After any catastrophic break in routine, what feels remarkable is the everyday normalcy that preceded it. Washington University’s campus was flooded with students again—too soon, too hot for a fresh fall start. Pulling breath through air thick with humidity, I trudged over to Kaldi’s for an iced coffee. The line, widened by horizontal clumps of friends, ran all the way to the door.
Sensitized (read: made paranoid) by the invisible lurk of The Covid, I stepped back and stood in the open doorway, air conditioning escaping. The latest Omicron, I had heard, was morphing into more of a stomach flu, a horror that in my neurotic mind ranks next to discovering a decomposed body in the woods or sleepwalking naked into a Pentecostal church service.
With my head turned to breathe the car fumes instead of the kids’ sweet and possibly germ-ridden breath, I missed the young man until he was close, heading for the door with a fixed, glazed look in his eye and one hand pressed against his stomach.
Oh God. He had The Covid, and he was about to puke.
I jumped back, moving as far away as possible. He charged out the door, and I turned forward again, not wanting to embarrass him. (No, that is a lie; I did not want to see him throw up. Did I mention I am phobic?) Clammy in sympathy, I tried to focus on signs about lavender chai and hibiscus-soaked tea and—
“Does anybody know the Heimlich?” came a loud yell from behind me. “Somebody’s choking! Hurry!”
A good soldier when nothing more is asked of me, I yelled even louder to the full café, “Heimlich!” They are all buried in their devices, I thought, fear sharpening my usual gloomy assumption. Remember when people let that girl be raped in New York because they did not want to get involved? Now people are so stuck in their private worlds, they do not even register the screams. I will have to do the Heimlich. I never quite grasped how to do the Heimlich. Will I kill him if I jab a rib into his heart?
I was too late. A young woman had run at top speed from the back of the café and was already outside, capably administering the Heimlich on a guy who was a foot taller and fighting to resist her. While I was busy giving up on the next generation, they had been responding to the problem.
“I’m terrible at medical stuff,” I muttered, abashed, to the young woman in front of me.
“Me, too,” she said cheerfully, “but she’s premed. She knows what to do.”
After a few harsh, raucous coughs, the young man shook off his rescuer and walked back into the café, still looking glazed. Then he turned and walked out again, muttering “I guess it was….”—something I could not hear.
We (the right pronoun, crisis having forged us into an instant community) watched him go, squinting to make out his expression and movements. Someone had wisely told the Kaldi’s staff to call 911, and we wanted to make sure he was okay before they canceled the call.
“He probably doesn’t want all the fuss,” the woman in front of me said, pure kindness in her voice. I nodded, wondering what it would take to convince someone in a vulnerable, out-of-control moment that nobody was judging; that more than a dozen strangers were now pulling for him, worrying about him, ready to do anything that might help him. Sometimes we get scared of one another for no reason.
Take me, so knee-jerk terrified of contagion that I made the wrong assumption and backed away instead of stepping forward to help him. I had arrived at that coffeehouse afraid of other people, conditioned by two and a half years of health alerts and a lively selfishness. Then I had segued into cynicism, convinced by all the blather (my own included) that people have lost awareness of one another. The days when you could yell, “Is there a doctor in the house?” or “Somebody help!” seemed over, because how can you feel an immediate sense of connection when you are hypnotized by your avatar’s experience in a virtual world?
But people come up for air. They have not lost all common sense. There is plenty of altruism and compassion and interpersonal awareness still warming the world. Instead of sidling away from strangers, as I did when I arrived, I now sensed them as a giant trampoline, joined into something larger than any individual and able to catch any of us if we fell.
If, that is, we allow it. The young man jogged across the street, making it just as the Walk light turned red. We breathed a collective sigh of relief; he had to be okay if he could move that fast. Across the street, he paced back and forth, waiting for the next light. A guy in line said softly, “It could have been a panic attack.”
That would explain why he had resisted. (Though someone else had a great explanation about choking cutting off air to the brain and making you struggle.) The Heimlich had produced a nice healthy cough, a squall of rebirth, but someone else observed that no food had flown out. I nodded at the guy smart enough to think of the panic attack. A psych major, maybe? None of these kids looked older than nineteen, but they were armed with knowledge and caring enough to probe for alternative explanations—and they rejected shame.
This is why we need one another.
I ordered by rote, still shaken, worrying about a stranger whose fate now mattered to people he did not even know. Was he breathing easier? Was the pressure start-of-year stress, or a morsel so tiny and trapped no one saw it, or maybe a congenital heart condition, or a problem none of us had thought of? And would he remember this afternoon with a hot blush of shame and hope he never saw any of us again (likely), or could he somehow be infused with the ease it took me half a lifetime to acquire? Please let him realize no one was laughing, I begged the universe. No one thought he was anything but human. And while being human mandates moments of distress, angst, misery, and self-consciousness, it can also pull a group of strangers into a rescue team, draw them close to a stranger’s welfare, and reassure an old cynic that even in a coolly digital universe, humanity still prevails.
That is a reassurance I will need another million or so times before I die. Its grace could persuade people to go to the doctor when they are ill, rather than stay home getting stubbornly sicker because they are afraid of having to be taken care of. A friend needs a cane but will not use it, cloaking herself in an absurd dignity that deems it less pathetic to need to cling to walls and cars than to be seen with an old person’s stick. Tons of people will slink away rather than ask a stranger if they can borrow a phone, a quarter, or directions. We have heard so much about the collapse of community that we need a giant trust exercise: lean back, everybody, and know that strangers will lock arms to catch you.
“We live in a perpetually burning building,” Tennessee Williams said, “and what we must save from it, all the time, is love.”
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.