Continuing this sporadic blog experiment:
The other night, I got off work a little after midnight and was walking home from the transit station. I was about to cut into an alleyway (alleyways are always so much more interesting to walk than streets), when I noticed a small woman and a large man shouting at each other about a block away from me (I think they were both somewhat drunk). I decided to skip the alley, and as I got closer I heard the woman yell:
I don’t want to take you fucking home with me! Not now, you’re fucking crazy!
The man was speaking and posturing aggressively (did I mention that he was quite large? tall and broad-shouldered). I also noticed that the woman had her cell phone in her hand. Nobody else was around and no traffic was going by.
So, what would you do if you were me, and found yourself in that situation? Don’t default to what you think the “right” thing to do would be, and don’t bother with what you would want to do, what do you think you would actually do?
[It has been awhile since I posted anything in this series, but it is one of my favourite things to do with this blog. I think it is an important exercise in creative thinking. Often we will encounter events or people in life and, because they are new to us, we are unsure of how to respond. Only after the fact do we tend to think, ‘Shit, this is what I should have done…’. Therefore, I think these exercises can help prepare us to be more conscious to some of these situations, especially, given my own focus, to situations involving street-involved people.]
About a month ago, I stopped into the small coffee shop close to my work to get some caffeine before my shift started. When I entered the shop I noticed a young woman and a security guard standing by the bar and I originally thought that they were both waiting on drinks (no security guards work there, but they do have an office close by — I work in a bit of a sketchy neighbourhood). However, I soon realized that the security guard had been called into the shop because the young woman (about 20 years old?) was acting strangely and aggressively. She was talking to herself, posturing, and going through a wallet — throwing most of its contents into the garbage. Both the security guard and the girl working at the shop seemed at a bit of a loss as to how to respond to this situation. The guard tried speaking to her, but she ignored him. I ordered my coffee and as I waited I noticed that the young woman was not wearing any shoes or socks and that she was also wearing what appeared to be pajama bottoms.
So, what would you do if you were me? Don’t tell me what you think would be a good thing to do, or what you would want to do. What, if anything, do you think you would actually do?
I was standing with my wife, waiting for the traffic light to change. Just behind me was a woman sitting on the sidewalk, panhandling. She looked unwell. Like she was high, or like she needed some kind of medication for her mental health. In front of her was a sign that said: “Abusive Ex Left Me Homeless, Please Help With Money for Food and Shelter”.
Anyway, I was standing with my wife, waiting for the traffic light to change, when I heard a voice behind me:
God! That is the most retarted sign I have ever seen. I mean, seriously, you really need to change your sign. Fuck. It’s so fucking retarted.
So, I turn around and see a young man — probably in his early twenties, standing in front of the homeless woman. He’s looking down on her contemptuously, and mocking her in between drags on his cigarette. Taking his time with it, you know?
There are other people walking by, not taking any notice.
So… if you were in this situation, what would you do? Seriously, not what would you want to do, but what do you think you would actually do?
There is a fellow in my neighbourhood that most everybody knows. He’s a cheerful fellow and he tends to make others feel cheerful as well. He busks for change in the nicer parts of downtown and always has a song, or a joke, or a witty comment at hand. Granted, he’s always hustling, but he tends to make you feel good about being hustled.
Lately, however, I have been learning more about another side that this fellow has. I’ve always suspected that he was a ‘runner’ for some of the drug dealers in the neighbourhood (the roller blades are a bit of a giveaway) and this suspicion was recently confirmed. However, the way in which that information was confirmed bothered me a great deal.
I happen to be friends with a young woman who used to be very actively addicted to crack (thank God, she now has over a year of clean time). When she was jonzing, the fellow whom I have been discussing, would often find her and lead her to his hook-ups so that she could score what she needed. However, on two occasions, instead of leading her to dealers, he led her into traps and handed her over to men who raped her and beat her.
After the first assault, she reported what had happened to the police. The police, seeing that she was addicted to crack, accused her of being a prostitute (which she was not), and told her that sometimes clients got rough (which was not what had happened to her and which, by the way, is not okay anyway), and then they asked her if she was sure that she wasn’t “asking for it.” Needless to say, the cops made her feel like a piece of shit and then took no further action. Of course, she did learn one thing: that cops only deepen the trauma, and so after the second assault she did not file a report.
Anyway, all of that leads to the situation I am in now. Because here’s the thing: this cheerful fellow, who also handed my friend over to be raped, happens to be a fellow that I see on a regular basis. In light of what I now know, how am I to respond to him (especially knowing that the police won’t be any help in this situation)? What would you do? Next time he passes you and wants to talk, or sing a song, or whatever, how do you think you, as a Christian, should respond to him?
Over the last few months I’ve posted five different scenarios that I have (somewhat unexpectedly) encountered here in Vancouver, and I have asked my friends here what they would do if they were in those situations. Briefly restated, these were the scenarios I mentioned:
(1) sitting by drunken frat boys on the bus who were talking about raping women;
(2) giving a lighter to somebody, only to realise that he was using it to light a crack pipe;
(3) pursuing a street-involved fellow who assaulted a young woman on the bus;
(4) finding the unconscious body of a sex worker in the gutter on my way to work;
(5) being present when a man struck a woman in the face in an argument on the street.
As I was thinking about, and rereading, the various responses I have received, I was struck by two things.
First, I realised that almost all of us were operating with the assumption that something should be done. The reason why I found this so striking was because of the amount of encounters that we have where we assume that nothing should be done, where we don’t even think about doing anything. I mean, what if I changed the scenarios a little bit. What if I related these scenarios:
(A) I was walking downtown at night and I saw somebody sleeping in a doorway, slowly getting soaked by the rain;
(B) I was walking by the park and I saw a woman covered with sores, tweaking out, and yelling at nothing.
Ask the question, “What would you do?” in relation to these scenarios and the answer would be a resounding, “Nothing” (at least if we are being honest). We’ve all seen people sleeping on the street, we’ve all encountered junkies — they’re just part of life in North American urban centres. None of us would even think, “Hey, maybe I should be doing something about this.” Ani DiFranco, sums this point up rather well in her song “Subdivision”:
I remember the first time I saw someone lying on the cold street
I thought, “I can’t just walk past you, this can’t just be true.”
But I learned by example to just keep moving my feet.
It’s amazing the things that we all learn to do.
The only reason that we think, “Hey, maybe we should do something” in relation to the five scenarios I’ve presented is because we haven’t become accustomed to such encounters in the way that we’ve been accustomed to seeing somebody sleeping outside, or seeing somebody tweaking out.
I realised this when I was thinking about the last scenario I mentioned — the scenario where the fellow hit his partner in the face. You see, almost nobody from my neighbourhood would have done anything in that situation; that sort of sudden, brief, and not very extreme, violence is normal in my neighbourhood. People here walk by a smack the same way that us suburban folks walk by a fellow sleeping on a grate.
The challenge for us is how to avoid becoming accustomed to situations of violence and dehumanisation. The challenge isn’t just having the courage to take action in the scenarios that I encountered; the challenge is to begin to question things that we have become accustomed to, asking ourselves, “hey, wait a minute, why am I not doing anything here?”
The second thing that struck me about the answers people gave to the scenarios I presented, was the amount of people that said that they would respond by “praying.” The reason why this struck me was because, as I reflected back on how I had responded to each event, I don’t think I prayed in any of them. I know praying is the real good Christian answer to all things, but I’ll tell you this much: in my experience, I have yet to see such prayer-in-the-moment make any difference whatsoever. Such prayers are like the prayers that children pray when their grandparents are dying: “Dear God, please don’t let Grandpa die.” But, of course, Grandpa does die. If all we’re doing is offering up a quick prayer-in-the-moment then I’d almost be inclined to say don’t bother because such prayers are almost always meaningless, so let’s not fool ourselves into some sort of sense of false comfort — i.e. I’ve prayed, so I’ve doing something meaningful and can now move on feeling good about myself (note that my emphasis here is upon one time prayers-of-the-moment, and not upon ongoing intercession).
Last night I was walking to work (after dark) and I passed a couple (they were street-involved) sitting in a doorway on the other side of the street, arguing quite loudly. Shortly after I passed them, I heard a loud smack, and turned around and realised that the man had struck the woman in the face. She was crying holding her head, and he had gotten up and was walking away towards the alley.
It’s one of those situations that makes you realise how helpless you are. I could have called the cops but, after realising that they were dealing with a brief (and now finished) scuffle between two homeless addicts, they probably wouldn’t have even bothered responding to the call. Even if they had responded they probably would have taken so long getting there that nobody would be left at the scene by the time they showed up.
I could have gone after the fellow but, I hesitated to do so for two reasons — both of which are related to the embrace of nonviolence. Thus, the first reason I hesitated was because I knew going after the guy would escalate the situation and, given the opportunity, I wasn’t sure if I could trust myself to stay nonviolent. However, my second reason for hesitating was even stronger — there would be nothing meaningful to say to the fellow if I caught up to him. What would I say? Hey, buddy, don’t hit women! Yeah, that would do a lot of good — maybe even piss him off enough that he would beat the shit of the woman later on because of me.
So, I paused for a moment, and thought, “what, if anything, should I do right now?” And so I figured I’d ask y’all. If you were in my position last night, what would you do?
[You know, in retrospect, I don’t think that I did the right thing, but I’ll wait to hear how others might have responded before I say what I did, and what I think I should have done.]
The neighbourhood in which I live has probably the highest concentration of “low-track” prostitutes in Vancouver. One night I was walking to the corner store and, in the space of a block and a half, I walked by nine working girls.
Tonight I was walking to work around 9:45pm with one of my housemates, when I spotted what I thought to be a pile of garbage in the gutter in front of a van that was parked on the far side of the road. Then, as we got closer, I thought somebody had left an old rolled up carpet in the street. However, as we got closer still, I realised that the “rolled up carpet/pile of garbage” was actually a human body lying in the gutter, partly under the front bumper of the van.
“Hey,” I asked my housemate, “is that a woman?”
“O my gosh,” she responded, “it is.”
Because the ladies that work my neighbourhood are low-track, they are targeted by violent johns, bad dates, and people who make women “disappear.” A few years ago, the bodies of 26 working girls from my neighbourhood were found on a farm just outside of Vancouver, and every now and again another lady is found — one cut up, killed, and left in a dumpster, another strangled and left in an alleyway — but there are still around 40 working girls from the downtown eastside that are on the “missing women” list provided by the Vancouver Police.
Therefore, when I realised that there was a women lying in the gutter my first thoughts were fearful. “Victim of a bad date,” I thought. “Picked up, beaten, and dumped by the side of the road.”
Oddly enough, I had actually come across a similar situation about two weeks ago. I was (once again) walking to work when I came across a man who seemed to have fallen backwards off of a concrete barrier at the end of an empty lot. He was half on the sidewalk and completely unconscious. I was unable to revive him and, worried that he had overdosed or had a seizure, I called 911 and they sent an ambulance to check him out.
When we realised that a woman was lying in the gutter, my housemate and I ran across the street and made it to the woman at about the same time as another man who had noticed her (he was already on his cell phone with a 911 operator). There weren’t any visible marks on the parts of the woman that were exposed but she was totally unresponsive. We were able to find a faint pulse but it looked as though she had stopped breathing.
It’s interesting what goes through your mind when you’re preparing to perform CPR in this sort of situation. I didn’t have anything to protect my mouth from direct contact with her mouth and — given her appearance and where we were — I was almost certain that she was an addict and a prostitute. My mind began working pretty fast: Did she have hepatitis? Did she have herpes? What if I got one of those? Furthermore, I began to think about what it would be like for her to wake up with a strange man’s mouth on hers — especially if she had experienced violence at the hands of a john. Would she respond to me with violent self-defense? Did she have any weapons on her? A dirty needle? What if she bit me? That would increase my chances of contracting some sort of disease. When I did my CPR training, I don’t remember being confronted with questions like these.
And so, I arrive at the question: if you were in this situation, what would you do?
The other day I was walking home from work around 9am and I noticed that there was a bus stopped in the middle of the road. Then I noticed a young woman, who was visibly shaken, standing in a nearby park and the bus driver was next to her talking on a cell phone. I went over to ask if everything was okay and the woman stated that she had been assaulted by a man on the bus. The driver was on the phone to the police. I asked the woman, “Can you still see the man?” and she said “yes” and pointed out a fellow in a black hooded sweater walking fast, about a block away. I knew the cops were coming, but I also knew that there were a lot of back alleys in this neighbourhood and it wouldn’t be hard for this fellow to disappear pretty fast. So, what would you do?
Two encounters I had recently made me do some soul-searching, and made we wonder how others would handle these situations. So, I’ll relate the scenarios with the hope that others might share how they would respond. I’m curious about this in part because I wasn’t entirely satisfied with how I responded to either one, and in part because I think that it might be such day-to-day encounters that reveal to us just how seriously we take our faith. Of course, as with any encounter in life, what we hope we would do, or what we say we would do, can often be quite different than what we actually end up doing. All the same, I am curious as to what others think they might have done in these situations.
(1) I was sitting on the back of the bus one night next to three other fellows who were on their way to a downtown club. They looked like the frat sort and they were all quite a bit larger than me. They had obviously had a few drinks before heading out and were all acting tough. In the midst of their banter one fellow declared: “Yo, man, I’m gonna rape a girl tonight!” Immediately a series of thoughts ran rapidly through my mind.
I thought about saying and doing nothing. I mean, these fellows were big and they were drunk and they were acting aggressively. I didn’t particularly feel like getting my ass kicked. But is it possible to ignore that sort of comment? What if this fellow wasn’t just “talking tough,” what if he actually did rape a girl that night? Wouldn’t I share in the responsibility if I sat by silently and said nothing when he announced his intentions? Or maybe I shouldn’t say anything, maybe I should just jump in and start swinging. I’ve known too many people that have encountered sexual violence and I know how absolutely horrible and shattering sexual violence is. Maybe it would be worth getting my ass kicked just to break that fellow’s nose and show him he can’t go around glorifying or trivializing rape. Yet wouldn’t I then just be perpetuating and embracing just another manifestation of the male violence that I claim to hate?
So, if you were me sitting next to these fellows at that moment, what would you do?
(2) I sometimes enjoy going for late night walks around my neighbourhood and I always make sure I carry a lighter when I walk (lighters make for great conversation starters — plus it’s good to have something in your pocket to hold onto when you’re walking around the ghetto late at night, but that’s a different story). Thus, when a fellow stopped me and asked if I had a lighter I didn’t hesitate to say that I did. However, I quickly realized that this fellow wasn’t interested in smoking cigarettes. As I pulled out my lighter, he pulled out a glass pipe and a ten dollar crack rock. I was taken a little off guard. It wasn’t that I was unaccustomed to being around people smoking crack — I see enough of that in the alleyways and streets around my house — it’s just that I didn’t expect the fellow to start smoking right there and then with my lighter. If I let him use my lighter wouldn’t I be supporting his addiction? Yet wouldn’t he find a light in the next few minutes anyway? If I let him use my lighter couldn’t I use that as an opportunity to share a few much needed good and gentle words with him?
So, if you were me standing on the sidewalk that night holding a lighter, what would you do?