On a cold afternoon in February of 1995 I found myself outside the offices of Metropolitan Ambulance in Canarsie, Brooklyn. My newly minted EMT Card was still attached to the certificate sheet, and I stood there on the parking pad waiting for the General Manager to arrive so I could interview for a job with my friend who would become my partner for my first year out.
Thirty minutes after my appointment a white truck painted in the Metropolitan Ambulance colors roared into the spot I was standing in, putting my nose to the scripted letters “Danielle” that was painted on the hood. Out of this white banged up Chevy K-5 Trailblazer stepped an imposing figure. Wearing blue jeans, a Yankee sweatshirt, and donning a salt and pepper mullet that on anyone else would be ridiculous the man sauntered up to us. In one of his massive hands was the newspapers of the day and in the other was a large styrofoam coffee cup from Dunkin’ Donuts.
“You kids waiting for me?” he asked. My friend and I looked at each other, unsure if this was really the General Manager of the largest private ambulance in New York City. “From the look on your faces yeah, you’re waiting for me. We’ll go inside, I’ll drink my coffee, you fill out the paperwork, and you start Monday at 9:00am.”
This was Artie Becker.
Artie was a very straight shooter, he always played above the board, and told you how it actually was as opposed to the way you may have preferred to hear it. Some people may have seen him as irreverent (and perhaps sometime he was) but at least he was always honest.
Artie was in charge of scheduling the ambulance crews. He did so using cutting edge technology… paper. Paper, a ruler, and white out.
A lot of white out.
And coffee. Artie had to have at least three large cups of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee regular with milk. For years, when I would do the coffee run, I brought him back two coffees and I’d have a bottle of Nestle Quick Chocolate Milk. He tried repeatedly to get me to drink coffee, and I persistently refused. It wasn’t until the summer of 2001 when I finally acquiesced and ordered my first ice coffee with Artie. Knowing I wasn’t a fan of the coffee flavor, he told the guy behind the counter to make it French Vanilla, light with cream, and four Equal to sweeten it up for me. Although I’ve swapped the Equals for the Splendas, that’s exactly how I order my coffee now 11 years later.
Artie always took the time to listen to what concerns or problems you had whether they were work related or personal. He always made time to speak to you one on one when there was an issue. For him to be able to do that, especially in a garage our size, required a lot of skill and he handled it exceptionally well.
Artie also had a thing for giving people nicknames. Perp. Squirrel. Hubcap. Dog. Once Artie bestowed a title upon you, it stuck. He himself went by a number of different nicknames such as Doc, the General, and the Ringmaster… because every circus needs one and alot of times an EMS garage can resemble a circus.
Artie wasn’t just a manager… he was a true leader, mentor, and friend.
There are a lot of stories I could tell you about Artie, but most of those would probably get me in some sort of trouble. There is one story I want to share though that will hopefully highlight why he was such an inspiration to so many…
In early ’99 our company, like many other privately owned ambulance shops, was bought and merged with what would become the largest regional provider for the Mid-Atlantic. During this time our uniforms were in a state of flux and we were the contracted transport provider for Woodstock ’99.
In an attempt to provide some unification amongst those of us left standing after the merger and have some uniformity, Artie whipped out his pens and rulers and drew a very rough logo. We had a bunch of discussions about whether we should do shirts or hats with his masterpiece, and eventually settled on hats.
“You know what would be cool? What if we worked in a secret code? Like something only those of us who went would understand?” asked Artie, “Like the Freemasons!”
“Yeah, that would be cool,” we all told him, hoping he’d come back to the planning table because… well… the plans weren’t shaping up so well.
“I know, how about if we work in the letters O.C.F.?” he said with that glow in his eyes.
“Sure, but, what does it stand for?” we asked.
“Operation Cluster Fuck! Because you know, that’s what this is gonna be, right? Right?” he replied, and we all laughed our heads off, fully agreeing with him that it seemed this was indeed going to go down that route.
So he did it. He put O.C.F. on the sides of all the Woodstock ’99 hats. I actually didn’t think he’d do it, so when I saw the hats and saw that he had done it, well that was just too cool… even if the hats were white.
There we were on deployment day, with the fly cars and vehicles getting lined up in our bright white Woodstock ’99 hats when the Vice-President came over. He turned to Artie and said, “The press’ll be here in an hour or two. Make sure you’re ready and be sure you have a good story about this O.C.F. thing.”
Artie looked at me in a panic and said, “Oh crap. We can’t tell the press what O.C.F. really stands for!”
“Yeah, that wouldn’t be good publicity,” I agreed while backing one of the units into their spot.
“Publicity? Who cares about the publicity? That would destroy the secret! Do you think the Freemasons told the press about their secret insignia? Of course not! We need to come up with a cover story,” he said. Then he walked away, second coffee of the day in hand, muttering “O.C.F…. O.C.F…”
Finally, after about four hours when the reporter finally arrived (because they were two hours late) they asked Artie some basic questions like how many people were going, how many vehicles, how many patients did we expect to treat, and then finally the question he had been waiting for… what does O.C.F. stand for?
Artie grinned and his eyes glowed as he leaned into the microphone and said, “One Caring Family.”
That’s what they printed.
That’s what I think he really, secretly, wanted it to mean.
Artie Becker responded to quite a number of calls in his time working in EMS.
Today, Artie Becker will be buried.
Death, like taxes, is inevitable… even for those of us who spend our lives fighting on behalf of others against it. Our ends are all destined to be the same, but what truly matters is how we played our part on the big stage of life. Artie didn’t just play his part… his role as Ringmaster of a band of well-intentioned misfits… he exceeded it and inspired others to exceed in their parts as well. More than a boss, more than a co-worker, more than a Ringmaster… he was first and foremost a friend.
A friend we remember and we miss.
A friend we wish a good journey to…