Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The right thing

Last night our doorbell rang at 3 a.m. A girl's voice called "Hello? Hello?"

Toby growled. Jam Guy groaned. I cursed. We all thought about going back to sleep. Then she called "Can you help me, please?"

One of the big reasons that I love Jam Guy so much is because this kind of request is as impossible for him to dismiss as it is for me. Years of living around people who ask for help and then, when it is received, put it aside and continue more and more determinedly towards self-destruction haven't quite extinguished the will to help people in either of us. We got decent quickly and answered the door.

Obscured in the country-lane dark, a girl in a hoodie with messy hair stood on our porch steps, asking where she was. Jam Guy asked her where she needed to be. She gave the name of a street that is just down the block from us, maybe less than the length of a football field away, that we can see from our front door. She gave the name of a corner store on that street, and an address on that street that we didn't recognize. Jam Guy told her where the street is, pointed it to her, explained that if she just turned around and walked straight for like a minute she would be on it. He told her that as soon as she hit that street she would see the lighted corner store sign. She asked him to take her there.

At this point we both hesitated. I don't know exactly why; I do know that it had a lot to do with the fact that we had just been waken out of a sound sleep and were aware that our judgment faculties were still bleary and impaired; for me at least it also sounded New-Yorker alarms in my head: "This is a ploy to get you out of the safety of your home so that the thugs she has hiding in your driveway can beat you up and burgle your stuff," or "She's friends with the people that keep trying to hop your fence and cross your backyard but get chased out by Toby, and they want to exact their revenge," and the simple "It's three in the morning and you're in a new place. Don't assume safety until you're much more familiar with it. " And there was definitely the concern, based on experience, that having begun to help someone commits you in some way to helping them all the way--maybe all the way home, maybe all the way through her hangover tomorrow morning--and our bodies ached to go back to bed.

She began to walk towards the street we had pointed out to her, and Jam Guy called that we wanted to make sure she would be ok, and I asked her if she wanted us to call someone for her. She called back that she was drunk and confused and her friends always screwed her over. We stood in the doorway and watched her weave down the block. Suddenly she sobbed, my heart broke, and she veered off into what appeared to be someone else's driveway. We waited and waited for her to reappear.

"What do we do?" I asked Jam Guy. He said he didn't know, that he'd never had a stranger at the door at 3 a.m. I said I had, frequently, but it had always been in a New York apartment building, and knowing that people often ring all the buzzers in a lobby, I'd just pulled the covers over my head--but this isn't New York all full of people with savvy burglary techniques.

We stared into the dark for a while longer.

"What do you want to do?" Jam Guy asked me.

"I don't know," I said. I was literally wringing my hands. "What's the right thing to do?

This attempt at finding the "right thing to do" is what made us chase a stranger's lost dog for hours on Saturday, what made us offer a stranger my couch in Brooklyn when she'd missed the same last flight to Oakland as Jam Guy, what makes each of us the person that the other wants to be with forever. I say all the time that I never regret choosing compassion or kindness when faced with a difficult decision.

But man, were we tired. We had spent the week, when not running after someone else's lost dog, carrying impossibly heavy furniture to the new place, cleaning the old place, chasing after our own dog when he decided to explore a ding in the fence. It was, my sleep-addled brain repeated, three in the morning. Then Jam Guy groaned again and I cursed again and we put our shoes on and walked out to find her.

We couldn't find her. We saw that the driveway she had turned on cuts through to another major road. We know that she could see the store she mentioned from that major road, but there was no trace of her, and we could see the store was closed. We looked up and down the road she'd asked us to take her to, and it was deserted. We hoped that having reached that big intersection she had realized where she was and become oriented enough to find her way home.

Finally we went home and back to bed, but I was furious at myself. I had squandered a real chance to help someone who was right on my doorstep asking for help; it is so rare that the people who need help will actually request it and rarer still that they appear at the front door. I lay in bed awake, angry that I hadn't gotten her name, gone out on the porch to sit with her, brought her some water, asked if she was hungry. I was angry at myself for lying in the clean white sheets that Jam Guy had just laundered, on my Temper-pedic hypo-allergenic pillow, next to the fiance who would never let me wander the streets lost and in tears if he could help it. I wondered if I had ever been that drunk, and remembered in a flash two friends carrying me home one night to the Upper East Side apartment I shared with my sister my junior year of college, fishing my keys out of my purse, carefully laying me across my couch, laughing about it with me the next day instead of reproaching me, as I had feared. I remembered another night being in a cab that pulled over three times between the West Village and Morningside Heights so I could puke into the gutter while my friends sharing the cab with me screamed with laughter, mainly so I wouldn't feel like such a wanker, and probably to drown out the sound of my retching. I had been lucky enough to have been with real friends both those times, and they would not have abandoned me to find my own way home, and that is how I didn't end up ringing a stranger's doorbell at three in the morning.

When I finally fell asleep I dreamed about swimming against the current in the open water, diving under huge, terrifying waves, trying to swim away from the shore as fast as possible but making very little headway. There were many women and little girls swimming with me; we were trying to escape a landslide on the beach. I could not help any of them; I was working as hard as I could to save myself.

So today I am still furious at myself, for not grabbing some cash and calling the girl a cab, for not sharing with her the bounty of love and fortune with I have suddenly found myself blessed with, which I belatedly realized would have been the right thing to do. I think the fear sometimes in acting with kindness is that word will get around that you're a sucker and suddenly the whole town will show up on your doorstep asking for cab fare, but of course that's a silly fear. There's fear too in not knowing how to direct your kindness: sometimes the right thing to do is to be kind to yourself, to protect yourself, which was my first instinct, although now I wish I had not listened to the cynical part of me that felt I needed protection from a young woman in distress. I worry that someone took advantage of her confusion and that she didn't find her way home. I think about how she is someone's daughter; I worry about my own unborn children; I worry about my actions falling so short of my principles and the excuses I make to myself when that happens.

I know there is a lesson in this for me. Something to do with letting go of cynicism, I think, and trusting that I am protected; something to do with women needing other women to help them, and that what makes me like myself the most is taking care of others, and so I shouldn't ever miss an opportunity. It was a hard reminder that I have a lot of growing to do still.

And at some point it will have to be a lesson in self-forgiveness, that as much as I would like Jam Guy and I to be the Patron Saints of Lost Dogs and Lost Girls, we are humans who need sleep and experience fear like everyone else. But I am not speeding towards that forgiveness today, because I think the lessons to learn before that are too important to miss.


SurfRunner said...

Holy Bejeezus... I, like Jam Guy, have never had OR heard of someone knocking on my door for help at 3 am, even in NYC. And if I were put in that same situation, I'm sad to say that I don't think I'd open the door because I would think it's a trick. Also, we're a household of two women who could possibly be easily overpowered. And, I've watched enough Law & Order to know better. So that being said, the fact that you two answered the door at all makes you both brave patron saints.

I think you made the right decision. You answered the door, and you gave her enough information to find her way. She was inebriated and wandering the suburbs, so I'm sure she was safe. People have to take responsibility for themselves, and if she got that drunk without real friends, then she has to learn her own lesson somehow. I also hope she made it back safely, and I'm sure she did considering the neighborhood.

So in conclusion, dispell all the doubt in your mind that you did the wrong thing. And don't feel guilty. Because you have already done way more than a vast majority of people would. And you owe it yourselves to ensure your own personal safety, especially when you guys put your necks on the line for other people all the time.

sidewalk monkey said...

Thank you, Chef Surfrunner. :) This did make me feel better. I think a lot of the drama in my head is linked to me feeling guilty for being happy, which is something I need to work on. I feel bad when I have something great (for instance, real friends) that other people appear not to have.

And you make a good point that sometimes people have to have their bad experiences to learn things, and sometimes helping too much can interfere with that learning.

But I do still wish I had done more; you know how it is--Jam Guy says he thinks I'm programmed to feel guilty. Sigh.

Well, at any rate, here's hoping she made it home safe.