The do-gooder ninja strike force all star team
The fog curled over the hills in thick purple skeins, like ghostly tendrils spiraling around the city and portending rain.
On the doorstep, I plugged music into my ears and shouted over my shoulder that I’d be back in twenty minutes, plenty of time for dinner — but of course I had no way of knowing I’d end up kidnapping a pair of elderly gypsies, abandoning them in the urban wild just as the new rain began to fall.
I had always thought of myself as a better person. Someone who helps others in need. Someone who lends a hand.
Whenever I thought of “doing good,” the term “false imprisonment” was never part of the equation.
They were on the sidewalk, shuffling along like some lost caravan of the indigent. The man was stooped and frail, pushing a walker in front of him and trailing a noxious wake of booze behind him. Because he wasn’t moving quickly, the wake more or less billowed around him, reminding me of that Peanuts cartoon character who was forever enshrouded in a dirt cloud. It was as if the kid suddenly became a Shriner and exchanged his go cart for a walker and his dirt cloud for something more socially acceptable, like gin.
The elderly woman at his side was even shorter. Gray hair pulled back tightly and with a long, pointed nose, she looked like a storybook witch in leisure wear, crab-walking along the sidewalk while trying to help the man push the walker along.
As I jogged by, I heard her mumble something like, “Come on!” in an exasperated whisper, while he coughed out something like, “I’m trying, I’m trying. Please.” They both spoke in short, mumbled whispers, and I guessed from the bickering undertone that they must be married.
The walker had run into a sidewalk crack and they took a moment to rest before lifting it together and shuffling a few more feet. By this time, I had already passed them and couldn’t help glancing over my shoulder. The rubber nubs of the walker’s legs had hit another crack and they were clearly preparing for the effort to lift it again. I didn’t have much experience with walkers, but I was still pretty sure they were supposed to help you along, as opposed to the other way around.
It was the saddest scene I had witnessed in quite some time, this slow, crippled waltz down the sidewalk. And yet, at the same time, it filled me with a momentary joy.
Here were two people who clearly stood by each other through thick and thin and all manner of infirmities. Isn’t that what we all hope for?
Practically every time a discussion of the elderly comes up, I think of the curious arrangements of native cultures, the older generations left to fend for themselves in wild prairies or on melting ice floes. I’ve never done the research to see if this is actually true. The mental picture is too rich to ruin it with reality. I imagine what that must be like, waking up one morning only to discover all the other teepees had vanished in the night: One moment you’re warm and snugly under your furs, maybe there’s a few dying embers left in the fire, and the next moment you peek outside your door, your hand instinctively covering your mouth as you survey the deserted prairie and mutter the Indian equivalent of “Oh jesus fuck.”
So it was heartening to see this frail, trembling man still had someone by his side. He hadn’t been abandoned.
It had nearly been twenty minutes since I left the house. I would be expected home soon. The fog grew thicker, spectral ropes twisting through streets. Rain drops started to fall. I had no cellphone, no way of calling Dana to tell her that no, I hadn’t been struck by a horrible San Francisco driver — I had merely stopped to help out an elderly couple.
I would be late. Dana would worry. Emmeline would pester her with 5,000 questions: Where’s daddy? Is he dead? What does dead mean? When you wake up from being dead, can you watch some TV? Does this mean we can get a dog now?
And yet, I couldn’t just leave them there, on the sidewalk, struggling to make it someplace safe and warm before the downpour. In retrospect, it probably should have occurred to me that they had managed just fine for decades without my intervention. But I had already made a decision.
“Do you need some help?” I asked.
“Oh yes,” the man mumbled, light shining in his eyes. “Oh please, yes, thank you.”
The woman stopped, appraised me for a moment and then sneered, “We’re fine, thanks.”
These are approximations of what I think they must have said. They both mumbled in a terribly low, heavily accented tone and although I could never be sure exactly what they were saying, I quickly glommed onto the idea that the man immediately regarded me as the hero stranger I thought I was while the woman held me in the position equivalent to benign interloper. I liked the man’s vision better and used two hands to latch on to his walker.
“Here you go,” I said, “Just a few feet a time.”
I held my breath as he coughed a boozy “thank you” and glanced at the corner, where a bus stop seemed like the logical conclusion of their journey.
“Is that where you’re going? To the bus?” I asked.
The man mumbled something like “bah!” and pointed frantically. He could have meant anywhere. To the bus. To the corner bar. It could have been a signal to turn him around and head back home. I nodded my head and continued to help him along, just a few inches at a time. Wherever we were headed, we had a lot of time to get there.
The man suddenly stopped and put a hand on my own. His fingers felt like cold paper. They were light, almost weightless. His hand moved up my arm and then around to my back. The woman inched closer and I instinctively tapped my rear pocket where I normally keep a wallet. Then the man said, “thank you” again and moved his hand back to the walker, preparing to inch along.
I felt enormous shame.
Here he was offering the kindness of touch and praise, creating a real bond between strangers, and all I could think of was that I had been swindled by a pair of pickpockets.
“No problem,” I muttered.
We fell into an uneasy routine. On my side of the walker, I lifted too quickly, while the stooped, elderly witch on the other side lifted too slowly. The result was that the man in the middle hobbled and lurched forward. In no time at all, the man’s frail arms began to shake and he refused to move his feet. He said something about needing a break and I resisted the temptation to ask “already?” and point out that we had only moved five feet.
“Thank you,” the woman said as we stood there, waiting. Her tone was different than the man’s. While his offered genuine thanks, hers seemed to imply that I had done my duty — that I had helped enough and was freed to move along and find other, more needy infirm among the populace.
“Thank you,” she said. It sounded more like, “Get lost.” And at the rate of our movement, I have to admit I gave it serious thought.
It was the perfect out. I had helped. I had done something kindly — for the elderly, and crippled. It was a trifecta of do-goodery, and I tried to think of an elegant exit. Do I simply nod and walk away? Do I continue jogging? I didn’t want to give them the appearance that I actually wanted to run away at the first opportunity, but to be fair, I was jogging before I found them.
But the man grabbed my hand again.
“Please,” he mumbled, “Don’t leave.”
He shot a look to the side, at the woman, and I wondered what I had just gotten myself into. One moment I think they are a sweet elderly couple and the next I think I had just been waylaid by a pair of scheming pickpockets. And now I was beginning to wonder if I had just intervened in the world’s slowest kidnapping. Was she even his wife at all?
“You know,” I said quietly to the man, “You can tell me anything.”
His eyes lit up and he moved his hand to my back again, just above my butt, and I made a note to choose my words more carefully in the future. The woman rolled her eyes and started shoving the walker along, forcing the man to catch up.
Our movement was glacial. I checked my watch. In the span of 10 minutes, we had moved 10, maybe 15 feet. We still had a long way to go to the corner bus stop, and the man was shaking violently with effort.
It was about this time that a car rolled up to the curb at our side. The door opened and a woman fell out, landing flat on her stomach on the wet sidewalk in front of us. It sounded like a lump of meat had fallen off a hook and lay there, moaning. Our little three-person caravan stared, unbelieving.
My first instinct was to rush over and help the poor woman on the ground. But the man in the walker was shaking so badly that I sensed if I let go he would surely tumble to the ground as well.
A normal person would have probably called for help at this point. But I looked around for hidden cameras, thinking that this wasn’t some strange cosmic calamity of the elderly — the crippled falling from the heavens like some gray-haired pestilence — but rather, someone was surely fucking with me. I watched a show a few weeks ago about Heidi Klum working in a pizza parlor. The idea was to put big stars in everyday situations and then film the results, as people did double takes, as if to say, “Hey, aren’t you …?” I wondered briefly whether the man at my arm was really Abe Vigoda and the woman Betty White.
“By any chance do you know Rue McClanahan?” I asked the gypsy woman across from me.
“Who?” she snapped, “Don’t you have something better to do?”
The man interrupted us, coughing, “Don’t leave.”
The man driving the car rushed around to help the fallen woman off the ground and she appeared unhurt. The pair disappeared into the corner bar. From the smell of the man at my side, I guessed that’s where we were headed too, but when we finally got to the corner, he turned the walker down the sidewalk and continued puffing along.
“There’s the bus stop,” I motioned, in case he had overlooked that, too.
“Just three more blocks,” he said, or at least that’s what I thought he said.
“Three blocks,” he mumbled again, “Maybe four.”
I checked my watch. It had been nearly half an hour and we had moved half a block. Although I’m not the person NASA consults when it needs to solve a huge problem involving mathematics, something told me I’d be out here all night, and I cursed myself for not running away when given the chance.
How much help is enough help?
I had always thought of myself as a helpful person, someone who wants to perform good deeds for the sake of doing something good. Things like Karma and the Golden Rule always bothered me. The Golden Rule, for instance, is really a selfish mantra. Treat people well, and you’ll get the same in return. Why not just treat people well because it’s the right thing to do? Does everything always have to come back to you? The same goes for the popular connotations of Karma. People never throw good deeds into the universe for the sake of simply doing something good, but rather for the hope that either those good deeds will come home someday — or, even better, bad things will overlook them altogether. It sounds more like an insurance policy.
Guiding this wayward couple home, I remembered all the parables I had learned as a child. Even the story of the Good Samaritan always got to me. It’s never told with the intent of doing good — as people always assume — but with the idea of securing your place in heaven. The moral of the story comes in response to a question from a lawyer (of course, right?). Do good deeds — be like the Samaritan on the road, helping a fallen traveler — and you’ll win eternal happiness. And then there’s the Jewish parable about the elderly grandfather who is given a wooden bowl and made to sit in a corner, alone, while the rest of his family enjoys dinner, because the old man was always breaking dishes and spilling crap on the floor. Well one day the elderly guy’s son spots his own boy trying to craft a wooden bowl out of some scraps.
“What are you doing?” the man asks the boy, and the boy responds that he’s making a wooden bowl for when the father becomes elderly just like grandpa.
Of course the next day grandpa is invited back into the fold, seated at the main table no matter how much food he spills or how many dishes he breaks. But is he back at the table because he’s a part of the family, no matter how infirm, or because the asshole father is just afraid of what his own boy will do to him someday?
Just yesterday I happened to see the modern-day bumper sticker translation of this parable on a minivan parked on our curb: “Be Nice To Your Kids: They’ll Choose Your Nursing Home.” I wondered if the minivan owner knew the millennia-old origins of this epiphany, this internal struggle humankind has had for untold generations, this instinctual drive to do good … or else. Does anyone, I wonder, perform good deeds selflessly? Merely for the sake of good? Or is it a human failing to always look out for number one?
The rain began to come down in bursts, peppering us with icy bullets. The man’s arms began to shake even more violently and he said he needed to stop.
“There’s a cab!” the gypsy woman shouted, raising her arms to hail the taxi. The yellow car stopped and I saw the driver appraise the scene — me holding up the elderly man while the frail, bedraggled smurf of a woman suddenly found the energy to leap up and down. The driver turned his head and drove away.
“Here,” I said, edging the walker toward the shelter of the bus stop, “Let’s stop here for a moment.”
“No, please,” the man said, while I steered him toward the bus seats.
“Nice and comfy,” I replied, “just for a moment.”
The man protested again. “We can make it,” he wheezed. But by this time the gypsy woman had returned and she must have sensed what I was up to.
“No,” she said, “It’s a good idea. We’ll wait here for a taxi. Thank you for your help.”
I settled the man into the bus stop seat. He slumped over uncomfortably, his arms still shaking violently as his chest heaved for air. His eyes appeared wet and sad and defeated. I checked my watch. The woman moved to the edge of the sidewalk, stooped and broken, trying to raise her arm to hail a cab.
“So we’re good then?” I smiled, “OK then, you guys have a great night!”
And then I ran home as fast as possible through the ghostly fog, dodging rain bullets and feeling a touch of shame for taking so much personal pride in performing such a good deed, completely and utterly selflessly.