Street Scene

Minor heroism in a major metropolitan area

From the archives:

Flashbacks: "Loving and Hating New York" (November 28, 2001)
Reflections on New York City from the turn of the century to the 1990s.

On a Saturday morning I left my Brooklyn apartment to shop for a dinner party and saw a crowd—baseball caps, legs straddling bicycles, an arm holding a lamp stand with a dangling price tag—around a person on the sidewalk. I was almost at my doorstep; I went closer, and saw a woman lying on her back with her lips turned into her mouth and her eyes neither open nor closed. Her hair was gray, her face the same color as the pavement. A slight, brown-haired woman was giving her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, while a well-built brown-skinned man with hair close-cropped like a skullcap was performing chest massage. He and the woman giving mouth-to-mouth were counting, "One, two, three, four, five." Then he would pause and she would breathe into the woman's mouth.

A police car drove up and a young Hispanic cop got out. He went over to the woman and talked to the pair trying to revive her. Someone pointed out to him the woman's son, a tall, gangly man who stood nearby, kind of bobbing up and down and nodding to himself. The cop patted the son on the arm and spoke to him. A large, lumpy-faced man with his pants high on his waist said to me, "The ambulance will never come. They never come when you call anymore. They don't care. In New York nobody cares. People are so arrogant on the street in Manhattan. I call New York a lost city. Used to be a great city, now it's a lost city. People are nicer out west or upstate. I went to Methodist Hospital and the nurse wouldn't talk to me. I told her right to her face . . ." After a minute I realized it made no difference if I listened to him or not. The pair at work on the woman paused for a moment while the man asked if anyone had a razor so he could cut the woman's shirt. Someone found a pocket knife. He bent over his work again. Minutes passed. The cop asked if he was getting tired and he said he wasn't. Sirens rose in the distance, faded. Then one rose and didn't fade, and in the next second an Emergency Medical Service truck from Long Island College Hospital pulled up. The chest-massage guy didn't quit until the EMS paramedic took over; then he straightened up, looked at the truck, and said, "Long Island? Fuckin' Methodist is only three blocks away."

The EMS guys put the woman on a stretcher and lifted her into the back of the truck. Hands gathered up a few items the woman had dropped on the sidewalk; someone pointed out her false teeth. The woman who had been giving mouth-to-mouth bent over and picked up the teeth. She paused just a second before touching them. I thought this was from squeamishness; then I saw it was from care. Gently she handed the teeth to one of the paramedics. Then she and the chest-massage guy parted without a word, or none that I saw. The guy walked toward his car, a two-tone Pontiac. Apparently he had just been driving by; its door was still open. I went up to him and thanked him for what he had done. I shook his hand. His strength went right up my arm like a warm current. I ran after the woman, who was now well down the block. I tapped her shoulder and she turned and I said thank you. Her eyes were full of what had just happened. There were tears on her upper cheeks. She said something like, "Oh, of course, don't mention it." She was a thin-faced white woman with Prince Valiant hair and a green windbreaker—an ordinary-looking person, but glowingly beautiful.

The EMS guys and the cop worked on the woman in the back of the truck with the doors open. The crowd dispersed. The son crouched inside the truck holding the IV bottle for a while; then he stood outside again. Eventually the cop got out of the back of the truck. The son climbed in, the EMS guys closed the doors, and the truck drove off with sirens going. The cop sat in his car. The window was down. I walked over and asked, "Excuse me—did they ever get a pulse?" He winced slightly at the nakedness of my question. A pause. Then he shook his head. "Nahhh. Not really."

I went to the park across the street. A bunch of kids were hanging around the entrance jawing back and forth at each other. In my neighborhood there is a gang called NAB, or Ninth Avenue Boys. Newspaper stories say they've done a lot of beatings and robberies nearby. From a few feet away I heard one kid say to another, "You shut your stupid fuckin' chicken-breath mouth." I felt as strong as the strangers I had just talked to. I walked through the kids without fear.