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The Apathy of Strangers
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
I rarely read The Journal Gazette anymore but when I do I must admit I have an unhealthy attraction to the "Cheers/Jeers" section on the editorial page. In the beginning, the whole "Cheers/Jeers" concept probably sounded like a good idea — give the people a chance to voice a simple "yea" or "nay" on civic issues, and thereby take the pulse of the community — but the column has become so overrun with personal grudges and boneheaded cheerleading that is now only succeeds as campy entertainment. Instead of inspiring a spirited public debate on important subjects, "Cheers/Jeers" is nothing more than a sounding board for cranks who had their nativity display stolen or wet-eyed parents saluting their middle-school's production of Brigadoon.
A good portion of the "Cheers/Jeers" letters come from citizens who want to thank the kindness of strangers — i.e., the man who helps the elderly couple change a tire, the teenager who returns a lost wallet to the distraught owner — but even in these reports I can't help feeling a little uneasy. While it's nice to know that Fort Wayne has plenty of Good Samaritans, it's distressing to learn that so many people have become so enfeebled by life that they can't execute the simplest of daily activities without help from others. It seems there is a huge population in the city teetering on the edge, ready to fall into the abyss of disaster unless a reliable corps of alert benefactors is there to catch them.
My faith in the goodness of Mankind is in direct proportion to my faith in myself, so I'm not too sure that the city's needy are in such good hands. Two weeks ago I was driving on East Main, and I pulled up to the stoplight at Clay Street, near the train overpass. There was a pick-up truck in front of me, and before the light turned green, the driver put the truck in "Park," turned on his flashers, then stepped out of the car. There were five or six cars behind the truck, and we were now trapped at the intersection as the light turned green. I did what you would have done — blared the horn, yelled at the guy from my car window. Fortunately I was able to negotiate my way around the vehicle, and as I sped through the turn, I could see why the guy had stopped. An elderly woman was on the ground, crying, with her cane five feet away, and the man was crossing traffic to help her. "I'm fallen and I can't get up" has become a popular punch line now, but the reality of the woman's situation elicited no laughter from me, and before I hit the Columbia Street bridge I was already cursing myself for my heartlessness. I thought I was going to be late for a meeting with a friend, but as it turned out I was five minutes early, which humiliated me — five minutes was more than enough time to do the right, decent thing. So, in the spirit of The Journal Gazette's weekend editorial page, I'd like to say "Cheers" to the good-hearted man who did the right thing, and "Jeers" to the creep (me) who didn't.
I spend most of my days in an irreligious state so I know how hypocritical it is to evoke the language of the pious. Still, I must say, that I sinned greatly here. It is wrong to be so effortlessly unaware. And I have no political axe to grind, I don't care about that "it takes a village" crap, I just know it's a sin to be so blind. As soon as you get in the car in the morning, you've interjected yourself into the world, and it's your duty to keep your eyes open and display a tiny bit of empathy for the others out there.
And before you form that rationalization in your mind, let me beat you to the punch: I know what you're thinking. You got a job, you raise your kids, you pay taxes, you give to the United Way and you bought bottled water for the victims of Katrina. Surely that evens the slate? The answer is, probably not. If you think so, then ask yourself if you've ever walked past someone who was being victimized. Because I'm betting you have. And I'm betting you did nothing. I once saw a woman screaming for help on Berry Street because a scary looking man had snatched her purse and I drove by. I watched the whole thing from my car window and decided it was best not to get involved. I thought I was at peace with my choice — what was I expected to do, after all? — but my conscience kept at me for weeks, shaming me for my inaction. It's a funny thing about cowardice; no matter what age you are, when you run away you instantly become twelve years old again, ducking the class bully by hiding out in the bathroom.
But maybe you're better than me. I hope so. To my credit, I have managed to conquer my fear and embarrassment a few times and actually put myself in the fray, but not often enough. I know I'll have my chances in the future, though, and to embolden myself I remember an event I witnessed at college, an act of courage that I've never forgotten. An evangelical preacher was damning everyone to hell and three meatball-looking frat guys decided they'd had enough. They circled the preacher, whispered threats to him, placed their bodies in physically intimidating positions. The preacher was scared, he was shaking, a fifty-year old man suddenly reduced to childlike stammering. It was abominable, sickening. Like everyone else, I was stunned and frozen.
Fortunately, though, for the preacher, for me, and for (forgive my purple excess) humanity, a student in the crowd decided to act. He shouted "That's it!" and then proceeded to shove each frat boy, hard, with both hands, out of the preacher's face. The frat boys were too surprised to react, and each one stared blankly as the student tossed them aside, one by one. He then screamed them down, and stood beside the preacher, fists raised. A couple of students (including, finally, me) stood up with the preacher and the student and after some heated name calling, the confrontation evaporated. After the adrenaline died down, I went up to the student and shook his hand. He was still shaking. It was then I noticed what he was wearing — tight bicycle shorts, eyeliner, dangling ear rings — in other words, Gay College Student, circa 1985. Probably the first group the preacher had damned to hell. I still don't know what to make of all that. But it's the bravest thing I've ever seen.