Homeless Grim Reaper

A Hard Day´s WorkI am walking out of Hlavní Nádraží (main train station) and eating, thus in the meditative state of a Yogi. The food in question is the finest Czech gastronomical tradition: a sausage baked in a buttered croissant. It is warm and delicious; the one in my jacket pocket warms my belly as it awaits the fate of its crusty, buttery brother.

I notice the homeless man as I pass him. He is staring at me, sitting at an odd angle on a bench surrounded by piles of ooze that surely used to inhabit his stomach. His skin is rusty and sort of off-yellow, like a late-stage hepatitis patient. I am eating pure ambrosia, so it takes me a minute to realize that he’s dead.

Unfortunately, seeing a dead homeless man is not out of the realm of possibility at Hlavní Nádraží,  known as Sherwood Forest to some of Prague’s residents. The cast of characters inhabiting this little park include meth-heads and junkies, who inject dope at all times and in plain sight. There are also drunks and squads of homeless people residing on the park benches. With so many homeless around and so many places to buy cheap booze – boxed wine, gut rot brandies, and cut-rate booze that sometimes ends up being methanol – seeing an occasional dead homeless person is a fact of life in Prague.

I am running my usual route – along the river – when I come across my second dead homeless man of the week. He is at the top of the stairs which lead to Palackého Bridge and is contorted in a manner which leaves little question about his condition. Nevertheless, I stare at his chest hoping to glimpse some movement. It does not come. I jog in place for a moment and look around. I am alone.

He is, was, younger, than the other man and doesn’t have the same hardened look. An ambulance comes around the corner and rolls down the road without hurry, so I trot off across the bridge and point at the body. The driver nods at me.

I instantly desire to block this memory, but several facts make this difficult. In the first place, I am running, and there’s little else to do on a run but think. And if you’ve just seen a dead body – your second in seven days – you are going to think about that. Moreover, I have no food to distract my baser instincts and I was gifted a hereditary obsessive thought process as though it were a cabin in upstate New York.

The next ten minutes are dedicated to building this guy’s life story. I dress him up in different clothing, put him into various situations, and draw his mother with my brain. He’s from some little town in south Bohemia where he cooked with his grandmother on Sunday afternoons, had a dog, and wanted to be a baker.

This whole thing degrades into guilt. Guilt is the byproduct of my Catholic upbringing and the greasy twin sister of my obsessive thought process. There is guilt over not being able to help. There is guilt over living in a comfortable flat too big for me. There is guilt over the fact that I fed my cat leftover duck this morning while this guy was dying. There is guilt over my second sausage sandwich. There is guilt now over writing this post – will people think I’m mocking a dead person? I am not. Am I being too lighthearted about this? I am not trying to be, but I still feel guilty.

Welcome to my brain. Come for the obsession compulsion, stay for the crippling guilt.

By the time I have looped the river and come back to the where I first saw him, guilt has trickled into paranoid conspiracy. I was the only person at both places to see these men. Where the hell was everyone else? Where were the authorities? I jog up the steps, seeing the quiet lights on the ambulance. The guy is inside, I guess. The paramedics are smoking and chatting. The driver nods to me as though I brought this whole thing on, but I want no part of it. I feel like the Grim Reaper for homeless alcoholics, a job I did not ask for.

I finish my jog, hoping that all homeless, living and dead, just stay the hell out of my way.

  1. #1 by Kelly on November 7, 2013 - 1:04 am

    Not that I see dead homeless people on a regular basis, but I can totally relate to this. It’s one of the reasons I no longer watch the news. I can’t take the guilt. I put on a documentary about the black market organ trade earlier today and it showed all these Philippinos living in shacks and under shacks who were selling their kidneys to buy appliances and I just felt like an asshole. But what do we do?

    Also, it’s crazy how different things are in the rest of the world. Living in America, I have the privilege of not being faced with death on a regular basis but other places it’s just so in your face. I was in Sarajevo two years ago and there was a dead dog on a busy commercial avenue and people were just stepping around it like it was no big deal. No one even seemed to notice. Even that made me very sad. It truly is unbelievable when you think how vast the gap is between those who are fortunate and those who aren’t.

  2. #2 by Damien Galeone on November 8, 2013 - 11:14 am

    Yeah, I totally agree, K. It’s just disturbing at times. Hey – side note, I was trying to get on your site and I am having trouble. Are you having technical difficulties at the moment?

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