July 17, 2020
The port-a-potty stands directly outside our living room window, on the parking strip of our across-the-street neighbors. They are having their house painted, so the port-a-potty is for the house painters, who happen not to be working today. Crossing my living room intent on one errand or another, I look out the window and see two people at the port-a-potty. At first, I am pleased to see it being used by this older couple who seem to be out on a walk on our leafy residential street. I do not recognize them, but with COVID-19, many people have come out of their houses to take walks that I have not seen before. It is good to see older people getting some outdoor exercise in these strange times. I think of Paris and other European cities which have provided public urinals to pedestrians in their downtown areas. So civilized.
I watch the couple across the street for a minute or two and realize that the woman is having trouble negotiating the six inch step between the inside of the port-a-potty where she is standing and the curbside concrete. She tentatively puts a slip-on sneakered foot down, hovering it in the air for a few seconds and then suddenly drawing it back to the port-a-potty floor. She looks like she is testing the air and doesn’t like what she feels. Her husband is standing on the concrete, his back holding the port-a-potty door open, cradling her left arm and gently coaxing her to try again. She does, and fails again.
The man appears to be in his late 60s, maybe older. He is wearing baggy pants and a wrinkled button down shirt not well tucked-in over his paunchy middle. He has wispy white hair and glasses. No mask or gloves. The woman is probably about the same age, but has dark red hair, straight, shoulder-length and uncombed. She is wearing a man’s plaid shirt and pants. No mask or gloves. Neither look particularly healthy.
I watch them repeat her attempts to leave the port-a-potty several more times. My first thought, once I realize her predicament, is that if there were another person to stabilize her on her right side, that she could probably make it down the six inches. I start to walk over to my front door to go help them.
But I stop.
I am almost 74 years old, a prime target for COVID-19. I have no other risk factors for it other than age, but I read the epidemiology statistics (I have a master’s degree in public health) and this couple across the street could easily be teeming with the virus. Their lack of masks indicates a lack of any serious understanding of its infectious nature and lethal impact.
So I watch them try and fail again. I feel like a terrible human being.
My husband suggests I call 911. They can help these people safely. Clearly the woman is in some distress and maybe she needs to be evaluated in other ways, once she’s rescued from the port-a-potty. I call 911. The woman on the line has difficulty seeing this as an emergency. She finally transfers me to the medical side and I talk to the medics at the fire department. They agree to come.
I go outside to our front steps to tell the man that the medics are coming. I chat with him while we wait. He sounds perfectly reasonable. They are visiting from out of town, he tells me, and his wife is having one of her panic attacks, that’s all. He asks me how to get back on the freeway. Surprised, I ask if they have a car. Of course they do he says. I have an image of dangerous driving and an accident.
After a few minutes of conversation, a young man in shorts, a tee shirt and a mask walks down the street. “Hi,” he says to the couple. “Looks like you could use a little help.”
In less than a minute he’s smoothly helped the wife leave the safety of the port-a-potty. As he says goodbye and resumes his own walk down the street, the fire truck arrives and two suited-up medics arrive. They are left with nothing to do but a little paperwork.
Nobody pays any attention to me, thank goodness. I feel terrible about being afraid to help and terrible about wasting the medics’ time.
This is a terrible virus, even if it doesn’t make you sick.