When 54-year-old James (last name withheld) fell backward on 125th Street and Lexington Avenue in Harlem, his eyes rolled into the back of his head, he made a few short gurgling noises — the tell-tale signs of an apparent overdose.
Yet nobody on the busy intersection on the morning of April 25 seemed to care — if anything, they seemed more aggravated by his condition tainting their morning commutes.
Minutes earlier, James sat with his back against a vacant storefront and cried out in agony as another man laughed at James who was clearly suffering from substance abuse issues. Kicking him with his shoe, the man chuckled once more before continuing on his way.
James seemed to enjoy the brief respite before he lost control of almost everything, thanks to an apparent overdose.
With his eyes turning a ghostly white, he slumped backward and fell. Liquid poured from his lips and dripped down the sidewalk. Then came a horrid snort that abruptly stopped as soon as it erupted from deep within.
I am not a doctor, nor am I medically trained — but I was certain he had stopped breathing.
“Sir! Sir!” I cried out, shaking him. No response.
I had been waiting for the M35 bus to Randall’s Island when I spotted the collapse. As I kneeled beside the man, terrified about what was surely an impending loss of life, my fellow commuters simply looked over before boarding the bus — doing nothing.
Others who pounded the sidewalk as they rushed by merely made crude remarks such as “It’s another one,” or “This street.” One individual even chastised the unconscious man for an apparent drug dependency — as if the unconscious man could still hear.
I like to believe in the best of humanity — that in dire situations people will always do the right thing, yet that morning, April 25, I was disgusted by the indifference on display as a man lay dying.
I dialed 911 and the operator instructed me to turn him on his side. Seconds later, he began to slightly convulse. Then I waited.
Although the NYPD arrived on the scene in minutes, the time between felt like an eternity; I was sure James had perished in my hands, in my care. I asked myself if I should have done something sooner, if I should have made the call faster?
Finally, within minutes, the police arrived, swiftly followed by the FDNY and EMS. They pumped him with oxygen and rubbed his chest. I turned away, then walked back, meandering while contemplating the man’s fate.
And then I heard it: a gasp of breath. The first responders appeared to have saved his life.
“He regained consciousness. That is a very good sign,” one officer told me as James was placed in the back of an ambulance.
Although I was elated to see James alive and in the hands of professionals, I felt the same feeling that nags me now—the lack of empathy from others.
As a journalist, I have been fortunate enough to befriend the city’s forsaken while telling the story about the unfortunate circumstances have found themselves among the most vulnerable population — spending their days and nights living with street homelessness as they struggle to survive amidst mental health issues, poverty, and substance abuse issues resulting from trauma many of us can’t imagine.
It’s easy for some to forget the humanity in all this. It’s easy for some to dismiss a person afflicted by homelessness or addiction or mental health issues who may not be fully aware of their own condition. It’s easy for a skeptic to look upon them as a problem rather than a cry for help.
Clearly, the city has issues — that there are too many people in need on every street corner, that drug abuse remains rampant. But has it really numbed us all to the point where we will let a man die on the sidewalk in the richest city in the world because we are so used to it?
On that spring morning in Harlem that will live with me forever, the answer appeared to be a resounding yes. Still, I have hope that on another day there will be New Yorkers who will step up and help those in need before they become another victim — another statistic who lies face down in the street as the rest of us pass them by.