When you believe your job is so boring it’s bound to kill you, the end of every work day feels like an unexpected gift. A couple of months ago, I got off from one of my temp jobs and I felt, as usual, euphoric and grateful to be alive. When I left my building, it was 8:00 on a Sunday night in downtown Portland, and it had just rained. I started to walk to my bus stop.
I turned left at the end of the block and headed toward the Willamette River. I looked up at the fire escape of Hotel Alder, a low-income residential hotel that sometimes serves up some low-grade drama on my commute home. The fire escape was empty. When I looked back down a man lunged toward me and said, “That’s what he gets.” Simultaneously, I heard what sounded like a gun shot, and I saw a man lying on the sidewalk about 20 feet away.
I ran to the man and crouched down beside him. His mouth and eyes were open and he stared up at the night sky. He didn’t look like he had been shot or stabbed, and I guessed it was his head hitting the concrete that had sounded like a gun shot. I yelled, “Call 911,” but then remembered my cell phone and called myself while crouching over the man. He had a head of gray hair and a just slightly dirty 49ers jacket on.
I didn’t know exactly what to do. There was a little blood on his mouth and a little blood coming out of the back of his head onto the sidewalk. I thought he might die, and the best I could do was remain present. I put my hand on his shoulder and I said, “It’s going to be okay. Shhh. It’s going to be okay.” I looked into his eyes and I tried to look kind. I asked him what his name was, but I couldn’t understand him. I asked him if he had had any drugs or alcohol, but I tried not to sound judgmental. I repeated one more time, “It’s going to be okay.”
“It’s not going to be okay, he hit his head,” some woman passing behind me said. A bartender from the Rialto who had made it through to 911 came out with his cell phone and told me to hang up my phone. That was good because the man was starting to make gurgling noises and struggle, and it took two hands and help from the bartender to hold him down. “The bad guy went west on Alder,” the bartender said into the phone, but that phrase, “bad guy,” seemed too reductive for someone who served drinks at the Rialto, and I assume he picked it up from the 911 operator.
The man suddenly sat up and then stood despite warnings from me, the bartender, and some bystanders. The man looked completely vacant and his words were so slurred that none of them made sense. Someone brought out a towel from the bar (sadly I think this too was the 911 operator’s idea) and I mimed mopping up imaginary blood on the back of my head with an imaginary towel so the man would mimic me.
After a few moments of standing and looking vacant with the towel pushed up against his head, he stretched the bloody towel out to me. I didn’t want it. I mimed pressing my imaginary towel back to my imaginary head wound and then he put the towel back for a second. Then he offered the bloody bar towel to me again. I still didn’t want it. I just kept pantomiming, but finally he dropped his bloody towel from his real wound and took a few steps out under the street light.
Then a teenager ran across the street, mounted the dazed man, and started to simulate rough sex on the man’s hip and leg. The man, whose brain had recently touched the inside of his skull, stood motionless, looking out into the street. The boy and his friends, dressed in black emo-style slim fitting jeans and dirty black sweatshirts, laughed. It was unclear if they knew the man. The laughter escalated as the boy slid up and down the man’s leg and grunted. I stood back a little at this point. I was confused by the whole scene, and while mock humping may be a classic gag, the boy’s timing seemed a little off. The man wasn’t laughing. Instead he might have been exhibiting signs of brain trauma.
The bystanders pushed the boys off in one direction and the man stumbled, now with keys in his hand, in another direction. “Don’t go,” I said as I walked with him down the block, but I was afraid to put my hand on his shoulder. “You could have really hurt your head. Wait for the ambulance,” I said, but then I stopped walking with him because he didn’t seem like he was listening to me. The bartender explained to the 911 operator, “Right, now the ‘good guy’ is walking toward Washington Street,” and then the man disappeared from view.
Police cars circled the block but didn’t stop when I waved to them. The bartender hung up the phone. I wrote my phone number on a card from my bag, and I gave it to him in case the police wanted to talk to me. “Well, you don’t see that every day,” he said. “No, you don’t.” I said. Then after a few seconds, he went into his bar and I continued on my way toward my bus stop. • 26 November 2007