I noticed him long ago. He stands outside the entrance to the F train, at Warren and Smith. Sometimes he sits rather stands, his back against the brick wall behind him.
What he’s doing is begging, although I’ve yet to see him beg. He just stands there, silent. Often he looks down. He has no sign. I’ve seen him there at all hours, which has made me wonder where—and when—he sleeps. I’ve yet to see anyone speak to him, or give him money, or even look at him, although it would impossible not to notice him there.
Two days ago, at about 7am, as I was returning from Starbucks, I found him in his usual spot, but sitting this time. He had his head down and his knees up and was holding a lidded cup of coffee to his lips. He was completely still, as though frozen in place, which seemed entirely possible given how cold it was.
I moved closer, just to make sure he was alive. I watched his jacket for signs of breathing. There weren’t any.
I’m not proud of this, but my next thought was of what would happen if he was dead, what I would need to do—the police, the questions, standing there while his corpse was put on a stretcher and lifted into an ambulance or whatever sort of vehicle the city uses to transport the dead.
For the briefest moment I thought of walking away, of leaving him, or rather leaving the problem he represented, for someone else to deal with. But that was not, I knew, what I would do. This man was a man at the top of the stairs to the F train, as alone as a man could be, whether living or dead. I could not, and would not, walk away.
Instead I took another step toward him and extended my hand, touching him lightly on the shoulder.
“Sir,” I said. “Are you okay?”
“No, I’m not okay,” he said, looking up at me. “But it appears I’m still alive.”
I saw a policeman on the bus today. He had a puppet with him. They sat together in one of the side-facing seats toward the back, having a quiet conversation. The puppet appeared to be made of wood. He wore a policeman’s uniform with a little policeman’s hat. When he talked, his mouth opened very far. I noticed that his lips, which were bright red, had been painted on his face.
At first I couldn’t hear what the policeman and the puppet were saying, so I moved to a seat across from them and pretended to be reading a book. It turned out that they were discussing a little boy who had gotten lost at a party. In the middle of the party the boy’s parents realized that they hadn’t seen the boy in some time. They looked everywhere and called his name over and over, but the boy didn’t appear. Soon all their friends joined in, but they couldn’t find the boy either, so eventually the parents were forced to call the police. The officer who came was the puppet. He told the policeman that he felt bad for the family, who were terribly upset about their missing boy. Everyone was. He said that there was a chocolate cake on the table that looked delicious but that no one was eating any because of how upset they were.
At this the policeman shook his head and said that everyone probably wanted to eat the cake even more than usual but were stopping themselves because of the boy’s disappearance. “It would have looked like they were celebrating,” he said.
“Oh, shit, you’re right,” cried the puppet, who then smacked himself on the side of his head, knocking off his little policeman’s hat.
Once, at a crowded party, I went around asking strangers about their dreams. One man said he dreamt only in colors and feelings. His dreams had no people and no stories except in the sense that the colors and feelings often formed a kind of progression. It was like music, he said, like songs.
1. Pinching Pennies on the Cusp of Death
While walking to the park, I suddenly realized that I needed to buy water to drink with all the pills. I’ve always had difficulty swallowing pills. I have to wedge each one partway down my throat before gulping some water. Sometimes the pill slips out of position, even after the part with the water, and I have to start over. And here I had thirty-two pills to swallow.
At the supermarket I found that they didn’t carry any bottled water (this was long ago, before bottled water became ubiquitous), so I decided to buy the most water-like thing they had, which was apple juice.
In the apple juice section, I spent a long time comparing the prices of the various brands before finally recognizing the absurdity of what I was doing.
I laughed all the way to the checkout line, and I laughed as I paid for the apple juice, and I continued to laugh as I walked through the supermarket parking lot.
2. A Useful Thing to Know
In the park, after swallowing the pills, I laid down to die. I remember looking at the branches above me before closing my eyes. I had no idea how long it would take, but I imagined that I would become sleepy and then fall asleep and then die without knowing I was dying. So my last conscious moment would be one of extreme sleepiness.
The next thing I remember — this may have five minutes later, or ten, or twenty — is of standing on the spot where I had just laid, having realized that I didn’t want to die, not then or ever.
It’s a useful thing to know.
3. Morning Constitutional
The closest hospital was three miles away. Fortunately I was a runner back then, so three miles wasn’t far. However, in the two previous weeks I had gained at least ten pounds, mainly by gorging myself on pies and cake. My favorite was Entennmen’s Chocolate Fudge Cake, which I would finish in a single sitting, eating directly from the box. I would often eat two cakes a day.
So the extra weight would be a problem, but the pills were a far greater concern. How long could I run before they made me collapse? I settled in at a modest pace and tried to distract myself by focusing on my breathing.
About halfway to the hospital I noticed a figure in the distance. As I came closer I saw that it was a man and that he was walking toward me.
This was, to say the least, a bizarre place for a morning constitutional. I was running along Roosevelt Boulevard, a twelve-lane highway bordered by nothing but trees. Stranger still, the man appeared to be dressed entirely in white: white top, white pants, white shoes.
Also he seemed to have no arms.
However, a moment later I saw that he did have arms, and that they were wrapped across his chest, as though he were hugging himself.
This too seemed strange. Of course the whole day seemed strange. And now here I was, running to the hospital because of an aborted suicide attempt. It’s difficult to think of anything much stranger than that.
Except perhaps for what came next, which is that I saw that the man was not hugging himself. Or that if he was, it was not by his own volition, because he was wearing a straight jacket.
As I passed him, he smiled the smile of a man enjoying a stroll in the sun.
I waved to him, and he shook his shoulder in a way I took to mean he was waving back.
4. Killing Time
On my arrival at the hospital I discovered that I didn’t feel all that wretched, considering. I remember standing across from the emergency room entrance, confused about what to do. I didn’t want to enter unless I was certain I needed immediate medical attention. I couldn’t bear the thought of sitting in a dreary room with a loud television, waiting to hear my name called. So I decided to remain near the entrance, where I would be seen if I happened to pass out, until I was certain it was time to go in.
There was a phone booth nearby, so to kill time I called a girl I knew, I believe her name was Lori. She was blond and played guitar. We had made out once.
I kept the phone booth door open, just in case. We talked for a while before I finally told her where I was and what I had done. She begged me to go to the emergency room, and I promised I would go as soon as I felt bad enough. However, every few minutes she would ask how I felt, which quickly became tiresome, so I lied and said that I was feeling awful and that it was time. I think she may have cried.
Then I paced back and forth in front of the emergency room entrance, waiting.
Life is a series of decisions and their consequences. I decided I wanted to die, and then I tried to kill myself, and then I changed my mind, and then I found myself standing in front of a hospital, feeling drugged and woozy.
I pushed open the door and walked to the desk. There was a nurse there, smiling at me.
“Hi, Michael,” she said.
I was stunned. How did she know my name? Was this a dream? Was I hallucinating? Was I dead?
“Lori called us,” she said. “We already have your information. The doctor is ready to see you.”