Brief Encounters and Troubled Ponderings

January 12, 2009

Recently I had two experiences that raised the question of responsibility in the face of strangers’ immediate distress.

The first encounter was fairly straight-forward. I was walking down 2nd Ave in the rain after work one night, having a Very Deep and Serious Conversation on the phone with my mother about the cuteness of a pair of shoes that I coveted but could in no way justify buying. I passed a guy who was clearly out of his gourd, weaving left and right, front and back across the sidewalk in a botched attempt at forward perambulation. I was mildly concerned, as visibility was bad, and he kept swaying dangerously close to the kerb, but he seemed to have a magical ability to steer just barely clear of disaster. Mostly I was irritated at how difficult it was to navigate around his meanderings. Doing a complicated darting dance of avoidance, we arrived at the corner more or less simultaneously. While I waited for my light, muttering to my mother about drunken overgrown frat-boys, he made a feint at crossing the street. His foot caught on the kerb and he fell face-first into the gutter with a horrible crunching sound.

I swore into the phone and quickly explained to my mom what had just happened, vaguely, queasily hoping that she would say the whole situation was terribly unsafe, so I could justify skedaddling out of there and leaving the guy to his crunching sound and his limbs sprawled out in the gutter. Big, unknown, drunk guy and falling into gutters turn out to be quite uncomfortable-making, at least as far as I am concerned. I wanted to play Good Samaritan, but I also didn’t entirely have a burning desire to spend my night in an emergency room with some idiot stranger, or to have something worse happen. Alas for my horrible apathetic side, my mom possesses a strong moral sense and she immediately replied, “Well? What are you waiting for? Get off the phone and help him get up!”

Fortunately as I was assessing the situation, and realising the impossibility of my lifting him on my own, another big guy approached from the cross street. I managed to rope him into helping me hoist the drunkard to his feet. Aged Frat-boy’s nose was swollen and bleeding prodigiously—obviously broken. It dripped a dark red streak down his chin and onto his shirt, fading slightly as it was diluted by the rain. I shrunk away from it, hearing the voice of my inner neuroses chant dire litanies of blood-borne illnesses. My delicate upbringing decidedly did not prepare me for the ugly side of intoxication– broken noses and drunken falls into gutters are not my scene. He refused my attempts to call him an ambulance or a friend, insisting that he was ok, and so I and my burly assistant manhandled him across the road and down a few block to the apartment he insisted was his. After some conferring, we deposited him at the door, scrambling to put the key into the lock.

I was saddened that my initial reaction to his fall was the ugly recoil of “I could be hurt or inconvenienced in some way,” that seems necessarily to inform a lot of reactions these days. This time I got involved, but there have been many times when I hesitated, because the person seemed crazy, or the person seemed inconvenient, or in a truly terribly way, not quite important enough to make me become involved in their story and actually devote the time to doing something human and kind.

The second encounter was one where the person was potentially in greater need, but I didn’t help. Six days later it’s still bothering me.

I was in Duane Reade on my way home from the gym, buying an energy bar and nail polish. When I went to stand in line to pay for my purchases, I saw a middle-aged man at the check-out counter, trying to explain something to one of the cashiers. He had a sad, sagging face and stringy greying hair. He wore an old trenchcoat and ratty clothes that gingerly trod the line between eccentric and homeless. I could see that he had some sort of Med-Alert bracelet on his sleeve. Stuttering horribly, he was trying to convey to the cashier that he might soon require medical assistance. He was going to go outside and see if the fresh air would help him, but if the cashier saw him fall over or anything, he should get ready to call 911 and ask for help.

As he explained all this, every muscle in his body shook terribly from a uncontrollable palsy.

He tried to take some card out of his wallet to show the clerk, but had to use his left hand to guide his right into his pocket, the tremors were so bad. In the process, he shifted his standing position from where he had been braced against the counter, and began to sway dangerously in all directions, as if he were about to fall over. At this point, I became scared for him, and tried to meet the eyes of the person in front of me in line, hoping for something… guidance? She stared fixedly ahead, seeming to pay no attention to the situation. The cashier reacted similarly, rolling his eyes at the inconvenience. I was watching in horror, but somehow found myself unable to step forward and intervene in some manner. I had my phone out in case 911 actually did need to be called, but for some reason couldn’t find a way to get myself so involved that an extreme situation might actually be avoided.

Eventually, the man, trembling worse every moment, made his precarious way outside. I heard him explaining his plight to another person who worked in the store. Once I made it outside, there was no sign of him.

I’m still troubled by the fact that I didn’t step up to help him, and I’m not quite able to pinpoint what it was exactly that made me freeze. I hope, had something actually happened, that I would have been able to react appropriately. In the past, I have been able to do so, and that gives me hope for similar future situations. The fact remains, though, that I’m not sure what I was scared of. I’m not sure if it was just the fact of illness– if there might be vomit involved, and how I would deal withthat. Maybe it was the fact that he was so disheveled. Would I have intervened for someone who looked more respectable? Someone younger? Older? A female? I also am scared to consider how much my own personal comfort factored in. It was late, I was tired and hungry, and my legs were sore from the gym. I was in my sweaty clothes and wanted to get home. Helping some random invalid could mean potential hours of inconvenience… or mere minutes to ensure he made it outside. Why did I remain uninvolved?

I know that ruminations of this sort can be seen as quite banal to others’ oh-so-jaded eyes, but I am truly troubled by my reluctance to react in the face of others’ need. I don’t mean this in the sense that I have to respond to every plea for help, and give money to every beggar that I see on the street, but these situations were cases of individuals who were unmistakably, immediately in need. In my paralysis, I’m not entirely sure what separates me from the woman in front of me in line who just shut everything out. True, I intended to react, but “almost ain’t is,” in the pithy words of my grandma. It saddens me to know that assistance isn’t a given, and it scares me to know that there are people who have chronic conditions who must trust in others’ noble impulses. Hopefully I’ll react more appropriately in the future, but I’m really not sure how I’ll know how to define the hows and whens of appropriate action.

Shorter, more lighthearted post tomorrow, I promise.

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One Response to “Brief Encounters and Troubled Ponderings”

  1. Sabine said

    That was a really great thing you did for the guy who fell on his face. I love your mom’s instigation. Aren’t we wired to be more likely to intervene in a situation where there is some sort of accident, something that requires immediate attention.

    In the case of the feeble, sick old man, yes, maybe he wasn’t a cute puppy (we’re wired to want to help those too, although I don’t know if that trait is particularly dominant in my family), it is not necessarily a situation that presents an obvious solution, or that can bring immediate gratification to the helper, like picking someone out of the gutter, taking them home, and knowing that, at least for now, they are safe and sound.

    In the first scenario, you knew a specific cause and a specific solution that you could contribute to in a pragmatic fashion. In the second, the situation is more nebulous, more confusing, and the solution is not as apparent.

    I feel like your encounter in Duane Reade could motivate someone to look away, be disgusted, or on the other end of the spectrum, give money to a retirement home, or volunteer to read to sick people at a hospital. But seriously, what COULD you have done? Call 311 and ask the man to wait in the store while someone from social services came to pick him up. Maybe. You are a far better person for your empathy.

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