Step Back From That Ledge, My Friend

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

I was already in my car & headed to Starbucks when I realized I'd left something at home. Rather than re-parking in my complex's lot all the way back down the street, I instead pulled into the courtyard behind my building. Is "courtyard" the right word? It's a glorified driveway for the residents who pay $150 extra a month to park in individual one-car garages. There's a big "NO PARKING" sign there, but if you pull up close to the brick wall & leave your flashers on & make it quick, you'll be fine. Our super, Anthony, is friendly & forgiving, & plus, he likes me even though I don't know how to use my dishwasher.

As I pulled up close to the wall, I spotted my downstairs neighbor, Barbara, who likes me a lot less than the super does. When she started motioning toward the back of the lot, I rolled my window down to talk to her: "There's a man back there!" she told me frantically. "I wanted you to see him. I think he fell. An ambulance is coming."

Indeed, a man was lying, legs splayed, toward the back of the lot. Quickly, my brain calculated options: Park your car here, go wait with him. Park your car somewhere else, come back to him. But before I could process a decision, I heard sirens closing in behind me & three police cars zoomed into the lot, surrounding my car. Carefully, waving apologies to the officers as they navigated the tiny space, I maneuvered my way out & parked my car on the street, away from the growing chaos.

And then I went up to my apartment, ostensibly to retrieve what I'd forgotten... but also to peer out my window, which overlooks the courtyard lot.

I watched for nearly an hour as policemen tended to the man, who was initially unresponsive. Immediately upon awaking, though, he tried to sit up & began to scream - "Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God," over & over & over, echoing off the brick & reverberating through that small, enclosed space & carrying up into the open windows above. More police cars arrived; two ambulances followed. As EMTs tried to load the man onto a backboard, his screams continued: oh my God, oh my God, oh my God. "Stop trying to move," I heard medics tell him. "You're making it worse." Each time, he stopped for less than a minute, & each time, the wailing began again.

I could only hear pieces of the conversations that surrounded his screams - a neighbor yelling down that the man had jumped, the police pointing to a nearby apartment complex where they thought he lived, my super collecting empty beer cans from the area where he'd fallen, a medic mentioning a broken ankle, broken legs. Once he'd been backboarded & wheeled into an ambulance, I watched as they secured him down & stuck him with needles. And all the while, he kept screaming.

I don't know what happened. I don't know who he is or whether he lives in my building or how he ended up lying face-up in my driveway. I don't know if he jumped, or if he fell, or if maybe there was no descent at all - maybe he was drunk, maybe he tripped, maybe it wasn't as bad as it all seemed. Maybe it was something else entirely, something I can't imagine. No, I don't know anything except how scared he sounded, how sad, how utterly racked with pain, & how I felt listening to him & watching, horrified & helpless, as first responders tried to assist him.

Finally, I had to leave, not only because it was the middle of a workday but because I'd begun to feel physically ill, my lack of breakfast roiling in my stomach & threatening to rise. I've always been a little nosy - you've got to be, I guess, to ever aspire to be a journalist - but it's never manifested itself in this way, in watching so closely as another human being suffers so badly. Why did I feel so compelled to look on, to listen? As I exited my apartment complex, I hoped to run into neighbors who might also have overheard the whole ordeal, thinking I could find some solace in "Can you believe it?!" small talk with strangers who were also struggling to place their feelings.

But it was just like any other Tuesday at 10am, no one milling about in the lobby or the front yard or anywhere at all. In fact, from the front of the building, where my car was parked, the bright police lights & chartreuse ambulances were hidden from view, no visible signs of the tumult still happening in the backyard. Everything was silent, just another day, the world carrying on as usual.

Before I shut my car door, though, I heard it again, more faintly this time, carrying from around the corner: Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God...

I haven't stopped thinking about him all day. It's going to take a long time, I think, for those words to fade.

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