First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.
-- F. Scott Fitzgerald
I was three steps from the entrance of my building when I noticed him. He was ten paces beyond my door, farther than my eyes usually roam. But one doesn't need to be paying attention to notice certain things -- like a blaring siren, the vision of a man lying face down on the sidewalk is impossible to ignore. The top of the man's head lay against the side of the building and his legs stretched across the walkway, the tips of his dirty white tennis shoes almost reaching the bus stop bench. A CD Walkman had half-fallen out of one of the pockets of his khaki shorts. As I drew closer, I saw the perfect circle of yellow vomit on the cement by the man's head. Three people stood over him. Two used their feet to nudge and poke the man in the legs and said things like, "Hey, man, are you okay?" The man didn't move.
"Have you called 911?" I asked them. The women and man stared back at me. "No? Do you know how long he's been here?" As I juggled the items in my arms (magazines, mail, and 16 cans of tuna shrink-wrapped together) and negotiated my phone, I learned that the passersby hadn't been there long; no one had seen the man conscious.
Two more people stopped and asked what was going on. "We don't know," I told them. I wiggled the phone at my ear and added, "I'm calling for an ambulance." They nodded, looked down at the man for a moment, and continued walking.
"I'll try too," said one of the women who had been there before me. She produced her phone and dialed. "Sometimes it's hard to get through." Two minutes later, while I was still on hold, someone answered the other woman's call. As she detailed the location and condition of the man, another guy appeared, crouched over the unconscious body, grabbed onto the man's sweatshirt, and tried to shake him awake. It worked -- the previously inanimate man turned his head and opened his eyes. He struggled into a sitting position. "Oh, wait," I heard the woman say into the phone. "He's up now."
"Tell them he's not okay," I said, loud enough for whoever was on the other end of the line to hear. "This man is disoriented and doesn't seem able to stand up. His hands are swollen and his eyes are glazed over and bloodshot." I panicked that they wouldn't come, or that just before they arrived, the man -- sick, drunk, or hopped up on drugs -- would stagger into the busy street and get slammed by a passing car.
I breathed a sigh of relief when the woman pocketed her phone and said, "They're on their way."
I looked to the man standing by, tall and of a strong build, and said, "We should keep him in our sight. I'm really worried he's going to get up and try to go, and this guy clearly can't watch out for himself right now."
He nodded and said, "Yeah, he doesn't look too good."
I shifted my load and thought about the situation while keeping an eye on the seated sandy-haired fellow whose overcast gaze was as indistinct and misty as the sky above us. I wondered if someone had seen him vomit, if someone had seen him fall and, if so, why that person had chosen not to stop. Why did I stop? Why did I feel a sort of responsibility for this stranger's well- being? Why did I feel compelled to help someone who seemed to have chosen his current state of helplessness? I didn't want him to get in trouble. In California, one's inability to exercise care for one's own safety due to inebriation could result in a $1000 fine at worst, time in the detox tank at best. This guy was so messed up that he couldn't stand. He was looking at me, but his gaze was vacant. As I stared at his eyes, I could almost feel his spinning, the disorienting absence of balance that kept him on the ground.
The sound of the siren upset the man on the sidewalk. Tears rolled down his face, leaving dark pink trails on his dusty cheeks. "Why did you call?" he blubbered, his eyes fixed on some distant spot in the air. "I didn't do anything. I didn't bother anyone. I was minding my own business. Why did you... why ?" He broke into sobs and tried again, unsuccessfully, to stand. Minding your own business? I thought. You can't even mind after yourself.
The fire truck arrived first. I stepped back as three uniformed men wearing purple latex gloves hopped off of the truck and approached the man, who was shielding his chest and face with his arms as though he were being attacked. "I was minding my own business! I didn't do anything!" His tears flowed more freely now and he shook his head back and forth like a child trying to refuse broccoli but knowing he will be forced to eat it anyway. In answer to one of the firemen's questions, the man mumbled something about suicide. This sparked an interrogation: Had he taken any pills? Did he still want to die? Should the cops be called or was he willing to go to the hospital? My chest tightened and my eyes welled with moisture as I watched the man shake his head and ask to be left alone in response to the barrage of questions fired at him.
An ambulance pulled up in front of the fire truck and two paramedics popped out of the back with a stretcher. "Hey, we just saw you last week," one of them said to the man, whom the firemen were helping to stand. They lifted him onto the stretcher. I pointed out the black wire earphones left on the sidewalk to one of the firefighters, and he grabbed them for the man. The kind city workers and I thanked each other, and I turned back toward the entrance of my building.
Two teenaged girls walked in with me. I hadn't noticed them outside, but they must have been there, because one of them said, "We're sorry we didn't call 911. We wondered if we should, but then we didn't know what we were supposed to say."
"Don't worry about it, girls," I said, following them into the elevator. "In situations like this, nobody really knows what to say."