Friday, 1 April 2011

Waiting for Goddam

If we hadn't left the theatre by the back door, I never would have spotted the body.

We'd just spent ninety minutes watching Christopher Plummer becoming John Barrymore. That's a story in itself; maybe I'll tell you about it some time. The Resident Fan Boy and elder daughter were disoriented as we stepped out into the frigid street behind Toronto's Elgin Winter Garden. I have a better sense of direction and persuaded them to turn right, following knots of fur-coated theatre-goers. Our hotel was about a three-minute walk away. As we crossed Queen Street East,I happened to glance across Victoria Street and saw a man lying prone in the middle of the sidewalk where the shadow of the office block kept him out of the glow of the streetlights. A coat was spread over his head and upper body. Other theatre-goers strolled briskly past him, down Queen.

What to do? We dithered for a few minutes, then hurried down to the Italian restaurant where we'd had dinner. A few young servers were chatting by the bar, and they told us there was a hospital right around the corner, but agreed to call 911. Elder daughter took younger daughter back to the hotel which was just across the street from the restaurant, and the Resident Fan Boy and I gingerly approached the shape on the pavement. It turned out he was lying on a grate, but I noted that his stockinged feet were not getting any of the warm air. We called to him and got only a waggling of his hips.

A car drew up with driven by a lady with a young woman beside her.
"Have you called anyone?"
"Yes," I said. "We're just waiting here until someone shows up."
The lady explained that her daughter had noticed him and they had gone around the block to check.
"He's alive," I told them. "But he's only in his socks, and he's not answering us, just wiggling."
Satisfied, they drove off. Peering into the darkness, I made out the upturned boots of another rough sleeper supine under what appeared to be piles of tarps.

As we shivered on the corner, we had other visitors, like some twisted kind of urban fable. One of the young servers from the restaurant hurried up: "They want to know if he's responsive."
"Well, he squirms when I talk to him," I said, leaning over to check. The coat remained firmly over his head and shoulders, but he twitched irritably, rather like a small boy who's been kissed while asleep.

She stood with us for a while with her arms tightly crossed in her short-sleeved blouse and server's apron. It was something like -17 Celsius, with a lower wind-chill with the wintry gusts funneled between Toronto's tall buildings. We assured her we'd wait.
"Okay," she said, scurrying down the block. "This is a good thing you're doing. Most people wouldn't."

The minutes dragged by and the Resident Fan Boy and I shuffled awkwardly, glancing at the body as we stood guard. A man approached us, staggering slightly.
"Do you have change?"
He looked over at the pair of socked feet sticking out from under the coat.
"Are you helping him?"
We assured him we were waiting for an ambulance.
"All I need is..."
"We're sorry, we don't have any money on us."

He lolloped away as we scanned the darkness and strained our ears, and finally heard the sirens. Two police cars and an ambulance pulled up at angles to one another in the middle of the deserted street. The paramedics were playing a version of Good Cop/Bad Cop: the first one coaxing, "Hey Sir? Are you all right?" while his partner cut in with: "C'mon! Let's get up! Whaddaya think you're doing here?"

This time, Sock-footed Man responded, sitting bolt upright and furious. At me.

"It isn't FAIR!!" he bellowed. "I was WARM!!! Now I have to walk on the streets and be COLD!! Why can't you leave me be?"
Since he was bellowing at me, I held his gaze and tried to keep my voice from shaking. "You weren't answering us. You're in your socks..."
"I was WARM!! Miss, this isn't fair!"
"No, it isn't fair."
"I was sleeping! I wasn't hurting anybody, miss! Miss, you don't understand..."
"I know. But I was worried about your feet..."
"My feet are fine! I was WARM, miss! And now I'm gonna be cold..."

I could feel myself breaking down and suddenly turned and headed back to the hotel. The Resident Fan Boy fell into step.
"I couldn't just leave him."
"Well, if it makes you feel any better, he was being remarkably polite. He called you 'Miss' the entire time."

Into the hotel, into a sparkling elevator where I could see my eyes, filling up with self-pity, reflected in the brass. Up to our room, where it was warm, where the sheets were clean. Elder daughter reported that younger daughter had been discombobulated and upset. I went into the bathroom and turned on the taps. No, it wasn't fair. He was out there looking for another grate, and if he found one, well, maybe he could sleep a bit, and maybe by morning, his numb feet would gradually regain feeling. He'd been sleeping on top of his shoes, possibly to save them from thieves. While my family and I, bellies full with an Italian meal, brains full of a wonderful evening of theatre, would sleep in cozy beds in clean rooms with a bathroom nearby.

And as I stood there in shame, embarrassment and misery, gazing at myself in the bathroom mirror, it hit me. When the lolloping man asked: "Are you helping him?", I had misunderstood the question. He was really asking: "Why not help me?" Why not? Because he was on his feet, speaking to me? Just as I wasn't attempting to save the man sleeping across the street, because I could see he had boots? Who died and made me God?

Yet, I couldn't have lived with myself if I'd walked by on the other side. Even though that is exactly what I do every day. No, brother. It isn't fair.


Christie said...

You did what you thought was the right thing. So many people had already walked right by, probably thinking nothing of his freezing feet. <3

Vol-E said...

What Christie said. There's no textbook available for this. Even different police units and social service agencies have conflicting protocols for it.

A friend of mine in NYC (a place with ample learning opportunities) has a rule. If the person is lying down, even in the middle of a sidewalk, leave them alone. Police do keep an eye on them and if they don't get up and move once dawn starts to break, they will investigate. If the person is standing up, they are probably panhandling and might be dangerous, so again, leave them alone. If they begin to harass passers-by, the police will be the first responders and the individual will be prosecuted, hospitalized, or referred for social services, depending on the circumstances. The only time my friend will get involved, he says, is if he sees a homeless child, with or without an adult. He believes adults have the right to make decisions for themselves, but homelessness is dangerous to children in the long and short term. I tend to agree with him generally on these points.

Ann O'Dyne said...

IF he wanted to be left alone, he might have chosen a better place to sleep than right in everyone's face like that. do not feel bad, you did the right thing.
Some homeless people got that way because nobody in their family can tolerate their behaviour.
He has not been prepared to do in life, all the things needed, to be able to afford a hotel and the theatre. his choices.
God was watching you do the right thing.

Rob said...

I like to think I'd have done what you did. After all, he wasn't responding: he could have been ill, drunk, hypothermic, might have OD'd even. Speaking as one who can sleep through almost anything, I'd still have been worried.

Persephone said...

I did a search to see if I could figure out who I could have contacted. Not encouraging. There are many shelters in Toronto, but many are aimed at women and children, and many are not in the downtown core. Furthermore, bed-bug infestations are a problem. Toronto has a small contingent of "street nurses", the most famous of whom is Cathy Crowe who was actually on employment insurance last year, trembling on the brink of poverty herself. She has since been hired as a part-time lecturer on the nursing faculty at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. I'm not sure how I could have reached a street nurse, though.