Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Professionalism

Even after everyone else has gone to bed, the city is still awash with light. Long after midnight, one can walk out on the Harvard Bridge and be surrounded by 360 degrees of lights. The Financial District is lit twenty-four hours a day. Even in Brookline - where nary a soul stirs past the stroke of twelve - many storefronts keep the lights on for security.

But even when the city is lit, the people are still asleep. By midnight, most major streets are empty of sober folks, and the Mass Pike slows to just a few cars per minute. Away from bars and frat houses, the only people I pass on my walks are dog walkers and a few couples returning late. At a time when much of the city is at its most beautiful, with the stillness and the overlap of dark and light, almost no one is there to appreciate it.

Even when that stillness is interrupted, there are still wonderful things. Take, for example, that most piercing of disturbances: an ambulance speeding down Commonwealth Avenue, sirens blaring. It is noisy and bright, the symbol of injury and sickness - the antithesis of everything beautiful about the night.

But take a closer look as it speeds down the avenue at midnight. Although there are none of the traffic jams present during the day, there are still a few cars at each stoplight. Each time the ambulance driver approaches a red light, a device on the truck turns the light to green (a so-called green wave) to speed its passage.

Now, watch and listen. On each block, the ambulance starts to brake several hundred feet before the light. But as soon as the light is green and the cars ahead form a clear path, the motor begins to roar. The driver downshifts this laughably overpowered vehicle and it shoots forward, accelerating cleanly through the traffic light.

So what, you may say, that the driver operates in this manner. How could it matter?

But watch the speed of the ambulance. Because it only brakes for a moment in the middle of the block, and because the driver accelerates as soon as the way ahead is open, the vehicle never slows below 30 miles per hour, and with a few clear blocks it may reach highway speeds.

Even if it saves just fractions of a second per block, over the two miles from Kenmore Square to Packard's Corner that might mean ten or even fifteen seconds. To one patient that means nothing, but over dozens and hundreds of emergency runs, that few seconds might save a life.

That to me is the essence of professionalism, that that ambulance driver handles their vehicle in this unorthodox but efficient manner. That they might perform this tedious brake-gas maneuver five or ten or twenty thousand times so that a stranger might survive, and they do this not out of charity but because they are doing their job to the very best of their ability. It is not a skill than can be acquired in a classroom, but only by experience and by the passing down on institutional knowledge.

It is no less a credit to the engineers who designed the vehicle, too, because they showed remarkable foresight when they put an eight-hundred horsepower motor in a truck barely larger than a large pickup - because they knew that someday, that vehicle might need to accelerate quickly, over and over again.

It is a peculiar notion to call beauty. Efficiency, yes, but a roaring motor is rarely beautiful. But I will call it beauty, because what is beauty but a system in perfect harmony?

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