Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Crossing the line: When do we stop being bystanders?

When do we stop standing by?Having written about bystander nonintervention just last week, I have my own bystander experience to describe to you.

I was counting myself lucky to get a seat in the crush of the rush hour subway train out of Government Center. I was about to bury my head in a book when I saw her.

She swayed unsteadily on her feet, leaning hard against the door to the subway car. In swollen red hands, she clutched a bottle of Dr. Pepper and a plastic shopping bag. Her fingers fumbled clumsily at the handles of the plastic bag, try to shift its weight off her wrist. She tried to lift a stubbed-out cigarette butt to her lips, but there was something wrong with her aim--she kept missing her mouth until finally she gave up.

A row of nickel-plated rivets marched up the sides of her bellbottom jeans. She was about the age of my 20-year-old son.

And that's when I realized that she was high.

As the train sped along, her eyes closed as she leaned back against the door, rocking with the motion of the car. Slowly, slowly, her head nodded and then fell far forward. Just as the rest of her was about to follow, she snapped her head up, waking in time to pull herself up. Her mouth hung open.

All the way past Maverick and Airport she swayed, her head falling forward, eyes shut tight, nodding off and losing balance, then jerking upright. Just when I thought she'd collapse in a heap on the subway car floor, some internal force would shake her and pull her up. The other passengers either ignored her or pointed at her, laughing quietly among themselves. The woman next to me met my eyes and shook her head in disapproval.

I was about to stand to offer her my seat at least, insist she sit down, when some homing instinct alerted her that her stop was next. The train stopped, the doors slid open, and she stumbled outside onto the platform. As the doors closed, and the train pulled away, she stood looking dazed as if uncertain where she was and thinking was too great an effort. She leaned against a metal fence and sank to the platform, her eyes closed. That was the last I saw of her.

I was the only one who watched her leave.

For the rest of the ride home and well into the evening, and even now, days later, I asked myself what I should have done. I had sat there, watching as this woman, this girl really, my son's age, placed herself in harm's way. I had sat there, wondering what to do, paralyzed by indecision. A thousand things went through my mind. Did she need medical attention? How would she get home? Did she even have a home? Despite the rough-looking hands, her nails bore signs of a recent manicure and her eyebrows were painstakingly plucked. She must have had a home. But would she get there safely? In that state she was vulnerable--to sexual assault, physical abuse, worse. I wanted to do something, but I didn't know what.

And to tell you the truth, I was afraid. If I'd offered to help somehow, would she have turned angry, violent even? What if somehow I made things worse?

But this was someone's daughter, someone's sister. There but for the grace of God go any of us or anyone we love.

At what point should we cease being bystanders? At what point do we take responsibility for others? At what point do we get involved?

And why do I feel the need to assert my own anti-bystander credentials in telling you this story? I am the kind of person who stops at accident scenes on highways to render aid and give the homeless along Park Street money, coffee, and food. I have come to the rescue of lost toddlers in shopping malls and runaway dogs in the street.

So why was this different? Why did I do nothing this time? And what will I do next time?

What about you? What will you do?

Will you stand by? Or will you stand up?