In a big city, you develop the ability to ignore some of the things you see. Not the beautiful lake views or soaring skyscrapers, but the homeless people tucked into doorways, people asking for money, the gross Sunday morning sidewalks near the bars. Before you know it, you have formed a shell and it reads as apathy. If a semi-crazy person is ranting on the train, don’t make eye contact. If the lady you see on the corner everyday is still asking for a bus ticket to get home, keep walking without pulling a dollar out of your wallet. We’re all busy ignoring what we don’t want to see; fortunately some people are willing to help when things go wrong.
In the 60’s a woman was attacked and killed outside her apartment in New York City. This particular murder is famous for the supposed indifference of people who were nearby but didn’t want to get involved -what became known as the “bystander effect”. It seems simultaneously unrealistic and too real for comfort.
One early evening I took a short cut through an alley to the train. Before I knew what was happening, I was yanked by the purse strap and landed with a thud on the ground. Reflexively, I hung onto my purse, while the guy dragged me down the length of the alley into the street; bumping across the cobblestones, everything was strangely quiet. I don’t know where my voice was, I think I was too surprised to scream. Finally, I made some noise, and people came running. The guy let go. I caught a glimpse of a plaid shirt as he ran down the alley and disappeared around the corner. Soon three total strangers were helping me up off the ground, asking if I was hurt, and calling the police. It wasn’t till I tried to tell them what happened that I started to shake and cry. I was grateful they were there and they noticed.
For the next few weeks, I looked over my shoulder while walking through the neighborhood, wondering if I’d spot the guy, but I never did. Instead, I stayed out of the alleys and thought of how I could return the favor when someone needed my help. Softening my city shell and noticing.