Friday, September 4, 2009

When Did the Situation Get Such That We Cannot Even Extend a Helping Hand?

At one time, I would go out of my way to help even perfect strangers. If I happened to come across someone, especially women with children, stranded on the side of the road because of mechanical problems, I would invariably stop and lend whatever assistance I could. I’ve even paid for to have more than one vehicle to be towed somewhere out of concern about the safety of the driver.

At one time, I was inclined to give perfect strangers rides, and when I passed people in the street asking for change, for just a little something to help out, I usually gave them what I could just in case they were indeed hungry despite friends and family warning me that it would was all a scam, that the money would only go towards drugs and/or alcohol.

But those days are long gone. Time, circumstance, and reality have colluded to transform me into a skeptical, sometimes cynical, individual. Reality has gotten such that I now must carefully consider the situation and weigh the risks before extending a helping hand to strangers.

When did we slip into such a dark morass? When did it become such that we could not even help each other out?

As I made my way from my classroom to my car yesterday evening after completing my last class, I noticed a young black male who approached the groups of remaining students as they discussed their day or their plans for the weekend or whatever it is undergrads discuss these days.

As he made his way from one group to another, his blackness stood in stark contrast to the other students around him, and I then realized that he and I were seemingly the only two persons of color present on this section of the campus.

And as he drew closer, I realized that he was seeking a ride, that he was trying to determine if someone was going his way and would be willing to help him out.

And the responses he received ranged from polite refusal to downright contemptuous indignation. I quickly recognized, as did he by the crestfallen, defeated look on his face, that his efforts were futile; no ride was forthcoming.

But then he saw me standing there looking on, and his whole countenance changed to a look first of recognition, then relief. Not that I knew this student, mind you, or had ever taught him, but perhaps he could not help but recognize the familial resemblance.

As he approached, I sized him up. I noted the raggedy, unkempt dreads, the gold teeth, the sagging pants. I also noted the book bag which was relatively empty in comparison to the bulging, over-filled, first week of school backpacks and book bags of the other students. It made me wonder if he was indeed a student or one of those characters who seem to hang around every college campus even though they are not students and have not aspirations of being such.

So, when he finally asked, I firmly but politely said no. However, I was disarmed by the look of disdain that spread suddenly across his face. Or was it an expression of hurt? Or was it hurt disguised as disdain? I could not tell in the moment. But to assuage my guilt, I fished ten dollars out of my pocket and informed him of when I thought the next bus would depart. He responded with a rather disdainful look, almost a sneer (I was sure of it this time), murmured a spiteful thank you, and departed.

In the meantime, I lamented the fact that I may have missed the opportunity to help someone. I may have missed the opportunity to be a blessing to someone. Yet, I do not regret my decision at all. It is possible that this young black man may have indeed been a college student, a young man of color trying to get through school the best way he could just as I once was. Or he could have been someone searching for a victim.

Perhaps I will never know. When I return to campus, I’ve made a note to keep an eye out for him, to determine if someone else knows him, knows of him, and if he does turn out to be a student, lend him whatever assistance I can to increase his chances of being successful. That is, if he was not dissuaded by the whole turn of events.

I do have one regret; I regret that we have gotten to such a place that we can no longer even trust each other enough to lend a helping hand every now and then.


Reads4Pleasure said...

I agree Chele, it's very sad but true. I remember as a kid, my mother would slow down if she saw an elderly woman or man walking and ask if they needed a ride. Even as a child I gave her the side eye of life. I didn't understand it then, but I did as I got older. In today's time I wouldn't dream of giving anyone that I didn't know a ride. You never know when you could be scammed or become someone's next victim no matter how sincere and innocent they seem. When today's grandparents look like Frankie and Flava Flav instead of Big Momma and Big Poppa, I think I have reason to be hesitant.

joe said...

You don't owe anybody your trust Max, and you didn't owe him a ride. At least you gave him bus money, and provided him a means to get where he was going. That's more than anyone else did.

Issa Rae said...

I struggle with this same question. I tend to ALWAYS help people when they ask and if I have it. If you ask, then I'll give it to you because to me, it takes a lot of pride to ask for help.

I have witnessed my help be abused numerous times, but it doesn't stop me. I agree with Joe, you didn't need to give him your trust. You helped him, and he should be grateful for that, at least.

msladydeborah said...

The turns that our society have taken over the years has made it difficult to know what is safe to do and what is not safe.

I think that people who are use to extending out help struggle with this issue on a moment to moment basis. I have often questioned if I should of helped or was my refusal justified? It is often difficult for me to settle with the latter. But I am really concerned about my safety and well-being. So I have learned to go with my gut instincts.

Anonymous said...

It's funny you blogged about this... I had a VERY similar situation happen the other night. A (white) woman approached me in a gas station late at night saying she'd run out of gas a couple miles away & asked if I had a gas can. I had recently cleaned out my car and left it in the garage (???) or I'd have given it to her. I debated giving her a ride back to her car, but just couldn't risk it being a scam. I was actually driving to the airport and should have passed her car, but didn't see a disabled vehicle on my way there or back.

Anonymous said...

I was just thinking the same thing the other day when I saw someone asking for gas money at a convenience store. Unfortunately we live in a world where criminals prey on good Samaritans so it's easy to be wary of those who need help. We don't know what their intentions are. Especially as a woman we have to be careful. It is sad that the world has come to this point. I look forward to the day when we don't have to worry about things like this anymore.

S_Wash said...

You did your part to get him a way home that was acceptable, generous and kind. I appreciate the fact that you have after-thoughts of lending a hand if you spot him on campus again.

Charles J said...

It is a sad day when we can't help others. We live in a time when our lives could easily be taken by someone and all we were trying to do was be helpful. Max I think you found a safe middle ground. You helped the gentlemen by giving him $10.

I have this issue alot when I walk the streets of Baltimore. There are many homeless people who are in need and I often find myself donating my money to them when they ask. I feel it is my duty as some who is blessed with two nickels to rub together to bless someone else who doesn't have one. What they do with it is there business, I feel as though I was called to give not critique someone else on their lifestyle.

Vérité Parlant is Nordette Adams said...

Poignant post. It's understandable. We do look at how people present themselves before we help them sometimes. We assume unkempt people may be dangerous and well dressed folks are safe, which is why Ted Bundy was able to kill so many women. He didn't "look like" a serial killer at all. He was well-dressed and good looking. If he had had a beard, long stringy blond hair, wore a T-shirt and dirty jeans, would his victims have trusted him?

It's good that you will keep an eye for the young man because he could be just someone struggling along. But by his disdain, I think he assumes, as many African-Americans would assume, that the other people are avoiding him not because of how he's dressed but because he's black. (Skin color is a big factor but not the only factor.) When he sees you, he assumes that you should trust him because you're both black. But we've got crimes committed here everyday by black people against black people who think they know each other.

Go with your gut when you meet people. A healthy level of suspicion may save your life. At other times a healthy level of faith will make you a blessing.

I am saddened as well that we must walk with a certain level of distrust in order to survive.

uglyblackjohn said...

I would rather help a beggar than to be one.
But usually I trust my instincts.
If you didn't feel right helping the brotha' out - something was probably wrong.

I had a dude try to roll up on me and I just laughed and told him that I was so broke he was lucky I wasn't robbing him.
He went for it and went searching for the next victim.
I later called the police to notify them of the suspect.

Monica Roberts said...

I think you can trace a lot of what happened to us now back to the Reagan administration and the last 30 plus years under mean spirited conservative governments.

Their 'we don't care about anybody but ourselves attitude has unfortunately seeped down to the rest of us.

The High Road said...

For some reason this post reminded me of a verse in the Qur'an. "God won't change the condition of a people until they first change the condition of themselves."

I guess both the helper & the one needing help have some responsibility to bare in order for us to get compassion & common decency to flow freely like it was in the good old days.

md20737 said...

I think your insticts kicked in and as a man with a family you did what was right for you and them. You stated the book bag was thin and he was unkept. He could have been homeless, a drug addict, mentally unstable,a combo, or just a student. Either way you shouldnt have to take that chance. You gave help, when you didnt have to. If he truly needed a ride the bus is a good one. You gave him a starting point. It can cost your life now days lending a hand. This woman at Walmart in 05 let some one walk up on her looking for help. Turns out the guy kidnapped her and stabbed her to death & Walmart has it on Camera in AK. I am all for helping but not risking my life to help. I dont know if that makes me cautious or selfish either way I remain alive and unharmed and I am thankful for that.

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