The first human voice I heard on New Year’s Day was a cry for help.
I live in an apartment complex which looks, especially in winter, like a Siberian outpost. The walls are bricked high, the single balcony black iron and glass, the outdoor lights flat and harsh. A playground, a few trees, and some potted herbs are situated in the courtyard as a clumsy acknowledgement of the building’s human purpose, but they are incongruous, like flower petals sprinkled over the treads of a tank. The hallways are bright and sterile, almost forensic in their lack of warmth. Despite its starkness, though, I’ve liked living here. Until very recently my friend A lived across the hall from me, and though her moving away diminished the welcome of the place, I still find solace in the proximity of other people. I’m very much a loner, and yet the nearness of human activity — even of strangers — robs the occasional loneliness of some of its sting.
I left that morning to walk down to Clingman Cafe, where I like to have coffee and do some reading as the day begins. I heard the cry echoing through the hallways. I thought at first that it was someone still drunk, bellowing outside someone’s locked door. It pissed me off. I started down the hall to tell whoever it was to shut the hell up, that there were people who lived here and to have some goddamn respect. But as I got closer I realized that it was a call of distress.
One of the tenants is an older black man paralyzed from the waist down. I often see him in the foyer of the building, either waiting for someone in particular or, like me, finding some steadying peace in the flow of strangers coming into and out of the building. My guess is that he’s in his late fifties or early sixties, maybe 300 pounds. I knew, before rounding the corner and seeing his open door, that it was him.
He was lying on the floor by his open door, calling out for help. His wheelchair was across the room, by his window. He had dragged himself to the door, a process which must have taken a long time and which left him clearly exhausted. “I fell,” he said. A little sob escaped him. He blinked away tears, frustrated and ashamed.
I put my hand on his shoulder and told him it’s okay, I’ll get you back in your chair. I wondered how long he had been lying there. My apartment is on the other side of the building, and I’d been awake for an hour or so before leaving. There were doors, though, lining each hallway. His voice had echoed loudly. On this side of the building, anybody would have been able to hear him. Where were they?
I maneuvered his wheelchair over to him and leaned over to take him under his arms. He kind of laughed. “You won’t be able to do it yourself,” he said.
I tried anyway. He was right. He’s a big man, but it isn’t just fat. He’s dense with muscle too, as I discovered when I felt his upper body. This was going to be impossible without help. I told him to hang tight, I’d be right back. He nodded. He’d regained his composure by now.
I went up and down the hallways, knocking on door after door on all three stories of the building. There was no sign of human life. No music, no footsteps behind the doors, no mutter of a television set or clink of dishes. The whole building seemed deserted. I had all but given up before someone finally opened his door to me. I told him what happened. “Yeah, I heard someone, but I thought it was just somebody drunk,” he said. He came down to help me, and together we got him back in his chair. I stayed and helped him find his phone, made sure he was situated. I gave him my phone number so he could call me if something like that happened again.
None of which is special. Any reasonable human being would have done the same. What struck me, though, was that there had been no one around. Even accounting for the fact that it was early on New Year’s Day, and that some people would be sleeping off the previous night’s binge; or that there are people who really will not extend a hand to help another person in distress (I’m reminded of Harlan Ellison’s “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” here); somebody would have heard him. Somebody would have come.
Since then I’ve been paying more attention to the building. Coming home at night, I notice how many dozens of windows are dark. I noticed how many doors I never see opened. How many faces I used to see that I don’t anymore. Yesterday I came home from work and there was one child in the playground, busying herself with some mysterious, singular game, the first gusts of the evening’s snow whirling in the air around her.
The building feels abandoned.
My apartment is clean, and warmly lit. Mia is home now, so there is life in it again. I cook food for her, and when she goes to bed I write in the lamplight by my bed, and then I read, and finally sleep. It’s a peaceful place, and I’m glad for it.
But I’m suddenly more conscious of its isolated nature. The faceless companionship I felt with my neighbors is cast into doubt. I wonder now how many are there at all. I wonder about the implied human contract I have been counting on, and which the old man in the wheelchair was also counting on. The contract that assures us of aid from strangers in the face of calamity, the contract that comforts our loneliness with the simple closeness of other human beings.
One of the most affecting ghost stories I know is Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s film Kairo, or Pulse. It is, at its heart, about loneliness and isolation. About the quiet disappearance of each isolated soul. I still can’t watch it without feeling a profound sadness, a grievous disquiet. It seems prophetic to me, as though something in the world is revealing itself to us.
When I walk through this depleted building, hearing in memory the old man’s echoing cry for help, I feel that disquiet again. Our links to each other are so tenuous. The love we have for each other, or even the belief we have that we are noticed, recognized to be alive, is all that keeps us from the abyss.
I’m writing this in my room, in front of my window. The blinds are up, and snow is blowing outside. There’s a train yard across the street. Nothing is moving there. Everything is still.