The other day I walked by a man in tattered clothing slumped against a pay phone, a small stream of blood trickling down his forehead. I was on the phone while I walked by him, and slowed to look at his face, but then carried on. The common explanation for my failure to act is that ethical obligations are diluted by a crowd; it was a busy intersection and I figured someone was going to do something about it. But I don’t think it was that.
After two years of living in New York, I have developed an expectation that the city will trounce a certain portion of its population. I did not speculate about the cause of his bleeding, because I figured that in some way or another the city had done it to him. I did not feel the tug of civic duty because I figured he was lost to the jaws of the city. The city does not reject those who lose their gamble on it, it punishes them. In this stronghold of modern abundance, I have been conditioned to sometimes look at the unfortunate the way I do at gazelles being mauled by crocodiles at crowded watering holes. Some Atmosphere lyrics came to mind — “This city’s a vampire, she eats her kids / Let’s hide the bodies under the bridge..”