BEHIND THIS STATUE
of Benjamin Franklin
at his printing press, out of frame, is a homeless man unable to piss. On the street he had excused himself to take care of business but, perhaps self-conscious at my proximity, could not complete the mission, he confided.
We were on our way
to The Hub, a social service agency beneath Suburban Station in Philadelphia, whence we’d been referred by the EMT personnel who’d picked him up off the street some ten minutes earlier. I’d spotted him passed out in front of the JFK Behavioral Center I had just visited, and was about to take a picture, as I am a street photographer (aka social documentarian); then I noticed a walker lying on top of him and thought he must have fallen over.
I crossed over and snapped my fingers in his face. “Excuse me sir,” snap, “excuse me, excuse me, sir,” snap, “do you need assistance?” snap snap “Do you need to go to a hospital?”
He had just come from a hospital.
He’d been admitted to Hahnemann the night before with various cuts and bruises, and they must have needed the bed. They awoke him at 5:00 a.m. and told him he had to leave. He still had his hospital ID tags on his wrist.
He was in a daze.
He had been walking around since dawn, five hours, and figured he must have fallen asleep on his feet. Down he went and clunked his head. It took him a minute, confused and blinking, to realize someone was talking to him. I snapped my fingers repeatedly to rouse him as he attempted to sit up. No, don’t try to get up, I told him, I’m calling 9-1-1. A paramedic from Hahnemann happened to pass by, gave him the once-over and said he’d be OK until the EMT arrived.
“Thanks for caring,”
he added as he walked off.
I had come downtown because the night before I was on the web investigating support groups and it so happened the next monthly meeting for one I was interested in was the next day at 10:00 a.m. I am a rabid night person and didn’t get to sleep until 5:30 a.m. that morning, but I still set my alarm for 8:00 a.m., thinking what if it changes my life? It would have been super easy and so very like me to blow it off, but maybe I’d meet someone who would tell me something I need to hear. Before I left that morning, I called all four phone numbers on the website, including the national office, and only one, someone’s personal voice mail, was in service, but she did mention the name of the group in her message. She may have already left for the meeting herself.
I explained I was trying to determine if the support group was still active, though it seemed unlikely, and more unlikely that she’d return the call in time to catch the train for the meeting that was even more unlikely would happen. I was up and dressed so I decided to take a chance and head over there, because the facility was near the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and I figured I’d go see the Chuck Close photo exhibit if nothing else.
So on 2 ½ hours’ sleep
I took the 8:49 and walked over there from Suburban Station. I was not surprised to find the door chained and padlocked, but there were several phone numbers posted on the glass door so I called the first one.
I said I was looking for a support group meeting supposedly happening there at 10:00 a.m.; they told me they hadn’t met there in seven months. OK fine, I’d expected that, but PAFA doesn’t open until 11:00, so I went off in search of breakfast. Nothing doing north on Broad, so I doubled back and spotted, right in front of the same padlocked door, Karl (I’ll call him) lying on the street.
When the EMTs arrived,
they helped him wobble to his feet and I explained he’d been ejected from Hahnemann, collapsed, and knocked his head on the concrete. I handed him a SEPTA token he had lost. They gave him a cursory examination, determined there was no obvious critical injury, and suggested we head over to The Hub where he could get coffee, shower and change his clothes.
“You’re not going to drive him there? He’s on a walker.”
“No, we’re not allowed to do that.”
is not a taxi service for homeless people.
“I was just unconscious on the street! What more would it take for them to help me?”
They took off and I said I’d escort him to The Hub. It wasn’t far but between his slow gait, dazed condition, and his failure to pee, it took about 20 minutes to traverse the couple of blocks. He apologized for moving so slowly and thanked me profusely for stopping to help.
“God sent you to me,” he said.
ALL I KNOW ABOUT GOD
is that my pal Pete’s and my nickname for him is “God who does not exist.” I’d once spontaneously exclaimed to him, “Thank God!” and hurriedly tacked on “…who does not exist.”
Karl told me his many injuries were the result of having been kidnapped and beaten for the past month. Though he was generally lucid and even personable, this of course sounded nuts, and I left it at that.
When finally we got to The Hub, there were two flights of stairs to navigate. I held his walker and he grasped the rail with both hands. Life was moving in slo-mo. At the landing I told him to wait there while I checked the place out. At the bottom of the stairs was the second padlocked door of the day. Closed on Sundays. What kind of social service agency is closed on Sunday? Doesn’t society need to be serviced every day? I apologized for making him come down the first staircase without checking it out beforehand.
I was at a bit of a loss.
I called 9-1-1 back and explained that EMTs had directed us to The Hub but it was closed and did they have any suggestions. I said the fellow had had a head injury and I wanted to get him somewhere safe.
“No, it’s not a medical emergency—it’s a human emergency.”
There was a pause on both ends of the line. She did offer two phone numbers to try; the first was out of service, the second continuously busy. Wow, now what? He said he had a lot of friends in West Philly and would likely head over there.
“Well can you make it?
Should I put you on the trolley?”
He wouldn’t admit he was homeless, but 9-1-1 must see cases like his all the time, though I hate to reduce him to a “case.” Is that what you call a broken person? I had come downtown myself feeling like a broken person. I could be a lot more broken. I stood on the sidewalk perplexed and helpless.
He suggested coffee at the McDonald’s, where I bought him some oatmeal and he revived a bit. He was rather gabby and repeatedly expressed his gratitude that I’d come to his assistance. I pointed out the restroom where he didn’t have to pee behind a statue. I felt responsible for him and while he was gone researched men’s shelters on my phone, called a place named Sunday Breakfast and spoke to the chaplain, a patient, caring sort who gave detailed instructions for how to gain entrance on Pearl Street. He could have lunch there.
We chatted a bit about our lives. He’d been married to a decent woman and lost that to drinking. He assured me this was a temporary phase and once he was healed and back on his feet things would change. He took his time over coffee and I felt the pricklings of impatience. I said I wanted to walk him to the shelter and make sure he was looked after.
“Let’s get some ice cream!”
Let’s go to a movie!”
“Not gonna happen.”
“Let’s just have coffee and chat.” I said look, there’s coffee at the shelter, but he was resistant.
“They’re just going to lock me up.
Don’t you know that’s what those places are for?”
Feeling not at all streetwise I said, “I think it’s a social service agency and a shelter where you can gather your wits in a safe environment. You may have a concussion. You need to be somewhere you can be monitored.”
“I just want to finish my coffee,” of which 3/4s remained. I wanted to help but this was becoming a career and I was exasperated with his lack of cooperation.
“I’m not going to adopt you!”
I said firmly.
“Well I didn’t ask you to burp me, I just want to finish my coffee!”
He started to slump a bit and I was wanting to leave. “Do not put your head on the table. You can’t fall asleep in a restaurant, they’ll call the police,” I said with a bit of edge in my voice. “Now you have a choice. Either you let me escort you to the shelter right now, or you’re on your own.” He didn’t budge and picked the coffee up again.
“Give me your phone number!”
I ignored him, and walked out the door.
What a relief!
It’s not every problem you can just walk away from. I’d done all I could for him: woke him up off the street, called 9-1-1, walked him to The Hub, bought him breakfast and found a shelter for him, but he was resisting me. Basta! I’m not good with impatience; I start to get mean and defensive.
And that was that.
It was time for him to go back to being his own problem. He couldn’t possibly follow me; it would take him five minutes just to get up. Suddenly “outside” became “the air of freedom.”
I called Pete up later
and told him it’s possible that I myself am proof that God exists, because someone had said to me, “God sent you to me.” We still agreed he does not.
But I find myself remembering the episode with wonder. It had started the night before with looking for the website. Without that, nothing. I’d forced myself out of bed and taken the train to Center City. I didn’t go to the meeting I’d sought, I didn’t go to the Chuck Close exhibit—in effect I’d gotten up and gone downtown and walked to the very spot I would find him collapsed a scant few minutes later.
Had God sent me?
I think it was just something that happened.
The woman never did call me back.
♦ ♣ ♥ ♠