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Saturday, December 29, 2012

How to Respond to a Death on the Street? Another Day in Paterson, NJ, December 28, 2012

I was walking to the bank in order to deposit a paycheck to cover my January rent payment. I don't like walking around after it gets dark. Paterson is a high crime area. I race against the setting sun. At winter solstice, time is not on my side. Already buildings' shadows announced evening's approach. And it was cold.

I rounded the corner of the new Rite-Aid drugstore. I saw a white man, supine, limp as a rag doll, on the sidewalk in front of the store. His face was a hideous color. White. Not "white" as in "Caucasian," but "white" as in the color of newsprint. Grey splotches, every bit as grey as the cement sidewalk on which he lay, interspersed with the white of his cheeks. His loose pants were pulled down below his buttocks. My very first thought was "I don't want to look at this. It is ugly. Watching this man die will ruin my day." Looking at the unnatural white of his limp face, I felt nauseated.

A black man was leaning over the white man. A black woman hovered near the white man's side. "Get his money," the black man instructed the woman. A wad of bills was jammed between the white man's shoe and the sidewalk. The woman grabbed the money.

The white man began to go into convulsions.

I have a slow reaction time. I felt confused. I stopped, wondering what I should do. I felt that maybe I was in someone's way, and felt I should move on. Maybe whatever was happening here was just between these three, and I was in their way.

I saw that the woman was using her cell phone to call 911. The black man was talking to the white man on the sidewalk.

"We are calling 911. You are right in front of a drugstore. Can we get you anything? Will anything help? Try to remain calm."

I stood there staring, stupidly. I realized that I was staring at the man's hideously pale face as if he were putting on some kind of a show. I tried to look away, but then realized I was trying to figure out what to do to be helpful, and that required that I look at the horribly pale man.

The men went into convulsions. His arms, hands, and legs began to shake in a weird way. It was clear he had no control over this. His head lolled against the bricks of the drugstore he was leaning against.

I could hear the woman shouting into her cell phone. I could hear the 911 operator asking all the tedious question they are instructed to ask. Where are you, asked over and over, even after the woman clearly stated where she was. What is the man doing, asked over and over, even after the woman clearly stated.

"Call the police," the convulsing man said.

I could see that 911 had already been called, but I wanted to be helpful, so I called the police. The police said that emergency vehicles were already on their way.

What to do, what to do.

I decided that I would squat down next to the convulsing man and speak to him in a soothing way as he died.

I was trying to map out my space on the sidewalk next to him when I could see some pink reappearing in his cheeks. The convulsions began to lessen. He stood up.

"You shouldn't stand up," I said. "You are still weak. You may fall. Then you will have a concussion."

"I need a cigarette," he said. "Do you have a cigarette?"

The black man approached a white man standing nearby and smoking. "Give that man your cigarette," he said. The smoker did so.

The man who had been going into convulsions took the other man's cigarette and began smoking it. More color appeared in his face. "I have low blood pressure. I need medication. My medication is in the drugstore. I need to raise my blood pressure. That's why I'm smoking." The woman who had dialed 911 mentioned the name of the medication to him. "Yes, that's it. I need my medication. I need my medication," he said, plaintively, as if we could give it to him.

I stood there, wishing I could move on. Sunset was coming and the bank would close soon. I realized I couldn't move on. I stayed out of a sense of duty. I'm glad I have that sense of duty.

I hate to say this, but somehow I didn't like the convulsing man. He seemed annoyed at all of us, as if we had caused the convulsions, as if we were denying him his medication. I was pissed off that he insisted on standing. We had become involved with him by giving our time and presence. His concussion would be our problem. He should relieve us all and sit back down. I was dumbstruck that he regarded a cigarette as a health aid. I wanted to move on! I just stood there. I would not leave till he was okay.

"I'm going to get my medication," he said.

"But the ambulance has not arrived yet!" I said.

"I'll be fine," he said. He tossed away the cigarette and went into the drug store.

The woman and I stayed outside, waiting for the ambulance. It took a while. Finally, off in the distance, the sound of a siren.

A big black guy got out. The woman and I explained that a young white male had fallen to the sidewalk and gone into convulsions, and that he had entered the Rite-Aid. We described his clothes. The ambulance driver pursed his lips as if we had made a mistake by calling him, or maybe as if the young man had made a mistake by leaving the scene. He was not happy about something, clearly. But he did his duty. He went into the store.

The black woman and I smiled at each other beatifically, with that gratifying sense of group accomplishment. "Happy New Year!" she shouted to me as she went her way.

"God bless you!" I shouted to her.

I went into the bank. When I got out, the ambulance was gone.

"Black." "White." I keep using those words in telling this story. I just want to say, a white man fell to the street in Paterson, New Jersey, and a group of black people gathered round, and did what they could to help him.

I'm not romanticizing Paterson. One of my students was mugged twice in my one day in Paterson. But this happens, too. Black people are kind, are helpful, do the right thing. Enough so that things should be different.

The work of Giovanna Cecchetti
I visited Giovanna, the Italian-American artist who lives upstairs. I had to return to her the blankets that she insisted on lending me when we were without heat or electricity for the better part of two weeks after Hurricane Sandy.

I was a bit nervous. Giovanna is an artist. What if I did not like her art? I had been in her apartment only once before, during the Sandy blackout, and I could not see her art then, because there was no light.

Also, Giovanna had told me that she has an attack cat, and I did not want to be attacked.

As soon as I entered the apartment, Giovanna's beautiful but vicious attack cat hissed at me. It's a long-haired black cat.

"Giovanna," I asked. "Why do you have such a vicious cat?"

She explained that Mike, the guy with the ponytail, had rescued Puss from the streets. He asked Giovanna to "foster" her until he found a home for her. It's been seven years.

Puss may have been abused, Giovanna said.

Mike never smiles, he moves like a bullet, and he wears leather jackets. He looks like a professional assassin. I see him putting out food for feral cats.

I wanted to offer Giovanna some thanks for lending me the blankets. I had tucked into them packages of chocolates, some of which had been sent to me by a kind Polish American woman, Anna Siemienowski Brzuza, who wanted to make sure that I'd have a nice package to open on Christmas day.

Giovanna and I chatted a bit. I need not have been nervous; I genuinely liked her artwork. I admired the view from her window. She sees what I see, only from higher up. She took out her binoculars and showed me a squirrel's nest in a tree across the street. She handed me some walnuts in the shell she purchased for the squirrels. I offered to place the walnuts under the tree as Giovanna watched, to see if the squirrels found them.


I'm touched by the love and kindness I witnessed in Paterson yesterday.

Giovanna Cecchetti's webpage is here.

More of her art can be seen here.

A terrific photo, by BC Lorio, of Paterson, NJ Mayor Jeff Jones.
BC Lorio's work can be viewed here.


  1. Scary situation and heart-warming at the same time, that people (strangers) still care. I'm glad you put your feelings into words to share with us. You made me feel "there" watching everything unfold right along with you. I just don't understand about the wad of money. Did the young man drop it and the other 2 people were retrieving it for him, or were they stealing it while he was convulsing?

    1. Anna, thanks so much for reading and commenting. :-)

      My guess is that they were trying to help the guy, and they gave him the money back.