Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Life Expectancy of a Homeless Jaywalker

Running Into Strangers
March 23, 2009

By Brian Bentley

Getting hit by a car while drunk is maybe better than getting hit when sober

Last Saturday night, I was waiting to get into the Echoplex to see a show by a psychedelic rock band called Black Mountain. I was standing near the back of the line that formed on the sidewalk on Glendale Boulevard, about a half block south of Sunset. A transient in a sweatshirt with a hood over his head came up behind me and gave me a hard shoulder into the middle of my back, with about the force one would use in a bar if you wanted to start trouble. I turned around and he was just staring blankly ahead, right through me. It was a dead eyed stare, the expressionless look of a haggard and lost soul. There was a Grim Reaper vibe to him. The bearded man was white and average height, somewhere between 45 and 55 years old. Though he was typically wino-lean, the guy seemed taut and muscular. I ignored him, as any sort of reaction to an individual like this can have significantly diminishing returns.

The man also said nothing. He just stood there, about two inches to my left side, for a moment like he was trying to communicate something. Maybe any kind of physical engagement was better than the usual night of stumbling around in the dark alone. With the entire sidewalk of concertgoers watching, he turned to cross the street the way bums lurch into traffic like they don’t give a fuck, like they are daring somebody to hit them, as if life has so stripped them of power that they’ve sunk to grabbing little pieces of it when they can from intimidated motorists with no choice but to yield.

I turned to the guy next to me. “Check this dude out,” I said. “He looks like he wants to get hit.” “Yeah,” he replied, “he may get his wish.” One car blew its horn, then another. The jaywalker was inching closer to the forbidden zone, that point of commitment where there is no turning back, and that point where 99% of drunks will stop in their tracks. There was a silver luxury car in the fast lane that had slowed a bit, but was still cruising along at about 20-25 miles per hour – no horn, no brakes. The walker made his move, stepping right in front of the vehicle. The headlights illuminated his lower half. The onlookers gasped, confronted with the kind of drama you can’t buy with a concert ticket.

There was this sound upon impact, a horrific crunch, loud enough to be mistaken for the collision of two cars, not several thousand pounds of metal, rubber and leather slamming into flesh and bone. A couple of women screamed. The jaywalker bounced off the bumper and to the car’s right. He didn’t go airborne and he didn’t go under the car. I turned back to the guy next to me. “Did you see that?” I asked. “Unfortunately yes,” he sighed. “I saw it coming from the minute he stepped off the curb.” We both agreed that the bum’s reaction upon impact and his resulting flight path were fairly athletic, almost stuntman-like in their agility. Maybe alcohol had played a part in keeping him loose enough to roll with the blow.

Twenty cell phones simultaneously dialed 911 and the paramedics arrived within two minutes. The guy was motionless, lying on his back with his eyes open, an old hippie with that dead confederate soldier in a field of grass look to him. “He’s fucking toast,” a punker said a few feet away. The driver of the car that hit the wino was a very large black man in his late 20’s in shorts, and the passenger was a dapper, grey haired gent who chain smoked and looked vaguely like someone who was late for a meeting. It was an odd couple whose origins one could only guess upon.

“He could have avoided that guy,” someone said. “He had all sorts of time.” On the other hand, most drivers would have expected the jaywalker to stop before he crossed that imaginary line in the asphalt. Even a suicidal transient has his limits.

Finally the cops trolled up and leisurely started getting witness statements. The driver was helpful and polite and everyone did their job trying to stabilize the flattened man, whose complicated and sad life was now even more wretched and broken. Eventually he slowly moved both his arms and legs and somebody gave him a cigarette. “How bad off can he be if he’s smoking?” I said. “Funny you should mention that,” a girl next to me offered. “I once saw a bar fight where a biker was stabbed in the head with a hatchet and he was dancing around in the street afterward, laughing and smoking and then he just died.”

I will never know if internal injuries killed the guy lying here tonight. Maybe even his family, if he had any left, would never know either. Once, he had been someone’s son, somebody’s boyfriend, but now he belonged to the street. After awhile, the ambulances were gone and the boulevard was cleared and the people saw their rock show and life went on. When I called the local hospitals to find out if the man survived, all they could tell me was that without his name, they had no way to trace his fate. I got a creepy feeling when I realized that if the dude was dead, then I was the last person he touched on this mortal coil. Now I wished he’d bumped into someone else. I even thought about how my reaction to his unwarranted shove could have saved his ass. If I had thrown a vicious right hand to his head, he would have been left lying on the sidewalk instead of maybe the county morgue. It’s funny how life can turn on a dime, or even a bump, a zig and a zag.

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