It would be fifteen minutes until the sixty of us would be allowed to leave the dorm room at the rescue mission, but with early-morning light coming through the windows, I could now see the man to the right of me who had been wheezing for many hours, keeping me from being able to sleep. Actually, there was only a caucasian foot of his that I could see. The rest of him was covered by a blanket, pink in a print of scattered small-child’s toys. The blanket rose and fell, gently, as the man inhaled and exhaled, noisily.
My brothers in this room, crowded with bunk beds, were starting to awaken: a man nearby was talking quietly on his cellphone; the bathroom door was getting pushed open, flashing the room’s bright light on us, and then slamming shut. I felt the need to piss.
I began the process of putting myself in order – to use a urinal, shave, brush my teeth. I made my bed, a lower bunk, #46, a necessary act to reserve it for my next night’s slumber.
Other men began moving around, getting themselves ready for the new day: hopping down from upper berths; slipping past each other in the narrow spaces between beds; straightening sheets and snapping blankets into place. Morning greetings, conversation and laughter overcame the snorting, breathy sounds of men still sleeping.
The man in Bed 48 continued to wheeze.
At the moment designated in the rules read to us each night, Richard, whom, unlike us, is in The Program, a work and religious-education intensive, entered the room, rattling the cowbell in his hand, releasing us to go downstairs to dress and get breakfast and leave. I pointed out my suffering neighbor. “This man’s down,” I said. Richard rang the bell close to the fellow’s head.
On Saturday mornings there’s no bus that stops in front of the Union Gospel Mission, so I carry my heavy duffel bag down Bannon Street and east on North B. A wailing fire truck passes me headed the other way. It’s followed shortly by a wailing ambulance.
The next evening, in the period before ‘lights out’ in the dorm, the man who had the bed to the left of mine, J.B., was a few beds away talking with Milton. On J.B.’s bottom-bunk bed, numbered 44, sat a guy breathing with some difficulty. The guy’s reserved bed was some yards beyond, but it was at bed 44 where his energy flagged and he stopped to sit. Michael, who’s in The Program and formerly worked as a nurse, was with the sick fellow.
“Do you have emphysema?” Michael asked. The guy nodded. “Do you need an ambulance?” The guy was unsure. The mission’s night manager, Bill, was summoned and arrived with his cellphone. “Do you want an ambulance?” The guy nodded. Bill started to dial. The guy changed his mind. Rest is what he needed, he believed. Only some sleep. Michael aided his charge at lying down on his side.
J. B. was disgruntled to lose his lower bunk, but quickly reconciled himself to the situation and took his blanket and moved to the upper bunk that had been reserved for this new, sick guy.
I told Michael the sick fellow now needed a blanket. Michael said he didn’t need one right now – in the still-warm dorm room – but would get him one later when he checked in on the fellow. I asked where Michael could be found if something should happen. He said, “Probably out back, lifting weights.” Fine.
At 10 o’clock, when the lights were switched off, I vowed to try to sleep lightly, to be aware if the sick fellow made any sound of distress. But if he made a sound, I didn’t hear it. I fell into a deep, selfish sleep and only awoke around 2am to find my sick compadre just as he had been: breathing deeply as if his breaths were consciously forced. I got up and gave the poor fellow my yellow cotton blanket. “Rest as best you can, my friend,” I said. I doubt that I was heard.
Without my blanket, I could not keep from being cold in the dorm, but his allowed me to stay alert to anything awry from my neighbor.
At about 4am, the man stirred and I went over to ask if he needed to go to the bathroom. He motioned that he did. He summoned more energy from within himself than I expected and walked and did his business with only directional guidance from me. But when I got him back to his bunk, he collapsed and it took some effort on my part to get his bedclothes aright such that he might rest, warmly.
My neighbor continued with his uneasy sleep as later I and my dozens of brothers did those things to get us out of there and into the brisk day’s air. After a hardy breakfast, walking east on North B, I could see the flashing lights and hear the wails of a fire truck and ambulance coming toward me.
That night, Michael would tell me that he’s seen people in the emphysema-suffering man’s condition in his duties when he was employed as a nurse. The man wouldn’t be alive for long, he told me. “The important thing is that his soul be saved.”
Tom Armstrong is homeless and has been staying at the Union Gospel Mission most nights for the last three months. He is Buddhist.
An ambulance is called to 400 Bannon at a rate of perhaps 50/year. Men get sick at the mission, but most often the emergency calls relate to fights just outside the premises. On the sidewalk just outside the gate, every night there are perhaps forty people sleeping or partying.