911

On my way home tonight, along Lake Merritt in the very-cold-for-the-Bay-Area night chill, I came across a man who was sitting up against one of the barrier logs that line the asphalt walkway. He was slumped slightly backwards, at an awkward angle, and seemed to be in a daze. I asked him if he needed help. I thought I heard him say “ambulance,” though his voice was badly slurred. I called 911.

Meanwhile, several people stopped, too, most notably an African-American woman who began talking to the man and covered him with her coat. As I answered the questions of the dispatcher – “I would say he’s in his late 40’s.” “Yes, he’s conscious.” “I don’t know if he’s in pain.” – the woman disparaged others who had walked by the man, also African-American, without stopping.

Another woman did stop, bent low to stroke the man’s forehead, and talked to him soothingly. By this time, he had slid down so that he was completely prone. His eyes were glassy, his mouth slightly ajar. The woman, who wore a scarf, gently stroked his head and said quietly “This is my worst nightmare” to no one in particular. I could not get over the kindness of that very human gesture – touch, contact, in a time of need.

Eventually, the fire truck arrived. The walkway is slightly lower than street level, so another of the passersby who had stopped waved down the wailing vehicle. Pretty soon all of us were on our way home again, dismissed by the firefighters. I was the last to go since I was the one left to respond to the firefighters questions, being the first on the scene. But that didn’t take long, and soon I was walking not too far behind the woman with the scarf. The man who had flagged down the firetruck, I noticed, walked slightly behind me. He must have been waiting til the very end, too, unnoticed by me.

He got to his turnoff and at that moment, he said, “Thank you for stopping. You’re a good man.”

I didn’t know what to say. So I shrugged my shoulders.

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