San Francisco: A Dying City
I glance outside, the sounds of people draw my errant gaze to my window. There, just across the street, a small group is gathered around what looks like a man lying prone on the ground. Their body language speaks of barely controlled panic and restless anxiousness.
Huh, probably another OD, I think to myself, popping two tablets of Aleve and two melatonin chews so I can sleep uninhibited later tonight.
I keep staring at the scene, transfixed by it. It isn’t anything new, par for the course, honestly. It’s just another Thursday.
I’d found myself in a similar situation not too long ago. A hapless witness to just such an occurrence. A man, very much like the one outside my window, had been lying prone in an alley near my apartment building. His friend had the same panicked look, the same anxious air. He’d been yelling for help to anyone would listen. I wish I could say this was an uncommon theme, but it isn’t, not here. You practically step over a half-dead body every other day in this city.
I had stopped back then, gotten out of my friend’s car and called 911. I’d offered what impassive aid I could. I had stayed by his side, talking with the operator until the rescue team arrived. The man’s friend had overdosed on Fentanyl, he’d explained to me. I relayed this information to the operator and then again to the rescuers. I’d like to think I saved a man’s life that day. But honestly, I don’t know. The nihilist in me would later ask: did it even matter?
What’s to say he won’t be right back here in a week’s time after a helping of the free health care that my tax dollars helped pay for?
But the hopeful optimist in me would answer: yes, it absolutely mattered.
I’ve been gone from my city awhile. Freeing myself from its sordid surroundings, as one occasionally ought to, lest the routine and familiar lead to slow suffocation. I’d almost stopped noticing it… but this is how it is, in my city.
Here, the only difference between men dying on sidewalks and women casually chatting about Napa Valley weddings over too-expensive organic juices, is a couple of city blocks. Each extreme all too aware of its neighbor, but too emotionally spent and removed to care. We’re at a precipice, I think, in my dying city. But I’m not waiting for change, at least not in my lifetime.
I continue to watch from my window, apathetic, as the group continues to scramble around the man’s barely twitching form. I continue to watch, as passerby and motorists slow down just enough to not quite satisfy their morbid curiosity. They don’t have the luxury of anonymous spectatorship; not like I do.
The group grows more and more frenzied as the minutes pass and the form lying on the sidewalk stills. Good Samaritans walk up to the desperate group, handing them things: towels, well-wishes. Narcan.
An off-duty ambulance rolls by and two of the anxious group members chase it down, shouting at it to stop and banging on the sides.
It doesn’t stop.
Mm. Maybe if they’d asked nicely…?
Anyways, unsuccessful at petitioning aid from the off-duty medical professionals, the two members of the anxious group return to the man’s side. It’s clear they’re angry. You can see it in their casual disregard for traffic as they wave incoming cars past from the middle of the road. At this point, I’m well and truly invested. I can’t look away. What’s that thing they say about car crashes?
Others must feel the same because onlookers have started to gather. Is it genuine concern for the life of a fellow human? Or is it an unwelcome, but exciting change from the hum drum of their boring, typical evening walks home? Who’s to say?
An ambulance finally pulls up, the all too familiar sounds of sirens heralding their triumphant arrival. I notice an interesting detail about the EMTs that get out of the ambulance. Their body language is different from the group’s. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it’s the opposite. They move in a slow, unhurried, almost ambivalent, and methodical manner. As if it is, in fact, par for the course. I can only imagine what responding to a hundred people dying a day can do to a human psyche. Either you’re numbed or always eager and ready to help.
I’ve been on both sides. I continue to fluctuate. This city does that to you. Pulls you in an extreme. Middle ground really isn’t an option. You learn that after having lived here long enough. It’s taxing… on your patience, your tolerance, and your wallet.
You’ve got to pick a side.
You’re either the apathetic onlooker, or the would-be Good Samaritan.
Either way, in my dying city, it’s just another Thursday.