‘What does love look like? It has the hands to help others. It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want. It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men …… That is what love looks like.’ - St. Augustine

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Elephant Man of Piccadilly Circus

I can't forget him. His knotted black hair, the oily filth of his clothing, the bulbous tumors hanging from the side of his face. And the stench. The sickening stench that nearly made me vomit while I was cradling him in my arms.

I was in London. It was April 2000. I was with about five of my students and also my best friend Sara who had come along as a chaperone. We had just seen Dame Maggie Smith (my theatrical idol) in Alan Bennett's new play The Lady in the Van. It was a brilliant piece of writing, auto-biographical, about Bennett's dealings with a well-known homeless woman in Camden Town. 

He chronicled his interaction with this woman, and slowly revealed the value of her existence beneath the outward mask of homelessness she wore. This play spoke eloquently about our shared humanity. The worth of each and every human life. Maggie Smith held the audience in stunned silence by the end. I thought, this play is going to change lives. It will open eyes. It is a revelation.

I walked out with my students, rapt in discussion about the value of each human life. We were distracted and blindly followed the chattering crowd as it poured out into the street. We corporately moved past the glass front doors, out unto the narrow walkway that courses through Piccadilly Circus. And then it happened.

There in front of us, on the ground, was this man. He looked more animal than human, curled up awkwardly in a fetal pose and in the throws of a violent  seizure. From his appearance, it was obvious he was a street person. The smell lifting from his small frame nearly knocked us backward. And he was covered in tumors. 

As I pushed, straining forward to help him, I watched in complete and utter incredulity as the very people who had just emerged from the theatre, the very people who had wept at Maggie Smith's performance of such a person, stepped over this man to get to their waiting limousines and taxis.

In a rage, I lurched past the few indifferent gazers on, and I crouched to the pavement and lifted his head onto my lap. He was still seizing, and a kind of foamy spit was bubbling out from his mouth. His head, which had been banging  the pavement in rhythmic throws, now rested in my lap. I yelled for someone to call an ambulance. A few gapers right in my line of vision turned and walked away, but finally one well-dressed younger man pulled his phone out and dialed. 

I called out loud for a coat to cover him (it was cold) and one of my students whisked hers off and gently placed it on his quivering form. I remember waiting for the ambulance to arrive, and watching an endless stream of people exit the theatre, look at this man and me on the ground, and literally climb over us or very awkwardly push their way around us to get to waiting cars.

Time stopped. I just held his head and stroked his hair and tried to say comforting things. I remember his skin was very pock-marked and so pale, and some teeth stuck out of his half-open mouth. It looked like he perhaps had a cleft palate. He stayed there in my lap, writhing, and eyes closed. At some point he stopped seizing and just laid there, still. He was like a baby in my arms. He seemed so frail, so helpless, and his eyes were still closed like he was sleeping.

Suddenly the theatre staff was present beside us. I had just enough time to assume they were there to offer help, when I heard: 'Miss, you have to move him...' 

'He's had a seizure. He needs help! I'm waiting for the ambulance.' I shouted at them.

'He is upsetting our patrons. You need to move him.' The two staff turned and reentered the theatre lobby and watched from inside the glass doors.

Finally, the ambulance arrived.One medic came over and bent down to speak to the man in my lap, and it was then that I realized this man could not even talk. As the medic moved to lay him on the stretcher, I looked down to see that the tumor on his face actually fed into the inside of his mouth. The medic crouched close to his face and tried to engage him in conversation. All that resulted were guttural moans. The medics took over, and I stood up and watched as they tended to him, gently. They were quick and kind. They carefully lifted him onto a stretcher, turned to thank us, and then were gone.

As the ambulance tore away from the curb, I felt bereft. Who was this man? What had happened to him? Who would care for him? What would happen to him now? I burst into tears, and just stood, immobile, watching the ambulance make its way through the choke of traffic down towards the square.

We walked, slowly and silently, towards Leicester Square. No words.

I still replay this experience over an over in my head. I still see all those impeccably dressed theatre-goers stepping over his body. I still see others purposefully looking askance to avoid eye contact when I asked for help.
These were the same people who had sat with me inside the theatre moments ago, moved to tears over Maggie Smith's performance of a dirty, smelly, uncomfortably fragile homeless woman. And not one of them had stopped to help this man. Not one

In a theatre of thousands, how could this be?

I think of that man often. I wish I  knew his name. I wish I had thought to get in the ambulance with him.  He feels like a piece of unfinished business in my heart. I had no chance to even look into his eyes.

I have hope that someday I will meet him again, in another, brighter world. Maybe we will look one another in the eye, and we will recognize one another. We'll  embrace, his healed self and mine, and bring one broken circle to a close.


  1. Oh that must have been so heart wrenching. He had you as his guardian angel that night. Unfortunately most people don't have your kind, giving, heart. I hope you have the peace of knowing that for one night he met an angel.

  2. oh my god.
    keri that is an amazing story and it breaks my heart.

    you're the good samaritan reincarnated through the ages. you're the nurse who held hands of the dying with the plague. you are the villager who hid the jews from the nazis.

    you are so amazing.

  3. Wow, what an experience. So glad you were there for that gentleman. Seems you have that gift. Being where you need to be, when you need to be there.

  4. Wow Keri that was very moving. I bet that man is forever greatful that you cared enough to stop. There needs to be more compassion people in this world like you.


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