Looking Both Ways

I was maybe 12 feet from the corner of Main and Figueroa when I saw her nearing this northerly corner of Santa Barbara’s downtown area that goes to the more frenetic part of town and empties onto Fisherman’s Wharf. Tourist traffic was beginning to pick up and both streets and sidewalks were congested. She was nearing the push-to-cross pole when she stumbled and fell forward over a bench secured to the cement on the sidewalk.

I rushed to help her, extending my hand she could grab to stop her forward progression to the ground or into oncoming traffic. Asking if she was all right, I reached out, but she pulled her hand away and started yelling at me.

“You pushed me!”

“No, I was trying to help.”

“You pushed me!”

Conscious of people walking around us, I felt heat rise in my cheeks. Would they think I’d pushed her?

“Get away from me!” The vehemence in her voice startled me, and I took a couple of steps back, desperate to disappear into the pavement.

It was obvious this elderly woman with stooped shoulders was homeless when I rushed to help her. Her short, gray hair hadn’t seen a comb or even shampoo in some time. She was wearing a dress with two blouses, one buttoned, one not, over it, and this badly wrinkled ensemble was topped by a winter coat. The big sack, likely full of personal belongings, was surely difficult to manage in temperatures approaching 80 degrees. Her eyes were fixated on the ground, and she’d been mumbling to herself just before she fell. She could easily have broken an arm or a hip.

Like many homeless persons who roam the streets of many towns, she was nameless and unremarkable. Hers was a face with eyes as blank as the rest of her which everyone took great pains to avoid seeing.

Even so, she was still a human being worthy of notice. Worthy of compassion. Worthy of another person’s help.

But she was hostile. Possibly schizophrenic. And that scared me. It wasn’t that she was different. Nor that she’d refused my help. Not even that she’d yelled at me – what scared me was that someone might hear her and believe that what she said was true. And that someone might call the police.

I couldn’t be certain what might happen then, or what the cost, both personal and otherwise, might be to correct it. What I do know is that it has forced me to think first, then twice, before stepping into situations of which I’m not certain in the future.

What might the consequences of a selfless act on behalf of a stranger be? There are good Samaritans out there who have paid a price for their good deeds. Instead of reacting with compassion, we have greater cause these days to be more dispassionate. To rationally assess a situation and those involved before we act. We might not want to pull back, and will likely feel guilty about it when we do, but not to do so is neither prudent nor in anyone’s best interests.

And it’s a shame. We shouldn’t have to worry about the cost to ourselves for doing something to help someone else. It’s a sad commentary on life in our times that we do.

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