Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Where Has the Good Samaritan Gone?

My New York fairy tale was bound to end.

One cannot spend an eternity gallivanting around lower Manhattan without consequence: it just doesn’t seem fair that one person should be able to spend every day walking, reading, eating and writing without incurring any harm besides a diminished bank account and expanded waistline.

At every turn, architectural marvels and delicious cups of coffee. Would I like a bagel to go with my latte? Of course. No matter that I just made my fourth visit to Magnolia Bakery in a two-day span.


At the very least, I expected to encounter foul smells, well-concealed dog feces and cacophonous ravings during my neighborhood strolls. I’d step in it, literally and metaphorically, causing me to momentarily long for Texas, where nearly everything is accomplished from within private transportation.

All alone in a cozy space, where I control the temperature and music and ensure that expletive-rich-rants are limited to my own.

There’s just one problem. Occasionally one has to exit the vehicle, park within a chaotic sea of Chevy Tahoes, and make one’s way into anoversized, freezing cold restaurant.

Gooey sweet customer service smacks me like a Mack truck as soon as my waitress appears, donning loud purple earrings. Her bangs hang over her face like a curved awning.

“How are you today? Are you enjoyin’ your Tues-DEY?” For no apparent reason San Antonians insist on pronouncing every day of the week this way. WINDSDEY is by far the most jarring.

“I’m fine. And you?”

I should never have reciprocated her introductory question. She responds with a deluge of information about getting her child to school this morning; the weather outside; her favorite of today’s specials; and ends by asking me whether I’ve seen the latest blockbuster.

To which I reply, “Great, may I please have a cup of coffee?”

The effusive waitress with big hair inserts herself into every conversation between my friends and me as though adding two cents equates to two additional dollars on her tip. How wrong is she.

Southerners love to bemoan New Yorkers’ brusque and short-tempered antics, but I had never experienced discourteous behavior until this past Sunday when one person’s disregard for basic civility made me fall, then cringe, then cry, then question the essence of humanity.

I strolled towards my house after a heavy lunch and tiresome weekend when I paused at the intersection of Greenwich Ave. and 7th Ave. Before crossing the street, I carefully looked up the Avenue. Traffic, some two blocks away, steadily approached, leaving me adequate time to make my passage.

My next conscious thought occurred in the middle of the crosswalk, where my body lay facedown. Pain seared through my knee, right shoulder, stomach and finger tips—my hands held my face several inches from the asphalt.  

Looking up and to my right, I realized that I was in the middle of the intersection, thus extremely vulnerable to coming vehicles, the drivers of which seemed not to have noticed me since they made no apparent effort to slow down. To my left: a bicycle being lifted upright by its owner, who looked to be in much better shape than I. 

He and I locked eyes for a brief moment before he mumbled, “Watch yourself.”

I retreated to the safety of the curb before realizing that HE had crashed into ME. His bike ran over my midsection. His decision to ride against traffic rather than with it caused us to collide. And he didn’t even apologize.

Or ask if I was OK.

Neither did any of the passers-by.

A few months ago I wrote a story about how several strangers and I responded to a horrific roadside accident in Namibia. My story ended with, “The relative safety of the modern era means that we rarely anticipate or prioritize someone’s propensity for fight versus flight or their ability to stay calm and productive in difficult situations. Perhaps we should. There’s nothing more revealing or crucial, particularly when you’re the one dependent on a Good Samaritan.”

I naturally wondered this Sunday: where was mine?

The same question plagued me last November when I encountered a strange, albeit slightly amusing, threat—aggressive vervet monkeys who inflicted as much physical damage to my body as they possibly could.

My thigh post-attack. One of several horrific bruises to my body.
A number of people, some of whom worked at the sanctuary where I was volunteering for several weeks, stood nearby the enclosure where I was trapped with the three attacking monkeys. Some of them walked away. Others called out barely audible suggestions for how I could extricate myself. No one came to my rescue, nor did any one assist me once I had broken free.

The bystander effect—a harrowing scenario in which multiple people witness another’s distress without calling for help—has been attached to a number of publicized incidents, beginning with the Kitty Genovese murder in 1964. Approximately 38 people witnessed Genovese’s murder without intervening or calling the police.

What accounts for our unwillingness to react? Selfishness? Fear? Or could it be that we are painfully out of practice: too unaccustomed to threats of this magnitude to know how to react when one arises.

I will never forget watching footage of the 2004 Indonesian tsunami. Horrified to see people lingering on the beach as the tide receded. Some of them snapped photos or ruffled through their bags for video cameras. Others chatted idly. All of them transfixed by, but not the least bit fearful about, the ocean’s unusual tidal activity.

Animals had already made their way to higher ground, innately attuned to the slightest environmental shift.

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