It was the end of a long working day, longer than most, and pleasantly tired, I leave the office and walk along the river Seine at dusk towards my hotel. Its an early spring evening and its cool and the Eiffel Tower is flashing it’s staccato lights behind me telling all that at 7 o’clock it was clearly time for work to stop, a time for food, a time for the city to come alive.
Paris does dusk better than most cities, bistros bustle, friends huddle, bars awake.
One of the most cosmopolitan of places on the planet, Paris, home of cafe culture and middle class urban chic,not for the first time I muse it’s easy being a visitor here, and at times it can be pretty comfortable working here too.
I am feeling tired though, after a long day which started in a different country at 4am but I am still awake as I walk these streets. All is well. Lost in the moment a little I pass in front of Radio France, and look across to the back of the Statue de la Liberte wondering not for the first time when she will one day turn and acknowledge me…and then I see him…and my day changes dramatically.
Lying still across the pavement the guy looks lifeless, I see him 50 yards away and as I quickly close the space I am taken by how others are walking around or over him, like he was a cordoned off hole in the ground, he isn’t moving and no one appears to care.
Someone needed to do something. I needed to do something.
I stop. I drop my bag and bend down. The guy is dirty, really dirty, his hands are old and dusty and I note the black finger nails against his olive skin, clasping the bottle, now tipped and dripped in a pool to his side. A drunk. He lies half on the pavement, across a metal grid and his foot trails over the edge onto the busy road, where cars and Paris’s three wheel motorbikes passes within inches of his leg.
I check his breathing, too shallow, so difficult to tell if his chest is moving. I start to talk to him, my French not strong, but I try, repeating myself louder and louder looking for some sense of consciousness, nothing. I wish I had taken the first aid course always intended but never delivered, I look around for help, someone with a phone. It’s times like this that I realise I am a foreigner in town when I don’t even know the number of the ambulance service. There are people around, walking, staring at me as they pass, no doubt assuming if we don’t make eye contact then I can’t see them, no one is stopping. I ask the street for help…no-one moves towards us, We are invisible and anger starts to rise, but as this won’t help, it’s checked.
My attention returns to him, I notice the warm air pungent smell now, possibly urine I think, and quickly conclude that not all the trickles of fluid come from his bottle.
He is not moving.
This guy needs help and it’s down to me.
“You ok man, what’s happened?” An American voice cuts in, a young guy with a suitcase is leaning over us both and asking me a series of questions I can’t answer, but it’s another human being prepared to help, I could have hugged him. We had help.
Then another man joins us and quickly a woman , who when requested has a phone and knowledge of who to call and how.. we have created a crowd and a crowd sourced response ensues a Doctor introduces himself and takes control. Calls made to ambulance and police – we have action now for the drunk now rolled onto his side but still comotosed, feet withdrawn from the road. We are helping, and it feels good. He has a chance. We can save the day.
The paramedics arrive and bend to treat, after a few minutes they both roll their eyes as the drunk eventually stirs slowly as they attempt to move him. Pulled up , he drops his bottle and tries to roll back over and sleep like a teenager on a Saturday morning fighting for their rightful lie-in. The drunk finds his voice and it’s not a happy one.
The situation quickly changed.
No longer a recovery, now an interference.
The paramedics lift an increasingly angry man and push him into the waiting ambulance. He is abusive now as he tries to stumble back out, he is confused and his arm reaches back to the ground where he had lay, the bottle now resting on the metal grid, the now vacant space revealing a warm air vent that had been keeping his sleep comfortable.
The paramedics thanked the group as the police pushed the guy back into the ambulance and he started his journey to a local hospital. He looks very upset. He looks upset at me.
The horror hit me.
I had just rescued someone who didn’t need rescuing.
This poor soul, had chosen to be where he was, the locals had walked past him, because they most likely saw him most nights, maybe they knew this was his choice, asleep on his warm air bed that kept his comfort when a Good Samaritan had made an instant call in an instant, created an instant reaction, raised a instant team to focus on a totally needless event.
As the team congratulated each other and with newly acquired solidarity and gave the American some advice on local hotels and routes, I stepped away and considered what had just happened.
The following night I walked back to the air vent and my man again. This time it was earlier in the evening, He was singing to himself. This time, I left a sandwich and a packet of crisps, small payment for an uncomfortable night before no doubt but a gesture at least, and comforted I walked away, a second later the packet of crisps sailed past my right ear and I stopped and smiled. I deserved that. Sometimes I really don’t learn very well. But what is my learning here ? I wondered.
Too sad to say keep yourself to yourself, too shallow to venture that you should check before you act, too smug too be critical of a genuine attempt to help? Maybe. Maybe not.
Maybe this is about perspectives. I had seen a situation that conformed with my definition of a problem. I used my lense to establish a need that wasn’t mine and a solution that wasn’t his.
I even did this twice.
Twice I stepped briefly into someone’s world and arrogantly evaluated it and offered a solution where no problem existed.
Those crisps really should have hit me. The reality of what I had done, did.
I wonder how often we do this in our working and private lives?
How often do we intervene in situations to establish or more accurately create a problem, that sits only in our thoughts, rushing to action without clear purpose, with limited buy in, and then strangely feel frustrated with the result. That’s interesting isn’t it?
Sure, a forceful personality will always get something done and will often engage others to assist but… well there is just a big difference between action and effectiveness isn’t there?
The following night I walked past the guy again, he was singing again.
I stopped and stood and listened for a minute.
I asked him how he was.
He said he was good.
He asked me how I was. I was good.
The bistros bustled, the friends huddled, the bars were awake and all was good.