Sometimes the most intense situations don’t happen inside the venue. It’s often the incidents outside the front doors that turn out to be the most memorable. Things like fights, medical incidents, ambulances and police vehicles arriving, vandalism, drug deals, etc. On this particular night I was presented with the possibility of finding a dead person.
While hanging around outside the front doors of the venue chatting with my coworkers, a woman came up to me asking for help. She informed me that she thought she just saw a dead woman in a car in the parking lot up the street. She described her as lifeless, creepy, and that she was totally non-responsive. She said there was vomit on the ground outside her car and that she suspected that the woman overdosed on drugs. She described this woman’s lips as blue and her eyes sunken. Since this is downtown Portland, it wouldn’t be too outlandish for this situation to happen. Most of the rehab drug treatment centers are located here, as well as residential centers and easy access to drugs.
This patron had done her due diligence by showing me a photo on her smart phone of the car’s license plates. She gave me the location of the parked car up the block and the make and model. I thanked her for getting this information to us and connected her with a manager who was already calling an ambulance. She had been in our venue for a show and went to her car when she saw the other woman. She then took a photo and came back to tell us about it.
People react strangely around death. Some people panic and freeze. Some do anything they can to avoid it. Some don’t even want to talk about it. Why the woman didn’t call the police herself I don’t know. So while everybody was milling around trying to help and respond in some way, I decided to walk up the street to find the woman in the car. It was a long, surreal walk full of many thoughts.
I’ve probably had less experience with human death than most people. My parents are still alive, and attending my grandparent’s funerals as a young man was my first experience ever actually looking at a dead person. I do remember grabbing my Grandfather’s hand in the casket and feeling like I was grabbing onto a piece of an ancient tree, or heavy granite. It was immovable. There was a complete absence of any pliancy. There was absolutely no life left inside. His personality, love, and soul had of course left his body. What was left was just the empty vessel that housed those special things during his life. He wasn’t there at all, and we were just left with an artificially preserved body with skin-colored makeup.
It’s strange because, in a way, I have always been drawn to death. Or at least fascinated by it. I’m a loving and happy person with much enthusiasm and light. But my artistic tastes certainly lean towards the darkness. From a young age I was infatuated, even obsessed, with scary death-oriented things. I embraced Halloween, the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe, the Grim Reaper, and haunted houses. Growing older I fell in love with horror films and horror books. I quickly graduated from Stephen King and Bram Stoker to Clive Barker and H.P. Lovecraft. My favorite horror film is still The Exorcist. I can list the horror films of John Carpenter, Dario Argento, and Lucio Fulci in order. In college I read books written by forensic psychologists, crime scene investigators, and people who studied serial killers. Fantasy author Madeleine L’Engle said, “Maybe you have to know the darkness before you can appreciate the light.”
I still don’t understand how I never actually went through a goth phase, wearing black clothes and eyeliner and acting like a sad vampire. Because my musical tastes and lyrical topics certainly always focused on death. Dark wave, goth, metal, and industrial music have been my go-to genres for decades now. I’ve always loved listening to the ethereal music of Dead Can Dance, This Mortal Coil, and Cocteau Twins played at night by flickering candlelight. 80’s goth titans Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Cure, and Bauhaus never leave my playlist. The aggressive, sometimes Satanic intensity of Slayer, Death Angel, and Testament still get me in precisely the right mood when it’s time for that mood. And can’t even begin to tell you how many hours I spent with headphones on listening to Ministry, Nine Inch Nails, and Android Lust. Music is life. Even when it evokes death.
But here I am walking up the street alone to be the first responder to a report of a potential corpse in a car. If the woman has indeed died I would just direct the ambulance to the correct vehicle with my flashlight. Or I might find her alive and needing medical attention so I’ll perform CPR. I’ve had the CPR and First Aid training probably more times in my life than most people due to all my various jobs. But I’ve never had to actually perform it on a real person. As I walk up the sidewalk I’m recalling the mantra from the CPR class that I just recently completed. “Ah, ah, ah, ah, staying alive, staying alive.” That’s the speed in which you are supposed to be giving compressions. 30….2….30….2. That’s the pattern of chest compressions and rescue breaths. If you’ve had the training or actually performed CPR you know that you are actually going to be breaking ribs, cartilage, or the sternum. But having broken ribs is obviously a tolerable side effect when compared to dying.
As I approached the parking lot where the woman was reported things slowed down cinematically, like they always do. The Billy Idol song, ‘The Dead Next Door” started playing on the soundtrack in my head. I know the song is about the threat of nuclear war, but I can’t help what 80’s gem pops into my head at moments like these. I was thinking to myself, “This might be it. This might be the night that I find a dead person.” The classic 1986 movies River’s Edge and Stand By Me also flickered awake in my memories. My night could change so very drastically based on what happens in the next 60 seconds. Another dark thought I had was, “This could be the night that a person dies in my arms.” I’ve owned many dogs in my life and have held them as the pentobarbital gently sends them to the rainbow bridge. Each time this happens I am devastated and part of my soul blackens and dies off. But I can’t imagine the experience of having a human being looking into your eyes and talking to you as they pass on to wherever it is that they go. Is there a death rattle? A squeezing of my hand? Do their pupils enlarge? Will I feel the weight of their body change or feel their essence leave it? As much as most of my life has been focused or interested in death, now all I can think is, “Please don’t let this woman die. I do not want to find a dead or dying person. I do not want this.”
Knowing that every second counts and I need to find this person quickly, I was fast-walking into the parking lot with the description of the car. I found it and walked over to it with trepidation. Sure enough there was a puddle of vomit outside the driver’s door, and a woman inside. She was splayed across the front seat like a doll dropped from a substantial height. I looked for any needles or other drug gear on the front seat but saw nothing. I was considering what I would use to break the window if she didn’t respond and the doors were locked. I walked around to the passenger door so I could see her face and shined my flashlight through the window. This woman indeed looked dead. Her clothes were disheveled and she did not look well. Her eyes were red and watery and did look sunken with dark bags around them. Her face was gaunt and very pale. She was laying in a way that no normal person would lay. Her lips were the wrong color and her hair was all ratted out. In a word, she was haggard.
I tapped the handle of my flashlight on the window and I saw her move. I tapped it again and tried the door but it was locked. She looked up at me with a very confused look on her face. I shined my flashlight on my own face so she could see I was smiling at her and had a security shirt on. I made the gesture asking her to roll down her window and she did. I told her that I was security at the venue and wanted to know if she was ok or needed help. She nodded that she was ok. I told her that someone saw her in her car and was concerned for her health. I asked her what her plan was for getting home. She said that her friends were still in the venue watching the show. She told me she had way too much to drink at the show tonight. So she came out to nap in her car to wait for her friends to drive her home after the concert. And that she barfed outside the car window. I wanted to tell her that we all thought she was dead. I wanted to hug her I was so happy that she was among the living. I was ecstatic for this stranger who now has the rest of her life to lead.
I called back to my supervisor on my radio and told them that the woman was conscious and responsive and could answer questions. I heard cheers of relief and happiness over the radio. Just then the ambulance rolled up and I signaled them over to her car. I told her that the paramedics were called when we didn’t know if she was ok, so they were still going to make sure that she didn’t need any medical attention. This woman was more embarrassed at this point, but she was understanding and cooperative with the EMTs. They spoke with her and took her vitals and released her without any further treatment. A couple of my managers came out to the parking lot and I filled them in on her story. This was the best possible outcome for this situation. Utter relief.
Two months later I was working a dance night at the same venue when I saw a familiar face. The woman we thought was dead in the car was here again tonight dancing her ass off. I looked closer at her and noticed that she looked the same as she did the night we thought she was dead. No difference at all. She had the same purple eye shadow. She was naturally a very skinny person with a gaunt face and noticeable cheekbones. Her hair was intentionally styled to looked matted and unkempt. She wears purple-blue lipstick whenever she goes out, and her fashion choice is that of homeless zombie chic. That night I found her in the parking lot it wasn’t just the odd hue of the arc-sodium parking lot lights through car windows that made her look dead. That’s just her regular everyday aesthetic choice. She puts in the extra effort to intentionally look like that. Like the Ministry song says, “Every day is Halloween.”
She glanced at me a couple of times and I wondered if she even remembered that night, or remembered me talking to her. Probably not. She’s probably just wondering why I’m staring at her. Part of me was tempted to greet her and tell her how glad I was to see her here dancing. And alive. But I just smiled at her and moved on to another area. In my head I said, “I’m glad you’re alive and here living your life. I hope you drink more water tonight than alcohol. Enjoy the dance, living dead girl.”