In front of the bus stop at 5th and Howard, there’s an ambulance parked with its back doors flung open and its lights flashing. On the sidewalk in front of the stop, EMTs in blue shirts are strapping a leathery-looking man with a knotted tumbleweed of gray hair to a stretcher. The EMTs move methodically. The man is docile, like a cat being taken back inside. Both have done this before.

The ambulance is parked halfway in the street, and it disrupts the furious migration of morning traffic. Cabs have to throttle around it like possessed bumblebees, honking and swearing. Bicyclists and Uber drivers pile up behind it helplessly. And the bus you’re on has to clank and waddle 30 feet farther down the road than it normally would to let you off, adding about 45 seconds to your commute.

Intrigued, you step off and start walking back up 5th, back toward the bus stop in the direction of your office, the sky above you the sedated gray color of soaked gauze, the dark horizon defined by swiveling cranes and ascending towers of glass and steel. People are everywhere, but as far as you can tell, no one cares about the man on the stretcher. Roughly five feet to his left, a waxy-looking woman fishes cigarette butts from crevices in the concrete. 

More neatly dressed people, strapped with expensive-looking Herschel bags and wearing expensive-sounding shoes, walk right by without so much as lifting their eyes from their palms. To the citizens of the city, consumed by the amoebic priorities, playlists and routines of their own commutes, the man on the stretcher—and the men strapping him to it—are just fixtures of the March morning, fundamental as furniture, normal as nothing new.

Only a group of lost tourists has stopped to watch. And they stand a purposeful distance away across the street. As you approach, you can pretty clearly see the man strapped to the stretcher—you can see the brown soot that coats his clothes and the open, rotting sores on his forearms. You can see that “docile” turns out to be something of an understatement: he seems barely conscious, his eyes gazing unblinkingly into the fog. His leather expression offers no indication that he’s aware of his being loaded into the back of an ambulance or of the trickle of crimson-black blood oozing from the wound below his left cheekbone into the mottled bramble of beard camouflaging his jaw. He appears perfectly calm.

For the brief window of time that you have of a clear view of the man on the stretcher, the other instances of city life happening around him only skirt the periphery of your awareness. The uniquely urban smell of urine mixed with cannabis permeates the air, per usual, but it doesn’t bother you. 

Focused-looking and well-postured women in dry-cleaned button-downs cross the street ahead of you, but they remain out of focus. An older man with tattoos etched all over the top half of his scalp walks by pushing a shopping cart full of bicycle parts—but you don’t really notice him either. Even the little electrical things that happen inside your head seem slow, quiet and faraway. Surrounding sounds coalesce. Moments of music pass from open windows—deep bass felt in your feet, Guns N’ Roses thrashing and Adele doing her thing—all available for only fleeting instances, a few blinks, before fading into the larger, sprawling, chaotic symphony of horns and power hoses and machinery that make up the white noise of the city, happening.

But you don’t stop. You keep walking. To stop, even in the name of intrigue—even out of sympathy—seems ridiculous. But some sort of impact has been made. As you continue toward your office, a thought that you’d considered before but never so directly confronts you—more like a truth than a possibility: the city is a living thing. The sounds of the traffic coming in and out of it are just the sounds of it exhaling and inhaling. The streets are arteries, and the white dudes with their Herschel bags and the men pushing shopping carts full of bicycle parts and the accomplished saleswomen walking swiftly through intersections and even the drunk old homeless guy who sleeps on the sidewalk in front of your office—they’re all blood cells, coursing through the clotted veins of the city’s clenched fist.

You get the impression that the city, every day, is breathing, bleeding, surviving, hurting and evolving in the same way that the people who pass through it do.

But still, no one cared about the man on the stretcher. Including you.

Eventually, you make it to work. You say hello to the homeless man who lives outside your office. You’re surprised to find him awake. And you’re embarrassed that you don’t know his name, given that you speak with him often whenever you come or go and he’s awake. But he’s never asked you for your name, so you figure you’re all good.

“Hey, fam, what’s good this morning, my bro?” he asks with a smile as you approach, moving his sleeping bag and the motorized wheelchair he spends most of his time in out of the way of the front door.

“Not much, my man. How are you?” You grab your keycard out of your pocket.

“I’m all right. I’m all right. Hope you have a blessed day now.”

“You too.”

The front door beeps, then clicks behind you, a small sound confirming the official beginning of a day that is decidedly not blessed. Which is to say it’s typical. You end up spending it answering emails, staring at spreadsheets and preparing presentations. All day you hear “SEO,” “optimization,” “churn,” “lorem ipsum” and “Don’t do it like that. Can you revise your latest draft by EOD, please?” You procrastinate on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Complex, DJBooth and The Atlantic. And you read the latest ill-advised blog post written by some douche-enveloped start-up founder who thinks he’s offering revelation but is in reality only perpetuating shitty stereotypes and denigrating entire demographics. You consider tweeting about it or writing something in response but decide it’s not worth your time. Soon there will be another.

Once the sun sets, you pack your shit and leave. As you walk out, you find your friend asleep. The other day, as you were leaving the office, you found him nearly comatose in a puddle of something putrid, mumbling for help and unable to get up. He’d fallen out of his wheelchair. Empty liquor bottles were scattered on the ground around him. Without much thinking, you dropped your bag, stepped in his puddle, tried lifting him up first by the arms and then by hugging his sopping chest and lifting him with your legs. You eased him back into his chair. He thanked you. You said it was no problem, but as you brushed off your hands and started back for the bus, you did wonder whether or not he would ever remember your helping him.

You decide as you step over him tonight that it doesn’t matter.

Back at the bus stop, the ambulance is gone. An abandoned syringe sits beneath one of the benches, as do several empty 40 oz. bottles of Old English. 

An older Asian woman riding a pink bicycle with purple streamers rippling from the handlebars peddles down Howard Street, her fine hair flowing in black tendrils behind her head. The cranes and towers are shadows on the horizon. A group of kids who can’t be older than 15 shuffle past smoking a blunt.

Traffic flows the other way. The city breathes. You do too. And with each breath, you fight to remain conscious of your being alive in this city, this place, a place that’s dynamic and beautiful, unique and imperfect. You close your eyes and try to remember that commutes and routines and preconceptions have a way of desensitizing the soul and eroding perspective. You think that if you try and remain cognizant of this every day, this won’t happen to you, completely.