To be or not to be … a person who stops.

It’s Tuesday, Slice of Life day, and I posted this “slice” on FB earlier (CW for language):

Went out to pick up some lunch. My plan was to buy something then walk over to Poet’s House to eat and write and stare at the water. I turned the corner and saw an elderly Black man on the ground, half rolled up in a carpet. He didn’t respond when I tried to rouse him, and I couldn’t tell if he was breathing. I called 911. 911 wanted to send the police, but I kept asking for medical help. Finally she connected me to EMS at the fire department. While I was on with EMS, the man moved his leg, slightly. That dispatcher said she’d have a truck out as quickly as possible. A young woman asked if I was calling 911, and said she’d wait with me for the ambulance.

We waited and fairly quickly a fire truck arrived. We thanked them for coming so fast. All the pretty young men poured out and surrounded the man on the ground. They roused him and it turned out that he was drunk and most likely homeless, not sick or injured. One of the firemen teased me for calling 911. “Are you from here?” he asked. “You don’t seem like you’re from here.”

I thanked them again for coming quickly and said I was glad I’d been able to have them come and not the police. “They protect you, too, you know,” one of the firemen said. And I said yes, that was sometimes true but that there was no denying the good reason for my reluctance to call them. (I mean, seriously? Are we going to pretend that there’s no reason for Black folks to think twice about calling the cops? Are we?)

The young woman and I started to leave and an older woman came up and asked if we had called. She said she’d run home for her phone and was coming back to see if she should call.

Because 911 had been called, the firemen said, the man would have to move. This displeased him enormously. He started to get up and started cursing me. Please know that there are three of us now standing there: me, the older woman who is white, and the young woman who is white Latinx. The only one singled out for abuse is me.

He called me a stupid whore, called me an ugly cow, called me a dumb nigger bitch. I was already walking away, so I didn’t hear what else he had to say, though I could hear that he kept going. I’ve been called out of my name before, but this felt uglier. I didn’t turn back and look at him, mostly because I didn’t know how volatile he might be and didn’t want to inspire him to come after me … but also because I didn’t want to see the firemen, see them not doing anything to stop that, see them maybe even laughing at the thanks I got for doing what I thought was the right thing to do.

The older woman told me to forget about it. “The important thing is that you cared enough to stop and do something.” Is that the important thing? I want to think so, but I’m not so sure.

I bought my lunch then went back to my desk feeling deflated, conflicted, overly-sensitive, sad.

#sigh

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But here’s the thing. I posted this on FB because of course. And I got a lot of loving responses from my loving friends. Also of course. My friends are kind and beautiful people who don’t enjoy seeing me upset about things.

Yes, I was grateful for their kind responses because I really was feeling sad as I walked back to my office, couldn’t even magic up a fake smile for my favorite security guard. But mostly … I am a fraud.

Trust me that this isn’t La Impostora, this is for realz. I pass people on the street all the time, people who maybe need the help this man didn’t. Sometimes I call, but mostly I don’t. And there’s no logic to my decisions about when to call, about who really needs to interact with first responders or the healthcare system and who should be left in peace. Sometimes I call, but mostly I don’t.

And today, the whole time I was on the phone and then waiting for EMS, I was thinking uncharitable thoughts about the sea of people who just kept walking, who barely shifted their steps so as not to step on the man, who walked on the carpet as if they couldn’t see that a person was rolled up in it.

But I am those people. Just about every day of my life I am those people. How dare I act all holier than thou because this one time I decided to stop.

In truth, I’m not surprised by what happened today. I’ve seen this happen to other people, and I’ve had it happen to me. Maybe I was particularly hurt by this man simply because I wasn’t prepared. Because I’d been dreaming myself into the library at Poet’s House, already letting my mind wander, already choosing which of the four fountain pens in my bag I’d choose to write with.

And the man on the street makes sense to me. I can understand where he was coming from. How much abuse does he face on a daily basis? How difficult must it be for him to have one lousy interaction with strangers after another? And how frightening and disorienting must it be to wake up and see five large uniformed men standing over you and talking loudly into your face, touching you without your permission? Were that me, my first reaction might be to lash out, too. Sure, I would probably not lash out in the way he did, not with those precise words, but still.

None of that makes what happened today any less unpleasant. It makes me think about my own choices, however. I chose to stop today and see about that man. Why did I stop? Why don’t I stop every time? I usually try to see if the person is breathing, if there is a clear visible ailment or wound, if someone else is already stopping to see about them.

Which makes me think about that young Latinx woman. When I confirmed that I was on the phone with 911, she immediately said, “Well, I will wait with you.” I thought that was lovely. She didn’t need to do that, for him or for me. I appreciated having her there, especially when the firemen seemed to question why I would bother calling 911 for the man on the ground. (“You call about every person you see on the street? In this city?” one of the fire fighters asked me.)

So she was also a person who stops. I wonder if she always stops, or if she is like me and employs some random-ish set of criteria to determine whether she will stop.

*

Will I continue to be a person who stops? I will. Of course. Nothing that happened today makes me think I shouldn’t stop. Will today actually make me stop more? Maybe now I’ll see that my ridiculous calculus of when to stop is just that: ridiculous.

I don’t know if I’m a “good person” for stopping, for calling 911. Because what does that mean, really, anyway? I mean, sure, I’m okay enough (depending on the day) but that’s not the point of any of this. Stopping is the right thing to do … the right thing for me. Calling 911 isn’t always the right second move, but stopping and taking a moment to assess in more than a cursory way that still sounds right.

Assessing in more than a cursory way. That’s what I wanted the firemen to do. I said the man on the ground turned out to be drunk and maybe homeless, but I don’t know that. I only know that he was able to sit up, able to talk, able to get up with difficulty and start walking away (while cursing me). But the EMTs didn’t examine him at all, not even a quick once-over, and that’s what the situation seemed to warrant. Why was it enough for them to show up and rouse him but not actually tend to him? Granted, he was in no mood for accepting much of anything, but does that automatically mean he didn’t need anything?

So my title isn’t a real question at all. I know full well that I will continue to stop (we’ll have to wait and see if, as I said, I stop more than I have in the past). Here’s hoping today was the worst of the responses to my nosy-body, good-neighbor behavior.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

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original-slicer-girlgriot

And yes, as I said up top: It’s Slice of Life Tuesday.
Click over to Two Writing Teachers to see what the other slicers have going on.

6 thoughts on “To be or not to be … a person who stops.

  1. This is such a powerful, reflective essay. I admire your honesty as you try to make sense of stopping or not stopping and to navigate your daily life. It’s hard for me to relate to the calculus you mention, because I live in a rural environment and city streets with homeless are not something I see on a regular basis. But the whole issue of stopping, or speaking up, or doing what feels right looms large in every life. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this so eloquently. I’m sorry that your compassion and concern netted such an abusive response, but I admire your ability to empathize and to put that in context as well. Thank you for sharing.

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    1. Thank you for reading! Unsurprisingly, I think about that man each time I to that corner in my work neighborhood. I have continued to be a person who stops, but the experience with this man has definitely changed me. I stop with some trepidation now. I hope that wears away.

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  2. I, too, am a person who stops – sometimes? most of the time? when it’s convenient? I am regularly shocked by what moves me to stop and what I walk by. Am I a good person? An unfeeling passerby? A bundle of contradictions? (yes) I really appreciate your thoughtful look at all the different sides of this question because I have never been able to articulate them as you do here. I am sorry this interaction ended poorly – though it also sounds like the connection with the other women was positive – and I am impressed by your ability to imagine this man’s perspective. May you (and I, and others) continue to assess people in more than a cursory way when we can, and may we forgive ourselves when we can’t and then try again.

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    1. Thanks for reading! You’re right, the interaction with the women, especially the younger woman, was entirely positive. And yes, may we all assess people in more than a cursory way when we can! Yes to that for sure.

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  3. I don’t have wise comments to add. I don’t have this in my city. I’ve never had to wonder if I’m a person who stops or not. I think you did the right thing. You did it, after all, because you felt it was right. Forget all those people who didn’t appreciate it. You don’t know them anyway.

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    1. Thanks for reading! A lot of people — on FB, in my email inbox — have commented on the fact that they don’t have this in their home communities. That surprised me. I mean, I know that not every city has very visible signs of the ravages of all the issues and circumstances that lead to homelessness. I know that. I grew up in towns where there were no homeless people … or maybe just at a time when we didn’t allow our family and friends to be homeless? I don’t know. I also know there are cities that have found decent, workable ways to address homelessness. I wish my city was one of them. :/

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