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Sleeping Dead Man

I found this man sleeping, or dead, on Second Street this afternoon. I just finished reading The Great Deluge by Douglas Brinkley, who told the story over and over of white people with options and money ignoring poor brown people in trouble. Brinkley’s Deluge was the story of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast; looking at this man, I thought of corpses abandoned in the floodwaters of the Lower Ninth Ward, and of Bush and Chertoff, going about their business in air-conditioned comfort while thousands of people awaited rescue in the Superdome. “Suffering of biblical proportions” indeed.

I took the photo, because, well, please, what a shot. Then I was ashamed of myself. Here was a person who was obviously in some sort of trouble. If everything is all right, we do not fall asleep in the middle of the sidewalk at two in the afternoon. If he was (just) homeless, he would have been dirty, and he would have been huddled against the side of the building. He wasn’t dirty, and he had shaved recently, so something other than homelessness had led him to pick this spot for his nap. Or his death; I really did have to look closely to see whether he was breathing. He was probably just nodded out on heroin, and not in much trouble, I told myself. I told myself that checking on him would involve waking him up, and that he would probably be angry. I told myself that he was probably in a delightful heroin haze. I told myself I would be much better off leaving him alone. Still.

I am white, and I am healthy; I have options and I have family and money and an education and a job and an apartment. In this neighborhood, I pay attention to the Web 2.0 companies, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, conventions at Moscone, traffic on the Bay Bridge on-ramps, the organic cafés, and the fine arts bookstores. Things below knee level are literally beneath my notice. Still. I had noticed this man. I wasn’t going to be able to walk away unless I knew that he was okay. I was willing to risk his anger or even violence because I didn’t want him to die.

So I knelt next to him and asked, “Are you all right? Do you need help? Do you want an ambulance?” His eyes opened and closed, opened and closed, unfocused. His lips parted but he wasn’t really there. I was reaching for my phone to call 911 when he came back to himself. “Why you gotta bother me? I’m sleeping, leave me alone. Stop bothering me!” I was relieved; he was alive. I apologized and walked away.

We get a few chances like this, I think. I’m not going to head to Mississippi the next time the river floods, I’m not even going to work in a soup kitchen anytime soon. Maybe I should. But yeah: when it’s this easy, I won’t just walk away.

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