I was walking with a friend yesterday when we encountered a man lying in the middle of the sidewalk in Central Park. We’d actually stopped our walk and were sitting on a bench when my friend pointed him out. He hadn’t been there when we sat down and neither of us had seen how he had ended up on the ground - whether he lay down or fell.
Had I been alone, I’m sure I would have avoided him. In acknowledging that fact, I realized how much I need other people to hold me up to the high standard of compassion that I profess to believe in.
We approached the man. He was short, lying on his side, had a cloth bag under his legs and a full backpack hooked on his back. His clothes looked clean and he had no noticeable odor. His eyes were open.
My friend bent down and tried to talk to him. “Do you need any help? Do you want us to call someone? Are you OK?”
He was completely unresponsive. He didn’t talk back; his eyes didn’t move; nothing.
After her multiple unsuccessful attempts to talk to him, I started to wonder if he spoke English. His complexion was dark and he looked as if he might be Latino.
“Do you speak English?”
A shake of the head. I was relieved that we had gotten a response.
I leaned down, so that I could look into his eyes. “¿Habla español?”
A faint “sí.” His eyes didn’t meet mine, but they did move.
Once I started talking to him, my friend called 911 to get him some help. As she was talking to them, I asked him more questions in Spanish and translated his responses to her. While this was going on, he remained on the ground, just as we had found him.
He wanted to kill himself; he was Cuban; his name was Juan; he wanted to kill himself; he had taken drugs; he wanted us to call an ambulance; he had taken crack; he wanted to die; he was homeless; he had no job; he didn’t stay at the shelters; he didn’t have friends or family; he wanted to die. Every time he said he wanted to kill himself, he made his hand into a gun and made a shooting motion.
While we were talking I put my hand on his shoulder. He put his hand on my leg, which was fine with me, except when his hand tried to travel up my leg. I gently pushed it away...more than once. I was with my friend and felt that, with two of us there, as well as passers-by who stopped and asked if we needed any help, his travelling hand was more of a nuisance than a danger. My hand remained on his shoulder.
The police arrived before the ambulance. One officer took Juan’s backpack partially off him and helped him sit up. “I’ve seen you before.” They were pretty sure he’d been drinking, though he didn’t smell of alcohol. Juan said people had tried to shoot at him.
“I don’t know. I need the FBI.”
The second police officer helped to take his backpack all the way off. The first officer started going through the pack to find an ID and see what else Juan might have. The officer pulled from the backpack a mouthwash-sized bottle with a little clear liquid still in it. The officer dumped the liquid out.
EMS arrived. They lifted Juan onto the stretcher. They put belts around his legs.
“I am Cuban. I am with Fidel Castro. I need the FBI.” Juan’s torso fell towards the ground or maybe he threw it that way, I’m not sure. One of the EMS responders caught him. Juan’s upper body got buckled in.
“I need the FBI.”
The EMS responders started to wheel him away. The officers thanked us and we thanked them.
I wondered if my dad, who works as St. John Day Center for Men, would recognize Juan. I haven’t asked him yet.
My friend and I continued our walk and a woman who had passed earlier stopped us.
“Did they take care of him?”
“Yes. EMS took him.”
“Thanks for doing that. If you can believe it, I used to be homeless, 3 years ago. I work at Quizno’s now and he comes in sometimes to ask for food. There are places to go to get help.” She listed a number of the local shelters and treatment centers. “The thing is, you have to want help.” I was happy that she had wanted and received help. She was at the park with a young girl, a girl who no doubt benefitted from the help this woman had received.
Throughout the whole incident, I felt calm and detached. Now as I write about it, I am able to let in a little of the emotion I didn’t allow yesterday. I wonder how in his life Juan got from Cuba to lying on a sidewalk in Central Park in Louisville, Kentucky. I wonder if he’ll ever seek the help he needs and be able to make the changes that will keep him off the streets. I wonder how long his demons have plagued him. I wonder how many Juans are out there.
I wonder how many times police officers and EMS workers have to take care of people who need help, but aren’t ready or willing or psychologically fit enough to get the real help they need. I wonder where the strength of emergency responders comes from to deal constantly with people in crisis.
In all my answerless wondering, I can only offer a prayer: a prayer that those who need help seek it and find it; that those who offer help have the ongoing patience and compassion required to relate to people in difficult circumstances; that those of us who don’t face either reality on a daily basis nevertheless be aware of them, be open to them, and try to understand them; that if we care for “the least among us” the way we are called to do, there will be fewer men and women, or no men and women, like Juan, lying in the streets needing help.