Monday, May 12, 2014

Should You Think Twice Before Helping Someone?

My mind raced with many thoughts but the two that stayed in focus were staying calm and the safety of the little boy who stood at my side.

Riding my bike to a friend's house at approximately eight o'clock yesterday morning, I saw a little boy about ten years of age walking aimlessly down Cottage Grove Avenue at 41st Street in the city of Chicago. The weather was warm, he was wearing a winter coat. He looked like he hadn't slept. His eyes were vacant. I stopped, asked him if he was okay, where he was going, where his mother or father was. He nodded his head slightly to his left to nowhere in particular. I asked again where he was going. He said he wanted some breakfast, did I have a dime? I gave him a dollar and we agreed that I would walk him the half block to the store. I was about to dismount my bike when a car pulled up with a man driving with two toddlers and an infant in the back seat. He asked me if everything was okay as he looked over the little boy. He asked the kid if he knew where he was, where he lived. The kid shook his head reluctantly. The driver sped off, the kid and I walked south on Cottage Groove Avenue. I searched the dusty stacks of my memory for the thimble-full of training I attended on child welfare over fifteen years ago and then formulated more questions, ever mindful of where I was, what time it was and who I was with. I've run through the neighborhood in the past and had an idea of it's reputation. I asked him his age and if there was someone I could call as they might be worried. He told me they were sleeping. Before coming to the corner of 42nd Street, he paused at the entrance of a chicken joint. I looked through the window and asked him if there was another place, a bodega, a corner store. He tipped his head forward, southbound. We reached the corner where two men snaked and peregrinated the same four squares of sidewalk. One had a wireless Bluetooth in his ear and sported dark sunglasses. The other was toothless and donned a fading and frayed tank top. I smiled, said good morning. The kid and I crossed 42nd Street. I looked south, east and west with no signs of a place to get food. I felt the anxiety of the invisible line we just crossed. I was in too deep; the situation called for someone else, a professional, a neighbor, a local. Someone shouted from the corner we just crossed. Hey you! I turned my head. My eyes swept north taking in a young man ten feet behind us who I hadn't noticed earlier. He was talking on his cell phone. He too looked to see who was calling out. The three of us saw and heard the toothless man shout, Hey you! Ya, you and the kid. Wait up! Toothless and Bluetooth jugged wobbly towards us. The young man with the cell phone interest was piqued and stood nearby sizing the situation. Toothless came to stand on my left; Bluetooth on my right. After Toothless asked his first of several interrogating questions, Young Man With Cell Phone positioned himself behind and slightly to my right. The Triangle. Myself and the kid in its center. Do you know this kid? Toothless asked. I told him no and asked if he did. He didn't either and wanted to know where we were going. I told him I was taking the kid to breakfast. Where? I told him the kid was leading the way, that I gave him a dollar. I thought you were taking him? Young Man With Cell Phone crossed his arms over his chest just below his gold chains. Bluetooth cocked his head. The kid bore a slightly worried frown; he just wanted something to eat. I played out all the possible scenarios in my head. I know how to influence and negotiate but I was wearing Spandex and leaning on an expensive looking bicycle. Toothless peppered me with more questions and ordered the kid to go home. He obeyed. The boundaries of the Triangle tightened and closed in. What are you doin' in this neighborhood? I told him I was going to see a friend. I don't give a fuck where you're going. A car meandered north. In the distance I saw the kid duck between two buildings. I stayed calm and tried to extricate myself using a risky move. I reached out to shake Toothless' hand and said, This neighborhood is really fortunate to have someone like you looking after their children's well-being. He paused as the comment wafted through his ears and then percolated in his brain. You know man, he said. We got no problem with you. We just lookin' after the kids in the hood. I reaffirmed his nobility and was tempted to suggest that he run for City Council but a more sensible and responsible head prevailed. The edges of the Triangle sagged. Young Man With Cell Phone dropped his arms and walked off. My anxiety abated. Our meeting was about to end. I grabbed my bike and carried it into the street. Toothless smiled wide and stuck out his belly, scratched it and said, You know man, I could use a little help myself. I smiled with the hypocrisy along with an appreciation for his self-preservation. I answered his request with, We could all use a little help.

As I rode off to meet with my friend, I caught my breath. The cortisol melted in my body. My mind raced again. Of course, it was a shake-down and nothing else but now I was fascinated with the multiple ingredients and layers that made up the event that had transpired: from making judgements based on perception to social justice, race relations, racism, inequality and child welfare. I was left feeling hurt, saddened and frustrated that a desire to help a vulnerable and hungry little boy was obstructed by two needy adults and that my own safety was compromised. Still later, I was angry with myself for not calling the police to see if they could help and or take the kid home. There are countless volumes of studies, research reports and commentary on all of the above social challenges and I'm no expert just someone who tries to be understanding and kind. It was a good lesson nevertheless, as I was reminded that the streets can be a tough and unforgiving place. In the future, I may think twice before offering help to others but help I will if at all possible. 

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