Yesterday I saw a not uncommon scene on my subway ride downtown: A person had passed out on the floor of the subway car. Five or six passengers stood over him, but did not touch him as he lay there on his back. The conductor came into the car, and shouted in a controlled way: “Sir, you have to leave now! Sir, you have to get up!” One of the passengers banged on the metal pole next to the man’s head. The man stirred a bit, brought his head up a bit from the floor; the conductor shouted again, “You have to leave the car now!” The man’s head slumped back to the floor. The passenger banging on the metal pole banged more and louder. Other passengers looked around at each other, annoyed but not moving. Eventually, the conductor stepped out of the car; she called for (I assume) the police to remove the man. The passengers thronged around the man stood, talking with each other, and occasionally shouting at the man to get up, but not touching him or leaning down; no one brought covering, or water, or even leaned down to speak to the man. Occasionally the same passenger banged on the pole still, as close as he could reach to the man’s head, and continued to call out to the man, “Get up!”
I left before the police arrived.
Somehow, we seem to take this course of events for granted, as a city. And yet, I know from Anne McDermott (http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/07/23/i-was-the-sick-passenger/) that this kind of treatment is not necessary or helpful to the person who has fallen down–and just as importantly, that it is less than human on the part of those surrounding that person. The difference between McDermott’s experience and this seems to be merely the assumptions (possibly correct) of the bystanders about the fallen person: In this case, the assumption of bystanders was that the man was homeless and possibly begging or drunk/drugged or both.
But quite apart from asking ourselves whether it might be racist to treat poor black men as presumptively drunk and to treat middle-class white women as presumptively sick, why aren’t we asking ourselves whether we are being human at all? The fact is, people, whether or not they are living indoors, do fall– for many reasons, including drug overdoses, lack of sleep, epileptic seizures, drunkenness, and extreme hunger–and sometimes cannot get up. In public. The Public Health Agency of Canada has a protocol for “What to Do After a Fall… If You Are the WITNESS” (http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/seniors-aines/publications/public/injury-blessure/falls-chutes/index-eng.php), which includes calling for help, reassuring the person (not threatening them), administering first aid if you can, helping the person find a comfortable position (not stepping away or banging on a pole), and keeping him or her warm using an item of clothing or a blanket. Many of us here have also taken Red Cross courses in basic first aid, and emergency aid. What is our public protocol? Are all bets off if a person who falls happens to be homeless or drunk? Have we privatized ourselves to the degree that we can’t bring ourselves to help a stranger?
A fall, slump, or journey into unconsciousness in the subway or in any public place by a person, NO MATTER THE REASON, is a call to action, and a call for help — it’s no place or time for blame or judgmental reactions. Why not allow yourself to react as a human being, instead of as a morality enforcement drone?