Bystanding

This reflection was originally posted on March 19, 2016. 

Today, I watched somebody nearly die.

I had just been seated at a table in a snug corner; another patron near the center of the dining space had passed out and was being propped up in a chair. A few seconds after I was brought a menu, he fell off the chair, and one of the patrons next to him jumped up. With a number of people huddled around him, I could not hear clearly what they were saying over the screech of tables and chairs being dragged to clear a space, but individual phrases came through. “Signs of breathing… check his pulse… can you hear me… hold his glasses…” At one point, the man leaning over the patron noted that he could not find a pulse, and as other people started to react, he enlisted a number of staff members to try to shepherd people outside.

Two people near me, apparently part of the same party, floated over to my corner and fretted about when the ambulance was coming. By this point, it had probably been a good three or four minutes since I had arrived. One of the staff members was calling 911 again, and walked over, saying “they’re on their way.” I had sort of become blocked in by the movement of tables, so after pulling a table toward me to create a direct path to the door, I sort of awkwardly stood by with a couple others, feeling like there should be something I could do but not knowing who to talk to about it.

A fire engine was first to arrive, after about another five or six minutes. I had just passed this fire engine three blocks away, as it was responding to an earlier call next to the bikeshare station I had used. Even so, the fact that it took that long was unsurprising to me. My New York friends are probably familiar with the scenario—walking down a street, seeing a long line of cars waiting for the signal at the avenue, and an ambulance comes screeching down the block. Of course, the long line of cars has nowhere to go, and the ambulance has to wait sometimes multiple lights to actually get through the avenue.

As paramedics showed up, we squeezed our way outside to allow them to work. I ended up standing directly behind the patron’s SO, who had made it outside without her jacket. One of the staff members gave took off her sweater and gave it to her to wear. After twenty minutes or so, they brought the patron out, and two of the ambulances sped off as the firefighters met with the rest of his party and refused to say anything more optimistic than “fingers crossed.”

The staff immediately went back inside, started cleaning up the floor, and made it clear that everybody who had been eating could leave and did not have to pay for their food. “We’ll be reopening in a few minutes.” Even as some people tried to pay, it took them at least two rounds of insisting on payment for any staff member to accept their money. Others left as quickly as they could find their coats, stating that “well, we ate most of our food, so I guess it’s even anyway.”

I grabbed my bags and waited outside as I tried to figure out what my next course of action was. A few groups immediately showed up and saw the “closed” sign on the door, and one person walked in and talked to a staff member. When he came back outside, he said to the rest of his group that somebody had had a heart attack and that they were going to be reopening soon. The response from his friends, as well as the next two groups that walked up with reservations, was to the effect of “Well, did they die? Then what’s the holdup?”

One of the staff members shortly walked out to drop something off next door. On her way back, I asked her, clearly as a self-serving way to feel better, whether there was anything that I could help with. Without missing a beat, she said, “No, we’re set. We’re open again, by the way. Come on in.”

New York is enormous; New York is tiny. With the sheer number of people, there will always be something unusual happening somewhere. It is, of course, not always our job to handle those situations. But we are too close, literally, to each other that a bit of sensitivity is never not useful. In retrospect, while I did ultimately carry through my appreciation of the staff’s calm and level handling of an impossible situation into a tip, this seems like the wrong kind of situation for a purely monetary response. I didn’t have a chance to say anything to the patron’s party before they rushed to the subway uptown, and it’s unclear what I would have said that would be of any use. I didn’t do anything but stand awkwardly for the first ten or so minutes that I was there. For the next twenty minutes, I mostly death stared anybody walking by that stopped to gawk at what was going on inside as the patron’s party was no more than ten feet away from me.

As it turns out, the man who was leaning over the patron (and stayed with the paramedics while the rest of us cleared out) was not even part of the patron’s party. He stayed behind for an extra fifteen minutes to talk to some of the paramedics and firefighters, cataloguing his observations as they took notes. In the meantime, twenty feet away, the group discussing the long wait to get inside was joking with me about how “well, at least we’re second in line” and asking me if it was the chef that had had the heart attack.

In recent weeks, with various events, I have thought a lot about the “punch up”/”punch down” theory of comedy. “Too soon” has become its own concept in joke repartee—it can take on a half dozen meanings in various contexts. As somebody who has fiercely defended people’s right to cope with humor in the past, the line can be incredibly tricky to find. Even a joke that seems to punch up can be premised on an association with people who are already low on the scale.

I think this demonstrates the larger truth that underlies all of this: It’s easy to drag others down regardless of their circumstance. Some people may be suitable targets for doing so because of their situation. It’s less easy to bring others up, and even less so to do it instinctively.

But because of that, we can’t not strive for it, regardless of where we are and who we are with.

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