By K.D. Wallis, Contributing Columnist
I was walking with my dog on Ventura Boulevard the other day when we stumbled upon something that was at once disturbing and frightening to both of us: A woman lying on the sidewalk in a large puddle of her own urine.
As we rounded the northeast corner of Radford Avenue, Ecco, my year-old puppy, who usually prances a few feet ahead of me on a fairly long leash, suddenly veered to his left with one of those “what the hell is that?!” looks on his little face. Reaching the spot he was trying to avoid, I saw a brown handbag lying on the ground, not far from the woman mentioned above. She was on her back, knees bent, holding the back of her head up off the pavement, as if she were doing stomach crunches. My first thought was that she was relaxing for a moment, perhaps waiting for her ride to pick her up. After all, she was in the pathway that leads to the entrance of the Art Directors Guild and it was a warm, summery evening. It almost seemed, well, normal. That is, until I noticed the growing puddle and heard her mutter, “’scuse me” in a slurred voice.
Now, you must keep in mind that this is not Skid Row; it’s Studio City. It wasn’t the middle of the night when the bars are closing and the drunks are staggering to their cardboard boxes; it was around 7 p.m. in a very affluent neighborhood. And this wasn’t some disheveled hag; it was a well-dressed, probably attractive (in other circumstances) youngish woman.
I cannot quite explain why I kept walking, instead of asking her if she needed help, but something told me that no matter what was wrong, there was danger lying on that sidewalk and neither I nor Ecco was about to get too close to it. I walked a few feet past her and as I reached into my bag to pull out my cell phone, a young man who had arrived at the corner from the opposite side of Ventura was doing the exact same thing as I. When I quickly realized that my cell was totally dead, I said to the young man, “Are you calling 911?” He was and I heard him reach someone, giving the location and the woman’s description. By this time, a couple of people had wandered out of the Guild building and were gazing in a rather stupefied manner at the woman on the ground. Not one of us approached that woman, however. It was as if we suspected, rightly or wrongly, that there was something dangerous in front of us.
I stood on the corner for several minutes, guarding her, I suppose, in case anything changed. The young man with the working cell phone kept talking to 911, but meandered down Radford and disappeared. As I watched him walk in that direction, I noticed a couple with a baby carriage standing near the alley behind the Guild. They were arguing and the woman finally stormed off with the baby (or whatever was in the carriage). That’s when things really became interesting.
The male half of the couple strode back in my direction, passed me and went directly to the woman on the sidewalk. He knew her and he knew she was lying there. He was tall, cleanly dressed, probably late twenties, with a small, neat goatee and one of those silly porkpie hats that all of the so-called hipsters are wearing nowadays. He picked up her handbag, dangled it in front of her and then helped her rise. As she staggered to her feet, she wheeled around a few times, arms flailing, holding her head and then nearly fell into the flower bed behind where she had been lying. All the while, the man kept talking to her and looking over at me, as if to say, “What are you lookin’ at, lady?!” The only thing I could hear, though, were his assurances to her, as he wrapped his arms around her, that she was okay now and that he wasn’t going to leave her.
I decided to cross the street and see what happened next from a safe distance. The man kept his arm around the woman’s shoulder and led her to a spot on the little wall in front of the Guild, where he sat her down and continued to hold and comfort her. She was completely overwrought, her face distorted into a twisted, tearful red mass, so that it was nearly impossible to determine her age, although if I had to guess, I’d say she was in her thirties and was a slender brunette.
Ecco and I returned to our car, which was parked close to Laurel Canyon. I still couldn’t get my phone to work, but thought I’d take one more look to see if the police or an ambulance had arrived, since it had been at least twenty minutes since the young man had called them. They hadn’t shown up yet, but the woman and man were still sitting in the exact same spot. There was nothing for me to do but drive home…and worry about all of this.
My first thought was what a coward I was for not having tried to help the woman on the sidewalk. But after seeing her almost violent physical behavior with her rescuer – a tall, muscular young guy – I knew I was right to have kept my distance. Considering all of the crowded bars within a block or two of that corner, I’m fairly certain that she was drunk out of her mind, not suffering a seizure (which had been my alternative guess). That does not excuse the time it was taking for the authorities to show up to evaluate her condition, however, even if the young man who phoned them had told them he thought she was drunk (I don’t know if he did say that or not, but it’s possible). Several years ago, I had a stomach flu and fainted in front of my husband, in our driveway. He called 911 and they were there within fifteen minutes. This woman’s situation could have been a lot more serious that mine had been and was certainly a lot more public. I realize this is probably a silly question, considering the state of this state, but what took so long?
This woman-on-the-sidewalk business reminded me of something else that has haunted me for years. A few summers ago, when we spent a week in Belgrade, Serbia, I was shocked by the number of helpless, sometimes limbless, women that we encountered begging on the sidewalks in the middle of that large, gray city. It was the boiling hot summer and most of them didn’t even seem to have water, let alone any type of shelter. We questioned our Serbian friends and were told, with a dismissive wave of the hand, that they were gypsies and to ignore them, that it was just a scam and not worth bothering our heads about. Well, scam or not, I can still see the middle-aged woman with no legs, stretched across her little patch of sidewalk; and the elderly, white-haired woman with barely enough strength to sit up.
Serbia is a rather poor country, despite the well-dressed young people, but it isn’t considered “third world”. Neither is Santa Monica, where women sleeping on the sidewalks are horrifyingly plentiful. The closest to third world I’ve ever been is Baja California, where beggars on the sidewalks have always been commonplace, which, while undeniably heartbreaking, is somehow expected, even today.
Helpless, destitute women lying on sidewalks are upsetting to say the least, no matter where they’re found, or how they got there. So, too, are men in that same position (although I think that most people assume that a man is better able to care for himself “in the wild”). And despite the fact that they are a rarity thus far, so are the pretty young women lying on the sidewalks of Studio City as Happy Hour comes to an end.