A Key Maneuver

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As a person who judges herself  in part on the relative success of any party she gives, I really admired Joan Nathan for her honesty in admitting, in her op-ed piece in yesterday’s New York Times, that, as she stood with a now famous chunk of Persian-style grilled chicken lodged in her throat, unable to breathe and very possibly on the brink of death, the thought that went through her head was not about her loved ones or the meaning of life, but that she was going to ruin her party (“It was the best party I had ever hosted,” was her lede, a declaration of bold and admirable confidence) by, of all things… dying.

This is great! Who thinks that? Who admits that?  I once almost got run down riding my bike in the Hamptons while I was in the midst of preparing a meal for a guy I was dating and what might have been my last thought was: “Now he’ll know how much work it really took for me to put together that so-called casual meal.” And like Nathan wrote: “How embarrassing!”

I was at that party, chatting with a chef who works with Heimlich Hero, Tom Colicchio, when Alice Waters as the true story goes, began wading through the crowd calling in her very soft, lilting voice, for someone who knew the Heimlich. From what I saw, it didn’t seem that nobody knew the maneuver, but that, in fact, it was such a great party, nobody was listening to Alice.

I think I know the Heimlich. (Doesn’t everybody have a basic idea?) Twice my life has been saved by the Heimlich maneuver, both times when I was a kid and, I guess I just had too many other pressing things on the agenda—build a fort, climb a tree, play catch—no time to, you know, chew. Each time my step-dad, who is over six feet tall, huge relative to my skinny little frame, nearly cracked my ribcage, and  out out popped the prime rib on one occasion, and on another, the pork chop. (“That’s so gross!” my sister said the first time this happened, about the slimy chunk of meat now in the next room. Both times I cried myself to sleep. It’s really scary, as Nathan also writes.) I also worked in restaurants where the Heimlich poster is never far from view; you stand around smoking cigarettes or eating cucumber slices from the salad station, staring at a drawing of the Heimlich for countless cumulative hours, but administering it is another story.

Even though I know the Heimlich in theory, I didn’t feel that I knew it well enough to be the one person who raises her hand, puts down her own Persian shish-kabob, and steps forth to try to save someone’s life. It was, I admit, the worst kind of apathy. “Someone else will do it better,” I thought. After Alice had moved two rooms away from the kitchen with still no volunteers, I said to the guy I was talking to, “Whoever needed the Heimlich manuever must be in big trouble by now.” And then I had the same thought Nathan copped to in her piece. “Oh, my God! Someone is going to die at this party.” (We didn’t all know it was the hostess  herself.)

Here we were, to cook. A bunch of people had come together in this cold, crowded city to set what Alice calls The New American Table, but more, to support Alice in everything she believes in. An hour early when Alice had spoken to the crowd, it had seemed like  getting a Victory Garden on the White House Lawn was the most important thing in the whole world. And now someone’s going to die, I thought. “That changes everything!

“Thank Zeus she didn’t die,” a friend told me later. “You would have felt bad, you.”

I’ll say. I mean, taking responsibility is the theme governing this country right now if there is one. The party was held on the eve of Martin Luther King Day, when Obama made a public call for everyone to do something. And there I stood around eating a kebob while someone died in the next room because I thought someone else, someone more qualified (and ideally with longer arms) would save her? Would I, in essence, have been the one who ruined the party?

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