St. Claire's Medic Goes Hollywood
Scorsese Films His Story


Sitting in a dimly lit neighborhood pub earlier this week, Joe Connelly spoke of the eight years he spent as a paramedic on the streets of Hell's Kitchen, a job that was but a prologue to how he now spends most of his time - watching director Martin Scorsese and actor Nicholas Cage resurrect his past before him on those very same streets.

To many, Connelly's almost immediate transition from paramedic to famed novelist was a most unusual scenario. To Connelly, however, it was the most natural thing in the world. A college dropout who left the United States in his 20s to tend bar in Dublin, Connelly remembers being basically "drunk and confused" at this point in his life.

In the mid-1980s, he made his way back to New York to try to straighten himself out. He became an emergency medical technician and, shortly afterwards, a certified paramedic. From his experiences of medical emergency-room mayhem, sprung his first novel, "Bringing Out the Dead," which, after being bought recently by the Alfred A. Knopf publishing company, was quickly made into a screenplay. The script landed swiftly on Scorsese's lap. The film, which will premiere in the fall of 1999, is now being shot right here in Clinton, a neighborhood Connelly will only refer to as "Hell's Kitchen."

As an intense Connelly spoke over a pint of Carlsburg, it became evident immediately that how he got here was, in itself, a tale to tell.

"I thought of driving an ambulance. It sounded perfect," said the 34-year-old paramedic-turned-author who has posed gingerly for a photographer in front of a parked ambulance only moments before entering the Westside Tavern. "This was going to be a two-year gig until I figured out what I wanted to do just to get out of the gray clouds."

He soon found himself working out of St. Claire's Hospital, not only his birthplace but his parents' first meeting place in 1960 - at a dance in the hospital's basement. His mother was, at the time, a nurse in training. His father was a bus driver.

Working the night shift, Connelly made about $10 an hour to rescue people or, more gruesome than he ever imagined, witness their deaths. The lives he couldn't save began to take a devastating toll on his mind, and he started to document his experiences in an attempt to preserve the memories of all those who died and affected him.

"The people you watch die," he said, shaking his head. "There's nothing you can do to stop it."

But if the mortalities Connelly came face to face with every day sometimes submerged him in depression and feelings of helplessness, they also led him to a deep, daily written retrospection which eventually transformed into the material for his first novel. He insists, however, that he never strove to be a writer and admits that his early scrawlings consisted of an unproductive "page a year" which he would always dismiss as worthless and generally just throw out.

Now only two courses away from obtaining a diploma in what he refers to as his "20-year bachelor's degree program," Connelly recalls being discovered in Colin Harrison's creative writing class at New York University a few years ago.

"Joe would come in every night, straight off the shift, looking like a ghost, said former classmate Jenny Minton, who later became the editor for his book. "He was like the real urban cowboy in that class. His story was worlds beyond what everyone else in the class was writing."

"Bringing Out the Dead" was the first book Minton bought for Knopf. But even Minton, who witnessed Connelly's incredible success practically invent itself, can't help but speak of his good fortune with a slight sense of lingering disbelief. "A couple of years ago he was driving an ambulance, and here he is watching Martin Scorsese and Nicholas Cage make his life into a movie," she said.

While working in Hell's Kitchen, Connelly lived on West 89th Street. But he said there was never any place quite as unpredictable as those streets from which duty called. "[It] had a dynamic that the East Village didn't," he said. "What a great place to learn how to be a writer."

Although much of the filming takes place in Hell's Kitchen, where the story is rooted, just last week Scorsese was directing in the lobby of a co-op on West 24th Street and Ninth Avenue in Chelsea. The scene he was shooting - a chase between two drug dealers who eventually jump from a 21-story building down two floors to an eventual impalement - demanded this particular type of building for the shot. In order to keep true to Connelly's vision, however, location managers said that certain alterations had to be made to this set in Chelsea, as well as others in Hell's Kitchen.

"[Scorsese] wants to keep it all pre-Giuliani, because Hell's Kitchen has been so cleaned up and gentrified," said location manager Len Murach. "We have to create that look through garbage and graffiti." Murach said that the movie is an entirely locally driven project, adding that Scorsese even hired homeless people in the neighborhood to play homeless characters in the film.

Connelly no longer drives to emergencies on 42nd Street, where situations seething with drugs, prostitution and destitution often required his services. But the dark-haired, darkly dressed writer is still on call. He works as a technical advisor on the set, where his past experiences assist the crew in obtaining accuracy: "I make sure the dead look dead," he said.

As far as his career in the field of medical emergencies is concerned, Connelly said he is more than content to leave it all behind - except for, of course, in his future books. "If I could just write novels for the rest of my life, I'll be a really happy man." he said. "I hate hospitals. The lighting is horrible, and they make you sick."