November 2, 2010

Keeping Compassionate in New York City.

Photo courtesy David Goehring

It was early afternoon on Tuesday, so the after-work joggers weren’t yet out.

My jogging partner Rachel and I were almost alone on the path by the Hudson River. It was cool but pleasant outside, with a thin cloud cover that turned everything gray and silver. We gossiped, swapped advice, relished the fortune that had come to both of us recently. We were happy with our bodies and minds.

We turned onto the pier that would be our halfway point. Ahead of us was a young brunette stretched on her back, on the concrete ground, in the middle of the pier. She looked like she was just napping, with her hands folded neatly on her stomach.

“I’ve seen a few people napping today,” Rachel said.

“Yup, weird,” I said, trying to conserve my breath. We ran past her.

The bystander effect first came to light in 1964, when a girl named Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death in Queens within earshot and view of her neighbors. One person called the police, but only after her attacker came back to finish the job. The fact that several people had heard and seen the attack but did not help launched an investigation into why people could watch something like that happen and do nothing. One of the theories was that New Yorkers had become callous and unfeeling, that humanity has lost its capacity for compassion.

We reached the end of the pier and turned back. Now there was a middle-aged man leaning over the girl, “Hello, hello…” As we approached he looked up at us and shrugged as if to say. “I don’t know. Whatever. It’s New York.” He walked away.

Research discovered a couple reasons why people can be confronted with an emergency and not do anything. The main reason is that we look to others around us for clues as to how we act. If nobody else is concerned, we decide not to be either. When Rachel said “I’ve seen a lot of people napping today,” whatever suspicions I might have had were assuaged. Just a nap. And the other people on the pier weren’t reacting either. We wanted to assume everything was okay.

Most of Kitty Genovese’s neighbors just thought it was a lover’s quarrel. Not a big deal.

We jogged past again. “Do you think we should…?” I ventured.

“Yeah, I guess we should,” Rachel said.

I turned back and jogged over to her.”Hey,” I said, touching her shoulder.

“Hey, wake up. Are you okay?” I shook her harder.

Her eyes fluttered open, and after a moment of confusion, she started to whimper and then cry. “Ow, my head hurts.” Her eyes filled up with tears that spilled down her cheeks.

I took her hand. I don’t really remember what happened next, but I can tell you she turned out to be okay. We borrowed a phone to call 911, and waved park rangers over. She calmed down and explained to the park rangers that she had an anxiety attack and must have fainted and hit her head. She has the anxiety attacks often, she told us. We pulled out her cell phone and called the contact “mommy.”

She was only 13.

While we waited for the ambulance to arrive, Rachel told her cheesy jokes to keep her engaged in case she had a concussion. We learned her name, that she lived near me, that she was a freshman in high school. We covered her up with a shirt we pulled out of her bag to keep her warm. I looked at her fingernails and told her I bite mine too. She said she didn’t have a dad, like me. I found commonalities with this stranger that I had almost run past. Bits of her reminded me of myself at that age.

The ambulance came; the paramedic thanked us, the park rangers took our names numbers just in case, and we were told we could go.

I think Rachel and I were both thinking the same thing as we jogged back up north: what would have happened if we had just run by? Would someone else have helped? Would someone have taken advantage of her, God forbid? Would she have woken up in a state of panic when she found herself on the concrete ground, looking up at a gray sky? I regretted not getting her number so I could check up on her. I wanted to know why she has panic attacks. Does she need a friend? Is her life manageable?

You see weird things in New York, and you go on by. There’s no use gawking—that’s what naïve tourists do.

It’s also scary to help a stranger. You never know when they could lash out at you, especially if they have somehow found themselves on the ground. Drugs, drinking, mental illness, homelessness—it comes with the territory and you don’t want to get mixed up with that.

And sometimes there are just too many people to help. The third person asking for money in a day, the second passed-out person in a night. It’s become too much to bear so we turn away.

Are we bad people? Are we callous, uncaring New Yorkers? I think it’s telling that I’ve only lived in New York for a year, and Rachel grew up in the Bronx. She took it in stride and I pulled us back around. I haven’t become hardened yet to the people begging on the subway. I haven’t learned to stay away from strangers. I’m still a girl from a small town at heart.

I just wonder if I’ll be able to keep that compassion alive the longer I live in New York. Is compassion the true way to a well-lived life, or a naïvité that will get me in trouble?

I hope it’s the former.

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