Thursday, February 04, 2016


I am fairly certain that I watched a man die in the street in Memphis last Saturday night.

[TW: disturbing content follows]

I say that I'm "fairly certain" because, the truth is, I still do not know for sure.  In the past several days, I've recounted the events of that night to a few friends, hoping that one of them could give me a plausible alternative story that did not result in a man's death, but so far no one has been able to provide one.  The not-knowing-for-sure what happened has been an especially weighty burden to bear, though not even close to as heavy as the fairly-certain-I-do-know.

Here's the story: My friend and I were returning home from the International Blues Challenge in the wee hours of the morning (3am-ish) on Saturday night.  Just a few blocks from my apartment, we saw a pickup truck stopped in the right-hand lane with its emergency blinkers on.  About ten feet in front of the truck, a man was standing in the street.  About five feet in front of him, another man was curled up, motionless, lying the middle of the same street-lane. As we passed by, we slowed down and saw what appeared to be a man who had just been hit by the other man's truck. There was no other traffic, so we quickly pulled into a Taco Bell parking lot and immediately got out to see if we could offer any help.

We exited the car and made our way across the street and over to the driver. I was shouting as we crossed the street "Is everything okay? Do you need an ambulance?" The driver shrugged and said he had already made the call, that the police and ambulance were on the way.  At this point we were up on the scene and the man on the ground wasn't moving.

I said, "Did you hit him?"
"No," the driver said, "I'm standing here keeping him from getting hit.  I watched him stumble out into the street and just lay down there.  He's probably drunk."

I reached down and shook the man-- several times and really hard-- and shouted "Hey, are you okay?  Wake up, man!  Can you hear me?"  No response.  No movement.  Nothing.

The man lying in the street was probably 50-something, I'd guess. He had disheveled white hair and an unkempt white beard.  His clothes were tattered and worn and dirty. His looked homeless, so it's hard to hard to put an accurate age to him, someone who has likely been regularly roughed-up by life. It was cold outside that night.

He still wasn't moving.

I decided to call 911 myself and told my friend to call as well.  (For the record, I live 2 blocks from the nearest police precinct, roughly 8 blocks from the downtown central precinct, and less than a mile from several hospitals, including the hospital where "indigents" are taken, known in Memphis as The Med.) If my friend and I called, I thought, maybe several reports would speed up the ambulance and police.  I didn't know how long the driver had already been standing there.  The dispatcher told both my friend and I that help was on the way.  And so we waited.  And waited.  And waited.

About 15 minutes passed before a police cruiser pulled up.  In the interim, I learned that the driver was an off-duty policeman, that he "sees this kind of thing all the time," that he was certain the guy was drunk and would be fine.  When the police arrived, neither of them checked on the man.  They just took the word of the driver that he was drunk and then the three of them started trading stories.

Another 15 minutes later, the ambulance arrived.  (No lights, no siren.)  Both EMTs got out and glad-handed with the  police.  It was abundantly clear to me at this point that everyone involved had been told in advance that this was not an emergency.  They all joked and guffawed-- I bet he won't remember this in the morning!  Looks like someone had a few too many!  What? He couldn't lay down in the grass?  hahahahaha-- until FINALLY one of the EMTs reached down and tried to shake the man awake.  No response. He took his forefinger and started poking on the man's forehead. Eventually, the EMT grabbed the man's wrist, still joking around with the other guys, and about 30 seconds later was the very first time I saw any sense of urgency in anyone.

"He barely has a pulse."

They went to the ambulance, grabbed a gurney, lifted the man onto it and put him in.  With some relief, my friend and I said goodbye to everyone and made our way back across the street to our car. The cops remained in the street, chatting it up.

Since we were already at Taco Bell (and it was 3:00 in the morning) we went through the drive-thru and got some "food."  I'd say that took about 15 minutes altogether.  When we pulled around to the pickup window, we looked across the street and noticed that the ambulance was still sitting there in the street.  It hadn't gone anywhere.  This might be a good time to note here that we were less than 2 minutes away from three hospitals.

I asked my friend, "What could they possibly be doing in there?! Didn't the EMT say he barely had a pulse?!  Why aren't they on the way to The Med already?!"  My friend, hoping so more than believing so, said: "They must be working on him in the ambulance."

Would that that were true.  Just before we pulled out of Taco Bell, the ambulance drove away. Slowly. No lights, no siren, no hurry.

I'd really like to believe that there is another plausible story for what happened other than that they let a man die in the ambulance. That we let a man die in the ambulance.  I'd like to believe that our emergency services are not so indifferent to the lives of Memphis' homeless (or addicted, or mentally ill, or simply impoverished) population that they would intentionally withhold life-saving care. I'd like to believe that I didn't witness that night the truth of what philosopher Judith Butler calls "ungrievable lives" or philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls homo sacer. But everything about everything I saw in that 40-or-so minutes served to confirm the brutally ugly underside of our social contract-- our actual social contract, not our ideal one-- which includes a proviso that stipulates: if someone needs more than he or she contributes, all other protections are void.

The events of last Saturday night have been weighing heavily on me for the past several days and, if I'm being honest, I feel a bit guilty for assuaging that psychic load by reaching,so quickly and so desperately, to philosophers like Butler and Agamben to make sense of an experience both fraught with and, at the same time, almost entirely lacking ultimate meaning.

Last semester, I offered an extra credit opportunity to my students, which required them to memorize and recite W.H. Auden's poem "The Shield of Achilles." After having heard it so many times aloud, this stanza continues to ring in my ears, amplified now:

That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third
Were but axioms to him, who'd never heard
Of a world where where promises are kept
Or one could weep because another wept.

We are-- all of us-- mortal, mutable, vulnerable.  That ought to incline us ever the more to make and keep promises to one another, to insist on compassion for the least among us, to cultivate the capacity to weep for one another. At the very least, it ought incline us to refuse the wretched indignity of allowing another to die in the street.

This recent confrontation with mortality, as raw and as real as it was, has left me not afraid, but ashamed.  Ashamed because I, like everyone else there that night, failed to keep a promise, because I am not indifferent and yet did nothing to stop it.

And, most of all, because I have not wept.

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