A homeless man died on the sidewalk as people passed by. Only one man stopped.
Michael Kingsley fell down on and died on 13th Street, early in the evening of Sun., Feb. 8. He was just across from Macy’s, a few feet north of Chestnut. And nobody stopped to help him.
If they had, an ambulance would have been called. He would have been taken to the hospital. Penicillin could have saved his life.
But nobody stopped. Nobody asked if he was okay. They walked past, on their cellphones, and tried as hard as they could not to look down at the dying man on the street. I know, because I’ve done it myself a million times.
If you don’t make eye contact, maybe they won’t ask you for money. Maybe you won’t notice that they look like someone you used to know. Maybe you won’t have to think about how that could’ve been you, in another life, with a different set of circumstances.
But something about Michael made me notice him. Maybe it was the way his face was pressed against the cold sidewalk that night. Maybe it was the way his body was crumpled on the street. But I looked. And I looked just long enough to notice that it didn’t seem like he was breathing. And I stopped.
Ahead of me, a young woman and her two male friends had already walked past. But when I stopped, she looked back and paused. She and her two friends stood there, looking curiously at me, wondering why I was studying this homeless man on the sidewalk. I mouthed to her: “I think he’s dead ... ”
They came over, and her friends tried yelling at him to ask if he was okay. I knelt down to shake his arm. That’s when I noticed his hands were ice cold.
The 911 call followed. The paramedics came and one of the firefighters respectfully pulled Michael’s coat up over his face to keep people from snapping pictures with their cellphones.
And it was then that I realized I had no choice. There were so many homeless men I’d crossed paths with and avoided looking at so I didn’t have to think about their life in comparison to mine. But now I was compelled to think about the way Michael Kingsley’s life might seem when put up against my own.
It’s all hypothetical, because I never knew him. But I thought about what I know about the lives of people who are homeless: some of them suffering with substance abuse issues, others with mental illness, still others who are victims of mere rough luck. There are so many things in my life I’ve taken for granted. And I started to think about different moments in my life, and in his.
How disappointed I was with my drafty first apartment in Philadelphia when I came to grad school. How dehumanizing it was the first time Michael slept on the sidewalk. How angry I was with the snobby girl who made fun of my worn shoes that first day of class. How humiliated he was the first time someone stepped over his.
How I cursed the plaster walls of my first home for cracking with every picture I hung. How Michael sat without a home on the corner of Broad and Walnut, begging for change. How sad I felt when I turned the key to lock the front door of that house when I sold it two years later. How demeaned he felt the first time he slept in a shelter.
How horrible I felt the last time I was sick, and how disappointed I was that my friends went on with their weekend plans at the Jersey Shore even though I felt like death, curled up on my sofa. How he must have felt the last time he was sick. The medical examiner told me he died of lobar pneumonia, which is a complication of strep throat—an illness I myself have had a dozen times. How scratchy his throat must have been the last time it was infected. How agonizing his pain might have been—too sick to even beg for money for food from the man in the tailored suit or the woman wearing a smart two-piece from Ann Taylor.
How good I felt when I put on the new shirt I was wearing that night to go meet my friends. How awful he felt that afternoon, when he realized that he was actually a lot sicker than he initially thought. How much he longed for someone, anyone, to stop and help him as they glided past and he fell over for the last time on that street corner. And how devastating it must have been when he realized, for the last time, that nobody cared if he lived or died.
Michael Kingsley was 42 years old. He died on Feb. 8, 2009, at 13th and Chestnut, across from Macy’s in Center City. And he was dead for hours before anybody even noticed.
Urban planner Martin Smith is the owner of West215 Design.
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