The following story is true.
My place of work, being trendy and design-oriented, is located in Austin’s East Side, which is generally acknowledged as a hip, bohemianpart of town. My office stands at the corner of a crossroads, and one of the roads making up this crossroads is not really a road: it is more of wide, wandering alley, following the railroad track. Establishments along this road are not in agreement as to whether or not it is a genuine city street at all: you will pass the backs of many shops, featuring loading docks and emergency exit doors and the like, when suddenly there will be a string of shopfronts, as though insisting that this stretch of cracked asphalt is a valid throughway after all.
Due to the “bohemian” nature of this part of town, my office has to deal regularly with vagrants, particularly because our two AC units are bordered by a thick wall of bamboo and make for a concealed, close little clutch where the homeless can find sleep in relative safety. Naturally, our AC units are on the side of the building with this street-alley. We often find the remnants of nests and bindles and blankets in the morning, and though we’ve attempted to prevent people from getting in there, they persist in doing so.
Today was more or less a normal day: we had deadlines to deal with, many meetings, and I was attempting and failing to phase out coffee for tea. Then around three o’clock, our receptionist came sprinting down the hall, saying, “There’s some kind of rescue going on outside!”
I followed and asked her to clarify, but I didn’t need to: as soon as I got to the window, I saw the ambulances, and the fire truck, and the police cars, and the swarm of EMTs, firemen, and policemen working around our AC units.
They were trying to pull out a young man from in between the two AC units. He was about my age, if not younger. He looked a little like a scruffy college kid, someone who scrapes by with C’s and D’s: he had short, reddish hair, numerous freckles, shaggy, rough-cut flip flops, and khaki shorts. His wrists and ankles were ringed with Greek letters or tribal patterns: I recall thinking them very unoriginal when I saw them.
He was like many of the young homeless you see in Austin, who could be just rather scruffy young people with stable lives, or they could be homeless backpackers trying to scrape together food and water for a day. You’re never sure – you never know.
The EMTs were having a lot of trouble getting him out. I realized that he was totally and utterly limp, especially as one fireman mounted one AC unit, its thin metal flexing and shuddering, and took one of the young man’s arms and one of his legs, and bodily hauled him up; and when the young man rose his head snapped back in a way that told me absolutely no muscles in his neck were doing what they were supposed to be doing.
When they managed to force him up onto one of the AC units, and onto what looked like a nylon sling, I saw he was terribly pale, his lips bluish, his cheeks quite white. Getting him up onto the unit took the force of four or five people, and it flung his arms and legs about so much one flip flop went wheeling through the air. And I realized, slowly and quite numbly, that the EMTs were moving with an air of grim panic.
They set him on a stretcher. Again, his head flopped back at a terrible angle, opening his slack mouth to the sky. They clipped a pulse monitor on his finger, and I recall saying that this was a good sign, they wouldn’t do that if there was no pulse to monitor, would they, and no one said anything. Then they put him in the ambulance.
And then, nothing happened. The ambulance sat there. The EMTs and the police and the firemen conferred among themselves in their various vehicles. He had left his aviator sunglasses behind. No one had picked up his lost flip flop.
The ambulance did not move. A policeman returned to dig through the gravel and debris in the little clutch.
Someone asked, “What’s he looking for?”
And I said, with sudden certainty, “Needles.” And while I do think this was true, I’m sure he was looking for anything at all.
The policeman walked away. He had not gathered the young man’s glasses or flip flop. This bothered me – wouldn’t he want those?
Still, the ambulance didn’t move. And I slowly came to the conclusion that this was either a very good sign or a very bad one. And having seen the young man’s pale, clammy skin, I felt it was probably the latter.
I began to feel sure the young man had been dead. Not dying – they try and save dying people – but dead.
I am not sure if it was the abruptness of all this, or the grim, familiar way the civil servants did their job, as if used to cleaning up the lost people who gather in the interstitial parts of cities like so much windblown refuse, or perhaps it was how the EMTs and the rest did not acknowledge us, standing mere feet away, staring out a thin glass window just over their shoulders as they did their work, but the whole thing had a faint air of surreal mundanity about it, as if this was not an occurrence of note, but rather an unfortunate, rote procedure that simply had to happen every once in a while. It was as if the young man had been a songbird who had flown into our window, and broken its neck, and was being properly disposed of.
Everything felt terribly numb, and strange: what was inside our window belonged to one world, with deadlines and meeting notes and whiteboards and network servers, and what was outside was quite another, one of railroad tracks and barbed wire, where people simply laid down in the street and died. I wondered if urban life had made us so calloused as to reduce the passing of another person to a mildly dispiriting curiosity, and, having observed it, we simply returned to work.
Our receptionist eventually opened the little side door in our office – which felt a bit like magic trap door between our world and theirs – and asked the EMTs what had happened. The EMT, a sprightly, personable young woman, informed us that she could not tell us what had happened, but did we know who had called 911? We said we didn’t know. Had we seen anyone in the area? We said this was the first we had noticed about any of this. She nodded, grim again, and thanked us and left.
I began to suspect that the young man had overdosed on some drug, and had been abandoned there by someone, who had then called it in. Perhaps they had been doing their drug in the AC clutch when the young man overdosed, and his partner fled and called it in: but this seemed unlikely, as the AC clutch can hardly accommodate one person, let alone two. Either the young man had been dumped there by someone who later called it in, or some passerby on the street somehow noticed him – which is pretty unlikely, considering how hidden he’d been – and called it in, anonymously.
I did not know. I do not know.
I did a bit more work. Then I returned home. When I left, the ambulance was still there.
I consulted some EMT friends online. They confirmed that this was a bad sign.
It bothered me, but I did not feel disturbed. I did not feel as I felt one should feel when one has stumbled across the dead – as I grew more convinced that that was what the young man had been. We’ve seen it so often, haven’t we? On Law and Order, on CSI: someone, somehow, finds a body. And the story moves along.
I felt untouched, and I felt it wrong that I felt untouched, but untouched was all I could feel.
Much later, I was bathing my son and watching him play with his bath toys, which made me visit my memories of my childhood baths, where I’d pinch my nose and lie underwater and stare up at my mother, until she’d become nervous and motion at me to come up.
I watched my son explore and examine his toys, and I hoped he’d form memories as happy and accessible as mine.
And it was then that I thought that the young man I’d seen that day must have had memories like these, memories of his own, precious moments and joyous seconds and half-forgotten treasures. He must have been happy occasionally, right? Whatever it was that had brought him to our alley-street, he must have had happiness, and revisited memories of it when he needed. And I realized that all those memories of his, all those seconds and all those secret joys, had perhaps been burned up in the pounding, 98-degrees heat that day, burned up by whatever it was that had coursed through his blood; they had burned silently, softly, separated from us by a thin skin of brick and wood, hidden among the concrete and the bamboo, and they’d burned and burned and faded and faded until it was as if they had never been at all.
If the EMTs and the police had not come, would we have even noticed him at all? Would he have sat there all night? If we had not noticed the EMTs, would they have come and snatched him up without our ever knowing, and spirited him away like elves in a fairy story? Could we have done something, if only we’d walked by the window at the right time, and seen him lying there?
I did not know. I do not know.
I took my son to bed. I read him a story, kissed him good night, put him in his crib, and turned out the light.
Then I went and read a poem by Tom Waits, from the collection Hard Ground, about the homeless:
When I was born
My folks wept at my beauty
I was the package that all
Their good luck came in
I was bright and shining, magnetic
Am I just something that got eaten
By the gods
Am I only the bag
That it came in