Friday, August 05, 2011

I stopped because he wasn't moving...and because I had nothing better to do

Today I tried to help a man who was sleeping in the street.

This does not make me a hero. I am not writing about this to brag.

In fact, I am ashamed to admit that the only reason I took notice and stopped to do something about it was because I had time to do so. Nowhere to go, nothing pressing to take care of. I helped him because I had nothing better to do.

I had the afternoon off and was reveling in my free time. When I walked by the shirtless man prone on the sidewalk on Yonge Street south of Bloor, I thought it would be a good deed to bring him a bottle of water and some chocolate to help him through whatever he was trying to sleep off.

When I returned with provisions, he was still lying there in half-fetal position, taking up half the sidewalk. I wondered how long he'd been motionless in that busy corridor while everyone walked around him.

I bent down and tried to call him awake. He didn't move. I asked if he was all right. No response. I gave him a little poke and shook him. He was breathing, thank God. He didn't smell particularly off--no urine or vomit or even alcohol. But his clothes were ragged, and his bare torso was covered in scrapes, sores and bruises. On his back was a big indigo tattoo that said Mom. On his arm, Madison. Portraits of smiling faces circled his back, sides and chest. They were quite skillfully done.

"Crack," a man in a suit above me said. He was in his late-forties, a stout guy who looked like he'd seen a lot of the city, with nice but worn black dress shoes, thick-framed glasses and a yellow tie.

I stared up at him, confused by his comment. "He hasn't moved in a really long time. I stopped because I was concerned."

He was with two female companions, who waited for him up ahead. Frowning, he pulled out a cell phone and dialed 911. Some people slowed, stopped to watch a moment before walking on. I continued to try coaxing the man to wakefulness, but he didn't bat an eye. Dead to the world, but still breathing.

Yellow Tie was on hold. "It's probably drugs or booze," he said. "He's probably just sleeping it off."

I had decided that was probably the case, but I hadn't stopped because he was "just another drunk." The man was lying on the ground in the middle of Yonge Street and no one was stopping to check on him. No one. If it had been me lying on the ground like that, how long would it have taken people to stop and check on me? How many people would have assumed "drunk druggie" and moved on?

"How did you know it was crack?" I asked. I was looking for track marks or some outward evidence of substance abuse. I don't really know how crack works.

He opened his mouth, blinked, hesitated before saying, "I've dealt with a lot of Native peoples on reservations." But I think we both had the same thought then: we had no idea what had left this man senseless, sleeping on the bare concrete beneath the fetid, oily exhaust of the nearby faux Asian noodle house.

"He's drunk," a young man smilingly told us as he walked by. As if he were informing us that people in this city just lie on sidewalks wherever they please. As though he were being helpful and informative. As though he were telling us the bus wasn't running, but hey, that's public transit for you.

The man with the tattoos was still lying in the street.

"He's probably just sleeping it off." A young woman with a slice of gourmet pizza stopped next to us. "I know this guy. His friends are just around the corner."

"I stopped because he wasn't moving." This had become my mantra.

"Maybe I should call them over." She sighed. "Joe. Hey, Joe, buddy, wake up."

As Yellow Tie continue talking with 911 operators, I chatted with the young woman. I found out she worked at a drop-in refuge centre just around the corner. "Jane" was familiar with the man and his friends. Soon after, a fire truck arrived and three hard-faced firemen came out with first-aid supplies. They questioned Jane and Yellow Tie while they tried to shake Joe awake.

"Make sure to wash your hands really thoroughly," Yellow Tie told me sternly. "I mean it. You don't know what these guys have. Hep C, that kind of thing. Remember." He disappeared after that.

I watched the firemen as they got Joe to move a little. They kept pushing down on a spot on his jaw just below his ear, trying to get him to open his eyes. If he didn't wake up, or couldn't walk away on his own, they would have to take him to the hospital, and they did not seem keen on that. Neither did Jane, whose gourmet pizza slice was now sitting on the ground. I imagine the hospital was the last place Joe wanted to be...apart from the slammer. That possibility hung over all of us.

I started worrying that I'd cause Joe--and everyone else--more harm than good by stopping to see if he was alive. I didn't want him to go to jail--he was just sleeping off whatever was in his system. And the firefighters looked...well, like this was just another day. I worried there could be "real" emergencies elsewhere in the city these firefighters could be attending to. One man sleeping on the street wasn't an emergency. And Jane could have been enjoying her pizza in the park. I told her I felt bad.

"No, you did right." The assertion somehow fell flat. Of course I did right--but I didn't do what other people might have done. I didn't ignore him. If I had, we all would have been allowed to keep moving on with our lives. Joe could have kept sleeping. Maybe that was what would have been best.

Now I was worried he would wake up, but wouldn't be able to walk away.

"You know this guy?" one firefighter asked me.

"I stopped because he wasn't moving."

"I know him." Jane filled them in on his background. He hung out with some guys at the refuge centre and he'd had "a rough night." They asked if drugs or alcohol had been involved. She hesitated. "I don't know for sure. At all. But there was probably crack."

They all nodded, as if this was what they suspected. I still wasn't sure how they could tell.

Finally, Joe stirred and sat up. I was relieved. He didn't say anything--he was still pretty discombobulated--but he managed to bump fists with Jane and with me after I gave him his drinks and chocolate.

I left after that. I didn't want to be another gawker.

And I wanted to wash my hands.

Later, I tried calling Jane at the refuge, but it was closed in the evening. I wanted to know if Joe was all right, and if she had managed to eat her pizza. It couldn't have been very appetizing after all that. I might even had had one delivered to the place to make up for the one left on the sidewalk. Joe could have a slice, too.

And then I realized I sympathized more with the working girl whose lunch was ruined than the man lying on the ground.

I have passed hundreds of men and women sleeping in the street, and many of them in much worse states than Joe. Men lying in their own vomit in the dead of winter, who've defecated in their clothes, who reek of piss and booze and utter despair. And except for the occasional care package at Christmas handed to the cute old man begging outside the dollar store, I have always avoided these derelicts, crossed the street if I had to. Because I have things to do and places to be; because it's none of my business what people do with their lives; because it's stupid for a woman on her own to approach a homeless person she doesn't recognize as harmless.

And I know that despite how I feel when I realize someone needs help--magnanimous, righteous, compassionate--another part of me believes these men and women on the street deserve exactly what they get. That they're passed out in their own filth because they've chosen that life, that if they really wanted help, they'd get it, get a job, get off the street.

And I don't think it's a stretch to say that many of us think the same thing now and again.

Today, I stopped because I saw a man lying on the street and I had time to think about that and ask whether he should be there. He was Native, yes. He was shirtless, yes. But I had no idea why he was there. And I knew I was being racist by assuming it was drugs or alcohol that had him in such a stupor.

Maybe I stopped to prove I wasn't racist. Maybe I stopped because I wanted to feel like I'd done a good deed. I am probably selfish and self-centred enough to delude myself into thinking I was better than all those people who didn't stop.

But I'd like to think I stopped because sleeping like the dead in the middle of a busy sidewalk isn't normal, and--here's where I get on a hypocritical soapbox--we shouldn't accept it as normal.

What if he had been Asian? Black? White? Female? Clean? Fully clothed? In a business suit? Pregnant? Lying in his own vomit? Covered in blood? At what point would you have stopped to check and see if he/she was breathing and asked if he/she needed help?

Homelessness, addiction, abuse and racism is reality. So is selfishness and pride and indifference.

But it doesn't have to be business as usual.

*The names have all been changed to protect the people involved.