Once a month, I have tea with a Westside neighbor. Like so many relationships in New York City, ours evolved from a chance encounter on the street. Unlike so many others, a 60-year age difference and an ambulance are involved.
While walking down Ninth Avenue last winter, I was startled by the blaring horn of a moving bus. Up ahead, I saw the reason for the honk: a white-haired woman was trying to cross too much street in too little time. In a panic, she was losing her balance.
I sprint toward her and in the beam of bus headlights, her bags and cane and legs splay in different directions. She goes down headfirst, a millisecond before the bus swerves. Blood has spattered the asphalt when I lift her—shaking but conscious—toward the safety of the
"You’re gonna be OK," I whisper. Sitting behind her for support, I elevate her bleeding head and a crowd starts to gather.
"Can someone please block oncoming traffic?" I call. A man wearing a hat steps into the street and extends his arms, scarecrow-style.
I make eye contact with a 20-something hipster girl and mime the sign of a phone with my hand. "Call 911," I mouth. She nods and pulls out her cell.
"I’m sorry," says the injured woman in my arms. "I thought I had the light, but then I saw the bus—and fell on my face."
"Well, I fall all the time," I say, lightly. "My name’s Tré. What’s yours?"
"Phyllis," she said. "I live just across the street."
A man’s voice chimes in, asking if he can do anything. "Yes,” I answer. “Can you reach into my purse for the package of Kleenex and hold it to her head?"
Another man—who I recognize as neighborhood celebrity Ethan Hawke—hands me one half of Phyllis’ broken glasses. "Thank you," I say. "Can you try to find the other half for her?" Ethan shifts the young child in his arms and scans the street as another man steps into the scene.
"Phyllis? Is that you?"
"Larry!" she exclaims.
"Are you her neighbor?" I interrupt.
"I’m a friend—what happened?"
"I fell on my face," she repeats.
"Phyllis," I said. "Do you want Larry to take your groceries to your building?"
"No," she says, firmly. "I’ll take them myself. Where’s my cane?"
I tighten my arms around her and find her ear. "Your cane is right here," I whisper, "but you’re bleeding from the head and you might fall if you try to stand. Let’s just stay here until the EMTs arrive."
"EMTs? I don’t want to go to the hospital. I just need"—she starts to struggle—"to get up and go home."
"I understand what you’re saying," I continue. "But once you look in the mirror at home, you’ll realize you need medical attention. So can we skip that step and see what the medics say?"
She ignores me and reaches toward her friend. "Help me up, Larry," she commands. "I need to go home."
"I think it’s better if you wait for the ambulance," he says, softly.
"Phyllis," I say. "Besides your head, does anything else hurt? Your legs or arms?"
"No, I just fell flat on my face."
"Can you tell me how old you are and if you have any medical conditions?"
"No medical conditions,” she replies. “But I’m 94 and if you can avoid it, don’t ever get as old as me."
When the ambulance appears, our human traffic barrier steps aside and Ethan hands me the missing half of Phyllis’ glasses. I introduce Phyllis to the medics and recite the basic information she’s given me. Questions are asked and answered before she is lifted onto a stretcher. Except for Larry—who I promise to call later with an update—the crowd of good neighbors has scattered by the time I climb into the ambulance holding Phyllis’ things.
"Based on her wounds, our best bet is Bellevue," the medic announces. "It’s the nearest trauma hospital."
I turn to Phyllis. "Is there anyone you’d like me to call? Maybe someone who should meet us at the hospital?"
She pauses before shaking her head slowly. "I don’t really have any family in the City."
"It’s OK, Phyllis. Tonight I’m your family in the City."
She smiles and asks me what my name is.