September 08, 2004

The Price of Being a Good Samaritan

Today's Musical Selection: "Strange Brew" by Cream

Hi, everybody. Today I want to invite all you Fredheads to play along with me. I'm going to tell you a story, something that happened to me, and I want you to imagine what you would have done in the same situation. I also want to invite you to imagine how the scenario turned out. It could be fun!

This happened a couple of weeks ago. It was about 1 in the morning, and I was watching the end of a West Coast baseball game. Suddenly, I heard a knock on the door. It sounded like the same knock my mother uses when she drops by, but I couldn't imagine she'd be out at this hour, so I went and looked through the peephole. I saw standing there a young man I didn't recognize, wearing a wife-beater tank top, a couple gold neck chains, and a scraggly beard and mustache. He kept looking around, kind of twitchy, like he was expecting something bad to happen. I didn't like the look of him, but I opened the door.

He said, "Hey, man, I locked myself out of the house. Can I use your phone?"

I nodded, and he started walking directly back to the bedroom. I had to stop him and indicate that the phone was in the kitchen. He smelled vaguely of beer and cigarettes. I showed him to the phone and sat down to watch the game. I kept an eye on the man in the kitchen. He was talking quietly but incessantly, pacing back and forth, poking his head out every so often to look at me. I tried to be casual, but I found myself propping my chin up on my bat.

He noticed; I heard him tell his friend that I was sitting in the living room with my bat. I reddened a bit and laid the bat aside and tried to focus on the game. But the call went on, and on, and on. He must have been on for a good twenty minutes. What could he possibly be talking about? At last he finished, and came and stood in the living room, saying nothing, looking around. He asked the identity of the woman in the picture on my dining-room table. I told him it was my mother.

"She's a beautiful woman," he said, still looking around.

"So, did you get all set up?" I asked.

"Yeah," he said, "I'm gonna go to my friend's house. Can I get you to give me a lift?"

A lift? This sounded strange. Didn't he have a car? "Where's your friend's house?" I asked.

"Oh, not far," he said.

"How far?"

"Just up the road a little. I'd walk it, but I don't want to be out on the streets at night. It's not safe. But I guess you know that -- that's why you've got the bat there."

"Actually, I always keep it with me when I'm watching ballgames." This is, technically, true. I took a moment to size him up. I was taller than him, but he was in better shape. I didn't think I could take him hand-to-hand. And this was assuming that he wasn't packing a weapon. I didn't like the idea of being alone in a car with this guy at night. But I didn't see how I could reasonably turn him down.

We got into the car, and he gave me directions in dribs and drabs. "Right here. Left up there." He went on about how he'd been jumped on two separate occasions walking alone at night. "You ever been jumped?"

"No," I said.

"You're lucky." He paused. "You like living here?"

"It's all right," I said. "You?"

"I like it fine," he said. "But I'm not planning to stay here."

"Oh yeah? Where you headed?"

"I don't know yet. I could go anywhere. I'm in sales, and the good thing about my business is that I can live anywhere, just set up my office and I'm in business."

"That's convenient." What kind of sales? He didn't seem eager to say, so I didn't ask.

"Left up here." We pulled down a dark residential street. All the lights seemed to be out up and down the block.

"Fifth house on the right. Look for the basketball hoop."

I squinted -- it was awfully dark. "Fifth house, you say?"

"Yeah. You know, you seem like a real healthy guy."

A real healthy guy? What sort of remark was that? How odd. But I just smiled and said, "Thanks." Then I spotted the hoop. I pulled over to the side of the road and prepared for what was next.

"Well," he said.

"Well," I said.

"This is it. Hey, thanks a lot for the lift, man." He offered his hand and I shook it. He offered me money and I declined.

"What did you say your name was?" I asked.

"Ben," he said.

"Hey, Ben, take care of yourself."

"You too, man."

And he walked away toward his friend's house. And I turned around and drove home.

So, did you guess right? Everyone I've told this story to says the same thing. "You were crazy to let him in! I'd have barred the door and gone to sleep. How could you get into a car with him?"

So I ask them if this means they don't believe in helping people in trouble. "Oh, no, of course not," they say. "But at that hour... a guy who looks like that... you've got to be smart."

If I'd heard this once of twice, I'd assume that some of my friends just weren't trusting people. But I've told this story several times, to several people, and they all assume he was up to no good, and they all think I was crazy to let him in. I notice a pattern.

From my perspective, if someone comes to me needing help, I'll offer that help. It's just the way I am, and the way I've always been. I do this because I want to live in a world where we can depend on the kindness of strangers when we need help.

But wanting something doesn't make it so. And it appears that my attitude toward helping people is not shared by the world at large. So, for those of you who wouldn't have opened the door for this guy, I'm curious about where you set the limits. Does it matter if your neighborhood has a particular reputation for being safe or unsafe? Would you have helped him if he'd been a 75-year-old woman? Would you have helped him if he'd been dressed professionally, rather than as a wannabe gangster? Would you have helped him if he'd come by at 3 in the afternoon? How about 7? Is there a time limit beyond which people seeking help are turned away?

Or is it a combination of factors? Did the combination of the hour, his appearance and his demeanor just make the situation seem too threatening? Do you just have a sixth sense that tells you when to let someone in and when to slip the chain lock on and go to bed?

Or was I right to help? Are my friends just a particularly cynical bunch of city slickers? I'd be heartened, if surprised, to find this was true.

I guess my point is this. Once upon a time, we believed in helping our neighbors. If we saw a stranded motorist, or someone who needed a hand up or a door held open, or a neighbor locked out of his house, we helped that person out. It was simply how things were done in this country.

Now we hear horror stories every day about what happens to people who try to help. They get mugged or shot or abducted for their efforts. We're taught to assume that the guy trying to hitch a ride is probably a serial killer, and that the guy who stops to pick up the hitchhiker is probably a serial killer too. Keep your head down, ignore the panhandlers, keep to yourself, and for God's sake don't go out at night, especially alone.

Once upon a time, we assumed that the stranger we didn't know was a friend. Now, we assume he's an enemy.

You think maybe we should let that bother us?

I look forward to reading your comments. Leave them below. And see you tomorrow!

Posted by Fred at September 8, 2004 04:47 PM

I'm plenty happy to help my neighbors, in broad daylight, with plenty of people around.

Posted by: ensie at September 8, 2004 05:15 PM

I'd like to think I would help my neighbors, but I really dislike them. Maybe if I lived somewhere else...

Oh, and the "You seem like really healthy guy" is pretty creepy.

Posted by: frinklin at September 8, 2004 10:19 PM
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