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The man on the street

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I sat cross-legged on the sidewalk, head down, my upper body hunched over as tightly as possible trying to ease the driving pain in my lower abdomen. My breath came in shallow, raspy gasps and my damp, clammy skin stuck to the lining of my jacket. I knew I was white as a sheet because my head felt light and bloodless.

Unable to raise my head for fear of passing out, I could only turn it slightly to the right to see the sideways shapes of people passing by several feet away on the main street. Some of them turned to look at me then snapped their heads back so they could tell themselves they hadn’t really seen my crumpled figure.

“Why isn’t someone stopping to help?” I wondered with a mounting sense of desperation.

I tried to call Marie, the friend I left back in the bookstore when I went out to walk around to “get rid of the gas” I thought was building in my guts, but I couldn’t get through.

Finally, I saw – sideways – a young couple walking by. The woman looked at me and practiced the familiar head-snapping technique. However, the young man gazed at me a little longer. Maybe . . .

“Excuse me,” I said weakly, turning my head as far as I could towards him, “Can you help me?”

He stopped, looked at the woman a few steps ahead of him, then came toward me. I explained that I was sick and really needed my friend who was in the bookstore. She was a nurse and would know what to do. I described Marie to him and he said he would try to find her. He rejoined the young woman who was cautiously peeking around the corner at us and they left in the direction of the bookstore.

I hunched over again, wondering whether I was going to vomit, pass out, or both. I had never felt such pain before. A few minutes earlier, I had been walking along the street looking for a market to buy some anti-gas medication. Suddenly, the “gas pain” had intensified so sharply that I thought I was going to faint. I needed to sit down immediately but I had the surreal thought that I shouldn’t sit right here because I was right next to several tables of outdoor diners. I didn’t want to ruin their lunches by throwing up or passing out in front of them, so I went a few steps around a corner and crumpled into a heap.

And now here I was, hoping fervently that the young couple would be able to find Marie. More shapes passed by as I hung my head low over my legs. I was aware that I was barely able to get air into my lungs because any movement in my torso caused the pain to spike.

I heard a commotion and Marie came charging around the corner with the young couple. “What’s going on? What are your symptoms?” she barked at me. I knew that my ashen, sweaty form frightened her, but the barking wasn’t helping.

I gasped out my symptoms to her and was aware of a small crowd starting to form. There were feet in a semicircle all around me. People had finally started to notice that I was in crisis. And yet, they were just feet. Their voices came from above me: “What’s going on? Should we call an ambulance? Is anyone a doctor?”

I still was the only one on the sidewalk. I felt like I must have looked: a pathetic, lonely figure bent nearly in two, sitting among a crowd of people towering over me.

The arc of feet finally decided that one of them would go get his car to take me to the hospital. I gasped for air and shuddered as the pain intensified. I longed for some respite from this hell that was my guts and this sidewalk.

And then I felt someone on my left, kneeling very close to me. A hand was placed tenderly on my back and a very kind, gentle man’s voice said, “Just try to breathe. It always helps me. Breathe . . . you can do it . . . there you go.” His comforting touch and soothing words persuaded me to try to relax. I took a deeper breath and unclenched my fists. Just having him beside me, feeling the presence of a caring soul down with me on that sidewalk gave me hope. The pain in my abdomen was the same, but with this man kneeling next to me, I felt safer and started to think I might be okay.

I couldn’t turn my head to look at him, but I imagined that my hero was a therapist, or a clergyman, or just a kind businessman walking by who saw someone in not only physical, but emotional, need. He was probably a family man, handsome, and a pillar in the community.

When the car pulled up along the sidewalk, the feet parted and the man beside me took my left arm in his hand and put his right arm around my waist. He slowly but firmly pulled me to a standing, but still bent over, position and then helped me into the car. I never saw his face.

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Later, much later, after surgery revealed I had severe endometriosis with a ruptured cyst rather than the metastatic ovarian cancer that my doctor and I feared, Marie and I recalled the day I collapsed on the sidewalk.

“You know what’s strange?” I mused, “Everyone just stood around me. No one got down on the ground with me to really be with me. It was like they were all afraid or something. Until that man came along. He knelt right beside me and, I don’t know . . . his presence was just so . . .” I paused trying to find the right words, “serene and peaceful. I wish I could find him again – I want to thank him for being so caring. I wonder who he was?”

“Oh, him?” Marie shrugged. “That was some homeless guy.”

*************************************************************

Each of us, even those on the fringes of our society, have gifts to bring to our common “village.” While the well-meaning, but detached, upstanding citizens hovered around and above me, a shabby man from the streets who truly knew the experience of pain got right down with me, lending comfort and peace.

I needed that homeless guy. Don’t we all?


Takeaway points: Even those who are invisible to us or on the margins of our community have special gifts that we need to strengthen our “village.”


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Bobbi Emel is a therapist who helps people in Los Altos, Palo Alto, Mountain View and the greater Bay Area manage their stress and develop their strengths.
She is effective in helping people dealing with anxiety, worry and grief; and also those who want to improve their effectiveness and performance.