On my way home from a client appointment yesterday, I stopped at a local store to buy a birthday present for the love of my life. The store is quiet and there are more salespeople than customers filling the aisles. I take my time, browsing in various departments for that perfect gift. I am not in a rush like I usually am, having finished my work for the day, and feel satisfied that my time with the client was extremely productive. I am happy and content. My life may not be perfect, but it is pretty damn good.
After selecting a gift that I hope will be a big hit, and picking up a new cd for myself, I pay for my items and exit the store. I can’t wait to get in my car, open the cd, and insert it into the car’s stereo and crank the volume on the soundtrack for my drive home. As the first notes explode from my car’s speakers, I head for the exit to the parking lot. Sitting on a mound of grass to the right of the exit is a woman holding up a cardboard sign. From the distance I can’t make out the words on the sign. But as I approach, the handwritten words come into focus. “Single Unemployed mom needs help.” Sadness overcomes me. I look at the sign holder. She appears to be in her 30’s, is clean and neatly dressed in black jeans and a t-shirt. Her shoulder length auburn hair is neatly combed and she is wearing a defeated and sad expression. I can’t imagine what it must feel like, being so desperate and hopeless, dependent on the kindness of strangers. Her eyes catch mine for a moment. She looks away and lowers her sign.
About a-week-and-a-half ago I was in New Orleans, finishing up a seminar on the persuasive power of psychodrama. For four days my dearest friends and I worked with trial lawyers from all over the country, teaching them the basic tools of psychodrama and how to apply them to their practices. After finishing our last session and packing up our materials, we decide to spend some time exploring the French Quarter, a place we had little time to enjoy during the program.
Now if you ever go to New Orleans, you must visit the world famous Café DuMonde and sample the delicious, addictive and thigh destroying beignets. On this Sunday afternoon of a three-day weekend, I need a beignet fix. My friends and I arrive at this landmark establishment and discover a huge line snaking down the block. Even the line for take out is enormous. After a wait, which isn’t too bad since one of the busboys is taking orders from those of us at the back of the line so we don’t have to waste too much time, and beignets in hand, my friends and I head out of the bustling Quarter to walk along the riverfront towards our hotel.
As we near the holocaust memorial, a man comes running from the side path waving his arms and pointing behind him, “please, someone call 911. She is having a seizure. Give me a cell phone so I can call 911.” Most of the people strolling along the riverfront ignore his pleas and pass by.
“I need a cell phone. Please. We need to call 911. She is having a seizure.” People continue walking past, as if they are deaf and the frantic man invisible. He is dirty and thin, wearing jeans and a jacket over a t-shirt with a dirty baseball cap on his head. I look in the direction he is pointing and see two other people, a black woman, short, chubby and shabbily dressed. She is staggering around near the park bench from where the man came. When she tries to stand, she staggers a few steps and then falls down on the bench. Across from her is an elderly man with long stringy hair and a wild, unkempt beard. He tries to help the woman sit, but isn’t too steady himself. Again the man in the cap calls out, “she is having a seizure, I need a cell phone to call 911.”
My friends and I stop and look again in the direction he is pointing. “Please, someone call 911.” I pull my cell phone from my pocket and shout to him, “I will call 911.” I dial 911 and a dispatcher answers. “What is your emergency?”
“We need paramedics on the riverfront walk, a woman is having a seizure.”
“Where are you?”
“On the riverfront walk, right near the holocaust memorial. Between the holocaust memorial and the IMAX.”
“The holocaust memorial.”
“Hotel, what hotel?” I pull my phone away from my ear and look incredulously at my friends.
I put the phone back to my ear, “No! The HOLOCAUST memorial. H-O-L-O-C-A-U-S-T.”
“What is happening?”
“A woman is having a seizure.”
“Oh, O.K. You need an ambulance, not the police. What is your number and I will have them call you.” I can’t believe this. Here we are with an emergency and they can’t figure out where we are and then they tell us we have called the wrong place. I give the dispatcher my number.
Within seconds, my phone rings. A male voice is on the other end. “What is your emergency?” I repeat the information and tell him where we are. He starts asking questions about cross streets and addresses.
“I’m not from here. I don’t know the cross streets.” Getting help for a woman having a seizure should really not be this hard.
By this time, a couple walking by stops near us and is watching the homeless woman, who by now, is being held tightly by the man in the baseball cap. “I’ve got you Martha. I’m right here. I am not going to let you get hurt.” She is struggling to free herself. Her speech is slurred and one side of her face droops. At times she seems to convulse slightly. He holds her on his lap, his arms wrapped tightly around her. She struggles to get free, “I want to go.”
“Martha, you are having a seizure. I am not letting you go.”
The couple overhears me trying to give our location to the ambulance dispatcher and approaches us. “I’m from here,” the male member of the couple says as he reaches out for me to give him my phone. I hand it over and he gives the information the dispatcher needs to send help. He hands back the phone and the dispatcher tells me to please watch for the ambulance and to flag them down when they arrive.
I call out to the man in the baseball cap, “They are sending an ambulance.”
“Thank you.” I hear the relief in his voice and see it in his eyes.
My friends and I stay nearby waiting for the ambulance to arrive. We want to make sure they come, and when they arrive that they help this woman. We watch the man in the cap hold Martha and try to soothe her. “You are my best friend Martha. You need help. I am not going to let you go.” She is struggling and appears a little out of it.
“I’m ok.” She whines.
“No, your not. You are having a seizure. You were seizing for 3 minutes. You need to go to the hospital.”
“No! I don’t want to go.” Her agitation increases as she tries to escape his hold.
“They hurt me.” She holds up her arm and her soiled sleeve slips down toward her elbow revealing a large swollen area on her forearm.
“They hurt me with the needle. I don’t want to go!”
“I promised Martha. You are my best friend. I love you. I promised. I am not letting you go. You need help.” He tries to calm her and keep her still.
“Yes Maatha. Yo haf ta gota the hospital.” Slurs the old man who is with them. He looks at the man in the cap. “You goin wif heh?”
“I will be with you Martha. I am not going to leave you. You are my best friend. I love you.”
“They hurt me. See, they hurt me.” Again she holds up her arm.
“I am airborne and I will go with you. You are my best friend.”
We watch, in silence, each of us deep in our own thoughts.
A siren in the distance breaks the spell.
The man who gave directions to the ambulance dispatcher calls to us, “We’ll go flag down the ambulance and direct them over here.” They head off towards the street.
Other than the four of us, and the couple who head off to flag down the ambulance, no one else has stopped. No one has even noticed what is happening. In fact, people are purposely avoiding the area where we are all gathered.
A man in a golf cart, who appears to be some sort of security patrol, drives over to the park bench where the man in the ball cap is holding Martha.
“You people need to leave.” He starts to get out of the golf cart to chase them off.
“She is having a seizure. We have called an ambulance and they are on their way,” we tell him. He gets in his golf cart and drives away.
The ambulance finally arrives and paramedics along with a gurney join us. Martha is still struggling and resisting help. The man in the ball cap stays right by her side, talking to her calmly, promising not to leave.
Eventually the paramedics succeed in lifting Martha on to the gurney and strap her down. She continues to struggle as they wheel her down the grassy hill towards the ambulance, all while her best friend, the man in the ball cap stays by her side.
The four of us stand there together watching, Martha’s cries fading away. None of us have words. We leave the riverfront walk behind us, and slowly head back into the French Quarter. I look at my three friends and am filled with immense love and gratitude. Martha may be homeless, but she has something truly rare, a real friend who is there for her and doesn’t leave her side when she needs him most. And that is a precious and rare gift.
I look at the women I am with. Amazing, kind, loving women. I know in my heart that each of them is my man in the baseball cap.