So. This carpenter is sitting on a sidewalk in Midtown Manhattan with his buddies, half a dozen subcontractors in hard hats sipping their coffees before the morning shift gets started.
The remains of a hurricane blew over the city the day before, halting construction, but now it's back to business on the office tower they've been building for eight months.
As the sun comes up and the traffic din grows, a new noise punctures the hum of taxis and buses: a metallic creak, not immediately menacing.
The creak turns into a groan, and somebody yells.
The workers can't hear too well over the diesel noise and gusting wind, but they can tell the voice is directed at them. The groan sharpens to a screech. The men look up -- then jump to their feet and sprint off, their coffee flying everywhere. The carpenter chooses the wrong direction.
With an earthshaking crash, the derrick of a 383-foot-tall construction crane slams down on James Friarson's head. I arrived at this gruesome scene two hours later with a team of MLIs, medicolegal investigators from the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner.
The crane had fallen directly across a busy intersection at rush hour and the police had shut it down, snarling traffic in all directions.
The MLI driving the morgue van cursed like a sailor as he inched us the last few blocks to the cordon line. Medicolegal investigators are the medical examiner's first responders, going to the site of an untimely death, examining and documenting everything there, and transporting the body back to the city morgue for autopsy.
I was starting a monthlong program designed to introduce young doctors to the world of forensic death investigation and had never worked outside a hospital.
"Doc," the MLI behind the wheel said to me at one hopelessly gridlocked corner, "I hope you don't turn out to be a black cloud. Yesterday all we had to do was scoop up one little old lady from Beth Israel ER." Today, we get this."
"Watch your step," a police officer warned when I got out of the van. The steel boom had punched a foot-deep hole in the sidewalk when it came down on Friarson. A hard hat was still there, lying on its side in a pool of blood and brains, coffee and doughnuts.
I had spent the previous four years training as a hospital pathologist in a fluorescent-lit world of sterile labs and blue scrubs. Now I found myself at a windy crime scene in the middle of Manhattan rush hour, gore on the sidewalk, blue lights and yellow tape, in a crowd of gawkers and grim cops.
I was hooked.
I'm not a ghoulish person. I'm a guileless, sunny optimist, in fact. When I first started training in death investigation, my husband, T.J., worried my new job would change the way I looked at the world. He feared that after a few months of hearing about the myriad ways New Yorkers die, the two of us would start looking up nervously for window air conditioners to fall on our heads.
Maybe we'd steer our toddler son's stroller around sidewalk grates instead of rolling over them. We would, he was sure, never again set foot in murderous Central Park. "You're going to turn me into one of those crazy people who leaves the house wearing a surgical mask and gloves," T.J. declared during a West Nile virus scare.
Instead, my experience had the opposite effect—it freed us from our six o'clock news phobias.
Once I became an eyewitness to death, I found that nearly every unexpected fatality I investigated was either the result of something dangerously mundane, or of something predictably hazardous.
So don't jaywalk. Wear your seat belt when you drive. Better yet, stay out of your car and get some exercise. Watch your weight. If you're a smoker, stop right now. If you aren't, don't start.
Guns put holes in people. Drugs are bad. You know that yellow line on the subway platform? It's there for a reason. Staying alive, as it turns out, is mostly common sense. Mostly. As I would also learn at the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner, undetected anatomical defects do occasionally cause otherwise healthy people to drop dead.
One-in-a-million fatal diseases crop up, and New York has eight million people. There are open manholes. Stray bullets. There are crane accidents.
"I don't understand how you can do it," friends—even fellow physicians—tell me. But all doctors learn to objectify their patients to a certain extent. You have to suppress your emotional responses or you wouldn't be able to do your job. In some ways it's easier for me, because a dead body really is an object, no longer a person at all. More important, that dead body is not my only patient.
The survivors are the ones who really matter. I work for them too.
From WORKING STIFF by Judy Melinek and T.J. Mitchell. Copyright 2014. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
"This is Life with Lisa Ling"
airs Wednesdays on CNN TV at 9 p.m.