October 30, 2011
Observing, wondering, sighing.
It was 6:15 in the October morning. My body, and a reasonable fraction of my mental capacity, were at the airport in Seattle. I had just completed my participation in the competitive gauntlet-running sport of clearing the hurdles of airport security, and traversing miles of terminals via foot, tram and donkey in search of my gate, and was finally in line for a much-needed, overpriced cup of acidic, burnt-tasting coffee. I spotted my drug connection not far from the plane that was to hurl me to New York. And it was there that I spotted something disturbing, that made me wonder about humanity.
It was 11:30 in the August evening. As I worked at my desk, the power suddenly went out. Electricity wasn’t restored until late the next day. From my deck at twilight, I gazed an acre out to the distance. A lone, adult gull hung lifelessly from the electrical wires.
As I stood groggily in the long coffee line awaiting my fix, I noticed a neatly dressed woman in her early seventies, about eight yards from me. She was lying on the cold tile floor of the food court, nearly underneath the small table on which her purse and water bottle rested.
Throughout the late summer, hundreds of blackbirds migrated to this spot on San Juan Island, favoring these wires for an excellent perch perspective above the sea. Their busy chatter was incessant and lively. I loved the sound in the distance.
As the woman lay visibly conscious, moving slowly in much the same way one does when trying to sleep, hoards of travelers walked right by. The sight of a human being splayed on the floor of a public space didn’t faze a single soul; each was too consumed with their travel needs to even consider pausing, much less stopping to investigate.
I watched the woman closely. When I first saw her hand graze her thigh and shin, I thought she might have been stricken with a bad leg cramp and was trying any position possible to alleviate it. Hey, I’ve had cramps painful enough that I could imagine lowering myself to any floor, no matter how filthy, in search of relief. But it soon became obvious that it was not a leg cramp. As she lay in the middle of the terminal, travelers continued to walk just a yard or two past her, patrons continued to sip their beverages at adjacent tables, and the other twenty people in my coffee line noticed her, and simply looked away. I turned to an older couple behind me, and asked them to watch my bag.
For weeks, the little blackbirds lined up all around the gull, unperturbed by its decomposing corpse as they got on with their daily routine.
As I started to leave, the man of the couple asked, “what kind of coffee do you want?”.
This struck me as both surprisingly thoughtful, and deeply disturbing. He, too, had noticed the ailing woman, and now saw that I was headed toward her. Apparently it was more important that he and his wife maintain their coveted place in the long coffee line. Flustered, I responded by rote as I pulled out of the queue, “uh, I dunno; just a small regular one.” I really wasn’t thinking about French roast at that particular moment.
I walked over to the stricken woman, knelt down, and asked her how she was. She was feeling very faint. I turned my head upward to a man in a business suit who simply stood there, watching us. I told him to call the airport paramedics, which he did upon my request. Why I had to instruct him, I’ll never understand. Pivoting back to the woman, I asked her if she had any pain, shortness of breath, diabetes, a history of fainting… had she hit her head on the way down… was she numb anywhere… thankfully, no. And that was damn lucky, since my music conservatory training failed to include an emergency first aid course for anything other than a No. 1 pencil stab wound, or a splinter from a broken conducting baton. It had been way too many years since my summer camp American Red Cross lifesaving classes for me to recall just how many seconds I should pause between mouth-to-mouth puffs and chest compressions, and while I’m pretty good with blood, I’d probably put a tourniquet in some bizarre place that would instantly kill the poor victim.
The woman said she suffered from atrial fibrillation, and asked me to check her pulse. I did; it was strong and fairly regular. Phew. In an attempt to keep her conscious, I inquired where she was from (Bainbridge Island), whether anyone was with her here at SeaTac (no; her husband was fast asleep on the island and she wouldn’t want to bother him), and where she was headed (Minneapolis, on a flight that was leaving in 30 minutes and, by my best amateur guess, now with one less passenger). I assured her that I would not leave her side until the paramedics arrived, which I had assumed would be within a minute or two. I calmly told her that it could just be nothing more than an electrolyte imbalance, complimented her on her great figure, and even got her to smile a little. As I knelt by her and held her hand, the older man from the coffee line walked over, delivered my 22″ roll-aboard, and handed me a cup of coffee.
Confused, I said thank you.
Almost as distressing as the many uncaring passersby, was the fact that it took easily fifteen minutes, maybe longer, for the EMTs to arrive. I was thankful that this wasn’t a dire emergency. What if this woman had been having a heart attack, or a stroke? Or had fainted from learning the price of her first class ticket, and bonked her head on the corner of the table on her way down? I felt utterly helpless; had anything been seriously wrong, apart from my strong voice calling out for a doctor, there would have been nothing I could do to rescue this person. In hindsight, I’m sure that had I screamed, “Terrorist!”, we would have gotten a lot more attention.
Americans take for granted that emergency help is almost instantly forthcoming, especially in highly trafficked, public places. We tend to feel even more protected in venues under government auspices. But timely help is not always available: not from those who are trained and employed to offer it and, most sobering, not from fellow citizens who won’t have their need for a cup of coffee, much less their travel schedules, interrupted by a stranger’s predicament.
After the EMTs finally arrived, I made it to my plane just barely in time to board. The man who’d bought me the coffee happened to walk by, and I thanked him again. He didn’t ask how the woman was. He was already perturbed by whatever the gate agent had just told him, and was consumed with the stresses of air travel. It was kind of him to take my sacrifice of a precious spot in the long morning coffee line into account, and even spend a couple of bucks doing so. For a mere stranger, no less. But really, it was all I could do to resist asking him why he hadn’t helped that woman. Why he could be generous and thoughtful to me, but not to someone in distress.
With his wife there, he wouldn’t have even had to give up his place in the damn coffee line.
I wonder about humanity. I wonder about the animal world. I wonder about the meaning of community, and inter-connectedness, for us all.
And if you’re reading this, I want you to wonder, too.