Two images: First, as a 6-year-old boy growing up in New York City, I am walking with my father on a crowded midtown street. The rush of pedestrians suddenly backs up before me as people narrow into a single lane to avoid a large object on the sidewalk. To my astonishment, the object turns out to be a human being lying unconscious against a building. My father quickly points to a bottle in a paper bag next to him. Not one of the passing herd seems to actually notice the man — certainly, none make eye contact — as they robotically follow the makeshift detour. My father, who I look up to as a model loving, caring man, explains that the poor soul on the sidewalk “just needs to sleep it off.” When the prone man suddenly begins to ramble senselessly, my father stops me. “You never know how he’ll react.” I later came to see these two teachings — “there’s nothing you can do” and “try not to get involved” — as my anthems of urban survival.
Next, fast forward several years to a market in Rangoon, Burma (now Myanmar). I had spent the previous 12 months travelling in poor Asian cities, but even by those standards this was a scene of misery. Besides the inconceivable poverty, it is sweltering hot, ridiculously crowded and the wind is blowing dust everywhere. Suddenly, a man carrying a huge bag of peanuts calls out in pain and falls to the ground. I then witness an astonishing piece of choreography. Appearing to have rehearsed the scene many times, a half dozen sellers run from their stalls to help, leaving unattended what may be the totality of their possessions. One puts a blanket under the man’s head, another opens his shirt, a third questions him carefully about the pain, a fourth gets water, a fifth keeps onlookers from crowding too close, a sixth runs for a doctor. Within minutes, the doctor arrives, and two other locals join in to assist. The performance could have passed for a final exam at paramedic school.
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