Personal Essays

Self-Portrait, Henri Fantin-Latour, courtesy the National Gallery of Art.

The Art of Choking

Some people require the Heimlich Maneuver a bit more than the rest of us. A report on the four times—so far—that the author has relied on the assistance of others.

I. Rolled Ham

The specific event is unclear. It may have been one of my two sisters’ First Communion parties. Or a celebration following someone’s First Confession, which takes place a year before First Communion and, in retrospect, is an odd reason to throw a party. Or a get-together for my own Confirmation, a sacrament in which the eighth grader is “confirmed” to choose Catholicism’s God as his chosen deity, of his own accord, which even at the time felt like a pretty big decision for someone so young to make. Or some other random festivity, maybe a birthday. A Catholic upbringing is full of parties; maybe you haven’t heard that before. I was not yet out of grammar school, a term I still get lightly ridiculed for using and that, to me, denotes a combination of grade school and junior high, because there was not a strong distinction between the two at St. Damian. Kindergarten had its own building, but grades one through eight were mixed together. This allowed fifth graders to have crushes on eighth graders, though they were never reciprocal. At the party, someone brought rolled slices of ham with something white and creamy inside. An option free of the filling was also made available. I chose the latter. The empty middle allowed me to get short puffs of air in the middle of my choking episode. As I told people afterward, I felt like I could breathe in but couldn’t breathe out. I panicked and located the nearest adult, who ushered me to Mrs. Eggert, family friend and registered nurse. She administered the Heimlich and I spat up the ham on a thin slice of grass that acted as passageway from front yard to back, well traversed since few chose to go through the rigmarole of taking off one’s shoes and then putting them back on if you wanted to cut through the house. After the ham was cleaned up and discarded, I was taught the International Sign for Choking, which is placing two hands around your own throat as if you’re trying to strangle yourself.

II. Sourdough Bread

After my freshman year of high school, the five-person Paulas family piled into the station wagon and drove 4,000 round-trip miles on a three-week cross-country odyssey from Chicago to the West Coast. I brought with me a 64-disc CD storage wallet, but I listened exclusively to The Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness on my Discman; I had to go without listening to The Downward Spiral by Nine Inch Nails because my only copy was an unlabeled cassette, dubbed clandestinely in the 12-hour period between my mother learning the album was affixed with a “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content” sticker and my father driving me to Discount Records to return it. While listening to Mellon Collie, I alternated between (1) reading and re-reading an interview with Billy Corgan in Guitar World or Guitar or Spin or some other magazine where the interviewer mentioned the massive amount of guitar overdubs (like, 82 or something) in the song “Porcelina of the Vast Oceans,” causing me to try and aurally locate each one; and (2) trying to compose enough songs to create my own double album. The composition took place in a spiral-bound notebook with a purple cover. It is most likely still in the bottom drawer of the dresser in my old bedroom, now reserved for guests. In San Francisco, I ordered a sandwich on sourdough bread at Boudin’s on Fisherman’s Wharf. It probably had ham in it. When I choked, I put both hands around my neck like I was taught, and stood up. This time, there was no passageway for small bits of air to pass through. My mother frantically asked if I was choking. I nodded quite a few times, in rapid succession. She jumped to her feet, grabbed me from behind, and quickly dislodged the food, which ejected onto the ground. A waiter asked if we needed anything and brought us a handful of extra napkins. I did not finish the sandwich.

III. Subway Sandwich

I sprang from the booth and started grabbing my throat. My then-best friend I.H. asked a few times if I was choking, I nodded, he administered the Heimlich. He’d known I had needed it before, as anyone does who spends more than 200 minutes alone with me, so he wasn’t caught completely off-guard. After two quick thrusts in the sternum, a mush of bread and not-really-meat fell onto the open wrapper. This took place in a Subway restaurant on 159th Street, the only Subway in the Chicago suburb of Oak Forest, IL. The store had black-and-white wallpaper that was a replica of a New York City subway map. This was a heartening reminder that there were possibilities for places to live an adult life outside of suburban Chicagoland. The avocado-sized chunk was most likely from a Cold Cut Combo, although I would not have said “avocado-sized” at the time because I had yet to live in a region that featured the fruit in much ubiquity. I probably would have said “potato-sized.” The cause of the short-lived obstruction was the same as ever: Talking while eating. We were probably talking about girls we were attracted to, or maybe dream super-groups composed of members from Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. But probably definitely about girls. After a minute, I finished the sandwich. This event happened sometime between the beginning of sophomore year in high school and the summer after—that was the length of our friendship. We haven’t spoken since. Photographic evidence on Facebook suggests that I.H. has put on weight.

IV. Cold Medicine

This time the Heimlich didn’t work. My mother was trying to dislodge the pill, and after five or six thrusts, she screamed “He’s too big for me!” and ran to the phone to dial 911. My father, meanwhile, traversed the kitchen in two broad steps, then forcefully turned me around so I was facing away from him, and grabbed me in a giant bear hug. He pulled his closed fists into my body with a might that suggested he was actually trying to give himself the maneuver but my body was in the way. After three or four thrusts, I could breath again. Instead of being ejected, the pill fell down my throat. It had been used as an attempt to alleviate the symptoms of a nagging cold during my annual Christmas trip back to Chicago. I’d gone to the kitchen that morning—by then in a state of constant renovation as the focal point of my parents’ attempt to make the house appealing to potential buyers—where the rest of my family was eating breakfast and/or drinking coffees. The pill was a green Gel-Cap, which my father jokingly calls “horse pills,” that my mother stores in a plastic Ziploc bag. And either my throat was too dry or too small. My theory, thus, seeing how the pill went down and in instead of coming up and out, is that the capsule’s gel melted at just the right time and simply slid down on its own; the Heimlich may have been redundant. The paramedics arrived five minutes later and took my vitals. I was shaking. Later, re-telling the experience to my then-girlfriend back in Los Angeles, cracks in my voice gave away the presence of tears. The look on my face during this episode was described to me later as one of “utter and complete terror.” It occurred recent enough that I still cut my pills in half.