by Wendy Murray
A man keeled over and hit the floor hard one morning when I sat in my town’s public library. I wear earplugs when I work there, but even with those, the muffled THUD that I heard somewhere about me caused me to lift my head. There he was, lying in a heap on the floor under the desk at the computer station, his gray hair falling wildly about him.
Those of us who saw this from afar turned our heads or took steps in that direction, while those in proximity to him, who also were working at the computer station, went promptly to his aid, as did the reference librarian sitting nearby behind the information desk.
Many individuals who spend hours at the computer station at my town’s public library are numbered among those who might likewise show up at Saturday evening soup kitchens and AA meetings at the White Whale on Sunday afternoons. Some of those who attended to this person — who still lay heaped and unmoving on the floor — were likewise numbered among that contingent.
I wondered what I should do, as a citizen, now unexpectedly witnessing a fellow citizen in crisis. I concluded that if I were to approach him I would only get in the way of the others who were already in attendance and who seemed much more knowledgeable than I about what to do. So I stayed back. I saw one person feel for a pulse and thought, Of course he had to feel for a pulse! We need to ascertain whether this person has just dropped dead.
“There’s a slight one,” one of those in attendance said to the reference librarian who, by this point, was on the phone to emergency responders. I heard someone say to the man, “Can you hear me?” There was a little movement. “Can you tell me your name?” Evidently, no. “Do you know where you are?” No answer. “Help is coming,” he said, referring to the EMT services, which arrived in mere minutes.
The EMTs came in and, in that strapping yet compassionate way, took charge. The picture quickly became clear. “Have you had anything to drink today?” Uh-huh. “How much?” No answer. “A lot or a little?” A lot.
The fallen man was stone drunk. He passed out while sitting at the computer station. Yet, despite his condition and the growing suspicion of it, dutiful citizens stepped up and tended to him gently and compassionately. The impulse to help overruled moral judgment. Apart from the shock of so unseemly a sight in a public library, the situation was handled deftly with composure and dignity, with little alarm and no drama.The medical team helped him onto the gurney wrapped in white linen in a way that could be likened to swaddling clothes and then wheeled him out. I assumed he was bound for the E. R. since that is where ambulances take people. I wondered what this brief episode would cost and what additional costs would likewise be incurred at the hospital.
What stood out to me in that moment was the picture of a community rallying around a fallen man and, drunk though he was, a helpless man. The librarian and others who were sitting nearby at the computer station desks, the people otherwise standing around in willing attendance (as I was), was the picture of a community being a community. I knew in that moment that if I too, by some unforeseen calamity, were to collapse and prove helpless, I would not be left to suffer alone. There was good will there, even if (some might argue) it was undeserved, since the man should not have come to a public place in such a state. One could reliably assume as well that his medical care too will some how in the end be covered by the community.
After so many disheartening and disturbing pictures lately showing anarchists infiltrating communities, inciting war, tearing city streets apart, bludgeoning citizens with poles, spraying people with mace, knocking people out who then end up fallen and helpless, the picture of what I saw play out in my library reminded me of what belonging to a community is supposed to look like and what it does look like when everyday citizens rally themselves to help. Civic beauty is everywhere, in every town across this beautiful land we call America.
I am reminded of a poem written by Philip Larkin about a man and his lawnmower. He discovered, when the lawn mower repeatedly stalled, that he had overrun a hedgehog and had mutilated it. On other occasions he had passed the varmint casually in his yard and had even fed it. He concluded the poem with a few lines:
Next morning I got up and it did not.
The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful
Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.