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The Incident on the Stairs

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The Incident on the Stairs

Some good deeds go unpunished. December 30, 2016
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He looked dead, lying there—eyes closed, on his back, upside-down, on the stairs. One knee was bent, the other straight. His arms were by his sides, and he wasn’t moving. He looked more like a body than a man. He had to be dead.

Drunk, that’s what he was. Bent. Borracho. Phalanxed.

Even upside-down, I recognized him. The building we both lived in was a walkup. His apartment was on the third floor; mine was on the fifth. The structure’s 40-odd residents fell into three broad categories: singletons with glamorous jobs; young couples, like me and my wife; and phantoms, shadows, and hermits, such as the man-not-body on the stairs between the second and third floors who’d just become my problem.

He was almost all bones. He probably smoked more than he ate. His body looked so deliberately posed that I momentarily thought that I might be on Candid Camera. I listened to the street sounds. I knew that we were alone. This was one of those traps that the city lays for you sometimes. If you’re an honorable person, there’s only one way out.

Drunks don’t bother me. My father owned a bar. I’ve worked in pubs and nightclubs. Fights, negotiations, expulsions, confessions, apologies, medical interventions, relationship counseling, bodily fluid cleanup—I’ve dealt with it. I knew that I could get this guy to his feet, if I could get him awake. I knew that I could get him up the stairs and into his apartment. What I didn’t know was how long it would all take.

Drunks are like children: they throw tantrums when they don’t get what they want. Women are worse than men, and little people are worse than big ones. The best strategy for dealing with drunks is to stand back and let them exhaust themselves. Eventually, like children, they’ll collapse. The sedative effects of alcohol are too powerful for even the wildest blood to resist forever. But it can take a while to get a drunk home safely.

I could see that there wasn’t any blood, either on his head or on the stairs—a good sign. He didn’t need a hospital. I wouldn’t have to wrestle him down to the sidewalk and try to convince a cabdriver to take him to an emergency room. His glasses had been smashed and twisted. They were from another era. So was his shirt. The stains on his slacks were from today.

He didn’t look well—a lifetime of whiskey, tobacco, and too-little sunlight had nearly caught up with him. He didn’t smell good, either. It was 2:30 in the afternoon.

“Are you okay?” I said, putting somewhat more breath into the question than I would were I not talking to someone passed out in a stairwell. I placed my hands beneath his shoulders to brace him. Any movement and he’d slide further down the steps onto his head. He stirred.

“Steady,” I said, helping him to his feet. Once up, he leaned heavily on the banister and exhaled. I heard a rattling. He said nothing. He was looking at something.

“Are you okay?” I asked again. He mumbled, waving his hand in a circular motion in front of his chest. There was some blood there after all. It was oozing from an abrasion on the palm of his hand. He must have tried to break his own fall.

I couldn’t pick up what he was saying, though I detected an accent. Honestly, I wasn’t surprised. I recognized his face from my family tree.

“Are you Irish?” I asked. Another hiss, nasty this time, his hand erasing my question from the air between us like a broken windshield wiper. I got the sense that he wasn’t a man for small talk. Another exhale. Another rattling.

“Keeeesss,” he hissed. Saliva foamed at the corner of his mouth. He dragged his sleeve across his chin, leaving behind a little blood. This guy needed to get inside his apartment, fast, before his last shreds of dignity went missing.

With the help of a few more hisses, I pieced together what had happened. He’d dropped his keys somewhere on the stairs. While searching, he’d either lost his balance or passed out. Gravity took over from there. Since he had no head injury, the fall may have been more of a controlled collapse. Perhaps he thought that he’d just close his eyes for a sweet second.

I found his keys on the first floor. They’d fallen through the narrow space at the center of the stairwell. I trotted down to retrieve them. He did the rest himself.

I never got his name, though I heard that he worked as an overnight custodian at a fancy building on Park Avenue. When everyone else was starting their day, he was ending his. He’d leave work around 9 am and go straight to Brady’s saloon on Second Avenue, around 85th Street. I reckon that he’d spend most of the day there. I got into the habit of peeking in the window when I walked by, wondering if I’d see him.

A year or so later, my wife and I moved down to an apartment on the second floor. The commute was better; it was more like moving up. One day, my old friend knocked on the door and asked if he could use our apartment to get out onto the fire escape. He’d lost his keys, if you can believe it, and wanted to crawl back into his place on the third floor through a window that he’d left open. He smelled only of aftershave. Watching him thread his bony leg through the window, grasp the metal fire escape, and pull himself through, I thought that he looked pretty spry. Just before he disappeared, he waved back and said, “I’m very grateful.” 

It was like he didn’t know me at all.  

 Photo by iStock

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