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June 13, 2010

For the Man on the Street

Last week, after finishing my blog entry on the strength of expressing sadness, I closed my computer and got ready for the day. Feeling energetically drained from the occurrences of the weeks prior, I was hyper-aware of my own emotional delicacy. In other words, I was feeling particularly self-absorbed.

As I left my apartment building in a fog, I grabbed my phone to call my mom, hoping to distract myself from my own feelings. She answered, but told me she would call me back. Ugh, I thought to myself, knowing I was now forced to be more present on my walk than I wanted. A block later, as I was about to cross the street, I caught something out of the corner of my eye. On the other side of the street, there was a man, face up, his upper body on the side walk and his legs extended into the street. Oh my God, I thought, as I quickly walked to see what was going on. Even before I could get a glimpse of him, an older Latino man threw his phone at me. "Talk to them, tell them this problem." "Ummm.." I stammered into the phone, looking down at the man for the first time and instantly having a pit form in my stomach.

--Oh God, ok, there's a man, I think he fell, his face is bloody, he is bleeding from the mouth.

--How old is he? the 911 responder asked

-45 to 50, I think.

--Is he conscious?

--Not really, I don't know, I mean he's not speaking, but he's moving his arms.

--Is he homeless? What else can you tell me about him?

--No, I don't think so. No, he's not. He, I don't know what happened, I just walked up, but I think he fell, and i think he hit his head. He's kind of shaking a little. I don't...know.

--Ok, we're sending someone.

When the 911 responder hung up, the Latino man thanked me, took his phone, and started to walk away. "Wait!" I cried after him desparetely. "No worry," he said, "ambulance will come." Then he walked away. I looked down at the man on the street. His glasses were by his side, broken. He was shaking, slightly, and for the first time he looked up at me and whispered, "please." Oh God, I thought to myself, I am not equipped to deal with this.

"It's ok, you'll be ok," I responded in a panic, "the ambulance is coming." I stood over him, torn between looking him in the eye and looking frantically around the street for the hopefully soon to be coming ambulance. Part of me wanted to touch him, but the other part shied away from such an act of intimacy with a stranger, even one that was struggling. People continued to walk by, some looking down at him inquisitively, others kept walking, looking straight ahead. A man stopped over him, "did you call the ambulance?" he asked me. "Yeah, yeah...they're coming.." I assured him.

The man then started to squirm and tried to lift his head off the ground, but quickly let it drop back onto the concrete, his head making a sick thud as it landed. It was only then that I knelt down beside him, and put my scarf under his head. The man stared straight into me, his blue eyes pleading. "Please...please..please.." he whispered again.

And then he grabbed my hand.

I took a deep breath and held his hand. It was warm. He squeezed mine. I squeezed back. A crowd was now starting to form. "This man..he is dying," someone stated knowingly. "Where is the ambulance?" another asked. I picked up the phone and called 911 again. "I'm on 7 and A, we're still waiting for the ambulance. He's not doing well. I don't know what's going on, but he needs help." "They're on their way," they stated.

15 minutes later, the ambulance arrived. I let go of the man's hand and stood over him with the rest of the crowd and watched as the ambulance put him on the stretcher. When the medics asked him his name, he could not respond. When the man was in the back, a medic picked up his broken glasses and, before we could ask any questions, jumped in the ambulance and drove off. The crowd dispersed. I stayed on the corner for a moment, trying to register everything that just happened. "I guess I'll head to work?" I asked myself, and burst into tears. Only, unlike the hour before, my tears were no longer for myself or my personal burdens. These tears were for the man on the street, whose name I did not know, whose prognosis I did not know, and whose life expectancy I did not know. These unknowns will forever remain. I would like to think, one day, I'll see him in the neighborhood walking around, and can smile at him when he passes. But perhaps, my only connection with him will forever be confined to the corner of 7th and Avenue A.

Sometimes, amidst the self-absorption of our own lives, our lives are slammed into the life of another. And in that moment, we must make a decision to use the collision to connect with that person or keep on walking. And if we choose to engage, the connection may be as subtle as a smile or a nod or as intimate as the warmth of a touch. And whether that act is enough or not will most likely remain forever indeterminable. But regardless of whether the warmth of my hand was enough for the man on the corner of 7th and Avenue A, I know that the warmth of his hand was enough for me. At least enough for me to remember the strength of the human connection and the power of the human touch. So, to the man on the street, thank you for awakening my heart. May you be healthy and well, wherever you are.

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