On Sunday, after some appropriate dawdlesomeness (regrettably including bowing out of a sketched-in plan to visit the celebrated Kubota Gardens, bummer) Viv and I ran a furniture errand (about which more later) and ended up at Costco.
It was a the usual monthly weekend visit, part of the fabric of Northwestern (and, increasingly, the nation’s) as long as I have lived here, and it was uneventful as usual.
While walking slowly through the aisles, one of the other people who appeared to be on the same general schedule as us was an older black woman, dressed sharply in a matching blouse-and-miniskirt ensemble, but, I hasten to assure you, not in a lapse of judgment. It looked good on her. She was apparently alone, but appeared jaunty and energetic.
We finished our shopping list at about 4:30, and faced the huge lines that accumulate in the cavernous front at the end of the weekend day. I was happy to stand in line and shuffle slowly forward. Lately, I’ve developed a recurrent sciatic nerve pain that at least affords me the pleasure of amazing jolts of endorphins, which is a nice consolation for the blue-and-white spots that dance in front of my eyes as I walk.
I was vegging in line, vaguely wondering what to make for dinner when an exclamation from my wife followed a quiet thunking sound and a rising susurrus of exclamations prompted me to turn around.
The older woman was cradled in the arms of a young Asian man, in obvious physical distress. He’d quickly placed his small selection of goods on the ground, and caught her before she could completely lose consciousness or drop to the floor. I believe when her legs gave way, she slumped forward onto her cart, affording him the opportunity to catch her.
She was speaking to him but he clearly was not following what she had to say, leaning in close and admonishing her to stay with him. As he did so, she began to collapse completely. He turned as he accepted more of her weight and told a nearby helpful person with a cellphone to call 911. As he did so he began to lay her on the floor.
As he lay her down, her chest heaved dramatically as she apparently began to hyperventilate. A tall, dark-skinned man dressed in the open shoes, sweater and corduroy that I associate with East African emigrants in the Puget Sound region stepped forward, and tenderly tugged the lower hem of her small skirt as low as it would go before rejoining his family, seeking to preserve her modesty. I was struck by the simplicity and complexity of his gesture – he acted with tenderness and compassion, but in response to a set of values that might very well be somewhat at odds with those of a woman who chooses to wear a miniskirt in her sixties. Did he disapprove of her wardrobe choices as they passed in the aisles, under the crushing weight of all that Costco abundance?
Not that it matters very much; it was a gesture of respect and tenderness in the context of the moment. Shortly after he’d straightened her clothing, a growing puddle of urine on the shiny concrete floor raised new questions of dignity and propriety.
By now everyone in the lines near the stricken woman had begun to watch in concern; calls for assistance from the store’s staff were answered by non-checking-lane personnel hurrying forward. The checkout lines themselves continued to move, effectively unslackened by the mortal drama. Checkers and boxers called instructions and warnings to one another:
“They better not move her.”
“…sue everyone who was working…”
Clearly not well trained for the event, they focused on what they did know how to do, which was to check people out. I suppose that that may be what they had been trained to do in such an event. This is not to say that they did not experience and exhibit feelings of compassion and a desire to help; they did. But in the absence of training for a situation like this, fear of losing their jobs predominated in their reactions.
A young Costco worker moved the woman’s cart, her purse in the basket away from both the woman lying on the floor and the line she had been standing in. Someone had produced a pair of towels for her. One draped along her legs, the other was under her head. More managerial Costco people showed up, one confirming the address with a 911 dispatcher on his cellphone.
The woman had rolled on her side, out of the puddle of urine, and the young Asian man was now holding her in a half-hug, half-cradle that conveyed a desperate compassion. I suppose that in one way he was demonstrating what it is to hold on for dear life.
As I began to unload our cart onto the checkout conveyor belt, the young worker who had moved the woman’s cart out of the way began to wheel the cart farther away still. Viv suggested to me, “They should check her ID.”
I repeated the suggestion to the young woman, saying that she should check the woman’s ID for medical information. The young woman immediately began to dig through the purse, finding not only the stricken woman’s wallet but also a prescription asthma inhaler. She went to inform her coworkers near the huddled figures. I don’t know what the response was, but she immediately returned to the cart with the materials, put them in the bag again, and began to wheel the cart away.
The person behind me in line attempted to interrupt the operation, saying it was important to keep the purse with the woman, in case “they need to call someone.” The young worker moved the cart, and bag, away anyhow.
As we checked out, our checker mentioned that her husband had epilepsy, and that he would sometimes “let go,” as she put it, referring to the urine. By the time our cart was loaded, and I had wheeled it away from the end of the checkout lane while Viv finished paying, two Seattle Fire Department paramedics had arrived. I was not wearing a watch, but I doubt more than three minutes could have elapsed from the time the woman collapsed to their arrival.
We wheeled the cart to our car, somewhat shaken. As we reached it a second Fire Department ambulance parked behind the first. I held Vivian very closely for a long moment before we began to load the groceries into the trunk.