How I Turn a Simple Incident into a Moral Dilemma of Epic Proportions
It started out innocently enough. My husband and I met for a walk during lunch break. The weather was sub-par for June, but I always enjoy seeing T in the middle of my day. This time, however, it spiralled into something I hadn’t anticipated.
The following conversation was the turning point, and a perfect example of why you shouldn’t mess with Karma:
Me: Do you have three dollars?
Me: Yes, you do.
T: Why do you want it?
Me: I don’t know. I was downtown so it just felt right to ask someone for money.
The city we work in is, sadly, home to many, many panhandlers. I know I should be sympathetic, but after years of getting solicited on the street, I’ve become hardened. I feel bad for these people. I really do. But I have absolutely no inclination to give them money and, quite frankly, it pisses me off when someone asks me. Some are nice and say, “Thank you,” or the ever-popular, “God bless,” – even when you walk by stone-faced and don’t answer their plea. But I’ve also had people yell at me or mutter uncomplimentary things.
(Then, too, I’ve had people try to push anti-war propaganda into my hands and, when I attempt to walk around them politely saying, “I’m all set,” I’ve had them yell after me, “The WAR’S not [all set]!”
But that’s another story – about a rage that almost consumed me in my effort to contain it – for another time.)
Anyway, where was I? Oh, yes. The three dollars. The real reason I wanted three dollars was because I hadn’t slept well the previous night and I wanted an iced coffee to get me through the afternoon. It was a last-minute decision, so I didn’t have any cash on me. I try not to carry cash around the city – for aforementioned reasons.
My lovely husband reached into his pocket and counted me out three dollars. We parted ways and I headed to Dunkin Donuts, because America runs on a franchise that can’t spell “doughnuts” (a word that doesn’t even make sense and is kind of gross, when you think about it).
Here’s what happened after that:
I go into D&D and get my iced coffee. On my way out of the store, there are in front of me: a large woman on a motorized scooter and a man with a cane. The woman holds the door open for the man with the cane. The man is taking tiny, wobbly steps. He catches his foot on the rubber mat in front of the door, loses his balance, spins on the cane and falls on his bottom, smacking his head against the wall – hard. As he struggles to get up, I ask, Are you all right?
He ignores me or doesn’t hear me or whatever. Possibly because someone in the store (another customer) keeps calling out, panicked, over and over and over: Someone fell! Ray, are you all right? Someone fell! Ray, are you all right? (Names have been changed to protect the innocent. And because I can’t remember the actual ones.) This person never comes over to help…just wails like a siren the entire time.
I put my jacket and coffee down and try again, a little louder: Can I help you? I hold out my hand. Again, he ignores me or can’t see me or whatever. I notice that his eyes are crossed. The malicious little devil on my shoulder wonders if it’s from hitting his head. The other part of me worries that maybe he is blind. But, he can’t be totally blind, can he? It is a normal-looking cane, the kind with a curved handle and a rubber foot (which, in the meantime, I pick up).
Ray manages to flip himself onto his knees, puts one hand on the wall and starts to push himself up. Yes, I’m alright! he finally says to the siren. So I know he can talk. Now the woman on the motorized scooter starts repeating soothingly, but over and over and over again: He’s all right, Edna, he’s all right. He’s all right, Edna, he’s all right. (Or whatever Edna’s name was.) Edna continues to wail, Someone fell! Ray, are you all right?
I hold out the man’s cane so he can use it to push himself up. All set? I ask. He says nothing. Once he finally stands back up, I try to hand him his cane. He still ignores me, or can’t see me or whatever. It’s not until I actually place the cane in his palm that he closes his hand around it. For one second I didn’t think he was going to take it at all and I wondered what I was going to do with it. Edna is still wailing.
I stand behind the man to make sure he makes it out the door okay. He takes a higher tottering step, clears the rug, and wobbles out the door. I grab my jacket and coffee and follow. I say, Thank you, to the scooter lady who is holding the door. She looks blankly at me. During this entire exchange neither Scooter Lady nor Man with the Cane ever address me or even acknowledge my presence.
I dart around them both and leave as fast as my thankfully sturdy legs can carry me. Suddenly I don’t want my iced coffee anymore. I run upstairs to work and wash my hands. Then, for good measure, I wipe down everything I’ve touched with hand sanitizer. I’m not sure what it is I think I’ll catch (the ability to feign deafness? crossed eyes?), but I’m not taking any chances.
That’s a hell of a way for someone whose father uses both a cane and a motorized scooter to act, isn’t it?
The thing is, I’m not sure I was trying to wash off germs so much as cleanse myself of the entire, awful incident. Mentally, I’ve been both sitting in a leather chair with a pad of paper, psychoanalyzing my anger over the incident, and lying on a leather couch scraping my brain for clues.
I was embarrassed. Was that the problem? Maybe. I don’t like to be embarrassed, but frankly, in this city, the entire incident would barely score a glance from passersby.
Did I do something wrong? Nope. I did everything exactly the way I should have. You don’t help someone without their permission. Even if that means you stand there like a jackwagon talking to yourself for 45 seconds.
Maybe that’s it. I mean, I’m way above average when it comes to being invisible. I make Sue Storm, or Violet from The Incredibles look like amateurs. But this brought things to a whole new level. Still, I don’t think my ego is that fragile that I’m terribly upset about being overlooked by two people who, quite honestly, probably weren’t all there to begin with.
No. The closest I can come to figuring out my distaste for the episode is that I’ve seen someone in that same situation many times: flat on his back in the grocery store, eyes wide; picking himself up off the pavement in a parking lot with blood trickling down his knee; hoisted up like a child by two huge guys, burly and virile.
And there is no way I want anyone to associate my beautiful, beautiful father with the kind of people I have met downtown. Yes, his Parkinson’s disease causes him to fall – often. But, my dad would say, “Thank you,” if someone helped him up. He’d look them in the eye and acknowledge that they wanted to assist him. Even if his hands were shaking, he’d shake their hand or wave or smile.
Still, I wonder if anyone has ever seen him the way I saw the man with the cane. I wish, with all of my heart, that the answer to that question was “no”, but I know that more likely it’s “probably”. And I know that no matter how many times I wash my hands, I can’t change that.
But, I also know, it doesn’t matter. I know who my father is and the people who truly know him know who he is, and that’s what’s important.
Using this logic, one could argue that it doesn’t matter what I think of The Man with the Cane or Scooter Lady. What I think doesn’t make them who they are. What I think didn’t make me act any differently than I would have if it had been a well-dressed, well-groomed man with straight eyes who had fallen. I would have done the same thing.
Does any of this justify my hardened feelings towards those who are, perhaps, less fortunate than myself? Not in the least. And that bothers me.
I was lamenting this fact to my poor husband last night, who had to listen to the whole sordid story and subsequent analysis. I should be a better person, I told him. After all, I said, continuing to bemoan my moral corruption while now quoting from M*A*S*H, Jesus ate with the lepers.
My husband looked up from his computer, then down at me lying on the floor where I was gripping my hair as I wrestled with my demons. They ain’t lepers, he said with infinite irony, and you ain’t Jesus.