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The Apathy of Strangers

Yesterday, walking along Flinders Street at peak hour, I watched the crowd in front of me part like the Red Sea.  Rather than Moses, there was a man who, if not homeless then certainly down on his luck, was stumbling along the footpath, bleeding from his head.


A few feet before he reached me, he fell flat on his face.  His arms didn’t keep up with this state of events and did nothing to break his fall.  The result was the sound of skull cracking on concrete and a big splodge of blood.  Undeterred, in that admirable way drunks do (I could smell him by now), he started to get up, but instantly fell forward, hitting the base of a pole, a bolt getting him in the eyebrow.

By now the guy was pissing blood like an extra in Kill Bill and on his back, turtle-like as he tried to figure out how he was going to get up.  As I went towards him, I hardly noticed the crowd around us, but for some reason Sophie Mirabella suddenly popped into my head.  “Are you okay?” I asked rather redundantly as I gave him my hand.  He looked up and smiled as he grasped it and thanked me several times.

The thanks were a little premature at this stage though, because I’m a 5-foot-2 middle-aged woman and he was a good 15-20kg heavier than me, unable to balance standing, let alone able to help me help him up.  This would not end well.  I looked around.

There were several feet between me and the large crowd that had encircled us.  And once again, Sophie Mirabella pops into my head – you know, her reaction when the GetUp guy, Simon Sheikh, collapsed on QandA and she recoiled in horror?  That’s what every single person was doing.  Nobody had any intention of touching this guy.  They were disgusted by him.

“Anybody else feel like helping?” I snapped, all school-marmish and staring pointedly at two quite burly-looking guys.  To their credit, they then rushed over and we got the guy to his feet.  He was projectile bleeding from his head, but enterprisingly grabbed a copy of MX and held it there.  He gave us a wonky, but good natured smile. “Thank you, thank you,” he said as he went to set off.  These guys were going to let him, even though we’d just heard this guy’s skull crack on the footpath.

“Mate, you need to sit down a moment,” I said. “You’re bleeding. You need to sit down.”

“Do I?  Where? Thank you,” he said, still all unfocused eyes and wobbly smile.

And finally, kindness.  Three of us helped him sit down, someone called an ambulance.  The blokes were calling him ‘Mate’ and gently reminding him he had a head injury. One woman took a t-shirt out of her backpack to give to him to help stem the blood which was still gushing like Niagara Falls from his head.  He held it there briefly before realising what it was and insisting he couldn’t possibly accept it; that the newspaper was just fine.  Unsurprisingly, she didn’t want it back.

Unfortunately, there’s no warm, fuzzy happy ending to this.  When he realised an ambulance was on its way he insisted on getting up and leaving, the pool of blood reminiscent of a crime scene.  My desire to help stops short of physically restraining an adult who no longer wants to hang out with me. 

Last I saw he made it safely across the road and was lurching down Flinders Street in that really fast way you do when you’re running down a hill and will fall over if you try to slow down.

The crowd reaction really got to me.  Not one of them was going to help the guy until I shamed them into it.  It seemed only when I spoke to him kindly and he responded with (mostly incoherent) gratitude, did these people seem to feel they’d been given permission to show another human being – a horribly injured, vulnerable human being – a modicum of kindness.

I worried for all last night – he had a severe head injury (I mean, really severe, several very deep wounds) and was headed toward the tracks.  If he fell onto them, I have no faith that he would get assistance to move.

Dozens of people stood around looking disgusted.  Would they have reacted differently if he’d been wearing a suit?  In my opinion they were aiming their disgust at the wrong person.  They should’ve been looking in a mirror.

12 Responses

  1. In the dim past, I wore a suit, and commuted on foot between Little Collins Street and Southbank. Work often took me to the country, and I died a little one day in the little town of Axedale, population 230; I collapsed in the main street, my first brush with anaphylactic shock after a bee sting.

    Travellers, and random people from the town took the action, made the calls that saved my life.
    Paramedics had the needles and the masks and the training to sort it out.
    I am forever indebted to them.

    But a senior manager of mine at the time made the point that if this had happened on my regular commute, people would probably have walked around me; passed comments about damn junkies in suits; stolen my briefcase. And the only life I had to give would have Stopped. Right. There.

    Eleven years later. I don’t care anymore about ruining a really expensive suit.
    I had a warm fuzzy ending (so far); life is so much richer when you see what it means to have it taken away from you.

    And, in sober reflection, I have always known what that manager said had truth in it; but thank you for closing the circle.

    1. It was in Flinders Street (Melbourne) across the road from the station. It was hard to tell with his face all covered in blood but if I had to guess, I would put him in his thirties?

  2. I thought it may be Daniel O’Keeffe the missing person from Geelong and was last seen in Bundaberg in Queensland.

  3. Anaphylaxis is a serious type of allergy that usually happens when a person takes a triggering substance that is often called allergen. The exposure and its resulting reaction, anaphylaxis, occurs when the person become sensitized to that substance.Sometimes even if the person is exposed to allergens, even how little the allergens are and the time of exposure, the resulting allergy can really be serious and life-threatening.Anaphylaxis attacks can happen after the substance is inhaled, injected or ingested. Physical or skin contact to the substance can sometimes also lead to anaphylaxis attacks.^

    My personal internet page

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