“What is he doing here?”
I was coming from the supermarket, a heavy about-to-rip plastic bag full of groceries precariously hanging over the handles of Mark’s stroller. That Saturday, the sidewalk was packed with people enjoying the nice weather and the last days of les soldes. I didn’t walk to plow into idling pedestrians so I stepped into the road (theoretically car-free on weekends), hoping the plastic bag would hold until my parents’ place.
I almost bump into him. A guy, sitting in an antique hospital wheelchair, in the middle of the road. I glanced at him but I didn’t slow down. Fifty or so, although it was hard to tell because he was in bad shape, unshaved and dirty. Filthy dark green clothes that may or may not have been another colour ten years and a hundreds of washings ago, shoeless, both feet partially amputated—hence the wheelchair—an open bottle of wine on his lap, a bunch of plastic bags tied to the back of the chair. His head was tilted back and he smelled of wine. Quick diagnosis? Passed out, likely drunk.
People were walking around him as if he was street furniture.
“He can’t stay here!” I sighed to myself. Not that the sight of a homeless guy may deter gourmet shoppers from pushing the doors of the chocolaterie next door. But bicycles, motorbikes, delivery trucks and street-cleaning vehicles are still allowed in pedestrian zones. He could get run over.
I looked around to see if a police patrol was around. No blue in sight. The holy lunch-break hour, I guess.
I arrived at my parents’ place and promptly forgot about the drunk homeless guy.
An hour later, Mark, my mom and I headed out for a walk.
“He is still here!” I said incredulously, spotting the same homeless guy in the same street.
“I don’t think I’ve seen him before,” my mum noted as we got closer. When you live downtown, you get to know the street life around—homeless people, panhandlers, gutter punks, etc. It’s actually common to reach a status quo: once they know you live around and walk by twenty times a day, they just nod instead of asking for change, and locals can also offer a baguette once in a while.
But this guy was a stranger. I hadn’t seen him before either and by then I had walked around a lot with Mark.
“And he was in the same spot earlier, you said?” my mum asked. “I’m surprised no one moved him.”
Mind you, we weren’t moving his chair either. It felt like overstepping boundaries. And where would we push him, anyway?
“Well, I guess I didn’t do anything either,” I admitted. “But we’d better let the police know,” I added. “Because otherwise, if we all turn a blind eye… he will still be here tonight. Unless he gets run over before.”
“Looks like he is drunk,” my mum agreed. “But I don’t like the idea of leaving someone passed out like that. After all, we don’t even know for sure he is drunk, we are just assuming!”
It wasn’t a wild guess or a stereotypical assumption. The empty bottle on his lap and the smell of alcohol were good clues. Still, you can die from alcohol poisoning.
It took me a little while to find a police patrol but a few blocks later, I bumped into one.
“Excuse me,” I said. “There is a homeless guy rue de la Fosse and…”
“Did he do anything to you? Is he aggressive?”
“No, quite the opposite. He is in a wheelchair, passed out in the middle of the road.”
“Oh, that’s Jean-Pierre.”
“Oui, that’s his name.”
“Well, I’m a bit concerned because he is in the middle of the road and he doesn’t look like he can move around easily.”
“We know him well. He is an alcoholic and a diabetic,” the policeman sighed.
Hence the amputated feet, the wheelchair and the smell of booze. See, I can be a cop too.
“I’m just afraid he is going to be run over. And, well, he is passed out…”
“Mam, don’t worry about him. You should watch your bag,” he added. “There are pickpockets around.”
The short discussion left me a bit dumbfounded. I’m not naïve, I wasn’t expecting the police to run to his rescue and I know that there is no quick fix for homelessness. Social workers can help, there are soup kitchens and shelters and you can’t exactly force people to use them.
But still. Should we turn a blind eye when we see someone who may need help? Should we be immune to social tragedies and other people’s distress?
There is a thin line between keeping an eye on fellow human beings and overstepping. I must admit I get annoyed when random strangers tell me how to parent: “your son isn’t tied up in the stroller!” (I know, he is almost three and can open the seatbelt by himself so there is not point) “Where is your mommy, little one?” (I’m right HERE! Gee, I’m not going to step inside the sandbox…) “Make sure he doesn’t fall into the fountain!” (Oh, really?)
Yet, I think that if you have that gut feeling, you should say something. Because if no one does, then what?
One day, I was pretty sick in Buenos Aires and I had to take a seat while Feng was buying me cold water. I had a fever, not the end of world, but I felt weak and I just looked like shit. Several people slowed down and asked me if I was feeling okay. The two-second check was truly appreciated. It made me feel human and I appreciated the help offered.
And as travelers, Feng and I relied on the goodwill of strangers more than once, to know what parts of town were dangerous, when the next bus would come and whether the ATM was rigged.
I still think that if someone doesn’t look okay or something doesn’t look right, you should say something. Indifference is rarely the best option.
Because awful things can happen amidst general indifference.
And because we are trying to live in a society here.