“THE GREATEST OF ALL THE ACCOMPLISHMENTS OF 20TH-CENTURY SCIENCE has been the discovery of human ignorance.” Lewis Thomas, Lives of a Cell. “OUR IGNORANCE, OF COURSE, HAS ALWAYS BEEN WITH US, AND ALWAYS WILL BE. What is new is our awareness of it, our awakening to its fathomless dimensions, and it is this, more than anything else, that marks the coming of age of our species.” Timothy Ferris, Coming of Age in the Milky Way.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Be Calm, No Nicknames

On my way to the gym I stop at a red light on Main and Centerville, and I hear loud moans. A man’s lying on his side under the entrance to Wells Fargo, and he’s moaning in pain. I’m thinking: Homeless man who fell down drunk?

I weave through two lanes of traffic and pull into the parking lot, and I see that the guy is Hispanic—big dude, dressed in T-shirt, jeans and work boots—and he’s moaning in agony.

He’s having a heart attack? So I’m trying to remember CPR—oh hell, Step One, Step Two—how’s that’s go? I jump out of my car and then I see the hole in the ceiling of the entranceway. This poor guy has plummeted about 20 feet onto concrete. I start to dial 911 when his coworker shows up and tells me an ambulance is already on the way. He says something to the groaning man in Spanish and then he just disappears. So I’m left alone with the injured guy and my taxi-cab-level Spanish.

I kneel beside him and put my hand on his back. “Lo siento mucho, mi amigo,” I say. “I’m so sorry, my friend.” He clutches my knee, and it makes me feel humble to realize how much my touch really matters. So I take his hand that’s gripping my knee and I hold it. And he squeezes it. “Tranquillo,” I say, “no motes”—which is supposed to mean, “Easy, don’t move,” but I’m wondering if it means, “Easy, you’re not a motor,” so I quit saying that. (I just Googled it, and it means, “Be calm, no nicknames.”)

So I’m holding hands with this big guy—he’s built like a heavyweight wrestler—and I’m feeling grateful that I’m able to lend him some comfort, although he’s still moaning. I want to tell him, “The ambulance is on the way.” But I can’t conjugate the future tense, and if I tell him the ambulance was on its way, it might give him a heart attack for real. So I just keep saying, “La ambulancia, mi amigo” in the most soothing tone I can manage—as if it’s a mantra: La ambulancia, la ambulancia, shanti, shanti, shanti. And I figure he’s Catholic, so I throw in, “Dios está contigo”—“God is with you”—because I care more about comforting him than insisting that I’m an atheist.

So I’m slowly caressing his back, and talking broken Spanish like a horse whisperer, when a white-haired lady appears. “I’ve got a clean towel in my car he can use as a pillow,” I tell her, and without another word, she takes my place, rubbing his back while I go grab a bath towel and roll it up and place it under his head. He’s still groaning in agony and then we all hear the sweet sound of the siren.

An EMT hops out and asks the man to wiggle his toes, and he does, which makes me realize the big dude understands English. The white-haired lady and I wait there till the ambulance goes. Before we get into our cars, she smiles kindly and says, “Thank you.”

So I missed yoga class, but I actually was able to help that man. O, the power of human touch! I want to go around today rubbing everybody’s back and telling them, “Please be calm. No nicknames.”

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