Sunday, October 7, 2012

You Can't Help Everyone. Sometimes, You Can't Help Anyone.

I'm in a mood today.

There are all sorts of reasons, of course: mostly boring.

No work today, because of the Columbus Day holiday, and so I decided to go get my hair cut. The salon is built into a hill, and one enters on the main floor, but then looks down the hill, two or three stories down, to the trash-strewn street below.

I had them turn my hair brown. Brown-ish. Not blonde, at any rate. Like I said: I'm in a mood.

So the guy was washing the stuff out of my hair, and when he finished, I sat up and had a clear view to the street below as he toweled off my hair. There was a skinny old guy down below, dressed in orange, carrying a broom and a cardboard box: the street sweeper. Nothing usual in that. But there was another guy there, too: a big dude with huge arms and a tight black t-shirt. He was approaching the street sweeper, and he looked angry, coiled, ready to strike.

I watched all of this idly from my perch above the street as the salon guy wrapped my hair in a fluffy towel. The muscled guy moved in toward the street sweeper, and from where I sat he appeared to be laughing an ugly sort of laugh. The street sweeper backed slowly away, holding his broom and box in front of him, blocking the muscled guy. But Muscles kept moving toward him. There was a security guard down there, too, pacing back and forth on the fringes of the scene, waiting - to help? To harm? From where I sat, I couldn't tell.

The salon guy gestured for me to stand up. I stood, and I watched as the street sweeper below turned to run, with a clumsy, staggering sort of gait, toward a huge pile of garbage in the road. The muscled guy followed at a trot, seemingly unhurried in his pursuit.

The salon guy was impatient for me to return to my seat: he seemed unconcerned about, or maybe oblivious to, the scene below.

It seemed likely to me that the street sweeper was about to get hurt. But what could I do? I was a whole two stories up, with no exit to that street - not that I had any plans to take on Muscles. The windows didn't open, so I couldn't yell at him to stop, to go away. There's no 911 that I could dial. And no one else in the salon seemed to care.

I couldn't think of any option other than to turn my back on the scene below and hope that the street sweeper would make it out of harm's way, or that Muscles would grow tired of toying with him. So I turned my back. I went back to my corner, where they proceeded to cut my now-brown hair and blew it straight.

When they finished, I walked by the window again and looked down. But there was nothing. No indication of how the altercation had ended. No telling where Muscles and his street sweeper had gone. The security guard had returned to his post and was sitting lazily on a chair, tapping his knee.

I've been feeling bad, and sad, ever since I witnessed that scene. Because how can you turn your back on someone who is suffering and not have it come back to bite you in the ass, somehow, some place, some day? It's wrong.

It reminds me of another day in China, when I witnessed something equally troubling and did just as little to stop it.

And then, too, it reminds me of another time, much further back, when I was still in college. I was walking alone one day in a not-so-nice section of Los Angeles. It was mid-day. Crowded street. A big white guy, sloppily dressed, was walking toward me. As he drew even, with no warning, he grabbed me and started dragging me toward the street. I was so surprised that I didn't even react, but I was aware somewhere in the back of my mind that there were people everywhere, and that one of them should notice what was happening. But they were all walking past, eyes averted, making space, even, for the guy who was dragging me down the road.

I hadn't yet found my screaming voice when a huge black guy approached and grabbed ahold of the white guy. The white guy let go of me to turn on the black guy, and I ran. I didn't look back to see what happened between the two of them. I just ran.

I never went back to thank that guy, the one who stepped in, because of course I couldn't return to that place. But I think about him sometimes, and send my thanks his way in my mind.

Because what if he hadn't stepped in? Everyone else just moved out of the way. He was the only one to stop, and see, and react. What if he hadn't?

And maybe, just maybe, that's why scenes like the one I witnessed today bother me so, so much. Because somebody once stepped in for me, at risk to himself. And so I believe I owe it to that moment, and to that man, to step in myself where I can.

I know today wasn't that moment. I'm pretty sure my calculation was correct - that I couldn't have fixed the situation. I couldn't even read what was going on down there, not from where I stood.

But I know I need to stand up when I can, and I know I fail in that regard, over and over again.

No need to comment on this post, friends. I know what you're going to say, and I've heard it all before. I don't have an answer. There is no answer. I just wanted to write this down, to make it part of my public record here, while it sits so clearly in this brown-haired head of mine.


Please. Write your own stuff.