Friday, May 26, 2006


A funny thing happened last night on the way to pick up my dinner. I crossed Manhattan at Nassau, turned left, and saw a guy laying on the ground right in front of my destination, Amarin Thai Cafe. Here in Greenpoint, if not the city at large, it's not entirely uncommon to see some drunk passed out on the sidewalk or street at all hours of the day, so in true New York fashion, I wondered if I should just sidestep him (a la Annie Hall, that's the one, right?) and bring myself that much closer to the consumption of the oh-so-tasty pad see ew waiting for me inside. Such thought processes are a shame to admit, but unfortunately, that's the depth of dissociation and alienation to which the city can drag a person.

Here's where the situation took a turn. As I approached, it looked like he might be vomiting, but no, a couple more steps and I could see that was just the volume of blood that was draining out of an abrasion above his right eye. Seeing as no one else had attended to the scene, I got down on the ground to help. He was obviously drunk — speech slurred, barely coherent, breath telling any secrets that the mouth might have kept — so I assumed that he'd just taken a dive and knocked his head on the pavement. For what seemed like the next 10 minutes, I stayed with him until the ambulance arrived, trying to convince him not to fall asleep, getting him to hold the wad of paper towels firmly against the wound to stop the bleeding, supporting his sizeable and uncooperative frame in a manner to encourage consciousness. He had a name (Carl), which he told me long before he told the police, and though he had to ask mine at least four times, he didn't hesitate to express his gratitude.

After the whole experience came to a conclusion, the weight of it hit me like a dump truck, and I'm still trying to figure out why the magnitude was so great. I think the meat of it lies in the disparity between "another drunk bum on the ground" and "man bleeding badly from the head." The first is nearly invisible, the latter, completely humanized — or, in this case, rehumanized. Is that the pathetic state we've come to, where a person has to suffer visible injury in order to regain visibility, to be real, to awake a sense of compassion in the rest of us? "Invisible" as a descriptor is problematic; these people don't go unnoticed, but judging from he superficial reaction of those passing by, one can almost come to that conclusion. Then one picks up a heightened sense of unease, a palpable discomfort, maybe even a whiff of guilt. Desensitization is learned, partially as a defense mechanism, partially out of selfishness, but it never sits well within. I attribute a large part of this to the belief that compassion is innate, yet continually repressed, and another to, possibly, a more subliminal impression: How far away, really, am I to being there?

Desensitization as defense is arguably necessary up to a point, for if we tried to save the world by patching up every individual leak we stumbled across, we'd find leaks sprouting at a rate greater than we could patch them. A few months ago, though, I saw a girl who completely defied this urban M.O. of detatchment, and it left quite the impression (I actually got about 75% of the way through an entry about the experience, and then never finished). We both got on the Queensbound E train down at 14th Street, sometime past midnight. There were three homeless men sleeping on the train, and as soon as she saw them, she went to each one, gave them food, even money, talked with them, not afraid to touch them. After 20 minutes, when I got off, she was still at it. For me, and for others on the train, it was stunning, watching this angelic girl act (impulsively? compulsively?) with no regard to expectation or traditional rules of engagement, and I could almost hear everyone asking questions of themselves.

Where's the point at which a healthy defense mechanism turns into selfishness and insensitivity? I'm not sure, but the New York walk-on-by doesn't quite sit. Two days ago, I walked by, and watched plenty of others pass by, a homeless woman and her child huddled in a doorway on Lexington Ave., and couldn't help thinking, "Really!? Are you kidding??" A kid, even. Smack in the middle of the wealthiest zip code in the nation, and nearly invisible. So, that point: I don't know exactly where it is, but it has to be a little better than that.


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