Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Walking in Brooklyn

It’s a cold winter night and everyone on Court Street is walking at a brisk pace. People tend to walk quickly in New York anyway, but especially on nights like this, when a bitter wind blows off the Hudson. It always surprises me to have someone overtake me when I’m walking fast, and it’s impossible not to notice, with some bemusement, that they’re typically younger, which is the case with the guy who passes me tonight on Court Street.

Court Street is a main thoroughfare through the partially gentrified neighborhood of Carroll Gardens, the section of Brooklyn adjacent to Red Hook, where I share an apartment with my friend Danny. Carroll Gardens is an old Italian neighborhood that’s now part of Hipster Brooklyn. Red Hook is a different story. It has some cool lofts housed in Civil-War era warehouses on the waterfront, which looks like a New England fishing village that happens to have a view of the Statue of Liberty and the skyline of Lower Manhattan, but the truth of the place is far grittier. It’s more about docks, old industrial areas, abandoned buildings, drug-related crime and the infamous Red Hook Houses, a complex of perhaps 50 high rise, low-income projects. The apartment Danny and I share straddles the line. The hipsters tend to thin out as you near our place, replaced by Hispanic families, young women in tight jeans who are prone to arguing loudly on cell phones, and guys in gangsta-wear.

I’m still several blocks from the line of demarcation when the guy in question passes me, but I’d say he falls into the same category as Danny and me, which is to say he’s someone who likes the in-between -- someone who is among neither the working poor nor the tragically hip, yet in some ways is attracted to both. I notice him primarily because he passes me, at which point I wonder, since I’m walking at a pretty good clip, how he can be going so much faster without seeming to be walking at a ridiculously fast pace. I notice he’s tall, so I write it off to long legs. As part of my overall assessment I also notice, parenthetically, that he’s wearing a pinkish-orange down vest and carrying something in a plastic bag, something from a store.

About two blocks further down, after I’ve pretty much forgotten him, I catch up with the guy, which seems odd, considering his pace, and even more so when I see him start to stagger. I instinctively slow down. He staggers this way and that, and it becomes impossible not to catch up with him, so I’m right upon him when he collapses onto the sidewalk, at my feet.

OK. A lot of things go through your head at a moment like this. The guy who passed you moments before just let go of his plastic bag and collapsed at your feet, and now he’s making loud gagging noises. What do you do? If you’re me, or the guy walking behind me, you stop and watch the guy flailing on the sidewalk for about 15 seconds. That’s it. You watch and wonder: Is he having a heart attack? Is it drugs? Is there something specific that I can do to help him? Is it possible that he’s possibly faking it, possibly?

That last idea may sound absurd, but it’s one of the first things that comes to my mind. Maybe this guy is doing some sort of New York City improv, or he’s researching a story about how New Yorkers react to someone in distress – something like that. Partly I think it’s because the guttural noises are so loud and sound exactly like what you’d do if someone told you to act like you were choking. Or maybe I know too many actors. But for those 15 seconds I wonder if this is real, like I’m going to get down on my knees to try to help him and he’s going to start laughing.

But the feeling passes, as do the guttural noises. I bend over him – not all the way down – and ask if he’s all right, though he’s not really there. He’s out. As I watch, he begins to breathe normally, and what is sometimes described as a beatific smile comes across his face, indicating a strange placidity. Oddly enough, the smile assures me that this is real, because it’s so wrong, under the circumstances. He’s lying flat on his back on the sidewalk, arms and legs akimbo, his plastic bag a few feet away, while I… watch. Apparently I’ve decided that's my job, the way I can help, is to look at him.

So that’s the second thing. Maybe 30 seconds have passed now, and my instinct is to monitor him without getting too very close. First, I don’t know how to help him, and second, he’s clearly in a potentially volatile state. That’s when the other guy, the guy walking behind me – and it’s interesting that there are only three of us involved in this, considering how many people are on the street – says, to me, “Should we call an ambulance?” I turn to look at him. He’s got his cell phone out and is poised to dial. Clearly, I’m not the only one who’s having trouble sorting through the range of options. Yes, I say, call an ambulance. But wait! He’s got a followup question. “911?” he asks. “YES!” I say.

I turn back to the guy on the ground. He’s a nice looking guy, probably in his mid twenties, with a beard, and he’s got that really beautiful, faraway smile on his face. Seriously, it’s scarily euphoric looking. I can’t take my eyes off of it, and I can’t think of anything else to do. Then slowly, as I watch, he stops smiling. He just looks unconscious or, I don’t know – is he DYING? I ask again if he’s all right, which is when he opens his eyes. Then the other guy asks him, “Should we call an ambulance?” and the guy on the ground looks confused, so I repeat the question. He hesitates, then says, “No. There’s nothing they can do.” I ask if he’s sure. He says yeah.

Me and the other guy just stand there. Then the guy lying on the sidewalk says thank you as he feels for his plastic bag, and gets up. When he’s on his feet he says thank you again. It sounds really sincere, but also like someone who wants this episode to be over.

At which point I and the guy with the cell phone move on. Except that now that I’m out front I’m very much aware of the guy who had the seizure behind me. I’m not sure we should all just walk away. I glance back now and then, see that he’s not catching up, which prompts me to slow down. I’m thinking I should just say, hey look, maybe this is something you’re accustomed to, but I’d be happy to stick with you for a while. It’s at that point, precisely, that I notice him picking up the pace. Normalcy is returning. Before long he’s the long-leggedy guy again, striding homeward on Court Street. He crosses the street and manages to get out in front of me again. I see him making a call on his cell.

I follow him to the line of demarcation, and at a fork in the road we go our separate ways, into Red Hook. The rest of the way home all I can think about is how quickly random lives can intersect, how quickly we can be called upon to make decisions that we’re not entirely prepared for, and how good it feels when things just work themselves out.