Just the other day as I was stepping out of one of Lucerne’s blue and white trolley buses, it happened again, as unexpectedly as always: time slowed down and almost came to a standstill. As I exited down the two short steps and turned to my left, I saw an old lady with a hat moving strangely. The next instant I realized she was actually falling, more or less in my direction. She stuck out her stick to find some balance and stave off gravity’s cruel attack but it was no use.
By the time I had figured out the old lady is actually falling, time had already considerably slowed and taken on, in a way, a gelatinous texture. After her cane failed to defend her from earth’s pull, her backwards tumble took on a twisting element, meaning that her body, if whether from instinct or biophysics was impossible to tell, began a sidewards roll that seemed designed to minimize the damage of impact. It could have been completely inadvertent, a matter of momentum and sheer good luck. But it is nice to think that even in our high age our bodies, despite the odds of death constantly increasing until we lose the game, still has one or two tricks it can perform with minimal effort. It is nice for me to imagine that I will dodge artfully the grim reaper’s scye’s first swing, yes 😉
In any case, when the old lady was perhaps one third of the way down and I had progressed, perhaps half a step or even a full one in her direction, a further thing occured to me but only as an abstraction: I might be able to break the fall! I might, I could, full daylight revealed to me that there is this possibility, that perhaps there is a world where I would do such a thing. The chance of affording the unlucky senior citizen a soft landing was not even quite a suggestion, it had no performative force but just stood there in a vast space of possibilities.
In that same space of my mind coming to grips with this unfamiliar sight of an octo- or nontogenarian falling over onto her back, was the insight that here not just has come a cropper or a tumble or a human backwards spill but, indeed, an acute public humiliation: the senior citizen was exposed for all the world to see as unstable, frail and possibly, such must have been some of the speculations of the bystanders, senile and incontinent. The basic human capacity of walking and/or standing up straight was coming up for review and the elderly lady, crashing towards the unforgiving hardtop, was evidently failing badly.
It is not such an easy sight, to see a fellow human being come to harm but rather than stop her, I had to perversely let her fall to her hard fate, not because I wanted to see this anonymous golden ager be humiliated in front of everybody but because there was a sense that somehow we could all learn from this. From childhood I remember that, at times, documentarians let extremely cruel things happen to animals to elucidate some point or other. I was now perhaps operating at that same level as the faithful documentarian who lets nature take its course.
And it was her full fall that must have conveyed the message to everybody unmistakably: in the end we all become old, frail and entirely prone to death.
I think at one point she even tried to make a step backwards and regain her balance but by then it was too late and the course of the play, its precise didactic value, had already been decided by forces much larger than her cane and failing legs. Plus also another reason I couldn’t stop her was a more trivial one: this was a spectacle and in Debord’s society of the spectacle surely I did not want to stand accused of stopping one from unfolding, especially if it had so much to tell us about human nature, senescence and, to the more observant observers who might have taken note that nobody stepped in to hinder the fall of the old timer in the flowing white floral skirt with a wide brimmed hat [it was almost too clicheed an outfit for a july day to believe] certain inbred impulses towards cruelty. When a child one wants to know the innards of a radio, right then, the other day, did I want to see what was inside the old lady’s head when it came upon the concrete? Was I in need of a concrete example? I suppose the easiest thing to associate the absence of instantaneous altruism with is the death drive, who knows.
There was also the peripheral insight, that I would probably come too late to help her, so that rather than averting the octo-/nontogenarian calamity, she would awkwardly bounce off of my knees and thence to the sidewalk’s stonelike surface, which could then be interpreted by the casual bystander as either a bit of comic relief or the recognition of bonafide, if failed emergency good-will. Both of this seem, or seemed if indeed i did have such a concatenation of insights at the time, less desirable than the purity of letting the thing unfold to its logical end.
So spinning, the old lady in her upbeat dress with a good dozen by-standers all around her and the white and blue bus doors already closing again was falling towards hardened cement, an early july backwards tumble in the middle of tiger plaza with no valiant fall-breaker in sight. The cane proofed its limited functionality and perhaps this incident inspired a nutty inventor to begin thinking about human airbags for the elderly making this things more free of broken bones or, at least, survivable.
What I did not expect, which in retrospective seems a sign of lacking alertness as I watched all of the above unfold, was the cracking sound of a bone. Old people, when gravity makes a grab at them unexpectedly, they tend to break at least one bone, which will subsequently takes weeks and weeks, actually months to heal and be a reliable indicator of bad weather, impending snow or even, with more sensitive/religious geriatirics, forthcoming apocalyptic events. The fracturing of parts of the skeleton is, for us human beings, an even much deeper defeat, not simply because of the pain and the endless time it takes to fully regenerate, but because the very structure which we have developed to oppose gravity, the constant urge of planet earth to reabsorb us, has been damaged: it becomes harder to escape ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
In any case, there was no such awful breaking sounds of splintering lenghts of calcium.
She must have landed either on the full length of her unreliable legs or on her behind, then the upper body from the momentum was also knocked backwards into a supine position, otherwise so inappropriate to a bus stop in a busy public square. I scrupulously observed her entire tumble and, by watching it at the slowed pace of the unexpected, my mirror neurons or another, unknown part of my neurological network must have begun to emulate the precise sensation of her fall, because by the time she first impacted the concrete I was experiencing a full sense of vertigo. For a split second, it seemed that I would myself loose my balance and topple over like a true buffoon [given my relatively young age] and thereby expand on the general point: human fraility spreads across all generations. However, the sensation passed as quickly as it came on.
Once the elderly lady was decked out fully on the ground before us, still agitated from the impact and evidently confused her head, adorned with the disgusting brown sunglasses that elderly people for some reason seem to fancy, her head swung sideways in my direction.
The expression was as close to angelic as it gets, this side of the clouds. I fully expected her, the old lady, at that moment to peacefully expire. It would have been a bit extreme but, to tell you the truth, absolutely fitting: a total completion of the moment within itself. However, her eyes remained open as she looked at me and several messages seemed to struggle there in the grey-blue-steel:
“Look what it means to become old and weak, you young unknown man. Take my advice for it, never let this happen to you. Here I lay now, grounded at the bus stop, what a pitiful sight.” …or…
“ Just le me be. My time has come and gone. You young ones go forth and prosper!” …or…
“Jesus goddamnit. Why didn’t you break my fall, athletic young thing?”
This moment passed too and realizing I was just a spectator she turned in another direction to avail herself of help. Indeed other elderly ladies, feeling much more acutely the bond of loyalty against injury and death, were already rushing to her aid and helping her up.
While I just turned up my sights to walk those few meters it takes me to get home, feeling young, healthy, callous and a very long way from both the ground beneath my feet and death. Yes, now and then we are reminded that living in this world is such a comparative game.