Saturday, May 16, 2009

Dead Man on Powell Street

It was 86 in the shade today in San Francisco, and on my way home from Banana Republic, near Union Square, I walked down Powell Street. If you've been to San Francisco, then you'll remember Powell as the street that has the cable car tracks running in the middle.

Union Square is packed virtually all the time, but it was especially crowded today mostly with tourists, people from all over the world. The couple next to me were carrying Macy's shopping bags, and speaking excitedly in French. An Asian teenager lit up a cigarette in the Walgreen's doorway, and gave me a hollow look. Almost instinctually, I moved away from him, and closer to the sidewalk where, beside the curb, lay this twenty-something, fully clad, slightly bearded guy who, at first glance, appeared to be sleeping.

A shrill scream from the middle-aged blonde right behind me startled me: "He's dead!" I moved closer to the gutter, and looked down at him. His eyes were firmly shut as was his mouth. He wasn't wearing a coat, and didn't have any personal belongings on him. He looked to be sound asleep except that he didn't appear to be breathing, and looked stiff. He looked like he might have been homeless, or maybe like he died elsewhere and was deposited on the street like an empty sack.

A young girl stood next to me, her hand over her mouth, all that could escape from me was "oh my God."

There was something urgent in her stare as if she expected me to say, or do something, as if somehow I had it in my power to prove that what she saw wasn't really there.

A police car whizzed by working its way around the cable cars, and barely brushed up against the fellow who appeared to have met his maker on Powell Street. More than anything, I will remember how, despite their initial horror, not one person reached down to see if he was, in fact, deceased, or used their omnipresent cell phone to call for help.

Humanity, like a magnet, appears to have become desensitized. We are at a loss for outrage. There is something perpetually inconvenient about another person's suffering, I thought, and tried to collect myself. He may not have had any possessions, or a place to call home, but he died with his dignity, and his shoes on.

Like everyone else, I found myself pushing through the crowd, with my shopping bags, propelled only by thinking how badly I want to get home, and how elusive home really is.