I was biking home late the other night on N Williams, here in Portland, when I saw a man passed out on the sidewalk. It was maybe 2:30 am, and from the thin, tell-tale trail of wet leading downslope from him, I could guess he'd pee'd himself.
Even at this late hour, there were three or four passersby in hailing distance; one casually smoking a cigarette twenty feet away from him, probably a nurse on break from the nursing home next door; a couple walking their bikes home, stepping off the sidewalk to go around him; and a fuzzier gentleman living on the streets, with a rucksack and stained jeans, walking in the opposite direction. All four were studiously ignoring the prone figure in their midst.
I stopped at the corner, walked my bike back and watched for a second. He was curled on his side in the fetal position, blocking the breadth of the sidewalk, and his back rose and fell regularly, a good sign. He looked to be in his early 30s, black male, glasses, wearing a plush dark tracksuit, plain sneakers, and there was a baseball cap on the ground next to him. His sweater was zipped up covering his face. Likely he had simply had too much to drink, but my medical brain saw the urine trail and worried that, in adults, unconscious urination can be evidence of trauma, seizures or lord knows what-all. Further, at this late hour with a hidden moon, visibility was poor, and the urine trail could be a blood trail. Even a minimal blood loss could be fatal on a cold night like this. Also, if he hadn't lost his wallet and other valuables already, he would likely lose them before the sun came up again.
I called 911 before approaching him, because my neighborhood is sadly, slowly reverting to the early 90's violence, and I'm paranoid about situational traps. (This is what happens after watching a decade's worth of Law and Order franchises.) With the operator on the line I tried to wake him up, which took some doing. At this point, the smoker guiltily pretended to just notice us and started calling 911, too.
He was slurring his speech, pretty confused, answering everything in monosyllabic, vaguely affirmative grunts. I asked him if he wanted an ambulance, and he said he did, repeatedly.
In the five minutes we waited together for the ambulance, the man stayed in the fetal position, looping in and out of consciousness.
"Are you on your way home somewhere?" I asked him.
"MLK," he replied.
"Did you have too much to drink tonight?"
"You want the ambulance, right?"
"Yeah. Ambulance. Yeah."
"Try to stay with me, man. Don't pass out again, okay?"
At this point, he started sobbing, violently.
"What's wrong? You okay? What's going on?" Panicking, I was worried that I hadn't checked him over, that maybe he actually did have a traumatic injury and I hadn't told the 911 operator, so the ambulance wasn't rushing and he might be bleeding out or something. But I didn't want to check him over in case there was a weapon and I might provoke something, and without gloves or a wound kit (and three or four drinks in my own system), I was pretty well useless anyway.
"No, no, ahhh..." he said, as the fire truck and the ambulance pulled around the corner.
I stepped back to let the paramedics do their thing. I passed along what I knew and why I called to one of the firefighters, who thanked me and shook my hand. I slowly biked away.
Post-event, I've this habit of rigorously questioning everything I do or say in situations like these. Why didn't I ask one of those passersby to stick around, maybe make the call instead of me? That way, I could've conceivably looked him over to rule out the scarier things. Was I in any way limited in action or intention by any kind of racism? My reluctance look him over, my hesitation as he sobbed, my Law and Order-style paranoia... The most I can ever hope for in these purely ad-hoc, drive-by situations, is to do no harm. That, and to hope that he'll be okay. I chewed on this as I arrived at my apartment, greeted the neighborhood cats, and tucked in for the night.