Dead man on the sidewalk

He is lying in the middle of the street, wrapped in a blanket, semiconscious. Earlier, someone was concerned enough to call the paramedics. The paramedics picked him up by the arms, dragged him to the sidewalk, determined he did not need medical transport, and left.

When the paramedics find him, nobody is with him. No one comes to check on him. He has no water and is lying wrapped in a blanket on a sidewalk. In Phoenix, the pavement can be so hot it will burn skin.

That was three hours ago. Someone just noticed that he has not moved in awhile. He has died, but we don’t know when he passed because no one checked on him before now.

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Image courtesy Elizabeth Odhner

The paramedics come by again, determine the man dead, but leave quickly with nothing to do. The police arrive and sit in their car, waiting for the medical examiners. They’ll likely be waiting a long time. In The Zone — the part of the city near the Catholic Worker House, soup kitchens, and homeless shelters — it often takes forever for the medical examiners to show up.

Today I’m running late. I missed morning services and get here just as he is found dead. I’m greeted by Paul, who is sitting on the curb.

“I always wait.” he says.

Now, Paul is by far my favorite guest at the Catholic Worker House. He is a man of much wisdom and endless joy.

“If we do not love them in death, how will people know they are loved in life?” Paul asks.

I sit on the curb next to the body with Paul and wait for the medical examiners for several hours. Meanwhile, people all around us continue with their lives.

Steve (who is sober today) likes to sweep the street when he is not using. He keeps sweeping and never looks at the dead man on the sidewalk.

A lady comes by and asks me for a pair of pants. I run downstairs to grab some for her, wondering if she notices the dead man on the sidewalk.

A man needs help making a phone call. He is stranded in Phoenix, trying to go back to his family in South Carolina, and does not understand the automated phone system of the bus company. Preoccupied with his own worries, he doesn’t seem to notice the man dead on the sidewalk either.

A couple enjoys each other’s company. He gives her a piggyback ride and runs down the street.

A lady rides by on her bike and stops to talk to a friend. The conversation ends and she quickly moves on.

Lunch services continue. Showers are offered. People go to the office to make phone calls.

I know life continues after death, but how is it that life goes on with no recognition of the dead man lying on the sidewalk?

As Paul and I sit on the curb, holding our own little vigil, we answer people’s questions, directing them to resources, and try to figure out the name of the man who died. Just a few people seem to notice him.

“Who is the stiff today?” a passerby asks.

“Do you know there is another one at the gas station 10 blocks away? He was stabbed,” someone else says.

Paul and I sit together on the curb for three hours waiting for the medical examiner to show up to take pictures and move the body. (I learn later that another volunteer found out what had happened and called a friend on the county board of supervisors to investigate the wait time for the medical examiner. The examiner showed up 30 minutes after that phone call.)

At first, I am disturbed by the lack of indignation. Even more so, though, I’m disturbed by the lack of response at all.

I’ve been volunteering In The Zone for over nine years and little makes me uncomfortable. Yet, the lack of discomfort makes me uncomfortable. So I ask: How do I continue to maintain a heart of discomfort? How do we not fall into despair? How do I joyfully serve while continuing to question why so many people lack access to shelter? How do I continue to joyfully serve while continuing to question, challenge, and overturn the systems that continue to hold people down? How do I maintain this discomfort when my own everyday life is full of comfort?

Now, months have gone by since the unknown man died alone on the street. I still do not know his name. Many more — whose names are also unknown — have died alone on the same street.

Meanwhile, my life continues. Again and again I show up, say friendly hellos to those I encounter, and do as Paul says, help “make sure people know they are loved.”

In the Andre House Catholic Worker, Phoenix, AZ
ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Elizabeth Odhner

Elizabeth-DiedrichOriginally from Madison, Wisconsin, Elizabeth Odhner is an emergency room nurse in Phoenix, Arizona. She spends her free time with her new husband working for immigrant rights and volunteering at a free clinic and a homeless outreach center. She lives in a community providing radical hospitality to immigrants and refugees. She and Sister Julia have been friends ever since Elizabeth studied at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, Illinois, the city in which they were both members of the same cooking club. For fun, Elizabeth enjoys making pottery and taking day trips outside the city.

 

Over-Blessed

By guest blogger Elizabeth Diedrich

It is 7 p.m. and there are two things on my mind: I am hungry and I need to use the bathroom.

Dinner service ended a half hour ago but one person has yet to leave. I wait at the back door, ready to finish my job, which involves making sure everyone has left and locking the door.

I spent two years volunteering full time at André House and now volunteer part time there. André House, a soup kitchen in downtown Phoenix, Ariz., provides basic-need services including a nightly soup line that averages 630 plates per night.

This gentleman is taking his time to finish his meal, pack his bags and move on. I have not seen him before and I try not to hurry people who are not causing a problem. The only thing in a hurry that evening was my own patience.

I tend to move fast and focus on to-do lists. He is taking his time and slowly appreciating each moment. I have no significant reason to rush him so I try to accept his pace.

He finishes his meal and slowly takes his tray up to the dishwasher. Returning to his seat he carefully packs his belongings, putting each item in its own place in his backpack. Then, carefully unrolling his bedroll and blanket, he proceeds to reroll them. Securing the bed roll to his backpack he stands up to stretch.

In my head I continue to tell myself to be patient and constantly repeat my to-do list: lock up building, turn off lights, eat dinner, study, clean, go through emails and write a paper. And this list goes on. Yet right now, all I can do is wait.

Then he walks over to the prayer table, taking a few moments to look over the books, pamphlets, rosaries and prayer box on it. He examines each item; reading the materials, rearranging them and observing the flowers and statues.

I remind myself that I have no vital reason to rush right now, but I am not good at waiting. Yet somehow, in the next moment, I begin to wonder: “How often do I check my email or Facebook page on my phone when I could just be still? How often do I fill time with business when I could stop and slow down, appreciate and look more closely at the things around me?”

The man picks up his bag and a book from the prayer table. Walking over to me, he asks if he could have the bible he found. “Of course,” I say, and tell him to have a safe evening. But still he does not leave. He tells me how lucky he is to have a bible. This bible is perfect for him: large print so he can see it under the street lamp at night. It has a soft cover so it is bends in his backpack and will not poke him.

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Photo by Global Awareness Through Experience (GATE)

Then he goes on to tell me about his blanket–a Mexican, woven blanket of many colors. It is light weight and easy to carry. He admires its multiple colors. It is tightly woven to keep him warm and also protect him from the ground. He talks slowly as he explains all the things he likes about his new-found bible and his over-used blanket.

Then he looks me straight in the eye and says, “What do I pray for if I am over-blessed?”

Here I am, impatiently waiting for him to leave so I can go home to my safe apartment, a hot dinner and my warm bed.

And here he is, over-blessed, going out to spend another night on the streets with nothing but a bible and a warm blanket.