.”
But she just got more agitated, doing a kind of spastic ostrich dance that was impossible to look away from. Then she lifted her left leg out the window and threw her head back a little, in a vampy way, and at that point I knew what was going to happen, as if it had been pre-ordained, but I could do nothing to stop it. Despite admonitions from the crowd to “Get back in the room,” she lifted her other leg out the window, as if there were a ledge or balcony beneath it.
She fell, arms flailing for the second it took to hit the concrete two-and-a-half stories down, hips first, then head slamming onto the pavement. Two sounds — that of pelvis snapping on driveway, and the screams of the assembled — are indelible in my brain. No Hollywood sound effect I‘ve heard sounds like the real cracking of bones. I staggered about, punch drunk, for about 30 seconds, choking back vomit and hyperventilation before making my way, with other witnesses, to her contorted body, semi-fetal at the base of the building.
My friend Will ascertained a weak pulse, and someone with a cell phone got through to the LAPD, while I and a few others ran up to Sunset Boulevard to flag down a black-and-white. Five minutes after the police arrived, the Fire Department and paramedics came. The ambulance headed east down Sunset, passing me as I headed home.
Nothing — not calls, not talking about it, not pacing, not meditating — could erase the endless replay of the fall. Like a tape loop in the brain, rewinding and revising, and self-recriminating: Why didn’t we stop looking at her? Why didn‘t we scream louder to keep her in the room? And that damned crash and crack. Finally, at about 3 a.m., I passed out.
The next day, Friday, I decided to find out what had happened to the deranged ballerina of Bates Avenue. I knew it would help to have a name to ask for at the hospital, so I returned to the motel, notebook in hand, sought out the night manager, and came away with a name and a room number, 204. I learned, too, that “Thor Little” had been released from county jail that Thursday morning and, most strikingly, that Thor was male. Armed with that knowledge, I assumed that the CountyUSC Medical Center would have the same information and could provide the whereabouts of Mr. Little.
Couldn’t and wouldn‘t. There was no one by that name at County, and when I asked about patients admitted the night before, I was stonewalled, as per the official policy to protect privacy. Finally, I weasel-worded an E.R. attendant into searching Thursday night’s roster of events (which is against policy also) and learned that the person they‘d brought in with massive head trauma from a fall was listed in surgical ICU, Room 9300, as a John Doe — or, in this case, a John Doe listed as “Paul M 52.”
John Doe status means that the hospital does not know the patient’s name. Of course, I did — after three minutes with a motel employee. But hospital workers, who deal with such cases from time to time, did not. This made my blood boil. Had this been some obviously wealthy person who‘d gone out into the night sky, I bet they’d have found his family in a tick‘s heartbeat.
I then pretended to be a cousin calling the ICU where “Paul”Thor was located and learned that Little was on full life-support, in critical condition, on a respirator and in a coma — and his family didn’t know any of this. I called the ICU back and told the floor‘s supervisor who “Paul M 52” actually was and how I knew it. But the next day, when I inquired as to his whereabouts through patient admissions — no Thor. He was still “Paul M 52.” It was now nearly two full days after the accident.
The next day, Sunday, I called an officer pal of mine at the LAPD and asked him what proper procedure was in this case. He told me that the fall might be construed as a suicide attempt, and to call Northeast Division detectives Monday and tell them what I knew. He also told me that what I was doing was “noble.” Gee, if I ever fall out a window, I would hope that some citizen would try to find my people, too.
The following morning, I got a Detective Lewis on the phone, who located the accidentsuicide-attempt report, and so I gave him the information I had. He assured me that he’d follow up. On a return call, he confirmed that, in fact, a Thor Little had been released from county jail on the day of the accident and that they appreciated my help, that it was a “real act of kindness” on my part, and that County Hospital had been alerted. He also told me that there was no way he could provide information about Thor‘s condition — again, to protect Thor’s privacy.
I then went back to County, spoke to the hospital‘s public-relations person and a social worker, but got nowhere — again, Thor’s privacy, especially where the news media were concerned, was sacred. I understand this. Sensational media coverage can hurt a victim a second time. All the same, I was both numbed and angered by the juxtaposition of their pats on the back (“You‘re such a good citizen, Mr. Angel”) with their platitudes about privacy, which often felt like a mask for indifference or a circle-the-wagons attempt to avoid bad publicity. “How about doing your damned jobs,” I wanted to shout, “then I wouldn’t need to ‘meddle’ with a patient‘s privacy.” And was it so wrong to want to know whether the poor soul was still alive?
I didn’t know what to expect when I called the County Coroner a few days later and raised the subject of John Does. I got a staffer, who asked that I withhold his name and who seemed to feel as I did about the fate of Thor. He told me that the coroner receives about 200 John Does and 100 Jane Does a year (dead, of course), and that, in the end, about 4 percent remain unidentified. Theoretically, a living John or Jane Doe is dealt with much the same as a dead one — minus the refrigeration. The first obvious step, he said, is to fingerprint the person. Because Thor had been in jail, authorities could have identified him quickly — although not as readily, perhaps, as by inquiring at the motel‘s front desk.
From what I could determine, Thor’s outlook was bleak. As far as I know, he‘s still somewhere in the gloomy edifice of CountyUSC, hooked up to tubes and a breathing machine, still and comatose. I don’t know whether his family members, or those who care about him, have been able to locate him or not. Being a child of television, I can‘t help but script a better ending in my mind — where Thor somehow recovers, gets back on his feet, and maybe even joins us in our A.A. meeting across from the Sunset Pacific someday. And in this version, the bureaucrats, case workers, officers and nurses somehow rediscover their humanity as regards outcasts who arrive without a name tag.