Last night, right at 10:45, I tripped and nearly broke my teeth in the train station as I skipped down the stairs. I hadn’t been looking down, and saw the woman lying on the bottom stair a second too late. My boot caught on her jacket; I caught the rail; I stopped my face from hitting the ground with my right arm.
I barely missed stepping on her hand, which was resting on the edge of the bottom stair. Landing in a puddle, I flung around, I think mostly to defend myself. I thought she’d rise up angrily, maybe yell at me.
She didn’t move. To the right, a group of exhausted-looking people, clutching their bags, were waiting for the bus home. I was exhausted, too. I’d spent a good twelve hours at work that day mostly in concentration, writing. I just didn’t want to deal with whatever was happening on that bottom stair. It seemed that I felt exactly what everyone else was feeling. No one has energy at that hour, save the few bright-eyed men in uniform starting the night shift, their lunch pails looking strange and out of place.
I watched the people waiting for a cue. They’d look back at her, on the ground, squint, frown, then look out again at the road. From the way they waited, I assumed that someone had already asked her how she is doing, that someone had called the police. I also thought, she might just want to be there, slumped over on the stairs. Why should I bother her?
The more minutes passed, the more oppressive the silence and inaction became for me. I looked at her back to see if it was rising, and it was. She was wearing white, crushed velvet sweatpants and white Reeboks, and a navy men’s Carhart jacket. I had the same jacket. I couldn’t see her face, which was covered with her thick, matted brown hair and her right hand.
In the tramping of thousands of people’s feet from the snow, the floor of the subway station is disgusting by that time of day. It is covered with all sorts of things you don’t want ever want to imagine, let alone see. She was sinking face down in its filth.
I started to feel panic. I felt embarrassed to even look at her and be doing nothing. The first thought that rose up was, what if I was sick, and on the ground in this muck and no one stopped to help me? That didn’t do anything for my heart. What if my mother was sick and had a blood pressure issue, and no one stopped? And I could see my mother on the ground and then I started to dance around in place, convinced that this woman was having a stroke and everyone, including me, was doing jack all about it. This could not be happening.
A janitorial employee walked by her with a shovel, looked at her, then looked at me and shook his head. That confused me further. Why wasn’t he stopping to ask her what she was doing? He had to have called someone. He had to. There was no way this woman was lying on the ground and no one had done anything. People entered the train station, saw her, then took the stairs around her.
I edged closer to her, whispered hello. I didn’t know whether to touch her arm; I felt paralyzed, shut out of my own instincts. I locked eyes with a man who looked up at me from his phone. I ran up the stairs past her to him and asked him if he saw anyone call the police, and he said, no, she was there like that when he came. I ran down and locked eyes with another young man, who had stopped in front of her, taken out his earbuds, and was asking the air above her head, “What is this? What is happening? Why is she here?”
Hearing his voice, and hearing him acknowledge her, was like a release. I knelt next to her and put my hand on her arm and shook it gently, asking, “Hello? Hello?” The boy with the headphones knelt as well and said, more loudly, “Hey, lady! You can’t be here on the ground. Lady! Hey!” I shook her arm again and felt a sickening clutch at my chest as there was no sound from her.
She then said, “Yeah, yeah,” into the few-inch space between her face and the stair. I couldn’t move her because she was too heavy. The boy gestured at me to step away. We found another man with a phone and asked him to call the police, at which point more people gathered around.
I know her, a man said. Her name is Elaine. “Honey,” he said. “You’re going to have to sit up or they’re going to call.” From his even, calm tone, he’d seen her this way before. This happened often. “What’s happening,” someone asked, and he said, in the same voice, that she was probably overdosing. He crossed his arms and shook his head. Even in a goose down jacket you could see how thin he was.
A wiry woman entirely dressed in black, with two hoops in her ear, dropped her work bag into the dirtiest snow water puddle and sat on the stair, and put both her arms on Elaine’s shoulders and rolled her back from the ground. I was afraid of what we’d see. Elaine’s face was marked with the scabs of an addict, red flecks scattered across her forehead. Her eyes were closed and she was no longer saying anything, her lips parted and a line of drool slipping from a corner. The woman in black shook her, leant down near her ear and talked, took her pulse.
Elaine’s eyes parted slightly and the hazy blacks swam around in milky clots in opposite directions, and I felt sick, and covered my mouth. The boy with the headphones said, matter of factly, “This is how people die. No one stops to check.” I wanted to slap him.
At this point, everyone in the station was turned to watch us kneeling around her. The next train arrived and hundreds of people pounded down from the platform and engulfed our small group, splitting right at the top of the stairs and closing again behind us. I saw the lights from the ambulance through the doors and felt its chirps and call as it swept around the station, a firetruck in close tow behind. The paramedics came in and we all stepped back and they got Elaine to stand up.
They started to check her arms, and I couldn’t watch anymore, and ran outside into the snow. I started walking, and, then, running, until the station was out of sight. The snow was lovely and my street, quiet, and the words from The Dead about the snow all over Ireland came to mind.
I started weeping, largely with exhaustion, thinking of the woman’s eyes looking at opposite corners of the train station ceiling. I was angry with myself and with everyone else, tired as I had been, for standing there in the station doing nothing as long as we did. I wept thinking of all the people outside on that night in this immense and complex and terrifying city, suffering horribly with no one to stop to ask them how they were and if they needed help. I wept thinking about what a hard day I’d had and how its difficulty was nothing compared to what that woman was suffering right then in the back of an ambulance. I wept with gratitude over my warm house, over the warm shower that I was lucky enough to get to take when I stepped inside.
The night before I’d been walking with my friend Elizabeth back home from a party at three in the morning. The streets of Cambridge were empty, and I said, isn’t this amazing, that we can walk like this, and we never have to really think about whether anyone is behind us, and we can go get delicious snacks right now and then watch a movie if we want. And we were just at a party where everyone was singing songs together. This is so America, and there’s no war.
This morning, the entire station floor was swept and gleaming, the steps power-blasted with boiling water. The steps were so pristine, clean enough to eat off of.