It would be hard to impress upon somebody who did not live in New York how utterly indifferent one can become to the sight of some old man passed out in your front yard.
There was a time, not too long ago, when it was easy to keep track of the various street characters you could expect to bump into in my neighborhood. There were, at any given time, only a handful of homeless guys sleeping at the church on the corner, roaming the streets for recyclables, and, on special days, sleeping off heroic levels of alcoholic toxicity in our front yards. These days, seems like we've got an unusual number of this luckless tribe roaming the area. Some take it as a sign of the nation's overall economic health, though I think these cats have been on the outs for some time – decades in some cases – and seeing them as financial canaries in a coal mine is, I think, part of the same impulse to anecdotal verification that leads people to believe an unseasonably warm day is definitive proof of global warming. Data is the nerdy date of sexy, self-confident personal experience; he may have all the cash, but he can't get past the bouncer without her looks.
Others suggest that the neighborhood, liberal Park Slope, is itself to blame. The number of homeless men isn't increasing. Instead, they are concentrating in the nabe. Proponents of this theory hold that the members of the Stinking Brotherhood have figured out that most Slope home owners would rather put up with some drunkard sprawled out on their stoop then do anything so reactionary as call the cops.
I'm no fan of any particular explanation. As far as I'm concerned, these sorts of things are, for all we analyze them, pretty much like the weather. Whatever we may or may not be able to do to alter the shape of these grand and indifferent narratives occurs on such a macro-level that the link between action and consequence is, mostly, a matter of faith. On an individual scale, you just have to take these things day-by-day and make do.
Regardless of whatever pet theory or strategy one adopts, the situation is the same. It is now fairly common to come home and find at least one passed out man somewhere on the sidewalks, doorsteps, or car hoods of the block.
So it was Saturday when May and we walking home from the grocery store and found a man, seemingly deep in an intoxicated stupor, sitting up against the fence in front of our brownstone.
To be perfectly honest, we were going to just ignore him and walk by. This nothing to be proud of, surely. We've simply become calloused and the reaction was a natural consequence of unproductive exposure. We don't even get to claim the cynical self-determination of the professed misanthrope. Instead, one takes the easy route and the easy route is to grow armor.
As we walked by, I took, against my better judgment, a closer look at him. He was dumbly rubbing his forehead in a back-and-forth motion with his right hand, a common action among the drunk, as if they were already trying to assuage the headache they know is waiting for them in the future. I've done it myself. In fact, I think it was that motion, like some secret high sign for lushes and drunkards, that caused the flare up of fraternal compassion that impelled me to take an second look.
On looking at the man again, I realized that every time he ran his hand over his forehead, a trickle of blood ran down his brow. Sometimes it ran along the top his right eyebrow, dripping down his temple and then his cheek. Other times, he'd squeeze some blood out of whatever hidden wound was under his hand and the blood would run off the bridge of his nose. That this blood then pooled slightly in his eye before trickling to his lips didn't seem to bother him particularly much.
I stopped and stood next to him, grocery bags hanging from both hands. "Are you okay?"
In retrospect, I guess it was pretty stupid question.
Even standing away from him, I could smell the booze in him.
He took his hand away from his forehead and looked up at me. He had a broad and long, but shallow gash above his right eye. A flap of skin had peeled off and mashed back incorrectly, it was now forming a sort of tube, the loose tip of the flap sticking to his head with slightly congealed blood. I realized he had a trickle of blood on the left side of his nose as well, though that was a little puzzling as the trickle didn't seem connected to the wound on his head and I couldn't see were it had come from.
He stared up at me and tried to focus, as if I had the sun behind me and trying to make out my features was a physically painful process. (To be fair, I've gotten the same look from women on several occasions and I am now convinced that trying to make out my features is, in fact, a somewhat painful process for most people.)
"How bad is it?" he mumbled.
I realized when he spoke that what I took for a trickle of blood on the left slide of his nose was actually a thin, deep cut. When he spoke, it opened and closed slightly, like a gill at work.
"It isn't good."
He tried to explain what happened a couple times. It was clear he fell, but we didn't get more detail than that. He'd given up rubbing the Kleenex he had against his forehead, it was now just a wad of bright red shreds in his palm, and his hand flopped against his sides, palms up. The blood on his head flowed freely.
I asked May to take the groceries in and call an ambulance. I asked her to tell them that we couldn't say whether the man was simply very very drunk or whether he was suffering from the fall.
The man and I sat outside for a second. He turned towards me and asked how bad it was again. His gill opened and closed.
"I think you're getting stitches."
"Just a butterfly."
He looked at me and then stared down at the Kleenex, almost regretfully, as if it were the last Kleenex he'd ever own and he'd hoped to put it to some grander and more noble use. But here it was, damp through with blood and tattered.
"I'm going to get something to clean you up. Okay?"
He looked at me and said nothing.
I ran inside and May was still on the phone. "No. We didn't find him in the house. He was in front of the house."
I grabbed some peroxide, some Q-Tips, and some tissues.
He was still sitting there, hands to his side. He was looking at the tree that grows in front of our house. He had a look of vague suspicion.
He mentioned again that wound would only merit a butterfly.
I told him I was going to clean him up, asked him to look at me. He turned his head slowly towards me and explained that he'd tripped. I told him that I knew that. The sidewalks are old and uneven and they're dangerous.
I dabbed at his forehead, clearing away some of the blood. He was forcing the bleeding with his rough rubbing. A light touch cleared the blood away, leaving a swath of exposed meat the pale yellow color of uncooked chicken skin.
I warned him that the peroxide might hurt.
He told me it wouldn't.
He didn't wince. Instead he mumbled that he could feel it working.
I went to clean the slit on the side of his nose, which temporarily still as he concentrated on the burning sensation of the peroxide.
It was then I realized that the man's nose was nearly flat and crushed to one side. It was clearly broken, or had been, but there was none of the darkness or swelling I'd associate with a fresh break.
"How's you nose feel?" I asked.
"Did you break it?"
"Boxing," he said. "I used to box. I was a boxer."
I couldn't work on his nose while he talked. The gill-like flapping of the cut was too strange to approach.
"Well, I must be the worst cut man you've ever had."
"You're alright. My nose hurts."
"I think they'll give me a butterfly."
His name was David. May joined us outside. After we cleaned him up, we had him hold a cloth to the wound on his forehead. Even though the cut on his nose looked much worse to me, the head wound kept threatening to drip into his eye. Before he applied the cloth to the bloody slash, I tried to reposition the flap of skin for him. I pinched it lightly between my thumb and forefinger, unrolling it and spreading what was left of it over the wound. Then, using my pointer finger, a tried to gentle smooth it out. It was, short of marital duties, perhaps the most intimate contact I've ever had with another living soul.
Together we sat for about twenty minutes. We didn't talk much. He was pretty out of it.
The EMTs asked him if he'd been drinking. He, in his most lucid moment of the whole event, gave the very specific answer, "I had a beer with a sandwich."
The EMTs had to lift him up in the stretcher. I told him that we'd see him around, though that was probably a lie. He said he didn't need stitches. He thanked May and I. He said again that he didn't need stitches and then they rolled him away.
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