Friday, November 13, 2009

An Incident South of Campus

So I was sitting at home, feeling lazy, when I decided that if I really wanted to take a long, leisurely bath, then I was going to need some trashy (in quality, not in content) fashion magazine. The neighbors being fresh out, I walked down to the local 7/11 and picked up my InStyle for $3.99 and while I was there, why not, got 5 bucks cashback.

I walk out, holding my umbrella in one hand, trying to put my money in my wallet with the other, and clutching my magazine under my arm, when I see this woman pushing a baby carriage, a man besides her holding on to the stroller with one hand, his other hand loosely holding one of those red-and-white canes. You know, the kind blind people use? The woman, passing me, says, "Excuse me, can you help us?" With my wallet now in my back pocket, but still navigating my umbrella and magazine, I lean over. It's drizzling and I might as well share my umbrella a little.

"Yes?" I ask, expecting her to ask where something is located.

"We're raising money for our baby's surgery tomorrow--would you like to buy a hair clip or a hair-tie or a key chain?" Ordinarily, of course, this is a hoax. But things are different here. For one thing, her blind husband is right there, keeping silent and just kind of staring around. It's probably for the best that he didn't address me first--not that I'm discriminatory, but it's dark, it's night, it's 7/11...I'd really rather a woman made first contact, you know? Secondly, she has the baby with her. I look into the baby carriage. Who can blame me? Everyone likes to take a look at babies, and the baby for whom the surgery was intended was right in front of me, so what if I looked over to check out the baby? It's not like I was judging the veracity of her story or anything.

I don't know exactly what's wrong with the baby, but something is wrong. She has a tube up her nose, helping her breathe, but that's not what I first notice. Her eyes are protruding out, staring around wildly with an intensity that I'm not used to seeing on a little baby, max, max, 10 months old. Every so often, she arches her baby back and flops her head to the other side.

I don't know if the mom knows I'm checking out her baby. I don't think she'd be mad; everyone likes to look at babies, right? Besides, I think she isn't under any delusions that everything is okay with her daughter.

Psychology aside, she probably isn't worried about what I'm doing, because she's pulling out these gallon-sized Ziplocs with the things she's selling. The hair clips are one dollar each, the hair-ties are two dollars. I think I say something encouraging like, "Oh, those are cute." Cute is an okay description, but I think the most accurate word might be pathetic, in the sweetest, saddest sense of that word. She's taken artificial flowers, artificial leaves, and connected them to bobby pins and elastic ties--maybe she's hot-glued them; it's hard to tell in the dark and the rain.

I had gotten out one dollar when she started her pitch, which I hadn't been able to put in my wallet easily anyway, but as she shows me the most expensive items, the keychains, I decide what I want to buy. "That one," I say, pointing to the first one that I can easily make out, a chain of randomly-colored pony beads on a metal ring.

"That's a special one," she explains appreciatively, helping me hold my umbrella as I negotiate my magazine to get out my wallet and remove three dollars. "My husband made that one." I look over to him, with his one hand on the stroller, but he doesn't seem to be paying much attention to either of us.

I think I say something like, "It's nice," and give her the money, sticking the keychain in the same pocket where my apartment key is. I could have given her 5 dollars, but what would I have said? "Here's a two-dollar tip?" "I hope these two dollars help you pay for your baby's surgery?" "These are going to make a big difference, I'm sure?" Anyway, she wasn't begging; she was selling useful items. I don't know if she would have accepted my lousy two dollars more. Still, when you're nickle-and-diming your way into medical procedures, don't the collection jars always say every little bit helps.

The money, though, isn't the half of it. She's a stranger. I'm a stranger. Her blind husband is a stranger. The baby's a stranger. I have nothing I can really give to these people. I can't hug them in the dark and the rain outside the 7/11 with my umbrella and my wallet and my $3.99 fashion magazine; besides, I'm not her Relief Society president. So I just say something sincere and ineffective like, "good luck." "Good luck," incidentally, is my default sign-out when I write email, a more than dozen email a day, to my students and acquaintances, "Good luck," or else "Best wishes". I meant it more when I said it in front of the 7/11, but that's all I can say. So I go home.

I don't end up taking my bubble bath. But it's not like I start taking up a collection, either. I don't know her name; I don't know her husband's name; I don't know her baby's name. I am a completely insufficient stranger. I don't even use my keychain.


Ben said...

This is incredibly touching. You have been able to capture the inadequacy of our best intentions. Thank you.

Jamie Zvirzdin said...

Good post, Mary. I was thinking you'd find that the baby was fake or suddenly the blind man jumped out to grab your wallet or worse, your magazine. Just goes to show you how hyped up our world gets with drama when sometimes the quiet dramas go unappreciated.

Marian said...

I am getting way too sensitive since I had a baby. I just about cried for the poor mother and her baby. I wish I had a legit-o-meter to determine who is asking for help really needs it. I also wish that my first impulse is to give more instead of less. Good job at really focusing on her and helping instead of sliding past.

dkm said...

I was touched by your story and I think that your desire to be kind must have been felt. Kind intent doesn't necessarily solve the problem, but it almost always warms hearts. And often, it's all we can do.