It didn’t go well the first time.

I hadn’t wanted to do it (but let’s be honest, I never do). He was old and surly and drunk, so drunk. That’s why it happened, because of the drinking. Because he was too drunk to hear me when I tried to wake him up. Because I couldn’t get him to wake up.

They weren’t my first choice. I called the local crisis response team first, because they were the ones who’d brought him here. Because he’d been too drunk to be on the streets and they didn’t know where else to bring him. Because we’re where people go when they don’t have anywhere else.

I hated doing it, that first time. I was nervous and probably shaking, because I felt guilty about it. Because surely there was something else I could’ve done. Because it seemed like overkill, when they did get here. Because I think they might have arrested him in the end, but if they did I don’t know why.

That’s the thing about calling 911 for strangers. Most of the time you don’t get to know how the story ends.


The first question is where. You always start with the name of the library, then the address. (If the dispatch system is anything like Google Maps, it will default to our branch location, where a statistically significant fewer number of emergencies happen.)

Then they ask what’s happening, and you try to tell them.

Then your name. You spell it, because yours is the kind of name that you lie about at drive-throughs. (“Monica” is just easier for everyone involved.)

Then the questions that are just for you, that you answer with only a yes or no. Are there weapons? Are they violent? Are there substances? Do they seem likely to resist? Are there children nearby?

Sometimes a statement: “I can hear screaming in the background.”

Then they tell you what’s going to happen next. Stay there, they say. Send someone to the door to direct the responders, they say. At this point, they’re running on autopilot. Sometimes it trips them up, like when you hear them falter halfway through reminding you to put away any pets. (But then you suppose that “library cats” have their own Wikipedia article.)

Finally, they ask if you need them to stay with you, if you’re going to be okay without them. So far, you’ve been okay.


Him: Ma’am, could you call 911? I think there is something wrong with my heart.

Me, picking up the corded phone on the information desk: Of course.

Him, indicating a table several yards away: I’m going to sit down over there.

Her: What’s your emergency?

Me: There’s a gentleman here in medical distress.

Her: What are his symptoms?

Me, shouting: Sir, what are your symptoms?

Him: My chest’s tight.

Me: His chest feels tight.

Her: Is he having trouble breathing?

Me, still shouting: Sir, are you having trouble breathing?

Him: Yup.

Me: Yes.

Her: Has he had any loose or bloody stools in the last twenty-four hours?

Me, continuing to shout: Sir, have you had any loose or bloody stools in the last twenty-four hours?

Him: Uh-huh.

Me: He says he has.

Her: Responders are on their way. Please have someone at the door to direct them.

Me, hanging up: Okay. Thank you.

Him: Ma’am, I’m going to go out for a smoke.

Me: …I don’t think that’s such a good idea.


A coworker told me a while ago that I sound very professional when I’m on the phone with 911. Perhaps it’s an odd and unwelcome thing that they know that. Perhaps it’s just one of those things you get better at the more you do it.

1 Comment

  1. Geneva Langeland

    In the midst of wrenching reflections, I chuckled over “library cat wikipedia page”


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