My first thought was that he must be very hot. Black jeans, black denim jacket, black baseball cap. And sitting in a black wheelchair, in full sun. The whiteness of his big sneakers and of the T-shirt visible through the open front of his jacket was dazzling. There was no one with him. Despite the location—near the intersection of two busy streets in the heart of Boston’s hospital district—there was a pool of emptiness on the sidewalk around him.
It was something about the motions of his arms, the tilt of his head that caught my attention as I sat in traffic across the road, headed the opposite way. It was the sudden shift from determination to angry frustration. He threw up his arms in a gesture of defeat, his hands shot out of his sleeves, and it was then that I realized he had been using the thick material to protect his palms as he grasped the inner, metal rim of the wheels. Now he tried again, this time applying his bare hands to coax the wheelchair to move forward. It resisted. I noticed that one of the smaller front wheels had somehow swiveled to be perpendicular to his desired trajectory, no doubt pushed out of place by the uneven brickwork of the sidewalk.
The light was still red, but I was two lanes of traffic in. I could not get out to help him. There was nowhere for my car to go, nowhere to park it. I looked around to see if there was anyone nearby to whom I could call out. Still no one. This quiet moment of despair was taking place in a near vacuum. Only I was witnessing it. A man pushed open a door to a storefront just a few feet away from the wheelchair, then quickly retreated as though he had forgotten something. The man in the chair gently placed one of his feet on the ground, tried to exert some force, then grimaced. He folded his arms and sat back. What the fuck am I supposed to do? his body asked.
The light turned, the cars in front of me moved ahead. I drove slowly through the intersection, scanning the pedestrians gathered at the corner, hoping to find one who would hear me if I shouted “Could you help the guy in the chair back there, please?” A young couple embraced. A doctor in scrubs pulled out his beeper. A woman gesticulated and spoke loudly into her phone. A frazzled mother pulled her toddler from the edge of the sidewalk. The car behind me honked, and then I was a hundred feet past the wheelchair. I considered pulling over in the no-stopping-anytime zone, but the urgent siren of an ambulance sounded, and I was swept into the motion of the cars hurrying forward and to the side to avoid it.
I continued on my way, flooded with memories of personal moments of helpless, angry frustration. I wished that, if nothing else, the man had at least known that someone saw his predicament, someone wanted to help. I wondered if this was a temporary confinement, or the beginning of a long journey. I figured he was in his thirties. Later, driving up a street in Cambridge, I sat at another light. Two slim adolescent girls in short shorts and T-shirts walked past me in the sunshine, laughing, their shiny straight hair dancing on their backs. The pedestrian signal started its countdown from ten and they pranced across the street in front of me like fillies.