The trams in Melbourne are bigger than the buses in Vancouver. I rode one on a beautiful January day. I sat near the front and looked through the windshield like a little kid pretending to be the operator.
It entered Melbourne’s central business district, passed two hospitals. The traffic congested with trams behind and in front. A light changed. We picked up speed.
“Oh God!” the operator suddenly yelled. “No, no, no!”
The tram in front of us had abruptly stopped. We did not.
The windshield exploded, shards flying everywhere. I held onto a straphanger. Everyone else fell over. A young woman flew across the car and smashed into the back of the operator. Smoke filled the cabin. The air tasted like electricity.
I bent down to check on the young woman. Knocked out. I lifted her and kicked open the door, stumbled out. Then I did the strangest thing: I went back into the wreck.
I remember everything as fast and precise. I saw the busted windshield. I felt the tram ending its wounded roll backwards. I watched the smoke clear. I noticed the operator—balding, dressed in blue pants and jacket. He screamed.
The entire dashboard had bent over. The steering wheel, door operating handle, and dials crushed his thighs.
I mention all of this because lately I’ve been pondering how we are all in a collision course of one sort or another. I figure that we see what lies ahead like a game of Double Dutch: we know we can jump in, but what changes if we do? Which brings me back to that tram.
Episodes of M*A*S*H, St. Elsewhere, and ER started to click together in my head like little Tetris blocks of ersatz emergency medical knowledge.
I checked the operator’s eyes to see if they were dilated. And I’ll admit right now that I’m not sure if dilation is a good or bad thing. But I checked because that’s what they do on television.
I asked him if he could feel his legs, again thanks to the TV shows. He said yes. I bent down and looked underneath. I worried his thigh bone had snapped and poked through his leg, but I saw no blood.
I worried that if I pulled him out, he might bleed out. I was faking so hard as a medical professional that unbelievable thoughts crossed my mind. If I pull him out, will he sue me for malpractice? Wait a second: he can’t sue me for malpractice. I’m not a doctor.
The operator from another tram popped her head through the side door. I don’t know why, but I told her I needed a crowbar. She said she had a steel rod. Like an ER doctor, I told her to go get it “stat.” I know.
The steel rod weighed around 10 pounds and was about four feet long. I hoisted it over my head with two balled fists and speared it into the dashboard. It went in about a foot. I started to push on it. It wouldn’t budge.
I was about to give up, but then a miracle happened. Five of the biggest teenage boys I’ve ever seen—they looked like a team of Aussie rules football players—ran up to the tram.
“What’s going on, mate?” one of them shouted to me.
I suppose I was called to a higher power, because I transformed into Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan, ordering my team around.
“You two guys: come into the streetcar and start pushing the metal rod. You three guys: grab the top of the dash from the outside and pull with your feet against the bumper. Now!”
The dash started to bend back. Just an inch, but enough for me to grab the operator and slide him out. The whole time that I was doing this, there was a prim gentleman standing behind me, looking over my shoulder. He wasn’t helping; he was just watching like he had a professional interest.
I laid the operator out on the floor and started checking his legs for blood. I asked him to wiggle his toes. Thank you, Hawkeye Pierce.
I realized then that I had reached my limit. Maybe I had run out of episodes to reference. Regardless, the feeling that I could help disappeared as fast as it arrived.
I turned around and yelled, my voice desperate: “Is there a doctor or a nurse who can help?”
The man behind me tapped me on the shoulder. “Aren’t you a doctor?” he asked.
“No, I am not a doctor.”
“Oh.” He shyly raised his hand like he was in school. “Well, I’m a doctor.”
“By all means, carry on.”
I staggered out of the tram as a TV news crew was running over.
“Who rescued the driver?” one of them asked me. I pointed at the five boys and, like Batman or the Littlest Hobo, I slipped away.
How do you save the world? Do your best. Hell, fake it—at least until someone who can do it better comes along.
In which case, have the good sense to get out of the way.
JJ Lee is the Vancouver-based author of The Measure of a Man: The Story of a Father, a Son, and a Suit.