One day during my graduate school years in New York City, I found a man lying dead on the sidewalk.
Under typical circumstances I probably would never have realized that he was dead. But on this day, I was standing at the crossing, waiting for the traffic light to turn red, so I happened to look at him longer than I usually would have. The longer and harder I looked, the more it seemed that he was not breathing. I bent down. For some reason I was afraid to touch him, so I did not put my ear against his chest. But I got close enough to know for certain that he was dead.
People walked by, pretending not to notice the dead man or me. It was a warm winter day, with a preponderance of filthy urban slush. I said a quiet prayer for the man.
I did not own a cell phone, but when I got to campus I called 911 and told them about the dead man.
Of course, people die by the thousands in similar circumstances throughout the world. But experiencing this man’s corpse so close-up brought me face-to-face, in both a figurative and literal sense, with the reality of one man’s death—cold and lonely even in one of the most densely populated cities in my country.
What hit me hard was not the fact that this man had died—it was the idea that, as far as I knew, nobody cared.
The more I thought about the situation, the more questions I had.
Did this man have any brothers or sisters? Living parents? Nieces or nephews? Would anybody care that he had died? Did he have friends who might wonder what had happened to him?
If his name was known, would anybody cry upon hearing of his demise? Would anybody attend his funeral? Would he even have a funeral?
After his death, would anybody think of this man? Did anybody have photographs of this man in happier times? Would friends talk about mutual memories of this man, and laugh, and perhaps cry? Had this man ever made a difference in somebody’s life?
Had this man ever fallen in love?
Had this man had a job or career? Had he studied hard in his youth and early adulthood toward a profession and gone on to make a living doing something he loved or despised or grew indifferent toward?
Did he ever have a pet?
What good times had this man had? Had he traveled? Had he gone swimming in the ocean? Had he eaten a meal at a fine restaurant? Had he ridden a bicycle in Central Park on a bright spring day?
What if, instead of this man, I had died on that same day on that same spot on the street? Would people have still just walked by and pretended I wasn’t there?
How would it feel to know that not a single other person in the world gives a damn whether you even exist?
The more I considered the paradox of this man’s lonely death among so many people, the more the situation actually began to make sense.
In our urban high-rise buildings, we live in close quarters for years with other human beings whose names we never even learn.
And why should our dying be any different from our living?
|Ranjit Souri (rjsouri [at] gmail [dot] com) teaches classes in improvisation, comedy writing, and creative non-fiction in Chicago.|