Because I am not family, I am not allowed to know what happened to a man I saw Oct. 14 in Park Slope, lying in a pool of his own blood after a car had crashed into his bicycle on 6th Avenue, near Lincoln Place. I spent the entire morning searching the internet, calling local newspapers, posting a question on a blog.
Unable to find answers, I called the nearest hospital—hoping—but was met with the question I fully expected: “Are you family?”
No, but certainly, someone would be able to help me: an ambulance worker, maybe, or a friend. Perhaps a kind member of the family. Couldn’t they at least tell me if the man was going to live?
“Sorry, can’t help you,” the woman said, and hung up.
I called the local police station, only to be asked the same question, though this time with more attitude.
“Well, I mean, are you family?” The woman knew I wasn’t. I’d already told her I’d only seen the accident and was simply trying to find out if the man was okay.
“Do you know his name?”
“No, I’m sorry,” I said, “I’m just very concerned about him.”
She let out an exasperated sigh. “I don’t understand, if you’re not family, there’s no need for you to know.”
She hung up before I could tell her: I may not have the right to know, but I do have the need.
That Sunday, walking home alone after brunch with a friend, I rounded the corner onto 6th Avenue just after the man had flown over the car. He was lying curled up on the street, his body in spasms, his head leaking with blood. I got there in time to see the huge dent in the car that had hit him, and the head-shaped bowl of a crack in the windshield; in time to see a woman set her red leather purse beneath his bleeding head; in time to see the people who were there before me lay their hands on him, comfort him, rub his flinching arms. “Don’t move your head,” they coached. “Everything’s going to be okay.” The woman holding the man’s head was rubbing the one part of his face that wasn’t bloody: his eyebrow. For several minutes, I couldn’t stop looking at the deep crack in the windshield, and at the man’s head, which had made that crack without a helmet.
“Has anyone called an ambulance?” I asked, thinking for one panicked second that, in their shock, no one had thought to call. Then, in another moment of panic, realizing that I hadn’t brought my cell phone. No one could find the words to answer me, but there were nods all around, then silence, all of us praying in our own separate ways.
In times like this, it’s odd how things seem to slow down, when the few minutes it takes for the ambulance to arrive feel like an hour. I found myself pacing, hand over my mouth, praying that the man wouldn’t die in the street. I wanted to reach out to the other people around me and hold their hands. Somehow, all pretense of us being separate seemed to drop, and the veil of individuality disappeared like a fog that had been keeping us hidden.
When the ambulance finally arrived, sirens blaring, the man was suddenly surrounded by at least seven paramedics, and the rest of us backed away. Still, in whispers, we worried about the man’s brown shoe, which had been flung into the middle of the street. Should we step around the EMTs and pick it up for him? And what about his bicycle? Should one of us take it home?
That afternoon, I felt we were all responsible for the man, and none of us was able to leave until the ambulance had carried him away. And still, we waited. We stood there, staring at the firefighters as they cleared away the scene and swept up the glass. And we stared at each other, not knowing quite what to say, not wanting to leave. I felt like I had been in an accident, too. I had that same shaky feeling, that same slow sense of shock.
Another woman wandered over to me, wanting to linger a little longer, and as we spoke, I touched her arm, and she touched mine. It was closest thing we could come to a hug as strangers.
Today, I can’t stop thinking about the man, or the man’s family. Where, on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, was he going? Does he have a wife? Children? I’d like to send his loved ones a card. They must be going through some trauma now, or perhaps they are grieving, and I’d like to let them know that someone is thinking about them. But apparently, it is not my right, and I should have no reason to care about a stranger. After all, I don’t even know his name.
Shell Fischer, a writer who lives in Park Slope, has recently given up her bicycle.