Street Smart Chicago

The Wagon: Living with the dead weight of body bags

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Illustration: Sanya Glisic

By Martin Preib

The dead seek the lowest places in Chicago: We find them in basements, laundry rooms, on floors next to couches, sticking out of two parked cars or shrubs next to the sidewalk. It is more than gravity that pulls them down, for in every dead body there is something more willfully downward: the lowest possible place, the head sunken into the chest and turned toward the floor.

No matter the cause—an accident, a murder or, as we cite on the Hospitalization Case Report, natural causes—all bodies express this downwardness when we remove them from the cavern they have created merely by their presence, by their being.

Some cops, like me, circle the periphery of the room before we encounter the body, making small talk with other cops guarding the scene, slowly putting on our gloves, unnecessarily doublechecking that our path is clear, anything to avoid the inevitable bending over the body and touching it, shaking it from this descendance it insists upon and bringing it back into our living world, where it must be pronounced, photographed, identified, prodded, stripped and categorized.

Their resistance is powerful. The dead roll back to their original positions, stuck to the ground or their sheets on their beds, their bodies unwilling to bend or sway into the bag, always pulling themselves back down, a force captured in the phrase “dead weight.”

I am glad to have a partner who forces the issue. He positions the large diesel wagon as close to the site as possible and wordlessly takes off his radio, rolls up his sleeves, and tucks in his shirt. He grabs the body bag and the gloves from the truck. He marches into the building or crime scene and holds open the bag with a leg or arm while the rest of his body is spent maneuvering it in. I shake myself free from my limbo and jump to assistance. I take my side, and we work together until we can get the bag around the body and zip it up, communicating in short statements, “… his arm … watch the head … he’s leaking there.” My partner never wants to double-bag the dead as I do, dreading the fluid drips that in the smallest amount will ruin a uniform. Instead, he grabs the bag by the handles, lifts, and heads back to the truck.

“I just want to get it over with,” he says after we get back into the front seats and begin driving to the morgue. He is polite, acknowledging and explaining the reasons for his taking control, the sign of a good partner.

“Oh yeah, sure, no problem. Me too,” I say, letting him know I am glad he did.

The drive to the Near West Side can take forty-five minutes and is a welcome break. We listen to calls on the radio, look at beautiful women and keep our hands away from our faces, fearing that despite our best efforts, some small remnant of the dead is on us. We remind ourselves to use extra soap and some kind of fragrance when we wash our uniform that night. Even so, we sense the dead person in the back of the wagon as if we are keeping a secret, and we are. None of the people with whom we make eye contact as we drive have any idea there is a dead body in the back of our wagon.

Even when we open the door to the wagon at the morgue, the dead seemed to have burrowed deeper into it, and again they fight us when we slide them out onto the gurney, though it is much easier to handle them now that they are in a bag. The gurney fits the level of the wagon floor exactly. All we have to do is pull on the handles and the body slides out.

At the morgue the dead grow more sullen, insisting on remaining in the same awkward positions they were in when they died, positions we would find impossible to endure. They will be faced upward in a well-lit room, the body bag suddenly and rudely opened with a razor and any clothes or blankets cut away. My partner and I stand on the other side of a window watching the attendant process the dead, the unforgettable smell of the dead battling the smell of disinfectants spread liberally on the walls and floors. The morgue attendant weighs them, measures them, and removes their possessions and records them on the form, which we must sign. It means reentering the room where there are often several other bodies waiting further processing. We use the morgue pen: Until we can scrub our hands, we will touch nothing that will come with us. The cavalier conversation among the morgue attendant, cops, and funeral directors can only intensify the ignominy of the dead. They will remain in this morgue under constant bright lights for a few days, until the funeral home is ready to remove them.

I often think what wisdom and honesty there is in the fact that we bury the dead. It strikes me as the single truthful element of the process. After the humiliation and rudeness of being disturbed from their dying place by the police, left in the constant fluorescent light of the morgue, what a relief to be placed deep into the dirt. Perhaps we are forgiven after we sink the dead into the dirt for disturbing them at their place of death, for putting them through this legal and social process. Perhaps we are forgiven for disguising the dead to look like the living at the funeral and blathering about resurrection over them.

No hard feelings, right?

The dead do not lack the means of descending by themselves. To us their labor is slow and offensive, but in time, if left to their own devices, the dead can descend into any death place. Their secretions leak out onto the bed or the ground, and their flesh hangs lower. It will sag from their bones. Their face will cave in and secretions flow from the anus or any other openings, everything immediately downward, so thoroughly deep into the place of their death that nothing can get the scent out. It is clear to me that the dead do not want us near them, for the stench they emit after four or five days is so offensive to every living thing—save the maggots who feed on them—that you will never forget it. What a travesty, I think, what false religion, to cremate them and send their ashes billowing haphazardly about our world, strewn about our roads, stores, churches, cars, as if they haven’t told us clearly in their death position where they want to go.

For this there can be no forgiveness.

For most of the day, I avoided the crime scene of the murdered Macedonian man. Instead I questioned residents of the apartment building as they came and went. I even found a witness who had exited the elevator in the lobby around the time of death. He heard moaning and signs of a struggle coming from the laundry room. He hesitated, and then left the building.

I only stared at him silently when he asked me, “You don’t think I let him die, do you?”

The dead man was in the laundry room, down a few steps from the lobby, on the floor facedown, his head bashed on the side and his face bloody and swollen. The head was tucked into the floor with patches of blood next to him and on the wall, and we only saw the gaping wound when we pulled him up and rolled him over. The murder weapon, a fire extinguisher, was already taken by the detectives. The man was part of a group of Macedonian immigrants who landed jobs as property caretakers for real estate companies. Known for their reliability, they are given apartments and small salaries to run the daily operations of rental buildings until they save enough to buy their own two-flat. Everything about the man indicated struggle: an immigrant, a menial job, old clothes, a building mixed with students, menial workers and a few young professionals.

I prefer to cover the dead with shrouds to avoid seeing the wounds or touching their flesh and having their secretions touch me. I find the fresh white shroud a welcome contrast to the death scene. There is something holy in their cleanliness and their whiteness and in the word “shroud.” I do not think the dead mind it either, for it provides some cover from the living, like the curtains around a hospital bed.

My regular partner hates this delay and often rejects it, but today I have a different partner, Todd, and I am in charge. Todd has a reputation for avoiding the darker police duties, and I perceive these rumors are accurate. Several weeks ago he completed a case report on a dead person when my regular partner and I arrived. There was also an older sergeant there near retirement. Without saying anything, the sergeant grabbed a section of the body bag barehanded and helped us carry it out to the wagon while Todd just stood by and watched the three of us, an act that immediately and categorically condemned him in all our eyes. Even now he is standing away, letting me get the body ready and hoping I will take the position at the head, where the body oozes secretions from the wound. I conclude I will never willingly ride with this partner again. After that day when he avoided his duty in carrying the dead, his endless chatter about real estate deals, investments and the salary his lawyer girlfriend earns makes him all but unbearable. Only on the third try did the dead Macedonian man roll over, me near his head, Todd at his feet, so we could push him into the bag.

I have witnessed enough of the life struggle preceding death to know that death is resisted with a superhuman and terrifying strength. The man shot in the leg with blood pouring out raises himself up, only encouraging the flow of blood, not restricting it. Car-crash victims often flail violently as they get closer to death, ignoring the burden these desperate acts place on their already diminished life resources. When my mother suffered a cardiac arrest, she lay still for a moment as her face swelled and turned blue and I begged her not to leave me. Then with a strength I did not believe she possessed at her age, she pulled herself up to me three times in wild convulsions, putting her face next to mine and squeezing, begging, I am certain, for me to help her, though I could do nothing. Then she lay still until my cousin breathed new life into her, and she came rushing back.

But I see a different conviction in the dead. I see the dead no longer bearing weight the way the living do, but impressed by it, unrelentingly so. I know there comes a point in dying when a person realizes they have failed their life struggle. One failure often brings to life all others, their aggregate weight unbearable. Perhaps our failures are the last images of our life, the most powerful this new weight of failing life itself, but right behind it all the others, imposing that desire to crawl into some hole we felt after we remembered our inability to become what we imagined, how much we hurt someone we loved, how we squandered our life or just failed to understand it, or how we fell short so many times. Did the Macedonian man realize this as he lay on the concrete floor of the building? Did he suddenly see his whole life as a series of painful failures in the face of this ridiculous death? Are the last images of life, or the first of death, the ones that drive you downward, your failures? Did the Macedonian man think of how his death failed his wife, his family, his own intentions for the New World?

I must beware this sympathy with the dead, for even as I place the bag next to them on Chicago’s North Side, I feel the weight and absurdity of my own failures in the very act of carrying the dead. Images of my life in Chicago spill over me, pushing me down. I never aspired to haul the dead from their death places. I only wanted to be a writer, a Chicago writer, but now I am picking up dead bodies on the North Side of Chicago. The irony is a terrible weight. I look back at how I have struggled in this city, working every menial service job the city offers by the thousands: waiter, doorman; the thousands of bags I have carried, the train rides downtown looking for work with only five dollars in my pocket, applying for jobs so I can pay rent while I finish a story that won’t get published and hear the personnel manager ask, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” I remember long days in studio apartments wondering what I was doing wrong. Here in the city where my parents were born and raised and my family began, I see them seeing me, my father’s disgust at my announcement that I wanted to become a writer, that I wanted to become a police officer as a means of seeing the city as it is, as a means of giving me the time and money to write on my own. I look at myself in a basement opening a body bag, and perceive the disconnection of my life from my most intense passions, and I can feel a weight descend upon me and spill over me.

I sit in the wagon after we have loaded a body in the back.

“Poor ol’ Jerome Williams,” my partner Brian says as he enters the wagon, referring to today’s dead man we have just loaded. He died in a government-paid apartment, clearly a longtime welfare recipient. “He ain’t going to work today.”

I smile.

“Yes. Perhaps it was all the overtime that did him in,” I respond, and we both chuckle.

I must be honest. Not all the dead descend. Several weeks earlier, my partner and I picked up a two-month-old baby, who had died under suspicious circumstances. We were called to a hospital in the affluent suburb of Evanston. The mother and father claimed they had looked in on him at 5am and he was fine. By 9am the parents said they found him dead. The doctor said he had been dead longer than that; the rigor mortis and lividity—the first time I even heard that word—indicated he had died several hours earlier. The death was ultimately ruled sudden infant death syndrome, as the boy, who was next to his twin brother in bed, lay facedown. But when we found him in the hospital, he was on his back, his legs and arms falling easily at his side, seemingly open either to death or life, regretting or fighting neither. He seemed peacefully dead. The nurse carried the infant to the wagon wrapped in small sheets and a blanket, sensing correctly and compassionately that neither my partner nor I could touch him yet. By the way she carried him, his lightness was palpable. There was no heaviness. He rode in the front seat of the wagon between my partner and me, too small to be placed in a body bag in the back of the wagon. Both of us were careful not to touch him and desperate to arrive at the morgue. Both of us were silent, fighting back tears and thinking about a forgiving God, our own children, or the children we might have had.

That child, and a senior in a nursing home suffering from dementia, did not seem burdened in their final position. Otherwise, I believe the dead are of the same mind.

Our regular intrusions into the world of the dead provide wagon men with more knowledge than is good for them. In addition to hauling the dead, we often mull over the case reports that provide crucial points of information in their descent. We read them and talk about them on the way to the morgue, as well as any other information gleaned from witnesses and officers familiar with the case. We often linger for hours at a death scene, waiting for the investigation to conclude. We have learned the narrative structure of the dead. The theme is ostensibly the cause of death, listed on the certificate, but wagon men learn the dead weight begins in the living, far earlier than official declarations. We can spot those more likely to be dead soon. Most are simple enough: a drug addict, a terminally ill man talking suicide. But in time I can see the weight in victims, offenders and witnesses as we respond to calls like domestics, batteries and burglaries. As the people talk, we see the dead weight oozing out of their delusions, their depressions, their cruelty, their fears, their apathy and, yes, even their love. Wagon men, even more than other police officers, feel the weight. Sometimes in the course of our work, we must touch them, either to move them out of the way, to get their attention, or to arrest them, and there it is, an unnatural slowness, a weight.

It has begun.

Many newly arrested, for example, are upbeat when we take them toward the wagon, joking and lighthearted with their handcuffs on as we walk across the parking lot to the waiting wagon, my partner in front and me in the rear. They smile and joke as we sit them on the metal seat and pull the safety bar across their midsection and lock it, saying “just like the amusement park” to make light of their incarceration and prolong their good mood. But when we open the wagon door in the garage of the lockup twenty minutes later, they are silent, sullen, and they have sunk far down, their head resting on the safety bar or their body slumped all the way into the corner where we place the dead. They emerge angry and disgusted in the enclosed garage of the lockup, the reality of the humiliating process ahead of them setting in, often coupled with the fact that it was a loved one who called the police and signed a complaint against them. This is the beginning of a descent. There will be more arrests, more sunken rides in the wagon, possibly drugs, and then we or some of our wagon brothers will arrive to place them in a body bag after death comes in one form or another, suicide, murder, or car wreck.

“When will I get out?” they always ask us as we walk into the lockup.

“You feel that weight? You must get rid of that,” I want to tell them.

“In about four hours,” I say.

How complex and ominous the weight is. How distant its origins. I think about the descent of the Macedonian man. Did it begin in Europe? From the high hopes during the flight over, to the sixth floor when he took the elevator to the lobby, then down the stairs to the laundry room where he met his murderer(s)? What thoughts preoccupied him that he didn’t see it coming, that he couldn’t escape, or that he was foolish enough to fight? Did he cry out? The exodus from his homeland to an apartment in Chicago, perhaps explained as a move upward in the world, but in reality distancing him from what he knew and loved, isolated.

I walked three floors of apartments above him, asking each resident if they heard anything unusual below them.

“Why?” they asked, surprised by the police so early in the morning.

“There was a death,” I said, and they stare at me silently.

The weight. When was the first sip of alcohol? When was the first sense that life is too heavy? When was the first move toward crime, the slinking into back doors? When did the bar become such a cozy, inviting solitude?

I think of the Russian man we found on the floor next to the couch in the basement who had a bottle of vodka on the coffee table, along with his wallet and keys. He lived in an apartment upstairs, but for reasons we never heard he built this little hideaway in the basement. A former boxer in his homeland, he drank too much and apparently fell, striking his head against the table, struggled for a while, then died on the floor. He wasn’t found for two days. The back of his head oozed out the mixture of secretions we have grown to expect from the dead. A large, muscular man, we struggled to get him out of the cramped basement, down a long walkway, and into the wagon waiting in an alley. Several times we had to stop and set him down on the concrete sidewalk. The sound of a dead body on the sidewalk is unique, soft decaying flesh on unforgiving concrete. It causes us to tighten up when we hear it. While stopped, we breathed heavily for a while until we could carry him again, our breath coming out in a fog in the cold weather, counting one, two, three, before we lifted again, our backs straining against the awkward, uncooperative weight. A few neighbors arriving home through the alley caught a glimpse of us lifting the black body bag into the wagon and gaped. I felt disrespectful to move him. Nothing could articulate his life more than that scene in the basement. There was nothing else he wanted to say.

You see how the dead drag the living with them? When we told the wife of the Macedonian man that her husband, whom she had seen only a little while earlier, was dead by foul play—a phrase she needed explained by a relative standing next to her—she immediately sank to the ground, unable to stand anymore. There she cried softly, then she and the rest of the relatives sat in the lobby of the apartment building slumped over the chairs and couches, their heads hung down, tears falling, and often shaking their heads. This is the position they will assume for the months to come, the widow sitting sullen in their apartment.

I look at myself again in the passenger seat of the wagon. I inspect my hands and the sleeves of my shirt for any remnants of the dead for the fifth or sixth time. I still feel the soft, mushy touch of the dead man we just hauled to the morgue. I glance at the bottoms of my boots for any secretions that might contaminate the wagon. Nothing. I have become skilled in handling the dead efficiently and without mistakes. I have learned to deal with the morgue attendants, who try to shuffle their paperwork off on us and get us to haul the bodies into their examining rooms. I look over at my partner, who remains untroubled by the dead, whereas I am slumped down in my seat, reading the case report again. I cannot shrug off the dead as my partner does. Why?

Suddenly the logic of hauling the dead overwhelms me, for the one terrifying truth a wagon man learns early on is that the weight is not arbitrarily imposed upon a life, it arises from somewhere deep within ourselves. The world, a wagon man learns, is not in its essence mechanical. It is moral and fateful, and I wonder what it means that I now haul the dead in the neighborhood where my parents were born, my family began, and I settled after fifteen years in Chicago. As I pore over the case reports of the deceased and pass the buildings where I have removed them, pondering the details of their demise that stayed in my imagination, I feel as if the dead have brought out something in me. I have, in their silent presence, confronted my own weight: reading their narratives, I have read my own. Seeing their weight, I have seen mine.

Are the dead, I wonder, teaching me or ruining me?

My partner’s mood lightens up after we leave the morgue. It is too late in the day now to be assigned another removal. Any death scenes will now wait for the next watch in a few hours.

“What the hell?” my partner will say of any new removals. “They ain’t going nowhere.”

Both of us are also heartened by the fact that, according to the new union contract, the police will no longer haul dead bodies in a few more weeks. I feel such gratitude to the union, for despite my dark ruminations, I realize now as we distance ourselves from our last run how much I hate removing the dead. I am tired of their clumsy, filthy death places. I am tired of their stench and their silence, and tired of the unbridgeable gulf between us. I am tired of pulling the dead into the living, no matter what insight they might provide, no matter what secrets they may reveal.

We drive awhile longer. I sense my partner wants to push the issue of lunch again, the only constant power struggle between us. It is already an hour past our regular meal time and enough time has lapsed to displace the aura of the morgue. I sense him squirming in his seat, preparing to suggest one of his favorite fast-food restaurants. I sit and wait, my mind already made up.

“How ’bout a sausage pizza today over on Western Avenue, Mr. Marty?” he finally asks diplomatically.

I pause a moment, looking out my window, then smile. “Pizza sounds good to me,” I say, my spirits finally lifting.

Excerpted from “The Wagon and Other Stories from the City,” to be published in May by the University of Chicago Press.

2 Responses to “The Wagon: Living with the dead weight of body bags”

  1. Cover illustration for Newcity | Sanya Glisic Says:

    [...] Click here to go to the Newcity site, where you can read the story. As usual, click the image for a larger view. [...]

  2. Phantom Gallery Says:

    02/17/2011,
    It has taken me months to respond to this article, not because I was just too busy, but because I didn’t know how to put this into words. I do wonder how CPD officers feel when they are retrieving the dead from alleyways, under bridges, behind dumpsters, we are watching and we have seen you remove bodies, seen you kick bodies to see if they have any movement.

    I watched once, from my window as an emergency response team, removed a man from the alley below my third floor window in East Garfield Park (Switching Station Artist Lofts Homan/Madison/Adams). I was on the phone talking to an administrator at Alain Locke Charter Academy; she was dismissing students so the time was about 5pm. I stood up and watched an officer with rubber gloved hands nudge then kick at a lifeless body to see if the man that was laying there in a fetal position was alive. The man had bleed out, the blood stain was on the asphalt around him, and he was motionless.

    They went to the ambulance to pull out the gurney, I ran to my back window to see a fire truck in the alley way as well. But, what I also saw was a little boy about three or four frozen in fear watching from the gated apartment fence, he froze in a “I want to see”, but yet “I’m so scared” position as the ERT lifted the man up, tossed him on the gurney, covered him with a white sheet, rolled him to the ambulance, tossed him inside, closed the door. They stood around talking to one another; the little boy was called by someone, he ran. When the ERT left the alley way, a man came and stood by the dumpsters, held up a beer bottle and poured some on the ground, before he took his drink, pouring a libation to the dead spirit.

    That scene that I witness, I felt at the moment that the ERT treated him worse than a dead dog, the way they threw him into the back of the ambulance. I felt at the time that because he was another black man DOA, that is why he was tossed into that ambulance that way. I couldn’t do much the rest of the afternoon because this was the first time I’ve witness something like this, it was reality, not paid for TV. I watched his life force exit this body, I saw this man shaking before he went still, and I was troubled. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back, I could not, and would not live another year in this neighborhood, I didn’t want to be privileged to urbanism, if there is such a thing. I couldn’t hold back to tears, I cried for this man, I cried for the little boy that was an eye witness to this, knowing that this scene would play over and over in his mind, like it will do mines.

    I called other neighbors in the building to let them know what I had just witnessed, we all sit around shaking our heads to be so close to knowing a human life is worth nothing to those that take it. This man was tossed in the alley way, it was a mistaken identity, but before they had the right man, the gangster had killed him tossed him out of the car and left him to die right there. I look out the window that faces this alley way, you can still see the blood where he bleeds out.

    That was late September of 2009, yes I did move out of that building in December of 2009. Now in April of 2010 Newcity published this article. But, my response goes past this episode, because I found myself connected to it bringing it full circle in May of 2010. I was contracting for Beidler Elementary School, creating a theatre set for the school play, one of the 8th grade students that came to my class, was a tall 6’4” young-man, quite, serious new to the art department. I gave him a task to do, and watched him work, figuring out stuff. I didn’t have to orchestrate every step of the task I gave him. After a few weeks I listened to him talking to his cousin, it seems this was the son of the man I had seen die in that alley in 2009. The principle of the school, not even the vice-principle of the school knew his story. They knew what he and his family were going through with the loss of their father.

    His teacher came into the room saw him working and engaged in the art making process, she hadn’t seen this student talk, interact all year, but he had found himself in that art workshop. I had been in a place to stand in front of him and make a difference in his life, I gave him responsibility, made him feel proud and showed him off to the school, let him shine during the school play, by putting him in charge of stage craft, and teaching him about installation, and how to create the environment through the visual arts. He stood in front of the entire school with a role, responsibility, and seeing how proud his teacher, principal, and peers were of him.

    You see people are watching, we are aware that there are dead bodies in the back of your wagons, and it is without the eye contact that we are affected. It took me a while to write this, it is not a composition, but a story that plays over and over in my “minds-eye”, and I do wonder how you go home at night after seeing death, over and over again.

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