On a late summer’s Saturday afternoon one expects life to be as straightforward as going shopping, getting home, cooking, eating, and the rest of it.
I crossed 6th Avenue on 23rd street, homeward bound, and walked unusually slowly towards my apartment building, located mid—way between 6th and 7th Avenues. The slow pace was due to my sandal strap having broken whilst I was in the village. I could still walk in it, and as I was in no hurry and the weather was pleasant and disliked the train and didn’t fancy splurging on a taxi and I could use the light exercise as I hadn’t felt up to working out that evening I thought I’d just strut along and get home whenever.
About ten – fifteen paces away from my building I thought I saw an enormous flash of light immediately to my right. In a split second – literally a noise such as one I would never have believed was possible took over the whole world. In that same split second I did not feel my feet on the ground because they were not; When I was aware of them again they were on the pavement together with my knees, my wrist and my forearm. I think I had, unwisely, tried to break my fall onto the pavement from what felt like a mountaintop with my hand.
For a very brief moment I thought I heard absolutely nothing, as I tried to tell myself that I was perfectly alright and had perhaps simply tripped. That brief moment gave way to what appeared to be very distant sounds of sirens, screams, car horns and breaking glass. I got onto my feet shakily, still telling myself that I was alright, and reached for my keys in my handbag, which had remained under my arm through it all. I felt the keys, and pulled them out – by this time I was, somehow, in front of my building. I wasn’t quite there when the noise sounded, but there I was, now. I started to select the right key, and realized I could not see the keys at all. I reached to see if my eye glasses were in place – they were, and in one piece. Wondering why I could not see my keys if I had them in my hands and my eye glasses were not broken, I reached to check the specs again, which is when I felt the stickiness, and the silent thuds of the blood onto my other hand.
I felt no pain, and stood still for a moment, utterly confused. Then, suddenly, there was noise. Sirens, screaming, horn-hooting, screeching, glass. I tried turning around to face the direction of the noise and felt a pang in my knee. My wrist began to hurt. I’d thought I couldn’t see well because it was simply too dark where I was. I saw flashing lights and what seemed like ghosts moving in slow motion. I blinked, tried to rub my eyes and only came up with more blood and no vision in my right eye. At this point I began to see a bit of real-time life through my left eye. I think that was when I realized I might be hurt, and perhaps should make my way to hospital. More sticky red liquid poured down my cheek as I tried to make my way into the street, screaming for help.
I knew I would not make it to the hospital on my own. I shouted for help. A man walked up to me, said something and led me away, gently. Next, I was in an ambulance. I asked the attendant – nurse, perhaps – if my eye was still in its proper place. “Yes”, she replied. “Are you sure?” She hesitated. The hesitation troubled me, as did her next response: “don’t worry”. All I could say was “alright, I shall not worry”. More blood on my hands. They hurriedly covered that eye, and my attendant friend ordered me to close the good one. I obeyed immediately. They changed the dressing in record time because it had got soaked already. I stopped worrying that I was dressed in all-white. Bugs! I asked friend why they couldn’t stop the bleeding. “We’re trying”, she said. Bark: “keep that other eye closed, whatever you do. Just keep it closed”. Some person interrupted this intense communication with a rather piercing voice: move all the other people out into other ambulances – this one is urgent. We have to take her in NOW!” Turned out I was the “urgent” case. Oh dear. Not good. I thought I heard someone protest. Shrilly was back: “It’s the eye lady, top priority. We have to take her now!” They didn’t. It seemed half an eternity before I felt the vehicle move – unless I hadn’t noticed the movement until then.
Good. Breathe. En route. Here we go. I asked Friend if the bleeding seemed to have eased – they’d changed pads again. She said it would stop eventually. Good enough for me. Then my universe got shattered when she asked: “Do you believe in God?”
Die, I thought. How was I supposed to take in and interpret what she had just said?
I gave my soul to God at that moment and sat back. And prayed.
I don’t know when / how we got to the hospital – I don’t know if I passed out at some point, but I remember the stretcher and the swarm of police and detectives. No Doctors. I told the detectives to leave me alone even as my humble stretcher neighbor spilled her guts out to him. I’d have none of it, and he left.
The FBI’s were more pleasant. After an eternity eye doccy came; more blood oozing out. The exam, rather bloody, must have taken 2 hours. Then Cat Scan, X’Rays, pins, needles, IV, the lot. EVERYTHING. The eye doccy was brilliant. Gentle as Jesus and even more soft- spoken. Didn’t have a beard, though, so definitely not Jesus, but close enough for me.
In the end of it all I got patched up neatly; My eye received a host of stitches and after they’d let me rest a bit and signed papers and finally received a drink of water after eight hours, I asked them nicely if I could, perhaps, have a fresh t-shirt and any semblance of shorts or trousers to replace my blood-stained clothes. I might have been expected to leave wearing those clothes. At any rate, the X-Large grey Sweats and LL navy blue t-shirt felt divinely comfortable as my dear friend Sylvia, who’d stayed at Bellevue with me through the night, walked me to the street to look for a taxi, only to fall into the waiting arms of The New York Times.
The police wouldn’t let me onto my street; my eyes pounded inside my head along with my entire head inside itself. I felt as if I was reeling from the effects of the anesthesia. I showed the police my Bellevue documents and all the ID they needed to see. One fool of a police woman boasted, noisily, to her colleagues about how she had succeeded in stopping “this woman” from sneaking through the barricade. Those words felt like a gun shot to me. All I had tried to do was take a step towards the policeman who had taken my papers, asking what his “superior”’s word was. No – they would not let me in – it didn’t matter that my eye would hurt, get infected, get more swollen, turn violet. Their instructions were not to let in anyone so they would not. They’re not paid to use their brains – I should know that. So I turned and walked for four hours. Alone, stumbling. I bought coffee and a tartine at L’Express on Park, and continued to walk.
I attempted another homeward journey, this time via 7th Avenue; a very kind policeman listened to my account and thought I had no business being out in the street; he escorted me to my building.
Next time I shall tell what part my bottles of wine played in the drama. I shall also say what I thought of how the “officials” ignored the victims entirely; how not a strand of attention was paid to them and how all they – the officials – did was pat themselves on the back. They’d done a great job catching the bad guy. All 29 victims had been released. Oh, the police are brilliant, aren’t they? The Mayor is even more brilliant and New York City is simply fantastic.
And I, I sit here with my vision impaired, my right knee wonderfully bruised, my arms scratched, the right side of my face a pitch black sagging sack full of blood and as big as a saucer underneath a blood-shot eye, my professional future – in the short term – uncertain and my head ringing. I am enormously grateful to a few FBI ladies whose display of humanity, kindness and compassion will remain with me.
Helena Ayeh, a native of Ghana, is an Architect who has lived in New York City for more than 25 years and a Chelsea Resident.