Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Small Sins of Omission

by BarbaraD'Amato

BUT FIRST!
SEAN CHERCOVER won the Lovey award for Best First Novel at the Love Is Murder on Dark and Stormy Nights conference this past weekend for his magnificent book BIG CITY BAD BLOOD. A Harper hardcover, pb due out on February 26, 2008. Buy it. It’s good.

Now back to our regularly scheduled piece of my mind----

A couple of weeks ago I was walking northbound on Michigan Avenue near the Water Tower. I stopped at a “don’t walk” sign. Standing ahead of me, nearer the curb, were two women and a man with a stroller in which a baby was sleeping. The two women were just chatting with the man, and from the body language and the fact that they didn’t look at the baby, I thought neither of them was his or her mother, but the man was the father. The man had his feet on the edge of the curb, but that meant the stroller was entirely in the street. The man clearly believed he was on the curb, which he was. Think about a stroller. It may be as much as three feet from the push handle in back to the front. Therefore the baby was way out into the traffic lane. All it needed was some taxi or car to take a tight right turn and the baby would have been squashed. And this is one of the busiest streets in Chicago.

Should I have mentioned the danger of this to the father? I didn’t, and I still feel wrong about it.

The light changed, and we all crossed the street safely, but the father might well make the same mistake at another corner and something bad could happen to the child.

A couple of years earlier, I had been walking eastbound on Chestnut, just east of Michigan. A little boy was following his father along the sidewalk, the child bouncing a ball as he went, the father several steps ahead of him. The ball rolled into the street. Cars were coming. The child ran after the ball. I yelled “Wait!’ and put a hand in front of the boy. The father turned around and saw the ball in the street, but scowled at me, went to snag the ball and came back, took the child’s hand and walked away with another backward scowl.

I bring the stroller thing up because it’s a little more borderline than the ball in the street. The child with the ball was in clear danger and I don’t really care that the father made a scowly face. But generally, what should a person do? I believe so strongly that people should be allowed to live their own lives that sometimes I may not intervene when I ought to. I’m also quite shy [read chicken] about approaching strangers to poke my nose in.

This is not like seeing some hulking thug beating some little old lady where intervention is really necessary.

Last summer my husband had back surgery. A month or so after it, we were walking back from his doctor’s office. Because he couldn’t walk far at that point, he stopped to sit on the edge of a concrete flower planter, not a place where a person who was okay would choose to relax. A woman coming by saw him and asked him whether he was all right. I explained the surgery thing and thanked her. We were in the middle of the Northwestern University medical complex of buildings, and I suspect she was a doctor or a nurse. She had that air of authority about her.

She did the right thing. In her position, I probably would not have inquired. And I think I would have been wrong.

When do you speak up? When is speaking up being intrusive? Should I have said something to the father with the baby in the stroller? Should we all?

22 comments:

Woodstock said...

I had one experience several years ago which startled me quite a bit, and to be honest, makes me think long and hard before I say anything about a perceived danger.

I was in the local supermarket, and encountered a boy about 4-5 years old, tears streaming down his face calling frantically for his mother. My intention was to take him up to the service desk, but when I put my hand on his shoulder to guide him, and attempt to offer comfort, he began shouting "SHE'S TOUCHING ME!!! THIS LADY'S TOUCHING ME!!!" A woman came up, told me she was his mother, and explained that he had pitched a fit over her refusal to buy some toy or other treat; and she had walked away and left him mid trantrum in the aisle of the store! When I first spotted him, she was nowhere around. By then, many were staring, and I did not perceive a high level of understanding in the looks I was receiving.

I finished my shopping - but that experience still bothers me in retrospect.

With the stroller incident, I think I would have acted as you had. But if they were not paying much attention to the traffic, I probably would have upped my vigilance a little until the light changed.

Anonymous said...

I feel very strongly about this, actually. As a student of psychology, I attempt to always say something. Not saying I'm perfect about this or that I don't sometimes let myself give way to the glares and misunderstandings that I feel I could/do get, but I believe it is always important to say something, especially if there is risk of harm to others.

What is known as the "Bystander effect" began with the case of Kitty Genovese. In essence, Genovese was a young women who was stabbed multiple times over the course of 30 minutes and finally sexually assaulted as she lay dying about 100 feet from her home. No one called the police because they "didn't want to get involved" or "thought someone else would say something." This prompted a bunch of studies in the psychological field about when people do not say something, hoping to prove that the Genovese case was a fluke. It wasn't. Collective responsibility means no one is responsible. It means that you hope someone else will say something so you don't have to. It means you can be safe and not involved.

In a political and cultural climate like ours, surrounded by war, poverty, and violence, I think it is more important to say something and risk an adverse reaction than be part of the 38 people that saw the murder and didn't call the police. Perhaps your comment or action will accomplish nothing. Perhaps it will mean everything.

Around this topic, Martin Miemoeller, a Lutheran Pastor during WWII who opposed Nazi Germany, always comes to mind:

"In Germany, they came first for the Communists, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist;
And then they came for the trade unionists, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist;
And then they came for the Jews, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew;
And then...they came for me...And by that time there was no one left to speak up."

Sean Chercover said...

Thanks for the shout-out, Barb!

Years ago in a Florida supermarket, I saw a man slap a woman in the face. I rushed over to intervene, and almost got the crap kicked out of me ... by the woman. Turns out she didn't appreciate my efforts and thought I should mind my own business. C'est la vie. If it happens again, I'll intervene again.

The father who scowled at you is both a bad father and a general dickhead. He should've thanked you profusely and learned to keep an eye on his kid while walking. You can't let a jerk like that change the way you interact with the world - after all, you may have saved that kid's life.

The guy with the stroller is a harder call. He might have been keeping an eye out in the direction of traffic...

Or not.

Anonymous said...

A couple of weeks ago during another one of our deep freezes, I was at a subway station waiting for my ride. A woman was also in the station waiting for a bus. She had a small baby with her, bundled up nicely in a pink snowsuit. But the woman was clearly under-dressed for the weather, wearing jeans and a long-sleeved shirt. That was it. I seriously thought about offering her my coat. Technically I didn’t need it anymore, as I was about to get into a car and it was nearing the end of its useful life anyway. But then was that interfering? The baby was fine… and properly cared for. Would I have been insulting the woman? Maybe she didn’t mind the weather. I’m still a little bothered by this and don’t know what the right thing to do would have been.

Guyot said...

Several years ago in Florida I was slapping a woman in a supermarket when some crazed looking fellow with bad hair rushed over and tried to intervene.

Thankfully, the woman I was slapping nearly knocked the crap out of the intruding fellow, but I've always felt like I should have said something... I should have stepped in and said, "Mind your own business, Mister Smarmy hair!"

But I didn't. I let the woman do it, and I've felt guilty ever since.

More recently, I should have spoken up at our short story panel when Miss Here's-My-Boobs was sending our beloved Barbara D into a coma.

Sean Chercover said...

Looks like Paul's off his meds again...

Maryann Mercer said...

Good post, Barb. I too give more thought than I should when it comes to intervening. It's a 'damned if you do, damned if you don't' area of life. Since I work in a bookstore, it gets even more dicey. We've found children wandering alone in the front of the store while their parents are in the cafe. Take the child to them and you get the "how dare you" look in most cases. What these people don't consider is the fact that we are thirty seconds from a huge parking lot and not much more from a multi-state highway. No one believe anything bad will happen to 'their child'.
I also believe in the "Good Samaritan" curse. Help someone, stranded, in danger, injured, whatever, and somehow it comes back to bite you in the butt. At least in cases like that, the cell phone makes the decision easier.
Here's another question. Do you say anything at all to parents who bring their offspring to events intended for adults only?
And last but not least...Congratulations, Sean! It's a great read!

Barbara D'Amato said...

Thank you all for the responses.

woodstock, I think you did the right thing with an apparently abandoned child. Children ALWAYS need to be watched out for. I suppose the other possibiility is to find a store clerk.

anonymous--the Kitty Genovese case was hideous. And even more so because, if I remember correctly, the attacker went away for a while and then came back. Also, all anyone needed to do was phone the cops from the safety of their apartment, not even get into danger. That's one where I think a person's resposibility is clear.

Sean, you were good to intervene in the case of the man slapping the woman, in my opinion.

anomymous's case of the woman without the coat is one of the really dificult ones--really borderline. I don't have a clue what you should have done.

maryan mercer brings up two great points. Now that we carry cell phones we often have the option of calling 911 [or 999 on most cells?] while just carefully keeping observation.

She also asks about taking children to adults-only events. If it's a grown-up's party or some such, it's an imposition. If it's because the content is too-old-for-children, we took Brian to Hair when he was seven and it doesn't seem to have hurt him any. But that would be a good issue for a post.

Paul--um--

Maryann Mercer said...

Barb, I think the difference between grown-up events such as parties and taking your child to the theater is this; you know what's going to happen at the theater(either by word of mouth or checking out the reviews). Parties and such are a bit more unpredictable. Besides, Catherine swears I damaged her more by dragging her to Manilow concerts than by taking her to see "Grease"!

Barbara D'Amato said...

Well, sheesh! Manilow concerts, maryann? What were you thinking?

Maryann Mercer said...

That's a good question :o) She still knows all the words to Mandy, but other than that...
It's so hard these days to know just how(or if) to act in certain situations, I think most of us err or the side of caution (and self-preservation). I wonder though, are men more likely to take action than women when it comes down to it? I'm not sure I'd get in the middle of a male-female altercation. Parents and kids, maybe, but two angry adults?

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