It was Good Friday as I walked north on La Salle Street to church about two in the afternoon. I was on my way to attend the services that would begin a bit later, but I wanted to spend a little time in reflection before the church filled up with other parishioners.
As I walked the one block from the church’s parking lot a man, obviously very inebriated, staggered towards me, weaving unsteadily on his feet. As we approached each other, he careened into a lamp post hitting his head and fell to the sidewalk where he hit his head again. The impact caused him to open the skin on his forehead and he started to bleed.
I went over to him to see if there was anything that I could do to help him but he had passed out and I didn’t have anything to staunch the blood. So I left him there and ran to the church to see if I could get something to apply to his wound and to call for an ambulance to assist him.
I met Fr. Barry inside the sanctuary and explained what had happened. He quickly found some clean towels for the man’s wounds and as I left with them, he said that he would call for assistance. I returned to the man to find that he was still passed out and the blood from his wound had left a small pool on the sidewalk.
The man had obviously not bathed for some time as he smelled terrible – a combination of perspiration, urine and liquor. I was dressed nicely for church and was reluctant to rub against him with my clean clothes. But I finally said, “Oh, what the hell,” and I sat down on the sidewalk next to him and put one of the towels to his head wound. I figured God would overlook it if I looked a little scruffy during services.
I sat there for twenty minutes and during that time five pedestrians came down the street, looked at me and this man and quickly moved on. I was surprised that none of them offered assistance. I kept wondering when the ambulance would arrive.
Suddenly a police paddy wagon pulled up. Two burly cops came out and without even addressing me began to yank the man up from his place on the sidewalk. As one of the officers said, “Well, it was a quiet day – and now we get this bum.” (I was sorry that this man had “inconvenienced” this policeman).
I said to the officers that we had called for an ambulance – but apparently the emergency number which Fr. Barry had reached decided that the paddy wagon, rather than an ambulance was the appropriate way to handle this situation. As one of the police explained, that’s how the City of Chicago took care of “vagrants” – people who didn’t have a minimum of five dollars on them.
At that point I said that before he had passed out, “the bum” had given me a twenty dollar bill to hold for him – which I produced from my pocket – money that I had intended to put in the collection plate at church. I knew the cops didn’t believe me – but I produced the twenty and they had no choice other than to call for an ambulance.
They seated the man, who had now awakened, on the back off the paddy wagon and the four of us awaited the ambulance. It only took about five minutes for them to arrive.
I waited as the paramedic examined the man and he and the driver helped him into the back of the ambulance. I gave the paramedic the twenty dollar bill and said that it belonged to his patient. He looked at me with a small smile and just nodded as he said, “I’ll make sure that it stays with him.” The police drove off.
I mopped up the blood on the sidewalk as best I could and took the towels back to the rectory. By the time I had washed my hands and brushed my clothes off, I was a few minutes late for the Good Friday service – but that was alright.
When I thought about this encounter that evening, I realized that I would rather not have been involved – but fate had it otherwise. I felt uncomfortable dealing with this unwashed man, this “bum”. My initial concern was not for his welfare but for my clothing and appearance and how I would look in church. I realized the shallowness of my spiritual development.
Then I thought about my own situation – when I had been mugged years earlier. Because I obviously was the victim of a crime (not a drunk or a bum), the authorities had no question responding to my need for assistance by dispatching an ambulance – not a paddy wagon. Like the man on La Salle Street, I didn’t have the requisite five dollars on me. My assailants had not only taken my money but most of my clothes.
I thought about how our attitudes towards each other, our need to feel superior to others with whom we would never trade places, engenders division, anger, hatred, repulsion and ultimately all those things in their ultimate incarnation, war. Years later I heard a quote that summarizes this.
“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”
– Mother Teresa