The wind is crisp.
Which is a nice way of saying that it is fucking cold outside. Rudely cold, considering the mild winter we have had this year. I zip the collar of my winter coat up all the way to the top and snuggle down into it as I leave my apartment, and then shove my hand deep in my pocket; the other hand holds Ella’s leash.
Ella seems unfazed by the crisp air despite her short fur. It is sunny and bright and she is a dog and we are going for a walk around the park; she could not be happier.
I, on the other hand, feel like life is a bit “crisp” as well. This week was hard for a lot of reasons, and I feel like I am on the cusp of… something. I am not quite sure what, but I feel things shifting. Apparently this is 30.
Today, I got up and said enough. Take control of your own happiness, I scolded myself. And so I got up and bundled up and headed out to the park with Ella.
She trots along ahead of me, sniffing here, sniffing there. Bouncing along happily. When we break free of my shady side street the sunlight warms my face and my mood lifts instantaneously – golden happiness raining down from the heavens.
The park is empty. It is just Ella and me and a flock of geese that Ella finds quite exciting. It is quiet by Chicago standards. I breathe in and exhale slowly, blowing the air out through my mouth, my stress and anxiety a misty cloud that I watch float upward and away.
Ella and I round a bend. My eyes range ahead and stall on what appears to be a person crumpled on the side of the path about a hundred feet ahead of us. I still, immediately nervous, and squint.
I think it is a man.
It is definitely a man.
I stop, my heart pumping a bit – fight or flight, fight or flight it beats. The path I am on branches to the right just ahead of me, and I battle internally with myself.
What if he needs help?
What if he is dead?
What if he was shot?
What if he is on drugs?
Slowly, I turn and take the branch to the right.
And I immediately feel guilty. After 50 feet, I stop again and turn around.
It is definitely a man, lying crumpled on the side of the path in Humboldt Park at 10 AM on a Sunday morning. Humboldt is known for being seedy; it is entirely possible he was shot or OD’d and is dead.
Inside, my flight response screams for me to turn and walk away. And I want to. And for a moment I almost do.
But if I do, I am not the person I want to be. He could need help.
And so I walk slowly, tentatively back down the path toward the man on the ground. Ella bounces along ahead, oblivious to the moment. We slow as we draw near. Ten feet away we stop.
The wind blows through the grass chillingly. The man lays twisted, legs splayed awkwardly, face upward. His face and hands are exposed to the air and look waxy. I am not quite sure what that means, but I feel instinctively like it is can’t mean anything good.
For the longest moment nothing moves. Not me, not Ella, not the man.
And then his chest rises.
He is breathing.
Relief floods me and I am unfrozen. Cautiously, I take a step forward. And then another. And another.
For a moment I consider speaking; I know I should tap him…wake him up… make sure he is ok. But I cannot bring strength to my voice. Instead, I look him over one last long time. No bullet holes; he is still breathing. I walk away.
I am not proud of that.
Unfortunately, Chicago gives you ample opportunities to be a… good neighbor? Weekly, I pass someone slumped over in an alley or a doorway or against a wall. And I wonder – are they ok? Are they dead? Should I offer to help? By not, does that make me weak?
As people, we are the sum of our actions. You can only be strong, and honest, and good if that is how you live your life. Sunday, I could not muster the courage to be the person I want to be.
I will wonder every day if that man in the park ended up OK.