One night underneath the streets of Manhattan, I waited for the subway and listened to music through my headphones. Less than fifty feet away, there was a man lying face down in a puddle of his own urine. Most of the other subway riders distanced themselves, as well. Every so often, I’d noticed people glancing over to see updates on this guy’s situation. A middle-aged woman tracked down a police officer and expressed her concerns. The policeman told the passed out guy that he would be taken in for disorderly conduct if he couldn’t act in an appropriate manner. The disoriented male tried to sit on a bench, but lacking upper body strength, he resembled more of a struggling child. Eventually, he made his way onto the bench and told the officer that he was fine. The police officer told him, more or less, to “be safe,” and went on his way.
The woman followed the police officer down the corridor and said, “Is that all you’re going to do? Clearly that man has a severe problem. I’m a counselor for recovering drug addicts and it looks as if he’s on something.”
The officer explained that he wasn’t allowed to remove the man from the subway without the man’s permission. And since the man didn’t plan on leaving, the police officer decided to leave the man to sober up on his own since he wasn’t harming anyone. The man’s other option was a night in jail.
I ended up sitting next to the woman who tried to help as we took the N train toward Queens. I credited her for doing a good deed. She was still flustered. “I don’t understand why other people wouldn’t help.”
She raised a valid point. I was one of the people who looked on intently, but didn’t take any action other than to watch and stay close to the woman when she spoke with the disoriented man to make sure he didn’t harm her.
“Honestly, I’ve found that usually it’s the one who goes to break up the fight who gets punched in the face,” I said. “What if that man would have charged at you and pushed you on the tracks? He clearly wasn’t in the best frame of mind.”
“I guess it’s different where I grew up,” she replied, hailing from the Midwest originally. “But what if that man is a doctor who can save lives or a genius who can alter history?”
Or a violent criminal, I thought, but didn’t say. I wished her well when I exited the train and told her to take care of herself. I walked home from the subway wondering: Is it your responsibility to help the helpless or better to go on your way and make sure you arrive home safely?
In the early 1990s, (read: before cell phones were popular and assistance less readily available) anytime my dad was driving and saw someone with a flat tire, he would pull over and offer to change it. After watching too many stories on the news about traps for Good Samaritans, my mom made my dad promise to stop helping. And I don’t blame her.
How often do you see a story about a man or woman who assists travelers on the side of the road and everything goes well? I can’t recall it. Maybe it’s just the way the media works. Helping your neighbor and fellow man is normal and expected, whereas a violent crime taking place must then serve as a precaution to others. It’s the old news adage attributed to a former British newspaper owner, Alfred Harmsworth: “When a dog bites a man, that is not news, because it happens so often. But if a man bites a dog, that is news.”
But what happens when the normal and expected is no longer normal or expected? Then is it newsworthy? If people became overnight celebrities for assisting an old lady with a walker or a blind man cross the street, would more people do these acts of kindness, instead of taking “selfies” at a crime scene? (As we know, this actually happened in Sydney, Australia.)
I’m not attempting to stand on a soapbox and preach, as I’ve shown that I clearly don’t have any black and white solutions. I know that I’m just a 27-year-old guy. How much can I actually do? The answer is much more complicated, but it’s also quite simple: more.