As soon as I sit down on the stoop in front of my friend’s house, my body sags. And not just because of the arduous climb up this ridiculously steep hill. And not just because halfway up the hill my four-year-old daughter Colette collapsed in mutiny, refusing to take another step and I had to lug her the rest of the way on my back. And not just because my friend is late and we’re stuck here waiting as the four p.m. San Francisco fog rolls in, kicking up gritty wind and making the temperature plummet. But because I’m depressed, and every time my body stops moving, melancholia drops anchor.
I try to put on a good face for my kid, but I’m failing. I’ve been this way for months now. When I talk, my voice sounds hollow and far off. When I walk, I drag my feet. When I wake up in the morning, I feel pummeled by the specter of yet another day. And I’ve developed an unsympathetic inner-monologist who narrates my activities, “You’re so depressed, even this donut can’t make you happy. You should probably just kill yourself; nobody would miss you.” It’s as if I’ve split into two people, a middle-aged-sad-sack and a middle-school-mean-girl, and I don’t want to be either of them.
My friend lives at the top of a street so traumatically narrow and steep, drivers, not knowing it’s a dead end, have to back down the hill – sobbing – because there’s no place to turn around. I know, because that happened to me once, which is why I walked here today.
This is Treat Street, a sturdy little avenue that runs across San Francisco, through the Mission District, and ends at Precita Park. But if you go around Precita Park, you’ll find this one last alpine block of Treat, at the top of which I now sit with my ‘C’-shaped spine, aching and navel-gazing. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a man approaching and I think, “Oh, great. Now what?” This is what you think when you’ve been a pedestrian in San Francisco for too long. Eight percent of men who approach you on the street are seeking directions to Fisherman’s Wharf, but the other 92 percent want to weave a sorry-ass tale that insults your intelligence before asking for money, or trying to touch your boob. And now that I have a kid to protect, I like strange men even less.
“Por favor. Call 911,” the man says. “Finger. Cut.” He authenticates his succinct claim by holding up his blood-streaked fore-arm. With his left hand, he is clenching a wad of handkerchief around his right pinky.
I feel certain this is a scam and want to tell him to piss off, but I’ve never seen this bloody forearm ploy before, and I don’t know how it plays out. “No. Have. Phone.” I say, as if English is also my second language.
“Have phone,” he says and dips his chin toward his front pants pocket.
I don’t want to stick my hand in there, but I have no proof this is a con job, and the blood does look real, so I gesture for my kid to stay on the stoop and I move toward him. Maybe there isn’t even a pocket in there, I think, maybe it’s just a hole and I’m going to touch his penis. Or maybe as soon as my hand is inside he’ll snatch my wrist and steal my money, kidnap my kid, and touch my boob.
In his pocket, I find a flip-phone. I slip it out and step back out of arms’ reach.
I stare at the phone. “I don’t know how to use it.” Which is true. Even though it’s 2004, I have never used a cellphone before.
He grits his teeth and lifts his face to scan the street for anyone else – besides this stupid lady – to help him. He’s shit out of luck, this street is deserted and I’m all he’s got. He takes a deep breath, steps toward me and points with the pinky of his good hand at the button marked “talk.” As I press the nine, the one, and the one, I think, Finally! I’ve always wondered when I would get to call 911.
The operator answers and after I give her the address I say, “I’m here with this guy, and he says he cut his finger.”
“Is it bad?” the operator asks me, being a better person than I, she doesn’t immediately doubt the veracity of his claim.
“Is it bad?” I ask him.
“It’s bad,” I tell her.
“Did he cut it off?”
Now there’s a question I hadn’t thought of. “Did you cut it off?”
“Si.” He sighs, relieved someone finally understands the gravity of his situation.
“Yes. He cut it off.”
“Where is it?” the operator asks.
“Where is it?” My voice goes so high and tight my throat burns.
“Upstairs,” he says and points with his elbow to the house next door.
“Go get it,” she instructs me.
Oh. “O.K.,” I say.
I admonish my kid, “Do not move a muscle,” and I leave her sitting on the stoop as I follow the man toward the house.
Inside, we are immediately greeted by a staircase, which is missing all of its treads. I follow the man up the stairs, balancing on narrow vertical strips of wood, narrating to the 911 operator, “We have entered the premises and are ascending the stairs.” We get to the kitchen and I see a table saw, a stack of lumber, and an arc of blood spatter across the ceiling, but I don’t see the finger.
“We are attempting to locate the finger,” I say, because even in an emergency, silence over a phone line is awkward.
I thought a severed finger would jump right out at me, but I cannot find it. I lift up each foot and look underneath to be sure I’ve not already stepped on it. I’m getting that jumpy, tight-shouldered feeling like when you’ve lost sight of a spider that was on your ceiling a moment ago.
“Do you see it?” I ask him.
He points. With his elbow. At his own finger.
The finger lies disenfranchised on the floor beside the table saw, drained of color, and curved slightly. It looks ashamed of itself, hunched over like a scolded dog. I have to pick it up but I don’t have any rubber gloves or tongs so I rip a paper towel from the roll and lay it over the finger, pinching delicately, the way you might pick up a harmless but terrifying bug, a bug you wouldn’t want to crush but you wouldn’t want to see escape and run up your arm either.
“We have secured the finger,” I tell the operator. Apparently, my perfectionism has been triggered and I discover a latent desire to be the best 911 caller she’s ever had.
“Hang tight. The ambulance is on its way.”
I cradle the swaddled finger back down the skeletal stairs, being careful not to squeeze too hard. I don’t want to collapse all the delicate little doo-dads at the business end because I’m assuming they’ll need those when they reattach it.
When we get outside I see that Colette is still sitting where I left her and it’s still daylight, which surprises me, because it felt like we’d been on our finger-recovery mission for hours.
We sit on the stoop, and wait for the ambulance, which we can hear approaching in the distance. I angle away from the man and open the paper towel to double-check I haven’t dropped or crushed the digit. I feel guilty and voyeuristic looking at it in front of him; it seems so naked and private. It’s still there, weightless, ‘C’-shaped, remorseful-looking.
We listen to the siren growing louder and louder as the ambulance approaches, and just when we’re expecting to see the flashing lights at the bottom of Treat Street, the siren begins to grow quieter and quieter, as if the ambulance has turned around and is driving away. The man looks at me with the whites of his eyes showing all the way around.
This is on me.
“Sounds like they’re going the wrong way. Are they leaving?” I ask the operator.
After a brief silence she returns with, “They couldn’t find you. The address does not exist.”
I have a realization. I sit up straight. “No! Tell them to come back and drive around the park! We’re on the other side of the park. Drive around the park!”
I feel like a real boss.
“It’s O.K.,” I tell the man. “They’ll be here soon.”
I can see all the fear he’s been staving off overtake him. A tear appears on the rim of his eye where it balances for a second before it spills out and runs down his cheek. I don’t know what he’s thinking, but I’m thinking, What if he has a wife and kids depending on him and he can’t go back to work? What if he doesn’t have insurance? Or isn’t in the country legally?
“You’re going to be O.K.,” I say.
He looks dubious.
“You are very strong,” I tell him, and I put my free hand on his saw-dust covered back.
He starts to speak and a bubble of saliva stretches across his open mouth, then pops. He wipes his eyes on his shoulder and I wipe mine on the back of my hand. (Then I open the paper towel again to double check I haven’t dropped the finger.)
“Gracias,” he says.
“De nada. Esta no problemo,” I say, emboldened enough to risk mangling a little bit of my middle-school Spanish. I rub my free hand in a circle on his back.
The ambulance arrives. They hustle him into the back and they’re off.
Colette and I are watching the ambulance backing down the hill when I realize I’m still holding the finger. I run after them, waving my arm and screaming, “The finger! Stop! The finger!” I hand off the finger to the paramedic and watch as they drive away.
The rest of the day is spent replaying the event in vivid detail to every person who will listen, including my friend who arrives home moments after the ambulance turns off her street, a number of strangers on the bus, and the waitress at Pasta Pomodoro who brings me the wine I dramatically request. “You had to pick it up!” she says. “I could never do that!”
And I say, modestly, “Of course you could,” because of course she could, anybody could, and they would. Still, in that moment, it was me. I did it. I helped that guy. I held his finger. Me.
Throughout the evening, I find I can’t stop worrying about the man. I feel invested, but I don’t even know his name. I decide to call the hospital.
“Hi,” I say, trying to sound humble, “I helped a guy who cut off his finger, and I don’t even know his name, but I’m wondering if he came to your hospital.”
The nurse says, “Kim?”
“Ye-ees?” I say, feeling mystified.
“It’s me. Katanya.”
Katanya is the mother of one of my daughter’s classmates. We barely know each other. In fact, I didn’t even know she worked at the hospital. I find it miraculous that she recognizes my voice.
She says, “His name is Jose Ramos, and he’s waiting for surgery. Would you like to leave a message?”
“No. I don’t want to bug him. I just wanted to be sure he was O.K.”
Just before we hang up she whispers, “Remind me to tell you something…‘funny.’”
The next morning, I wake up into the lull that follows a meaningful day. I feel restless and let down. I don’t know what to do with myself. I decide to call the hospital again.
This time I’m put through to Jose’s room. “How was the surgery?”
“No surgery,” he says. “No enough blood.”
Whatever that means.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I say, picturing his little guilty bloodless finger. “Do you need anything?”
Jose says, “No, gracias,” and then launches into Spanish. I can’t understand what he’s saying, but I can hear in the tone of his voice the same letting-your-guard-down feeling I feel. Which makes sense. It’s impossible to carry around a person’s chopped-off body part and not feel a little camaraderie. I presume that’s true for the carry-ee as well.
I get off the phone hastily, because the language barrier is getting awkward, and because I don’t want to milk the situation, even though, deep down, I do. I would like to go down there with some flowers and maybe see if he needs me to fill a prescription at CVS or dry his tears. Anything to make my spine go straight again and give my hands something to do.
Later that day, as I am pushing my kid on the tire swing at the park I remember that old – allegedly Chinese – proverb about how if you save someone’s life you are responsible for them for the rest of their life. Which never made sense to me before. Shouldn’t the person who got saved owe a perpetual debt and not the other way around? But, today, I get it. It’s a great honor to help someone in need, even if all you did was push three buttons on a phone and carry a couple ounces of former human for fifteen minutes. I want to keep doing it. I am invested in Jose Ramos.
I find I can’t get back to normal, no matter how hard I try – and, frankly, I’m not trying very hard because my old normal was awful, all that sitting sadly in one room or another, staring into space, imagining how much better off the world would be without me—why would I want to go back to that? I’d rather sit around obsessing over Jose and his grey pinky.
A few days later, still restless, I run into Katanya at the gymnastic studio where both our kids take classes. We are sitting crisscross in our stocking-feet on the edge of the big blue mat watching our kids fail to do cartwheels. “What was that…‘funny’ thing you wanted to tell me?”
“Oh, yeah!” She leans way in and whispers, “They lost the finger.”
“Apparently, somebody threw away the paper towel it was wrapped in when they were cleaning up. When you called, everybody was out back digging through the dumpster. By the time they found it, it was too late to reattach it. He could sue. He totally has a case.”
I go straight home and open the phone book. There are about 50 Jose Ramoses. I call them all, “Hola, is this the Jose Ramos who cut off his finger?” None are. I search for him on the internet, but that proves fruitless too. I am outraged on his behalf, but mostly I feel robbed of another chance to be of service.
Out of desperation, I start keeping a lookout for other people in need of rescuing. I push a stalled car out of the road, I aid a disoriented cyclist when her bike gets clipped by a car, I flag down a security guard in a lobby when I see an elderly man stumbling and clutching his chest, I adopt a dog, I start teaching my kid to read, I water the plants. But the second my hands go idle depression climbs on my back, bends me like an overburdened Sherpa, and dribbles poison in my ear, “Too bad you can’t save yourself.”
But, could I save myself? I wouldn’t know how.
I’m standing in the kitchen trying not to inhale the powdered cheese I am stirring into the macaroni when I posit the question, “What if you met you on the street? Would you help her?”
“How would I know she needed help?”
“Then, yes, of course I would help her.”
“Then why haven’t you?”
And like that, the switch is flipped. I surrender. I ask. I make an appointment with my doctor to get a prescription for anti-depressants.
That’s the kind of thing a hero does. A hero saves people. Even people too helpless to ask.
Then one day, a month or two after the finger incident, I realize I have completely forgotten to be depressed. I’ve been so busy playing the role of local hero that I’ve neglected to drag my feet and stare into space and fantasize about the world without me. I notice that donuts taste good, and my voice sounds normal, and when my body stops moving, melancholia no longer drops anchor.
More than a decade has passed since Jose’s accident. Periodically I put the search terms “Jose” plus “Ramos” plus “finger” into Google on the off-chance that he’s looking for me. I wish I could see him again, to see how he’s getting on without his finger. But more importantly, to thank him, because when he lost his finger, he saved my life.