Monday, January 20, 2014

Run and Tell: Life and Death and Bridges

Moving as I do through this city and it's many busy streets, greener patches, and connecting passageways, (sometimes during the later of the late night hours), you might imagine that I'd be privy to some fairly interesting sights/sounds/smells.  You're correct.  There are, essentially, an infinite number of stories playing out here, and I find myself getting tiny glimpses in to many of them.  But I am more than just a set of observant eyes.  My presence near, or injection in to many of these happenings can effect change through choice and action.

Two and a half years ago, while running home over the Manhattan Bridge at nearly three in the morning I witnessed something rather shocking and painful.  I first noticed a figure when it was roughly a quarter mile away from me.  As I got closer to this person it was clearer that he/she was homeless and pushing a cart filled with possessions and necessities.  Very quickly and without an ounce of hesitation I saw this person position that cart, and climb up on top of it.  My pace quickened as my chest tightened as they dropped from the bridge to the water far below.  It was surreal and sent odd shockwaves of pins and needles through my body.  It felt like something I wasn't supposed to have seen; some intensely intimate final moment between this person and an indifferent world that no longer had anything to provide to them.  When I reached the cart I paused there.  Part of me wanted to investigate the collection of objects to try and get a better picture of the person I had just watched die.  Part of me wanted to pay respects by simply breaking my stride and being silent.  I saw a hall pass made out of blue foam from an unknown school that had my first name on it and I took that with me.  I made my way over to the Manhattan side of the bridge, hoping that this man or woman found peace in their final moments of free fall and informed two cops parked near the bridge of what had happened.  They seemed more annoyed than anything.

Since that night I've often thought about why I was witness to that.  My mind goes through the tough-to-answers and the hypotheticals: Is there a 'why' to speak of?  If my pace had been just slightly faster upon leaving Union Pool would I have been able to prevent something?  Would it have been my place to intervene?  The incident became the example I would use when I was asked about crazy stuff I'd seen running wherever and whenever, and I would think about how often things that happen in this town.  Those are all nice questions but this was essentially just a thing that happened to me, until my memory of that night was vividly recalled and another chapter was written.

Come with me to the very recent past, during a different season and on a different bridge.  It is again nearly three in the morning and the clock rang in the new year a few hours prior.  Leaving the party I had attended with a bit of a buzz going, I get on to the 59th street bridge from Queens heading back in to Manhattan.  The air temperature is in the upper twenties and feels colder while traversing the bridge due to wind.  It isn't long before I notice a shadowy mass about a quarter mile away.  This one is not moving, however.  My mind does go back to that night on the Manhattan Bridge, but this could easily be a mound/bag of trash (I see plenty of those).  It isn't trash.  This is a man and he's not moving.  Because of the particularly cold temperatures and the celebratory evening there isn't another soul on this pedestrian path (and there wouldn't be for the rest of the time I spent on the structure).  I run right up to him and as I pause there, keeping stride to keep my own warmth managed, I notice that he has urinated on himself, is breathing, but is also unconscious.  His winter jacket and hat are decent but will not sustain him as he lies motionless, soaked in himself.  He's not homeless, the clothes are a bit too nice/new.  In a short amount of time this man will freeze to death, and the best case scenario is that he suffers some serious injury and loses some extremities.

My attempts to help him regain consciousness are futile.  Realizing this I immediately take a few extra layers out of my bag to cover certain parts of him after I dial 911 for the first time in my life.  An ambulance arrives near the Queens entrance to the bridge rather quickly but they have to bring the equipment to him so I run in circles to keep warm and periodically try to knock some life and sense back in to this man.  After one too many drinks he clearly thought it wise to walk back home over the bridge in the freezing cold: a fine idea unless you lose your ability to walk.  He will never know my name, nor I his, but there was a night on another bridge where someone died and now there's a night and a man and a bridge and no death.

I'm glad I was running that night and I hope he was as well. It's always possible that this man wanted to die, but he wasn't around to let me know.  I find it interesting on some level to have experienced these things and been able to shift from observer to aide.  There are plenty of metaphors one might conjure, but whatever.  Please remember to do the right thing out there.  Keep conscious of the mutual relationship we share and don't disassociate yourself from the world around you no matter how easy it might feel.

Quira Ba

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