Monday, March 4, 2013

Oh What A Night

            The other night I walked to my usual train stop. It was cold and I practically waddled down the sidewalk due to all of my layers. My face still burned from the cold so really that was no help. There are two entrances to the Wilson stop and for some reason I decided to use the big one where the CTA personnel are stationed instead of the smaller, less frequented entrance. As I stood and waited for the Walk Symbol to let me cross the street I began twisting back and forth. I have a bad habit of dancing subtly to the music from my iPhone, but during nights when the weather channels says “feels like -3” I also do this just to stay warm.
            As I twisted, a figure on the ground caught my eye. Outside the Dollar Store window storefront, about ten feet away from me, a man was laying on the ground. People lying on the ground is obviously not an unusual site in any city, but he was on his back, which did seem odd. Normally, people on the street curl up in the fetal position or at least cover their head in some capacity. The man was also without any blankets or boxes or trash bags, which automatically labeled him as “not homeless.” His left leg was to the side of his body, bent at the knee, his calf parallel to his back, and the toes of his foot just grazing his shoulder.
            I thought about going to the man and asking if he was okay. Like I said, he had none of the typical makings of a homeless person. He wore dark jumpsuit pants with two white stripes running down the side; the kind sports players wear when they’re working out. His upper body was encased in a thick jacket, puffy vest, and a hood covered his head. Everything about him said ‘not homeless,’ but I hesitated approaching the man. Unfortunately, this particular corner of my neighbourhood is full of the most unstable people. Between the Dollar Store and Currency Exchange, the corner of Wilson and Broadway is rife with unsavory characters yelling at one another, yelling at passersby, mentally unstable people hassling the presumably stable, and so on and so forth. This corner is also known for a good bit of violence, but since my parents read this blog I won’t go into any further detail on that.
            I stared at the man and his unnatural leg. I thought about the times when I had been yelled at by crazies on the street and decided not to approach him. He was underneath a four-paneled, brightly lit window. If something was wrong, surely someone would have noticed.
            I crossed the street and walked into the train station. I paused at the door and looked across the street to the man. He hadn’t budged. I went up the stairs, beeped my card, and climbed the next set of steps to the train platform. I walked to where I could see the sleeping guy. A tall, lanky, hooded man stood over him. He looked like he was talking to the man. Good, I thought, someone is checking on him. I crossed to the southbound side of the platform and joined a super PDA couple in one of the CTA’s heat lamp areas.
            A fire truck from the station a few blocks from the train stop came tearing out of its garage. It blasted through an intersection and under the train platform. I texted a friend to see what she was up to and ask what time we were meeting for the improv show that night. My CTA Tracker app said my train would be approaching shortly. Mr. and Mrs. PDA were obviously anxious to have the hot box back to themselves so I crossed back to the northbound side of the platform.
            The fire engine was parked outside of the Dollar Store. Three policemen stood over the sleeping man and Tall And Lanky was nowhere to be found. Three firemen sprang from the truck. Two of them greeted the policemen while the third grabbed an emergency box from the side of the truck. Damn that man is drunk, I thought about Sleeping Man. Obviously the poor guy had gone on a bender and was now so wasted he couldn’t even rouse himself for the emergency responders.
            The fireman with the box put his hand on Sleeping Man’s throat. The other five men stood and observed. The man with the box walked back to the engine and put the box back in its designated spot. The cops said something to the other firemen and they nodded.
            I heard the rumblings of a train and looked south to see the lights of my train approaching. I took a small step back from the edge of the platform and looked back at what was happening on the street. The fireman who had been carrying a box had his back to me and was towering over Sleeping Man. The platform vibrated as the train began to slow down. The fireman shook out a white sheet that I hadn’t seen him holding earlier. He draped it over Sleeping Man’s body just as the train blocked my view.
            He’s cold, was my immediate thought. He’s cold and they’re covering him up with a blanket.
            The train doors opened and I waited as a few people exited the car. A man got onto the train in front of me and stood on the far side of the car, the one that gave a perfect view to what was happening outside the Dollar Store. I stayed on the opposite side of the car and strained my neck to see what was happening. The doors closed and the train began to pull away. I could still see the three cops and three firemen standing on the sidewalk. By their feet was nothing but a white blur.
            I arrived at Heartbeat a bit shaken. I am one of those people, I thought, someone is in trouble and instead of cause a scene I just look the other way. I am one of those people who let Kitty Genovese die!
            Now, it was pointed out to me soon afterward that not only was the man obviously dead before I even happened upon that street corner, but I had also done what any young woman would have done – do not approach the strange man who could most likely be drunk and/or deranged. Some people *cough*myboyfriend*cough* would quip, “That wouldn’t happen in a small town,” and I wholeheartedly agree. Had that man been lying on the ground on St. Simons Island I probably wouldn’t have given a second thought to going over to him. Hell, I’m sure someone would have even witnessed the moment of his collapse and come running. However, a lot of things happen in big cities that do not happen in small towns. People are more likely to trust others in a small town. Like that elderly couple in Vermont who opened their door to two young men one night and were then brutally murdered. The point is, big city or small town, crazy shit happens. (We could also get into a gender discussion because I feel that a woman lying on the ground would garner great attention and concern than a man on the ground, but that is a discussion for another time.)
            I told a few of my coworkers of what I had witnessed. I was somewhat amazed that most of them guessed the man was dead by the second sentence. I continued to receive encouraging ‘you’re not a horrible person’ texts from my closest friends while I completed my shuttle driver duties.
            Once the play started, I set up camp in the box office so that I could kill the next two hours until I had to drive patrons back to our parking lot. Jenny and Christine began emptying all the trash bins to take to the dumpsters out back. As they made their way to the door I asked if they wanted some help. Jenny, the Front of House Manager, said, “No. Someone should stay in the theatre just in case something happens.” They left and naturally I logged onto Facebook.
            I had just begun looking at my newsfeed when I heard the stage door fly open. Now, Heartbeat is not a large theatre. Our house seats 95 people and the handicapped row is literally on the stage. Our seats go up from the stage like stadium seating. Patrons use the side door before and after a show, but in the curtain speech we ask that they please use only the stairs located in the middle of the theatre because if they were to use the door they entered through then they will be in the play. Sometimes people totally disregard this and just use the side door anyways – even if it’s being used as part of the set!
            This is what I assumed had happened when I heard that very door fly open. However, instead of the naïve-bathroom-seeking patron I was expecting, one of our ushers came tearing around the corner. “Call 911, a patron is having a seizure!” she exclaimed. Instinctively I grabbed my cell phone even though her words did not compute. I don’t remember this part of the play, was all I could think.
            “What?” I manage to get out. “They’re...what? Are – are they stopping the play?” I unlocked my phone. As I did I remembered that iPhones are built so that you can call 911 from the Lock Screen. Wow, I suck at emergencies.
            “No. I don’t think anyone knows,” the woman responded.
            A dispatcher picked up the other line and I began stumbling through a description of what was happening:
            “Hi, I’m at 6978 N Morse Avenue – Heartbeat Theatre. A patron has had a seizure.”
            “Okay, ma’am, where is the location again?”
            “6978 N Morse Avenue. We’re right off the Morse Red Line stop. Big black and white marquee.”
“How old is the person?”
“Umm...I’m not sure. We have old peop – 50. Let’s say no younger than 50.” I paced around the lobby, poking my head out the front door periodically to look for Jenny and Christine.
“Man or woman?”
“This is actually all happening inside the theatre. An usher just came out and said that a patron was having a seizure.”
I heard movement in the lobby. Our two ushers were supporting an older man and helping him to one of our couches. A woman stood to the side of them and I recognized her as one of my shuttle passengers. “Male,” I said into the phone. “The person with the seizure is male and,” I lowered my voice and turned away from the group, “I’m gonna say about 70 years old.”
Finally, I saw Christine outside the door. I rushed over, still on the phone with the dispatcher who was having a very hard time understanding the address I was giving her. “A man had a seizure,” I explained quickly to Christine. “I’m on the phone with 911 and the paramedics are on their way.” Christine’s eyes went wide and she rushed back down the ramp yelling, “Jenny!”
Within five minutes the fire department had arrived. The man was stable and alert and the older woman with him seemed almost humoured by the whole situation. In true Chicago theatre form, the play was still going. The paramedics, the sick man, the older woman, and the ushers all stood just outside the entrance to the theatre. Jenny put her head in her hands and turned to me. “I want to tell them to be quiet,” she said, “but I feel know.”
“Doesn’t feel quite appropriate?”
“I know,” she sighed exasperatedly. I did agree with her, though. The paramedics certainly seemed to be unaware of where they were and even our ushers began to converse at a normal speaking level.
As the paramedics wheeled the man out on a kind of stretch-turned-wheel-chair, I approached the older woman and asked if she wanted to be taken back to her car so that she could meet him at the hospital. She said ‘yes’ and we left for the van.
Once inside the van, however, I longed for the noise of the paramedics. How awkward was this going to be? Was she going to cry? Should I give her words of encouragement? Was she the type of person who got angry and lashed out at people instead of feeling sad?
To play it safe, I opted for neutral ground. “Do you know how to get to the hospital?” I asked.
“Oh yes,” she responded. “I’ve been there many times. This isn’t the first time this has happened?”
“No?” I prepared for waterworks. Some sort of ‘I’m just so worried about him’ montage.
“Oh no. He has seizures all the time!” she said in the same manner someone would joke, “He gets lost all the time!”
“Is he epileptic?” I asked. Having dated someone who was epileptic I felt maybe we could find common ground.
“Nah. Just forgets to eat, that moron.”
“Ah.” This was certainly not where I envisioned the conversation going. “How long have you two been married?”
“Married?! HA! He’s my boyfriend.”
“Oh!” I did not do well at disguising the shock in my voice. “I’m sorry, I just assumed you two...were married?”
“We should be.” Her tone turned catty. “We’ve been dating for seven years! He’s a widower. I don’t know though. We’ll see if things change after tonight.” She added a smug chuckle and nod to herself.
By the time we reached her car I had also learned that the man had children, whereas this woman did not, and he had had a seizure on their very first date: “One minute we’re enjoying dinner with friends and the next – there he is on the ground!” (I felt she wanted to add, “That rascal,” but maybe thought it a bit disrespectful since he was currently in the back of the ambulance.)
The end of that night could not have come soon enough. I was exhausted, somewhat bewildered, and feeling a bit cursed. As I rode the train back to my El stop, I peered out the window to where the man had been laying on the ground. Nothing was there. I’m not sure what I was expecting. Police tape, chalk outline, flowers? I guess I was just hoping for some sort of remembrance to say, “A man died here tonight.” I didn’t know the man. I could not even tell you what ethnicity or age he was, but it made me sad to know that someone could just drop dead, anonymously on the side of the street, and four hours later there was absolutely nothing to mark what had happened.
I’m sure someone on St. Simons Island would have placed a wreath over the spot. In such a small town, something like that would have made the nightly news and be featured on the front page of the Brunswick News for the next two days. In Chicago, however, there wasn’t even a whisper of it. If you didn’t see it, it was like it had never happened.