Commentator Hannah Long-Higgins recently had two encounters with death on one afternoon, one as a reporter and one as a civilian.
A few weeks ago I was walking down the street in Harlem on my way to photograph a source when I saw a man lying in the middle of Broadway. His arms were at his sides, perfectly straight, and he wasn’t wearing shoes. Traffic was stopped behind him, and a small cluster of onlookers had gathered on the sidewalk next to the road. I thought maybe the man had been hit by a car or had a heart attack, so I ran toward the scene. As a journalist, normally one of my first instincts is to grab my camera. But this time, I raced forward, prepping myself to do CPR, thinking I could save him. But his body was eerily still.
I soon found out the man in the street had just jumped from a nearby subway platform, which sits about twenty feet above the road. A tall, bald man on the sidewalk had one hand over his mouth and the other on top of his head. It was a posture I recognized as shock. He removed his hand from his mouth long enough to shout, “We tried to stop him! We told him not to!” Someone placed a blue rain jacket over the body and I stood there for a moment in silence on the sidewalk with the other onlookers.
By the time the police showed up I was already on a downtown 1 train. As the train pulled away from the station I could see lights of an ambulance flashing below. The woman sitting next to me on the train was filling out a crossword puzzle with a ballpoint pen. A few people sitting across from me looked tired and bored. For them, this was just another commute. I felt sick to my stomach. I was angry with them for being oblivious to the tragedy that had just played out at the station. How could something so shocking happen, and life continue to play out around me as if nothing had happened at all?
By the time I finally arrived to meet my source an hour later, I was weary. My source’s son answered the door and asked why I was so late. I told him: A man killed himself at my subway station.” His face registered no emotion. “Oh. Come on in. I’ll give you a tour.” At first I thought he didn’t hear me. But then it hit me: he had troubles of his own. Down the street, his elderly father was lying in a hospital bed, slowly dying. And, the father and son were being evicted from their home.
I felt a wave of exhaustion sweep over me. This was my second encounter with death in just one day. And I couldn’t save this man either.
Together we walked up the road to the hospital to see his father. When we entered the hospital room, I instinctively reached in my backpack to pull out my camera. It was only then, once I felt the weight of my camera in my hands, that I remembered why I had gone to meet this man in the first place. In the face of this death, I had a job to do. And that sense of purpose carried me through the rest of the day and all the way home.
Hannah Long-Higgins is a journalism student in New York City.