I have never been good at remembering names.
This is a real social problem and constant source of embarrassing faux pas for me, as I meet new people all the time at my job, and encounter many faces that I see only annually at meetings and whatnot.
The old joke about forgetting people’s names as you’re still shaking their hand is absolutely true, for me anyway; and it’s not that I am antisocial (or maybe that’s exactly what it is, I dunno), but it takes me several encounters with a new person before their name sticks in my tiny, tiny brain.
One time, ten years ago, I was riding my bike over to the home of my friends Dave and Sue.
Excellent friends, hosts, educators and entertainers, worldly and erudite people who, if I’m good, I will come back as in my next life. I never pass on an opportunity to have dinner with them at their home, and it’s always great.
(And I mean seriously great– I have had a lot of excellent food in my time, believe me, but there is little that compares to being a guest in the home of Dave and Sue).
Nothing beats good company and good times, and I pedaled out half an hour early to ensure my prompt arrival.
The great thing about bicycle riding is you can take a lot of shortcuts, and I always liked the atmosphere around the University, so I cut through the campus to enjoy the fall colors and collegiate atmosphere of students.
Not far from the hospital, which is just off the campus, I rode through a crosswalk.
A man, young-ish and bespectacled, sat in a wheelchair in the middle of the road between the painted lines. I sped by him and noticed he wasn’t moving, or rolling, in the crosswalk, but I kept on going.
For about fifty meters, anyway, and then the feeling that something just wasn’t right about the whole scene gripped me.
I stopped and looked back at the wheelchair guy and he was still there in the middle of the road. His head was tilted to one side, eyes closed like he was sleeping. He wore glasses and a baseball hat, with a white-guy mullet-fro sticking out the back.
It turns out I am not as antisocial as I thought, because I couldn’t keep on going and leave this dude sitting in the middle of the street. The wheelchair was marked property of the U of A hospital on the back-support band; I noticed when I rode past the first time.
Maybe he was having some sort of medical trouble, or medication reaction, or after-effect of whatever had put him in the chair in the first place.
I had visions of reading about him in the paper the next day, when Local Diabetic Hit By Cement Truck As Callous Bystanders Look On would scream from the front page of the bottom-feeding local tabloid newspaper.
Not wanting that on my conscience, I rode back to the man in the crosswalk.
“Hello?” I said to him, as he slumped, eyes still closed and body unmoving, in the chair.
Taking stock of the situation more closely, he didn’t appear to be injured or crippled; in fact he looked pretty healthy.
It crossed my mind then that he might be some sort of joyriding yahoo, drunk or druggie or one of the many, many mental cases that swarm Edmonton streets; and I backed up a bit from the man in the chair in case he suddenly came to life screaming and swinging and stabbing and biting and yelling about little green men.
“Sir? Buddy? Everything okay?” I said, and reached out and jiggled one of the push-handles of the wheelchair. His eyes flew open and I stepped back again and repeated, “You alright, there, guy?”
He didn’t look at me, but sat with head supported in one hand and leaning his elbow on the chair armrest. “I will be”, he said without emotion “once a car hits me”.
It was then that I grocked that it was, indeed, some sort of mental situation. This is not the sort of thing I am good at dealing with, nor do I have any special interest in other people’s various demons, but at this point I was somewhat invested.
“Aw, look man”, I said to him, “nobody wants that”.
“Why not?” he said, clearly not a threatening guy at this point, but neither someone who would be easily helped. I looked at my watch, and still had a little extra time; but suddenly hated the idea of getting sucked into some stranger’s personal foible. I had no idea how to respond to this, but was suddenly inadvertently involved in this drama.
Now, my policy in dealing with people expressing emotional ‘episodes’ (whether this guy was in the grip of severe depression, withdrawal, or regret after whatever situation brought him to the hospital in the first place) is the same as my policy for dealing with hysterical, crying children when you encounter one in a mall:
Get Another Adult Involved, Immediately.
There weren’t a lot of people around, on the campus at seven o’clock at night, so Wheelchair Man and I remained there in the crosswalk until I spotted a portly, forty-ish guy crossing a parking lot not far away. I called out to him and he came over.
Our new player in this minor tragedy approached the two of us, myself and Wheelchair Man, in the middle of the crosswalk. He was wearing fat-guy shorts and a Tilley hat.
He was carrying over his shoulder a bulging satchel with what appeared to be a human arm sticking out of it.
I stepped toward him to be slightly out of earshot of Wheelchair Man, and said, “Hey, listen, thanks for stopping; but I think we have a bit of a ‘situation’ going on here. Do you maybe have a phone or something?” and that’s when I noticed our new participants’ right arm was missing at the shoulder.
It turned out he did, indeed have a phone (it was also in the satchel) and when I broke down the situation for him – wheelchair man feels suicidal can we get some sort of cop involved via 911 or whatever because I have a dinner appointment –he pulled it out, after we both made another attempt to get Wheelchair Man to become reasonable, to no avail.
We moved a few paces from the man in the chair so as to not alarm him, and the new participant pulled out his cel and started dialing (for some reason he knew the number of the U of A hospital off by heart, but I figured that may be something to do with his having only one arm, and a pretty lifelike looking prosthesis).
“My policy in dealing with people expressing emotional ‘episodes’ is the same as for dealing with hysterical, crying children when you encounter one in a mall: Get Another Adult Involved, Immediately.”
The one-armed man completed the call to the hospital, they were indeed aware of the man and his recent departure from the premises, and were sending the campus police, and could we stay where we were.
I looked at my watch again, and sure, what the hell.
As we made the call, our friend in the chair took it on the lam, rolling off down the street in the hospital conveyance.
“I don’t want any help!” he cried, as he slowly got away, arms furiously pumping the wheels of his getaway device, “fuck off!”
The two of us watched this snail-paced escape transpire for a while, and Wheelchair Man rounded a corner near the transit center up the road and disappeared.
The man with one arm pulled his phone out again, and said to me “I’ll follow him, and keep the security guys informed”, and then he handed me his satchel “Hold this, it’s heavy. Be back in a minute!” and he took off after the guy in the chair.
Then they both disappeared around the corner, toward the bus station, leaving me holding the bag.
I waited, holding the satchel with the very lifelike prosthetic arm sticking out of it, for several minutes. I looked at my watch. I was now late for dinner at my friends’ home, but there was little I could do at this point; I certainly couldn’t leave.
He was right though, my new friend with one arm, the bag was heavy. I could see why he took the prosthesis off when he wasn’t using it; it must have been uncomfortable to wear for long periods.
Twenty minutes went by before a “campus police” car showed up. Both Wheelchair Man and the man whose false arm and satchel I was holding had long vanished from view.
Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever dealt with “campus police” before, but in my experience, they are f*cking idiots.
Little junior wannabe-policemen who couldn’t make it to the actual police force, so they ended up in a sort of glorified security guard position where they get to wear a uniform and act important and drive a car with lights on it; but basically just dimwitted ex-jock dipsticks who like to throw their weight around but lack the grey matter to be trusted with actual authority.
Thus is was that when a Campus Police car showed up, I tried to wave it down but they drove right past me to the entrance to the transit center where they spun the car around and then stopped, looking all around frantically.
I ran down the street toward them, calling out and waving the whole time.
When they finally noticed me, running toward them yelling and waving and carrying a satchel with what appeared to be a human arm sticking hand-first out of it, they rolled up their windows and sat peering out at me as I hurried up to the car.
“Hey!” I said, more than a little annoyed at this point; and they rolled down their window a slight crack, “are you by any chance looking for a disturbed man in a wheelchair?”
Suddenly they came alive, and they bobbed their heads in unison: Yes! Yes we are! Have you seen one?
I sent the spiritual descendants of Joseph Wambaugh off in the direction of the armless man and Wheelchair Man, and as they vanished around the corner I reflected on how late I now was for dinner with my friends, and the fact that I couldn’t leave the scene; burdened as I was with a guy’s prosthetic arm in a bag and maybe the need to give some sort of statement to a magistrate later, if things got any weirder.
On the bright side, though, things didn’t. After about another fifteen minutes, the man with one arm reappeared.
The campus cops had never found them, it turned out; but fortunately a real police car had come by after his following Wheelchair Man for many blocks, and the matter was turned over to them.
We had a good laugh about it afterward, neither of us having dealt with anything like this before; and I gave him back his bag and arm.
We shook hands (left-handed, obviously), and introduced ourselves.
His name was Frank.
©Wade Ozeroff 2012