Joe observed his body from above. He was totally confused because only moments earlier he and Father Benjamin had entered Skid Row in search of the General. They were walking side by side, Joe with his cane and the father chatting endlessly at him. Then suddenly Joe seemed to be disembodied, somehow floating over the top of his body watching the drama unfold.
The priest held his cell phone up to his ear, and Joe heard the other end of the call as if it were he who was on the phone, and not Father Benjamin.
“Nine-one-one, what’s your emergency?”
“This is Father Benjamin,” the man blurted out. Then the next few sentences rolled off his tongue as one complete word with several syllables. “He’s not breathing. We’re out at Washington and Fourteenth, close to the parish where we work.”
“Okay, sir ... Take a deep breath, please.” The phone crackled in Joe's ear. “What’s the address? Are you outside?” a woman asked.
“Yes, at the base of Skid Row. There isn’t an address. Send an ambulance.” Father Benjamin dropped the phone and began pumping Joe’s chest.
“Sir, sir ... Are you there?” Joe heard the miniature voice yell up from the gutter where the phone lay.
He watched in disbelief as Father Benjamin breathed air into his mouth, pumped on his chest, and scooped up the cell phone in one swift sweep. The muck from the street splattered on the priest’s cheek as he put the phone to his ear. “Yes, yes, I’m sorry. He’s not breathing and please know that this is not a normal call from this area. I'm a priest and he's an addiction counselor. Please send somebody now—Washington and Fourteenth.” Beads of sweat covered the father’s brow.
The priest knelt over Joe’s body while the homeless in the area went about their business as usual, paying no mind to the man and his patient. One old guy stepped over Joe’s legs without a glance, another man eyed Joe’s cane, and a woman lit a cigarette stub from the wrong side while she sat down on the curb to the right of Joe’s feet.
Father Benjamin, in turn, ignored the folks on the street while he worked persistently on the body—Joe’s body. And to Joe’s amazement, from somewhere above his body, he continued to watch his own chest move with the air his friend, the priest, provided.
The man pounded on Joe’s chest. “Breathe, damn it.”
Father Benjamin then wiped his forehead with the back of his hand while he quickly viewed the surrounding area. He seemed to be searching for help, and Joe felt sorry for him as he couldn’t see a single capable person in the vicinity.
After the priest swung his head back down to breathe again—once, twice—for his friend, finally Joe coughed and gasped for air. And at that moment, the floating feeling came to an end. Joe somehow landed flat on his back, startled at his new vantage point. He was now in the scene he’d been viewing from a distance seconds earlier, and he was looking up into the face of Father Benjamin—strange.
Did that just happen? Joe thought to himself. Did I just die?
“Oh, thank God you're breathing.” The priest slumped down on the sidewalk.
“You better have breasts or at the very least a good reason to be kissing me.” Joe gagged and spit, and somehow managed to lift his left eyebrow while he chuckled a little.
“Sorry, just a collar.” Father Benjamin motioned toward his neck.
“What’s that crap on your cheek. Don’t put that near me.” Joe coughed and laughed a little again, all the while leaving one eye open. While he struggled to breathe, the salty taste of blood entered his mouth.
The priest ignored Joe’s comments. He wiped his phone on his pants and quickly punched in some numbers.
“Aaay, you’re not so immaculate now, are you, Father.” Joe motioned with his head toward the father’s now dirty pants and shirt. Oh, how he enjoyed teasing the priest about his manicured hands and perfectly pressed pants.
But Father Benjamin frowned at Joe and focused on the call he was making. This time, Joe only heard one side of the conversation, and the seriousness of the incident finally occurred to him.
“Yes, this is Father Benjamin, again. I’ve got the same emergency at Fourteenth and Washington. One of our counselors is down, and I called you over five minutes ago. Where’s the ambulance?” he demanded.
Joe closed his eyes. He was so tired now ... If he could just sleep for a second ...
“Where are they? I’ve got him breathing, but it’s shallow.” The priest raised his voice to a volume loud enough to rouse Joe from his lethargy.
“No. No.” Joe tried to sit up and immediately fell back to the sidewalk.
“Stay down, please.” With the phone held to his own chest, the priest put his hand on Joe and held him down, then spoke to Joe as he would to a child. “You’re going to the hospital this time. You’re not going to joke your way out of this.”
“We’ve gotta find the General,” Joe slurred. His head was heavy, and his body refused to follow his commands.
The father turned away from Joe and talked into the phone. “He’s slurring now, and not too coherent. No! The man hasn’t been drinking. He’s an alcoholism counselor. As I said before, this isn't a normal call from around here.”
Joe on some level understood the priest’s motive for being so pushy. His friend normally wasn’t so rude. But over the years Skid Row had become one of the most unpleasant areas in Los Angeles for police and emergency personnel to work. Unfortunately, things had become even worse lately, and it could take up to an hour or more to get help into the area.
When Joe coughed up blood, Father Benjamin rolled him on his side. “Come on, come on. What’s taking so long? He’s coughing up blood now.”
Joe’s head pounded, and his lungs burned as he gulped for air and watched Father Benjamin snap his phone shut and stuff it in his pocket.
The priest ran toward the street when the sound of a distant siren began to grow stronger. “Here, here,” Joe heard the priest yell from the middle of the road where he stood waving his arms frantically at the ambulance. Then Joe must’ve dozed off or something because instantly it seemed as if two men jumped out of the vehicle.
A scruffy old bag man walked off with Joe’s cane, the same man who’d been eyeing the cane previously.
“Unbelievable.” The priest ran to Joe’s side yelling, “Hey, you with the cane.”
“Leave it.” Joe grabbed Father Benjamin’s pant leg. “He’s going to use it more than I will. We both know what’s next for me.” Joe closed his eyes and released his friend's leg.
“Okay. As you wish.” The priest turned to the emergency crew and spoke in an efficient, professional manner. “This is Juan Joseph Torres. He’s a counselor at the parish. We were only here for a few minutes when he passed out. He has advanced stage cirrhosis of the liver. He’s been sober over five years, and up until a few minutes ago, he used a cane to get around. I gave him mouth-to-mouth because he wasn’t breathing. It took a few minutes to resuscitate him.”
“Okay, Father. Thank you.” The emergency worker looked so young—as if he were still in high school.
He turned to Joe and spoke loudly while enunciating every syllable. “Mr. Torres, can you answer a few questions?”
The bigger, quiet one put an oxygen mask on Joe and set up a monitor. He kept busy working on Joe while the young one spoke.
“Sure,” Joe answered through the oxygen mask.
“My name is Nick. How old are you, Mr. Torres?” The young one held his pen poised on his clipboard.
“What’s the date, today?” he continued in a loud voice.
“I’m not deaf, Nick. I can hear you,” Joe snapped. “It’s Tuesday, September 10.”
“Who’s the president?”
“Lee something or other.” Joe’s eyes fluttered.
“Are you with me, Mr. Torres?” Joe felt someone push on his cheeks.
“Yes, yes.” His eyes flicked open in response to the pressure. “Easy, please.”