Lunching in D.C.
By Alexandra Moe
Young people in Southeast have an expression for someone who’s slow. “They’re lunching,” they say, meaning, “they’re out of it” or “they’re out to lunch.”
Office workers on their lunch break in Dupont Circle, on the other hand, look like they’re working when they should be out to lunch. Cellphones pressed against ears, thumbs tapping BlackBerrys — it’s a typical street scene in any downtown at noon. With the line blurred between work hours and nonwork hours — who doesn’t check their e-mail when they wake in the morning or answer the phone when they’re out to eat? — it’s perfectly normal to “work” through “lunch” with a wire in your ear.
But at on the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and 18th Street one recent Wednesday, a woman was splayed on her belly between a parking meter and the curb. Her face was blue, and she was gasping for air, her head raised up like a seal’s. A few feet away, beyond a hedge at the Sulgrave Club, a ladies luncheon was just getting out. Valets scurried for keys. Hands shot up for cabs. Stilettos marched past the blue woman on the sidewalk.
It was the sort of moment that can fill you with self-doubt. Were other people taking care of it? Was anyone in charge? Had someone already called the police? There was terror in the woman’s eyes as the crowd went by. Her body was in revolt. She looked like she was dying.
There’s nothing new about the bystander effect, the phenomenon whereby passersby fail to offer help in an emergency. It was used to explain the silence of neighbors when Kitty Genovese was attacked in New York in 1964 and, much closer to home, when more than 150 people walked by Jose Sanchez as he lay dying on the sidewalk in Columbia Heights, counted later on surveillance cameras. In Sanchez’s case, the fact that witnesses’ fears of having their immigration status checked may have contributed to the 20-minute lapse before anyone called the police gives the bystander effect a decidedly 2009 spin.
What was extraordinary about what I saw in Dupont, however, was not the number of heels side-stepping the emergency, their hasty clicks on the concrete like keys pounding on an iMac. It was the woman who threw her purse to the ground and embraced the victim. She brought the stricken woman to her knees, wrapped her coat around her, pulled her close. She held the woman’s cheek to her own and whispered in her ear.
Why was it so jarring to see this connection being made? We have become our jobs, machines of communication, always following up, checking in. A colleague sends me an e-mail at 3 a.m., and I don’t think it’s odd (why not work if you can’t sleep?). We are accessible to beeps at all hours of the day, attuned and ready for them, and we get back to them. But we also fall in the street. We fall at each other’s feet.
“Man overboard!” I wanted to shout, as the fallen woman pawed the sidewalk in the bustling lunch hour. “We have lost one!”
But to whom? The whirl of cabs and chatter. Valets and stilettos and iPhones and missed messages. The city at noon.
A siren rang in the distance; the paramedics were on the way. It was a relief — to go back to the day, to our screens, our world of to-do’s.
The woman in the street, blue, her bag tossed, ankles askew. She shows us who we are. We are gasping humans.
The woman who rushed into the void at Dupont Circle and pulled the stricken woman close knew something animal, something instinctual.
The instinct is still there. But our response time is slow. Our real-time, real-life reflexes are dulled. We’re a beat behind. We’re out of tune. We’re lunching.
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