the time of day

“Halsted, someone is collapsed in the women’s restroom downstairs,” is a sentence I never wanted to hear my coworker say. But this afternoon she appeared in my office doorway, voice high and trembling, and said just that.

I called 911 and then ran downstairs. Coming out from under the door of the first stall were arms, a black leather jacket, delicate pink hands with clean fingernails.

“Ma’am? Can you hear me?” I crouched low but saw no movement.

“Is she breathing?” my coworker asked.

I couldn’t tell. “Ma’am? My name is Halsted and I work here in the library. Can you tell me your name?”

Nothing. No movement. One of her hands was curled oddly in on itself and the word stroke ran through me like a chill.

“Ma’am?” Nothing. Please don’t be dead. Please be okay.

My coworker went upstairs to wait for the paramedics. As the door shut, I saw one of the hands move and heard a slight breath. I didn’t believe it at first, so I reached for her wrist: a pulse, steady and strong.

I kept talking to her, saying my name over and over again, asking for her name, asking if she was awake, if she could hear me. She did not respond except in slow breaths. I said over and over, “Ma’am, my name is Halsted and I work here in the library. You collapsed on the floor in the restroom so I called the paramedics. They will be here soon. I will stay with you.” Pause. Again. “Ma’am, my name is Halsted and I work here in the library …”

The fire department was the first to arrive. I had no idea that one call to 911 would result in twelve people from three different places. With me, my coworker, and the university’s nurse, that made fifteen. But she didn’t want to talk to anyone; she didn’t even want to leave the stall. When one of the firefighters finally got her out of the stall, I was surprised to see that my non-conversant companion had been a short woman in her fifties with gorgeously wavy grey hair in jeans, a cotton blouse, and sneakers.

She pointed to me and my coworker.

“I’ll talk to them,” she said.

She didn’t give us much. She barely let her blood pressure be taken, eyes widened in fear at the cuff and stethescope. At first she didn’t want to say anything, then she wanted to be held so my coworker held her while I knelt by her feet. Each of us talked softly to her, cajoled, patted, encouraged. She was lucid to a point, but far from sober. She shrunk from anyone’s touch but mine and my coworker’s. At one point, she moaned, “What is going on?” Then she said something that made me want to throw up.

“Why are any of you giving me the time of day?”

That is when it hit me. She wasn’t a student. Maybe she was homeless, maybe not. Likely she was an addict of some sort, alcohol or otherwise. And she was used to either being ignored or being the object of violence. She was the type of person I pass every day on my way to and from work, the type of person I avoid making eye contact with, the type of person I ignore.

It took a lot to get her out of the library. She required that my coworker and I accompany her with the paramedic and the nurse; she required a lot of encouragement. She was in turns weepy and belligerent, one moment crying “I just want to go home” and the next snarling “fuck you.” The paramedics are taking her to the hospital to detox instead of jail; I didn’t know they did that here in Marin. Before we found her passed out, she had trashed a few other stalls, breaking nearly a dozen eggs and ripping pieces of bread apart. We found a fifth of Smirnoff in the last stall, and I remembered heading for that stall minutes before this all started, only to see the door locked. We found a designer purse with some paperwork addressed to her and a mobile in it.

I don’t know what her story is. I won’t ever know. I just want her to be okay, but I’m afraid that she’s just too far from okay.

9 thoughts on “the time of day

  1. Halstead, what you just wrote touched me so much. I worked for some time at the free dining room for the St. Vincent de Paul in San Rafael…and it completely changed my attitude on homeless people and addicts.

    Most people view them as the garbage of society…and that is just plain sad…no flowery adjective fits better. But you did a good thing today, and I hope you know that.

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  2. Halsted, you did really well. That was a touching story. I feel very sad for that woman. I’ve read that many people are “three paychecks away” from finding themselves “in that world.” It used to be hard for me to imagine that.

    The other day I was out in front of a bookstore. I had to take my boy out because he was making a little too much noise in the coffee shop. I was very happy and content, playing with my son while Raina finished her coffee inside and paid for our books. A man approached and asked for money for bus fare. To think of myself in that situation, being penniless and swallowing my pride to interrupt a complete stranger playing with his kid to ask him for money, makes my stomach lurch.

    I would have avoided eye-contact with him, too, had I seen him on the street, but he initiated contact, so I was dealing with him one-on-one for a while, conversing. He had to explain to me how he found himself in that situation. He had to find some way to salvage what little pride he had left. So I listened.

    Anyway, your story brought that back pretty strongly.

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  3. Very well written. It’s powerful writing without being preachy or judgemental.

    I’ll give you next months challenge now: Volunteer one night a week in a homeless shelter or a soup kitchen.

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  4. Mental illness is like asthma and addiction in that way.

    No one wants to believe you really have it until you’re completely immobile and useless.

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  5. The sad thing is that one can do only so much for people like that unfortunate woman. Usually, they’re more of a danger to themselves, rather than being a threat to the rest of us. She could have passed out in a alley where she might have become the victim of some crime. Here in Edmonton, the winters are severe. The police do their best to prevent people like her from freezing to death.

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  6. Right on! My Red Cross First Aid training tells me you handled it exactly right. Call 911. Say your name, ask if you can help, determine if the victim is breathing. If so, leave her alone and wait for help.

    The google ads are a trip. ‘EMS Practice Exams’ and ‘Fire Fighter Job Shirts’

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