I had just dropped a conventioneer from North Carolina at the Fillmore Auditorium, when on the sidewalk over to my left I saw a white man down on his knees, in obvious distress, clinging to a lamp post like it was the mast of a sinking yacht. An Asian woman was hurrying toward him, a look of concern on her face, one arm outstretched. I made a U-turn, stopped my cab thirty feet from the man, got out, lowered my wheelchair ramp, and walked over.
Three or four people were beside him now. A young Tibetan-looking fellow had his hand on the white man's shoulder and was murmuring some things I couldn't hear. On the pavement in the circle of light surrounding us, I noticed two plastic bags of groceries from the nearby Safeway.
The man, a big, tall husky guy, appeared to be about 55 or 60a retired logger, I imagined, who'd recently put on some weight. After a life spent humping a chainsaw up and down hills and jumping clear of crashing timber, he now looked beat up, bloated. His hair had gone to strands, his blue eyes were watery, his red, puffy face was in full grimace. Through gritting teeth he said, "If I can just get my leg straight."
I gripped under his armpit. The Tibetan guy and the Asian woman and now two young black men and two more Asian women all grabbed other spots on the white man, and together we gave a big heave. Halfway up, the man reclaimed his own weight and the rest of us relaxed, but suddenly his legs buckled and in spite of our quick snatches at him he crumpled and slid back down the pole onto both knees again.
"Call ambulance!" said one of the Asian women.
A crowd had gathered around us, and a man thrust out a cell phone: "Telefono?"
"No, no," the white man said. "This is not as bad as it looks. It's happened before. If I can get my leg straight everything'll be OK."
"If you can make it to my taxi," I said, "I'll take you wherever you're going."
He shook his head and pointed at the high-rises across Fillmore Street. "I live right there. I just need to get my left knee out straight."
Wordlessly, the two black men grabbed him under his thighs and hoisted him two feet off the ground. The Asian women and I steadied his torso. The Tibetan guy unfolded the man's left leg and a skinny, long-haired white kid who'd suddenly materialized unfolded the right and we all lowered him down onto his buttocks. Sitting up now, with his balky legs finally stretched out in front of him on the sidewalk, he let go of the pole and sighed: "That's a lot better."
No one rushed him.
The novelist Ann Tyler once suggested that if extraterrestrials were to land near a hospital emergency entrance and see all the white-clad attendants rushing out to assist the incoming injured, they would surmise that human beings were the most caring, most loving species in the entire universe.
A moment later the man said, "If I could just stand up..."
Now everyone, including all onlookers, shifted into position as effortlessly as a kaleidoscope being given a simple twist. With five or six of us lined up on either side of him, lifting, the man came right up like a high-speed elevator.
"Oh, yeah," he said. "Oh, yeah."
No one let go until he locked his legs and took a few practice steps. He caught his breath, gathered himself, bent to pick up his groceriesbut a dozen hands beat him to it.
He shuffled off toward his high-rise. The 22-Fillmore swept into the bus stop across the street and the two black guys and the Tibetan trotted after it. The Asian women silently reclaimed their own bags and scattered. I retrieved my cab's wheelchair ramp. On the radio the dispatcher was saying there was a call waiting over in zone 56.