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An Urban Morality Tale

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I was second in line for the register at the CVS, waiting to pay for a bottle of vitamins and a can of Ajax. The lady ahead of me clearly needed extra help. The cashier had come out from her place behind the counter to help the lady consolidate her shopping cart of stuff—mainly junk food and toilet paper—into three large bags. The lady was very short and obese, middle-aged, probably Latina. She was practically naked below the waist, her heavy thighs jiggling, but her calves were wrapped in Ace bandages. She wore a heavy, long black hoodie. Her dark hair, streaked with gray, was neatly pulled into a pony tail.

When she was finished, I stepped up to the register; my transaction was short. As I approached the store’s door, the lady was struggling: as soon as she exited the store, her shopping cart’s wheels had frozen up. She didn’t seem to realize the cart was going nowhere. I went back and told the cashier that the lady’s wheels had locked up. “I told her they would,” she replied, shaking her head. There was nothing she could do.

When I got back out to the sidewalk the lady was muttering to herself, trying to push the shopping cart. It was completely jammed, but the lady didn’t seem to realize it; she pathetically tried to push it along. Well, part of me just wanted to get on with my day, but the other part—my conscience, I suppose—wouldn’t let me.

“Can I help?” I asked. She was very sweet, with a beautiful smile. “Oh, yes,” she said. “Your cart is broken,” I explained. “Where are you going? Can I help you carry your packages?”

“Albuquerque,” she responded. Obviously I couldn’t leave her alone. She needed help. I took the heaviest bag as she started walking down Broadway, east toward the hills. I tried to make conversation. “Albuquerque is a long way from here,” I said. “Are you sure that’s where you’re going?”

“The Post Office,” she said.

“There is no Post Office this way,” I said,

“Oh yes there is,” she insisted. “On 41st Street.” Then I remembered, she was right. But we were on 30th Street. “That’s a long way from here,” I said. “And you can’t carry all your bags. Let me see if I can get someone to help.”

I asked her to put the bags on the sidewalk and wait while I turned away and dialed 9-1-1. I was on hold for maybe a minute and then the dispatcher answered. I told her the situation and described what the lady looked like. She said we were assigned a high priority and someone would be coming to help us.

We were now across the street from Sprouts. It was a beautiful, sunny day. “Let’s just wait here for a while,” I told my new friend, whose name was JoAnne. “Someone will be coming to help you.” She was exceedingly friendly, and while she didn’t have much to say, she answered all my questions; I tried to engage her. Yes, Albuquerque was a nice place. It was hot in the summer and cold in the winter and there were cacti. Yes, she had a son, 44, and a daughter, 22.

“You can’t have a 44-year old son,” I said. “You don’t look 44 yourself!” She smiled. She was leaning on her cane and didn’t look very steady. Just then a man showed up. “Would you like a chair?” He was a developer who was building the new condo building we were in front of. He went inside and got a folding chair and JoAnne sat on it. Then the man went away and said that we could just leave the chair there when we were finished with it.

If you’ve ever waited for a 9-1-1 call to show up, you’ll know what I was feeling. JoAnne kept trying to pick up her bags and walk down Broadway, but since she couldn’t carry all of them, and was unsteady on her feet, and was disoriented, how could I let her go? Why was she out on her own in the first place?

“Where do you live, JoAnne,” I asked.

“On 20th Street.” That was downtown, in the opposite direction from where she was trying to walk.

“Twentieth Street is back there.”

“Albuquerque,” she repeated. I smiled. She smiled. It was almost like a game.

The minutes ticked by. Every so often JoAnne would pick up one or two of her bags and set off up Broadway again. I realized that she was a free, sovereign being, entitled to go where she wanted; but still, was it right to let her go? And what about her third bag, the one she couldn’t carry? Why was the 9-1-1 taking so long? What was the right thing to do?

I convinced JoAnne to sit down again but she seemed fidgety. I made small talk. What was her favorite T.V. show? “Good Morning America.” What was her favorite food? “Burritos,” she smiled, with a wide grin. “And tacos.” “There’s a great taco truck just down the block,” I said. She smiled and nodded. Then I could think of no more questions and we lapsed into silence.

“Do you like music?” I asked. “Oh, yes.” “Would you like to listen to a song?” I took my iPhone from my pocket and went to my iTunes library and believe it or not the first song to play was “She Loves You.” JoAnne immediately recognized it and sang along, and she did a little dance and so did I and we must have made quite a sight on Broadway.

Just then a bus pulled up; we happened to be at a bus stop. JoAnne got very excited and tried to pick up her bags to board the bus while I asked her if that was what she really wanted to do, and wouldn’t she rather stay with me because someone was coming to help her. She didn’t answer and made for the bus but she’d taken so long that the bus driver pulled away and disappeared down Broadway. “Oh, darn it,” JoAnne said.

Maybe ten minutes went by and I was getting antsy. Was I doing the right thing or the wrong thing? Was I wrongly detaining this perfectly nice lady from going where she wanted? Was I, in fact, breaking some kind of law? But all I wanted was to help her. She wasn’t capable of being on her own, or so I thought. And where was the damned police car anyway? It had been at least 30 minutes since the dispatcher said we were high priority.

Then another bus approached. I told JoAnne. Excitedly, she picked up her two bags and hobbled over to the curb on her cane. I took her third bag. The bus pulled up and the door opened and JoAnne began to try to get up the stairs with the bags. The driver, behind his plastic shield, was not amused. The look on his face said, “Great. Another one.” As JoAnne struggled up the steps I said to the driver, “She’s a little disoriented.” He clearly didn’t want any part of it, and I couldn’t blame him. It wasn’t his problem. JoAnne trudged to the middle of the bus, found a seat and put her two bags on the floor, while I followed her with the third bag, telling the driver not to pull away because I wasn’t taking the bus, I was just helping this lady with her package. The poor driver…

“JoAnne, here’s your other bag. Keep an eye on it, okay?” “Okay,” she said. I left the bus, troubled.

Forty-five minutes later my phone rang. It was the Oakland Police. Two cops had arrived at 30th and Broadway, across from Sprouts, but there was no one there. Did I still need help? I tried to explain what had happened—I couldn’t stop JoAnne from boarding the bus. But the dispatcher plainly didn’t want to hear a story. She just wanted to know if I still needed help.

“No,” I said.

I don’t know what happened to JoAnne. I’m not blaming the cops. OPD is severely understaffed because the city won’t adequately fund them. There’s a lot of talk, in this “Reimagining Policing” era, of replacing cops with social workers in responding to situations like JoAnne’s. But nothing has been done and I don’t know what can be done; I mean, would a social worker show up faster than the cops? Is JoAnne the new normal, a nice, sweet, peaceful lady with mental impairment who thinks she’s going to Albuquerque, or maybe it’s the Post Office? Is there no one to help her? Or was I, perhaps, out of line? Maybe she was perfectly capable of getting to where she thought she was going; maybe I was a meddling old fool. Maybe she’s still out there on the streets, wandering around with her bags, naked from the waist down. What would you have done?

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