if you see something, do you say something?


Today, after work, I walked down the subway stairs to get on the 2 and head home. While I was standing on the platform, I heard a soft, muffled crying. I turn to the right, the direction it was coming from, and see, far down the platform, up against a wall, a blur of a woman sitting on the ground. Her legs were stretched out in front of her and she was lurching her torso forward, as if in pain, saying, “Somebody call an ambulance! I need help. Help. Someone help me.”

I tried to make out what she looked like, but she was too far away. She just looked like a woman amongst bags and blankets, her speech at times indecipherable, so automatically I assumed she was one of many New York City homeless people. Part of me wanted to run over and help her, but part of me held myself back with the thoughts of all the possible dangerous situations I could get myself into approaching a unpredictable stranger.

Everyone must have been either thinking the same things I was thinking or worse. Nobody moved to help her. Some stared and shook their head in disgust, while others just looked away. Finally, two girls went over to see what was wrong. I moved about 15 feet closer to see what was going on – partly worried for the two girls’ safety, partly curious if this was a genuine cry for help.

The woman on the ground, as it turned out, only had two plastic bags with her, and a purse on lap, as opposed to the many bags and blankets I thought I saw. She was young, probably in her 20s, with high heeled shoes on. She was touching her chest and saying, “Call an ambulance.” She handed her cell phone to the two girls. Not being able to get service underground, the one girl said, “I’ll be right back, I’m going to get help!” and both girls ran upstairs, to the MTA booth, I assume.

At this point, my train had arrived and I boarded, heavy ladened with a bunch of conflicting thoughts. On one hand I was thinking: Why had I written that woman off as being insincere and undeserving of my help? Why didn’t I go over to help her? What if that was my mother on the ground or one of my sisters or my beloved girlfriend who I have become more protective of than my ATM pin? What if it was one of them and everyone ignored them and they ended up dying? On the other hand I was telling myself: You never know what someone has up their sleeve. You’re in a different environment here in NYC than anywhere else, you can’t trust anyone. Someone else will help, you don’t have to be the one to do so.

Wrong or right, it’s assumed here, that there are lot more sketchy, scheming people than elsewhere. If someone gives you a slightly weird look, you hold your bag a little tighter and break eye contact. If someone mumbles something to you, you ignore them – regardless of if it’s an “excuse me,” “hey, have you got the time?” or anything of the like. Personally, for me, I’ve seen all of these sentences turn out to be not so innocent and because of that, I just completely keep from making eye contact. I know it’s to keep myself safe, but have I become completely de-sensitized? So much that when someone is calling out for help, I assume they have a gun waiting to shoot me or a strong hand to pull me away into the darkness to rape me? If someone was really in need, how could you tell? Would you be willing to take the chance?

I remember the first time I heard the story of Kitty Genovese, the young woman who was stabbed to death in the parking lot in front of her building while reportedly 38 onlookers/witnesses did nothing to help – either thinking it was a lover’s quarrel, a drunken scuffle, prank by kids, etc, even though she screamed, “Oh my God! He stabbed me! Help me!” One phone call was made, but never acted on by the police in time – the severity of the situation failed to be reported by the caller, who thought the young woman was just beaten up, not stabbed. This story made famous the term “bystander effect,” which means that larger numbers of bystanders decrease the likelihood that someone will step forward and help a victim. This could be either because an onlooker sees that others are not helping either, or that onlookers believe others will know better how to help, and that onlookers feel uncertain about helping while others are watching. It’s like no one wants to be the Good Samaritan in front of an audience.

For me, I put myself and my safety first. If I felt that it was unsafe to help this woman, there was probably a reason for it. But even still, for some reason, I can’t shake it. There’s no conclusion I have come to, regarding this subject, as there are still too many “what if”s rolling around my head. But the biggest one of all is, “What if that woman was me and nobody helped?


~ by angiesyounglover on March 23, 2009.

One Response to “if you see something, do you say something?”

  1. See? This is why I want to carry a gun. Well, actually, that’s not exactly an appropriate reason, but I just like guns.

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