I had just turned the corner off of my street when I heard the cries. I was listening to an audiobook, so it took me a moment to get oriented: What, exactly, was I hearing? Where were the cries coming from? I looked around, confused, and only then thought to take out my earbuds.
I could still hear the cries – they weren’t from my book – but as near as I could tell, I was alone on the street. The cries again, now with yelling. Words like “hospital” and “neck.” My heart raced; I pulled out my phone as I looked around. There! There – in the bushes, well-concealed in the branches and fallen leaves – a man. He lay on the ground, moaning, crying, screaming.
I walked towards him, “Are you ok?” He was obviously not ok. He was dirty and I could smell him even from a distance. He was thrashing and moaning and the words I could make out were words of fear and pain. “Are you ok?” I called again, but I was already dialing 911. “Don’t rob me!” he screamed.
“Police, fire or emergency?” The voice on the other end of the line was all efficiency. I hesitated, stumbled over my words, “Um… I’m not sure. There’s a man. He’s on the ground. He’s in the bushes. He’s not okay. He needs help. He’s screaming and talking about his neck and a hospital.”
The operator took my location, a description, my name. He informed me that “someone” was on their way. He told me I did not have to remain at the scene and that I should not go near the person.
I assured him that I had no intention of going near the man on the ground. The man in the bushes. The dirty, smelly, hurting, crying person. I looked around – it would be easy to miss this man, hidden as he was; it would be easy to drive by, not see him and keep going – I told the operator that I would stay where I was until someone arrived. “He needs help,” I repeated, and we hung up.
When I was 16, my great-grandmother fell down the stairs and my father called 911. We waited and waited for the ambulance to arrive at our suburban home. Years later, I called 911 when my sister cut herself badly and then fainted. Again, the interminable wait for the EMT. Now, I waited again, pacing the sidewalk near a stranger.
The man in the bushes settled down. He moaned occasionally, but he was no longer screaming or crying out. By now I realized that he likely did not have a home and that he probably wasn’t sober. By now I knew that it was simple chance that I had heard him over my story. By now I knew that no one else was going to stop for him.
When I was pregnant with my first child, I got a call at my work: my brother-in-law was in the hospital. Someone had found him on the sidewalk the night before, his head bloody, his mind confused. It was late winter and he, ever hot-blooded, wasn’t dressed warmly. The person who found him might well have walked by – just another drunk kid who’d partied too much – but they didn’t. It turned out that a new medication had caused him to black out; he couldn’t even remember why he’d left the house. When he fell, he cut his head, but the passerby had no way of knowing that. By morning D’Arcy was coherent, remembered where I worked, remembered that I was pregnant, warned the nurse to start by telling me that he was fine so that I wouldn’t be upset.
Now,I paced the sidewalk, occasionally glancing through the brush, checking that the man was calm-ish. After ten minutes, I stopped pacing and sat down on the curb. I texted my friends to tell them what was happening. “I just feel like no one should be left alone like this.” They offered to come wait with me.
Time dragged by. Ah! There was a police car! But surely I should be looking for an ambulance? The car turned down the street, driving away from me, from us. I guessed that maybe it was in the neighbourhood for something else. Moments later, another police car passed right by me, even as I stood up and waved. I started to get frustrated. A minute later both cars came back around the block and this time I waved them down. Sure enough, they were responding to my call.
As the two officers got out of their cars, I tried to explain quickly. “He’s over here. He’s calmer now, but he was quite agitated.” I imagine that they looked like the veteran teacher who knows what to expect from a student almost instantaneously, even as she tries to give the child the benefit of the doubt. In my mind, they looked like people with a job to do, people who would be as thorough and compassionate as they could. I realize that they looked the way I expected them to.
My eyes moved between the man lying in the bushes and the two men in front of me. I wondered why the dispatcher had sent police instead of an ambulance. I wondered what I would have done if the man in the bushes were Black or Indigenous. I realized that I would stay. I wondered if I should stay, given that the man was White. I wondered what it would mean to the officers if I stayed to watch, if I pulled out my phone to film. I wondered what had happened that a man was lying in the bushes, moaning and crying, that the response was the police.
I looked directly at one of the men in front of me and said, ‘I’m sure you see this all the time, but he deserves help, too.” He met my eye and nodded. I would like to believe I held his gaze long enough that my plea became a moral imperative. Then I left, though I no longer knew which of my choices had been the right ones.