The Man With The Bleeding Neck

in ethics •  2 years ago

My companions and I were headed for different stations as we rode a crowded train on BART last night.

Less than a minute before we reached my stop, someone behind us spoke loudly enough to get the attention of everyone near him.

He said: "I have nowhere to go. I sleep on the ground not far from the train station. I need a couple dollars for something to eat." I heard but didn't see him. His voice was deep, tired, and clear.

No doubt some of the people reading this story have imagined what it would be like to be forced to say that. To a train-full of strangers. Surely some have even been, like me, under-employed or unemployed and without a cost-of-living income for stretches that lasted long enough to have feared it. Some of them, like me, are highly educated, skilled, hard-working, reliable people who don't abuse drugs or alcohol, are not mentally ill, and have never been in jail.

Earlier in the day I'd found a ten-dollar bill. Right at eye level, it was somehow hanging but not falling, with its long side tucked into a metal crease in a BART ticket-dispenser.

I picked it up and turned around to return it to its owner, but no one was there to give it to. Had I been blessed with a gift from a blessing-prankster gang like the Anonymous Ambassadors 4 Good? Seemed like the only explanation. So I used it to buy a $6.40 train pass, and as I walked down Market Street a few minutes later, I shared some of my leftover luck, quarter by quarter, with street musicians and pan-handlers.

Then I went to learn about BitCash at a BitCoin get-together. Yeah, BitCoin and BitCash. Two of the money alternatives that a lot of us hope have the potential to even-out economic unfairness at least a little bit, so maybe people won't keep finding themselves with nowhere to go and nothing to eat.

Afterward, on my way home on the train, I didn't notice -- as the voice of a man behind me was saying, "I have nowhere to go, I sleep on the ground not far from the train station, I need a couple dollars for something to eat" -- I didn't notice that the train was starting to slow down for my stop.

I did notice that nobody was giving the man any part of a couple dollars. But I thought maybe nobody else found a ten-dollar bill that day. So I got out my wallet. I was going to unzip its coinpurse and take out at least a couple quarters. But the doors of the train opened, and I hurried out of my seat to get off the train, with an unopened wallet in my hand.

As I turned to wave goodbye to my friends, I caught a glimpse of the man who had nowhere to go, who sleeps on the ground, and needs a couple dollars for something to eat.

Just a glimpse. Here's what I think I saw: Someone staring straight ahead as he was being stared at. He may have been partially blind. He was rail-thin, hunching, hungry, and very, very dehydrated. Had not bathed for months, possibly years. Torn clothes caked black and stiff as cardboard with dirt. Tangled matted hair, in long strings, falling over his face. On his neck under his beard, and in places on his face, his skin was so emaciated, it had been bleeding and was oozing and scabbed.

What he needed was not a couple dollars so he could eat. He needed a hospital. Even though he had repeated his request for help many times. Over and over. Again and again. As if spoken to the air: "I need help." "Will you help me?" "Please help." Heard, but unheard. Saying something there should have been no need to say. He was starving, very sick, possibly dying. It was obvious he needed help.

I'm pretty sure a wounded stray beagle in his condition would have been taken someplace for care, if not shelter. But he was a man. A man is not supposed to go astray. He's not supposed to get a heroin or alcohol or crime or confusion or bad-decision habit. He's not supposed to be old, clumsy, forgetful, odd, boring, or unwelcome in the holy workplace. He's not supposed to get lost in the world. He's not supposed to ask for help. He's not supposed to need it.

The doors of the train closed behind me. The man with the bleeding neck disappeared from my life.

If he had arrived to that area of the train and delivered his monolog closer to the previous station, I would have had time. I would have given him a couple quarters. After seeing the source of the voice, I might have given him a dollar or even a five.

I might have said, "I think you need to go to the hospital. I have a car. I will take you. Would you like to go to a hospital?" He might have said yes. He might have stepped off the train with me at my stop. He might have been able to walk down the stairs and across the parking lot to my car. I might have given him some water and food. He might have remained conscious as he sat on a cushioned car seat for the first time in maybe a decade.

He might have been able to walk into a hospital. People at a hospital might have overlooked policies, bent rules, put on gloves, touched him, taken him in, and helped him.

Or they might have turned him away. And I might have used my phone, this powerful thing he can't have one of, to find an animal rescue center. I might have offered to let the man sleep in my car until I could take him there in the morning, and he might have said okay. The saintlike people there, the ones with empathic brains who heal solitary abandoned souls, set broken bones, remove maggots from flesh, and clean blood from fur every day, these fine people might have cleaned this man's wounds, nourished him, and let him rest. I might have found ten-dollars' worth of clean clothes for him at a thrift store. I might have said goodbye, wished him luck, and gone on my way.

He might have set out again with a bit more strength to search for a way to survive... a corpus of millions who spend so much time trying to solve problems just like this one...

...and leave anonymous cash gifts in public places for strangers to find...

...and are terrified not only of living that man's fate, but of even witnessing it...

...and just stare at him as he asks for help.

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Thank you for sharing this story. Very heavy. The hypothetical comparison to a wounded dog is apt, as it seems he might not have had the full ability to take care of himself, even though as you allude to, societal norms say he should.


Thank you so much for your compassionate comment. Yes, it's like a mirror when such hardship happens to a human being, with a reflection that's too horrifying to see. An animal is different enough that we can contend with it. To put a picture of the world that we can tolerate together, we seem to need to believe that the man or woman who has completely lost their way, has no money, cannot grow food for survival or lumber for shelter, and is dying on the sidewalk before our eyes must deserve it, and should be blamed, and is being appropriately punished. We crave, and so we search for, some shred of sense in the completely senseless. When it isn't there, we make it up. And at the same time, people in hospitals and animal shelters and schools and labs and offices of all kinds are working incredibly hard just to help other people -- sometimes for no reward at all, not even recognition.

Wow. That was captivating. Don't get though. Did you help him eventually?


No, I got off the train in a hurry because we reached my stop right after he spoke. I heard him, but didn't see him until I was on my way out. And didn't have all these thoughts about what I might have done until I was on my way home and when I got up this morning. And to be honest, the most I probably would have done at that moment was give him a whopping 50 cents.

Thank you very much for your comment. I don't know if you encounter people like this man where you live as often as we do in the Bay Area, L.A., San Diego, etc. Thousands. The luckier ones have tents and are not driven out from under freeway bridges by police responding to local complainers.

In some cities, maybe a lot of them, I hear they've been passing ordinances that forbid sleeping outside. So, I guess the thinking is, if you don't have a job that pays enough for housing (very common) and you don't want to be arrested for, say, sleeping illegally in somebody else's private property, you better not fall asleep until the economy picks up.


Awww. Certainly, I find them in hundreds where I live. At times, one feel like having a superpower that would wipe the worries from their face.

Charity is a beautiful word!