Today I got up at 2 in the afternoon. I was going to get lunch, but I got sidetracked answering emails and playing Knytt Stories, so I didn't get ready to go out until 4. That pretty much derailed my lunch plans--I was going to go have lunch down the street and then go see the Murakami exhibit the Brooklyn Museum, but the Brooklyn Museum closes at 6, so there wasn't nearly enough time. (Admission's half price next week, so just as well, I guess.) So instead I decided to head down to Greenwich Village and check out Myers of Keswick, an English expat store I had discovered from Wikipedia after a discussion with Eric about pork pie hats. Myers of Keswick also closes at six, but I figured that as I wasn't going to stand around for two or three hours looking at teapots and biscuits, I had plenty of time to grab a take-away pie and enjoy it outside.
Turns out that Myers of Keswick is located deep in the heart of Gayland, and the neighborhood was holding a big Feast of San Gennaro-style street market all down 8th Avenue. By all rights I should have ignored it and hurried over to Myers to get a pie before the place closed, but if you know me well enough, you know I can't resist a good street market--the fairground atmosphere and the warm roasty smells of shish-kebab and zeppole makes the kid in me jump up and down and beg for something tasty to eat.
Today was evidently a lot windier than the planners had anticipated, as the standkeepers struggled to keep their flapping canvas tents rooted to the ground, but buisness was still good and throngs of gay couples and yuppie women, pressing their hats against their heads, were busily perusing the plethora of knicknacks and junk foods on a stick that were being offered for sale. Against my better judgement I stopped by a little French-looking place and bought a giant nutella crepe. The crepemakers were obviously having a miserable time as the wind kept blowing the unfinished pancake off the skillet, folding it into all sorts of bizarre shapes, but they finally managed to produce something solid enough to smear a thin layer of nutella on and serve to me. The end result was sloppy, overpriced, and far too heavy on the sugar--I could have easily done better myself, even in this weather--but goodness, it's almost unsettling how happy a warm nutella crepe makes me. All down the street I was going ^_^ ^_^ ^_^ and it was a small wonder I didn't burst into song.
By the time I finished the crepe it was already 5:50 PM and I had walked about ten blocks in the wrong direction. Since it was obviously too late for me to get a pie at Myers at this point, I bought a shish-kebab instead and ate it on the way back to the West 14th St subway station. I finished it just as I got there, but by then my throat and tongue were so sticky from the barbeque sauce that I decided to go back all the way to a Jamba Juice I had passed (about 15 blocks in the direction I had come from) and get something nice to drink. It was 6:30 by the time I got my drink--some fruity peach smoothie-type deal with a flamingly gay name--and as I walked back to the subway station sipping it merrily, watching the people around me pack up their tents and pack up their grills and cotton candy machines, I realized that I had spent three hours eating junk food and walking down Eighth Avenue. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon, I guess--and not really worth writing an LJ entry about, if that had been the end of it.
About two blocks from the subway station I saw a man collapse.
It reminded me a little bit of films I had seen about the Vietnam War--there's a crowd of people, and one guy gets all scrunchy-faced, and the people behind him grab him as he falls into them, and there's confusion and panic and screaming screaming screaming, and suddenly no one has any idea what the fuck is going on. The man, mid-thirties, probably Cambodian or Vietnamese, had been helping disassemble a tent, and there was a bundle of PVC tentpoles under his arm, and suddenly he let out this terrible wail and the tentpoles just kind of dripped and bounced onto the floor. He didn't slump directly to the ground; two of his helpers caught him, and, for some reason, kept trying to prop him back up--they were shouting in some language I didn't understand--and he kept spasming violently, he couldn't stand, he just kind of slipped out of their grasp and fell onto the pavement, still spasming. At first I thought he had been shot, because there was blood on his shirt, but as he went horizontal it became apparent that the blood was coming out of his mouth. His fellow tent-disassemblers started screaming.
"What's the matter?" I shouted. "Is he okay? Do you want me to call the ambulance?"
They just stared at me blankly. Maybe they didn't understood what I was saying, or maybe in their state of panic they weren't able to go into English-speaking mode. Honestly it wasn't easy to tell whether this was actually an emergency or not--maybe he had just bumped his leg and was overacting, or he had something stuck in his throat, or he was mentally ill and had to be restrained. Maybe in the next few seconds he would get up and be okay. I didn't take any chances. I took out my cell phone and dialed 911.
"Hi," I said as soon as the emergency responder picked up the phone. "A man has collapsed at 8th Avenue and West 17th St. Repeat. A man has collapsed at 8th Avenue and West 17th St. He's conscious but he's shaking--he's convulsing a lot. Under the white tent at 8th Avenue and West 17th St.--repeat, under the white tent at 8th Avenue and West 17th St., Asian male, mid-twenties..."
(It didn't occur to me after the fact that I was subconsciously imitating every cop/medical drama I had ever seen, but apparently this was all the information they needed--all the other white tents in the area had already been taken down, so the victim was easy to spot.)
What's really weird is that after I made that call, it ceased to be a crisis to me. The other folks who were running the tent--his family?--were going absolutely apeshit by now, they were elevating his legs and putting them back down, they were trying chest compressions, they were arguing with each other--and I was just standing there on the curb, calmly sipping my Jamba Juice. Every now and then I'd try and reassure them--"It's going to be okay," I told them, "don't worry, the ambulance is coming"--but they made no indication that they had understood or even heard me. At this point the scene had attracted a small crowd of bystanders, hovering curiously and wondering if there was anything they could do, and I had just become one of them. All of them looked a lot more worried than I felt. A man in a hoodie stood next to me, arms crossed, and asked me casually, "You have any idea what they're shouting?"
"No idea," I confessed. "Don't worry, I just called 911. The ambulance will be here any moment now."
The man--a white guy, stubble, baseball cap--just looked at me and smiled. "I know," he said. "I'm with the police. I'm responding to your call--the emergency guys should be here any moment now."
About a minute later the guy stopped convulsing and lay perfectly still. He started gasping, like a fish. He said something in his language, licked the blood from his lips, and smiled. He was breathing. One of his companions--a woman--embraced him and cried. "He's okay!" another one of them shouted to me. "He's okay! He no problem! He's okay!"
They were still embracing him and shouting "He's okay!" when the ambulance finally arrived, maybe two minutes after I had made the call. A bunch of firemen--ostensibly they had been on the scene because of the street festival and had been the first to arrive--came by with an oxygen tank and a clear plastic pipe, and started asking questions--and the dude's family, now clear-minded enough to speak in English, started shouting back, "No, he's okay! He say he no need oxygen! He's okay! He fall down but he fine now, I think!"
At this point it was clear that there was nothing more I could do--what was I going to do, wait around for someone to congratulate me?--so I left.
It wasn't until I got to the subway station and was waiting for the train, placidly drinking what was left of my Jamba Juice, that I realized that what had happened was kind of a big deal.
And then, for some reason, I felt really, really good. Like floating-away-on-the-clouds good.
You see, if I hadn't gotten up late this afternoon, I wouldn't have missed lunch.
If I hadn't missed lunch this afternoon, I wouldn't have decided to go to Greenwich Village for pork pie.
If there hadn't been a street market that afternoon, I would have had pork pie for lunch, and not a crepe.
If I hadn't eaten a crepe, I wouldn't have wanted to round out my appetite by buying a shish-kebab.
If I hadn't had a shish-kebab, my throat wouldn't have been sticky enough to make me turn around and walk all the way back up the street for Jamba Juice.
If I hadn't spent an extra half hour walking uptown to the Jamba Juice place, I wouldn't have been at Eighth Avenue and West 17th Street at 7:02 PM.
If I hadn't been at Eighth Avenue and West 17th Street at 7:02 PM, this man would be dead.
If the street market organizers would have known it was going to be so windy today, maybe they would have postponed the street market.
If they had postponed the street market, this guy maybe wouldn't have gotten sick, working the stand all day in the wind.
If the man hadn't gotten sick, maybe he wouldn't have collapsed.
If he hadn't collapsed...well, God only knows whether this man is going to survive, after what happened today. If it was a seizure, or if he'd gone into shock, maybe he isn't as okay as he looks.
I have no delusions about saving this man's life. This chapter in his life story is not over yet. Perhaps he really is okay, perhaps he was saved from his seizure by a miracle, and when they bring him in to the hospital they will find, amazingly, that there is nothing wrong with him. Or perhaps his recovery is just a lapse in symptoms, a sign of something worse, and he will die in the hospital tonight. I have no hand in his fate. God only knows what will happen to him.
And, to be honest, despite the way I'm writing about it now, it's almost unsettling how calm I was during the whole thing. It's not like I am any stranger to tragedy. My life has had so many 911 calls in it that I've started using them as mental bookmarks, little identity placeholders in my memory that remind me of who I was at various points in time. You might even say that I wasn't acting out of any genuine concern for this guy's life--I mean, I didn't even know him, and I could have easily justified just walking away--but because I was acting out of habit. That I went through the motions of emergency response simply because I was familiar with them, and in an unexpected situation it merely seemed the natural thing to do.
And, a confession: This is the first time it was me who made the call. I mean, I've called 119 before, in Taiwan, but that was a completely different experience. That time, I had been like this guy's family. I blanked out. In an instant I forgot all the Chinese I had ever learned. I had to hand the phone to my aunt to give them my address. God knows I wasn't going to make that same mistake again.
But the fact that such an extraordinary convergence of events would take a twenty-two-year-old computer programmer in Brooklyn all the way into Greenwich Village to help save the life of a Vietnamese street vendor--two strangers, at a festival the former didn't even know was going on--no, I can't take any credit for this at all. This was no spontaneous act of altruism. I was summoned.
When I got on that A train into Manhattan this afternoon, I didn't know that I was headed to Greenwich Village to try to save a life. But someone did.
Well played, God.
And as I got on the train on the way back, I prayed, not for this man's safety (because that is ultimately not for me to decide), but with thanks.
Thanks, Lord. You could have saved this man by yourself--and perhaps you did. Perhaps there was no reason for me to be there; perhaps You were already taking care of him, and if I had not called the ambulance someone else would, or he would have just gotten up and walked away.
But You let me participate in Your work. And that is the greatest privilege a human being can ever have.