Here’s a subway person I forgot about until I started writing down these stories. He was easy to forget about, I guess; he was invisible, anyway, to the hundreds of people who stepped over and around him as he lay on the subway station floor.
It was raining outside; our bus had cut through the slick black suburban night on its way to the station, headlights reflecting white streaks on the pavement. Eyes blinking, we stepped into the bright fluorescent light and scurried toward the escalators anxious to make the next train downtown.
Transitions can be fraught. I almost stepped on him.
Startled, I asked him the obvious question: “Are you okay?”
The floor was wet and slippery. Anyone could have fallen.
“I can’t get up,” he said. “I think I’ve hurt my back.” He appeared to be an older man, but was ageless in the way those who live on the street are. He could have been anywhere from 39 to 70. Layers of clothes, frayed sweater cuffs, peeked out from the sleeve of an old dark grey trench coat.
His head lay on the wet tiled floor. I unwound my scarf. “Can I put this under your head?” I asked. “Oh, yes, please,” he said.
I lifted his head, gently laying it back down on the woolly scarf.
While people had found it easy to ignore a man laying in the middle of the floor, they found it difficult to pass by a woman trying to help him – a crowd was starting to form. Maybe lifting his head up hadn’t been the best idea – what if he had a neck injury? I began to question my movements.
The station master came over. “What’s going on?”
I got indignant. “This man is lying here in the middle of the floor – he told me he’s hurt his back.”
“Look, lady,” he said, “this guy’s here all the time. Did he also tell you the same thing happened last week?”
What did that change, I thought. Was it okay, then, to walk over him? If he was faking it, then why? Maybe motive mattered. Maybe he needed some help. Maybe he was hoping one of his emergency rescuers would finally keep him instead of releasing him back to the street. Maybe he’d end up with a hospital stay, pampered by nurses or at least fed three meals a day.
“Well, he still needs help,” I said.
“The ambulance is coming,” he said. “I called myself about 15 minutes ago.”
“Oh.” I looked from the TTC guy back to the man on the floor.
“Can you stay with me until someone comes?” he asked. He held up his hand and I grasped it.
“Of course,” I said.
The crowd thinned. Footsteps echoed across the hard floor, the sound bouncing off the dark windows and tiled walls. He was alone again, except this time I was there to hold his hand.
But it was getting late. And I needed to go and meet my friend for dinner. The man on the ground – I hadn’t asked his name – sensed my indecision.
“Do you need to get somewhere?” he asked. I was young and it was Friday night, after all. I nodded.
The station master came back over. “The ambulance is on its way,” he said again.
I cradled his head in my hand as I removed the scarf. Laid it back down on the cold tile floor.
“You go,” he said. “And thank you.”
I smiled at him. “Take care.” I walked away and left the two of them to work it out.