Seeing the Unseen

Over the past few weeks I've come to realize that although I've lived in my neighborhood for eight years, I haven't really lived in it. After all, how could I really see what's going on in my neighborhood when I was rushing out the door at 7 AM and not getting back home until 6:30 PM (on a good night).

For example, I didn't know that this old woman somehow gets in the gate in back of my building and digs through the recycle bins for bottles.

Despite the occasional feel-good story that runs in the press about someone who's putting their child through college by going through other people's trash and collecting bottles and cans, I find nothing heart-warming about it. It makes me profoundly sad that people are so impoverished that they must find some way to sneak into my building parking lot and do this.

When I took her picture mid morning yesterday, I think I assumed that seeing her tip over the bin, and then getting on her hands and knees to dig through the trash, was going to be saddest thing I'd see all day. Unfortunately, it wasn't.

My gut tells me that the drunk that used to be down the hill is okay. So, if I don't count him, well then yesterday I saw my first dead body in my neighborhood.

It happened while I was going to pick up my 1st grader from school. I pulled up on Melrose around 2:15, rushing because the bell rings at 2:20 and I had a block to sprint down a side street. As we stood, waiting to cross the street, my three year-old whined that he wanted a piggy back ride. I could only look across the street at a body, a male body, face down in the dust. He lay there, only a couple of feet away from the traffic rushing by. Nothing was moving.

He was Latino, dressed in a green t-shirt, khaki shorts and tennis shoes. I couldn't see his face, but his outfit conveyed youth. I guessed him to be in his early twenties. I didn't think this was just another drunk. The body had an awkward twist to it. Something just didn't seem right. There was a stillness that a live body just doesn't have.

We crossed the street and about 20 feet away from the body, I stopped a group of teenage girls that had just walked by him. I asked them if they knew him, if he was with them. You never know. Sometimes boys play silly pranks... like pretending to be dead.

They said they didn't know him. They were overall, very nonchalant about it, like it's something they see every day. Other parents were walking by on the way to the school, glancing down at this body, but never stopping.

I pulled out my phone and called 911. I was put on hold for about 5 minutes, then connected to the California Highway Patrol and then transferred to the Fire Department. I explained where I was and what was happening. They asked me if he was breathing. I was close enough to be able to tell them that I was pretty sure he wasn't.

They wanted me to go and check on him but, quite frankly, I was afraid. And I told them that I was afraid. What if he wasn't dead and was just in some drug-induced stupor and then woke up and freaked out on me? I wasn't taking a chance, especially not when my three year-old was with me. The operator told me to wait on the corner till paramedics showed up.

Before I knew it, I heard the sirens screaming. A moment later, a fire truck and an ambulance rounded the corner. I pointed to where the body was and they pulled up alongside him. The paramedics jumped down and surrounded him. One firefighter came over and thanked me for my call.

I walked away to go pick my son up from school. He was happy to see us but wanted to know why we were so late. My three year-old answered first, "There's a dead body down the street!"

Of course, I ended up talking to his teacher about what I'd just seen up the street. Then she explained my son's homework. On my way out of the school, I ran into the Pre-K teacher and talked to her. Before I knew it, twenty minutes had flown by.

I could see that the firetruck and ambulance were still up the street so we walked towards them to check things out. When were a couple of houses away, I could see that the guys were getting back on the truck and getting ready to pull away. I ran toward them and yelled as loud as I could, "Is he okay?"

The driver of the firetruck looked down for a moment and then looked up at me. His eyes met mine. I could see the regret in them as he shook his head.

No.

The firetruck and the ambulance pulled away as we reached the corner. No lights flashing or sirens blaring...and the body was gone.

Yeah, these are the kinds of things I never saw when I used to get home at 6:30 at night. I didn't see this kind of thing while running errands on the weekends either. I don't know what happened to the young man who died on the street yesterday. I'll probably never know. I can only pray he will find more peace in the next life than he did in this one.

Comments

Jameil said…
i write about stuff like this every day at work. and still some stories get to me. usually the ones about young children. i still don't know how reporters see dead bodies daily. like everything, i'm sure some things are harder than others.
thailandchani said…
Wow.. that's weird alright.. especially about the kids just walking by like it was not worth noticing!

My guess is that he died of an overdose or something like that. Otherwise, they would have had the police and homicide investigators around.

(shudder)


Peace,

~Chani
http://thailandgal.blogspot.com
Unknown said…
Liz,

I've seen people stabbed, beat up, shot, run over, and put in jars filled with formaldehyde (fetuses, high school anatomy class). But I've never seen a body laid out on the street like that. Makes you wonder, doesn't it? Why would people just walk on by, as if that person was nothing more than an discarded car battery? Have we lost that much respect for human life? Thank God you were there to at least give that poor soul's body some assistance. I can understand not wanting to get too close, though, especially since you had your little one with you.

The only thing I've seen that might possibly be worse was the "death stare" on the faces of the shell-shocked G.I.s during the Vietnam War. I can still see them sometimes in my nightmares. It's probably the worst memory I have of living in the Philippine Islands during the 60s. But anyway, the least I can do is say a prayer for the progress of that young man's soul in the Abha' Kingdom.
tommyjr97408 said…
Jameil,
I don't know how folks write about this everyday either. The stories about kids make me feel ill. Everytime someone tells me that I missed my calling and that I should be a journalist, I tell them that I can't even imagine having to write about death every single day. It's heartbreaking.

Chani,
I thought drugs as well. Or maybe it was just his time. There was no blood on his shirt or pooled in the dust. I did see some cops over there when I drove by a couple hours later, but it could have been completely unrelated. It's just so sad.

Angela,
The only other time I for sure saw a dead body in the street was when I lived in China. People had the same reaction. There was just a "so what" kind of attitude. There were flies on that one. It was horrible.

Yes, we have lost respect for human life. We step over the poor and hungry every day as we drive our big SUVs to go buy more stuff we don't need. Sigh.
Dirty Red said…
My Wife and I had a similar experiance, except this was in a park.
We were in the park walking around the makeshift track together, just enjoying each other's time when this older guy came jogging past us.
We spoke and he smiled and kept running. He past us 3 more times. When we finished the small circle, my wife noticed that someone was lying on the sidewalk face down facing the street. I ran over and it was the jogging guy. I turned him over, and his skin was all gray and his tongue was sticking out.Immediantly I called 911. I stayed on the phone with the operator until the paramedics arrived, but by then it was too late. The paramedics wouldn't tell us anything since we were not family, but I suspect that the guy had a heart attack. This was not the first time I have witnessed death, but it was for my wife. She was balling and going on like she grew up with the guy. It is a damn shame that the people in your neighborhood just walked on by like that type of shit happens to them all the time. I guess that says alot about our society, Huh?
1969 said…
Wow. So sad. Especially folks just walking by like he didn't matter.

I am glad you were there to help.
Anonymous said…
Geez.
Anonymous said…
Sad. Sad. Sad.

I wonder where is mother is and if she knows what happened.

Tonight, I'll be saying prayers for him and his family.
this is so sad. I can't people could just walk by and shrug..oh it's a dead body. I hope somebody misses him and is wondering where he is.
Mes Deux Cents said…
Liz,

You are so right. There are so many layers to life, we generally get stuck in our own layer.

Then it becomes amazing to notice what has been in our periphery all along, like the lady looking for bottles.

I think that sometimes it's good to break routine so we can notice other things and people.
Liz Dwyer said…
Dirty Red,
That's so sad about the guy at the park. How horrible to have just seen him when he was alive, and then for him to be dead moments later. Even though we know better, I think we sometimes imagine that everybody dies in their sleep, at home in bed. But, that's not the way it happens.

1969,
People walking by like they did really bothers me. It makes me feel like if something were to happen to me or to my kids when we're out walking to/from school, no one would do a darn thing.

Mojan,
I know. That's definitely something I hope I don't experience again.

Jess,
I'm sure he and his family need the prayers. I wonder about his mother too. I don't know what I would do if someone came and told me that one of my sons was dead. There's a part of me that thinks I'd lose my mind...gosh, I can't even think about it, it makes me start to cry. I hope he had some sort of ID on him so that he could be identified.

NYC/CR
I'm convinced that a couple of the teenage girls hadn't even noticed him because they were so busy talking to their friends. In some ways, I wonder if the only reason I noticed him from across the street is because my sister had this freaky dream where something bad happens to me - she wouldn't say exactly what - but she called me up crying and begging me to be extra vigilant and careful this week. So I've been checking everything out like a hawk.

Mes Deux Cents,
With the lady looking for the bottles, my youngest was sooo loud as I was putting him in his car seat in the garage. "Hey, what's she doing? Hey, she's not supposed to be over there." He sees everything and comments on everything. I guess at some point we learn not to "see" and so we have to re-train ourselves.
M said…
Oh, that's terrible. Really sad. I'm so sorry.

How's your son doing with it? As I recall, three is an age when death can suddenly become very real to a child.
Liz Dwyer said…
Maia,
You know, he hasn't mentioned it since then. I don't think he's really realized that the man isn't alive anymore. I was definitely worried about how he might react to it but he seems okay.
the last noel said…
Geez. How devastating is that? My first dead body was when I was a boy and witnessed a really bad car crash. The car slammed right into a student walking home.
Liz Dwyer said…
Noel,
That's absolutely horrible. Did you know the kid? Drivers are way too reckless around pedestrians these days. Even when I'm crossing Virgil at a light, I'm scared someone is gonna hit us.
This is so deeply disturbing. Not only that it happens so often, but that you were the only one to make the call. And that you got the run around all those precious minutes if he had been still alive. What do you say to your kids about this stuff?
Liz Dwyer said…
Cloudscome,
You know, every time I've called 911 out here in LA, there's been a really long delay. Last year, I drove by an assault going on, called and was put on hold for over 15 minutes.

My eldest has had more questions about this even though he didn't see the body. He just knows it happened because when we got to the school, my youngest was talking about it. But we've talked about death a lot though with them both, we had to after my brother died last year. They know it's just a natural part of life.

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