HUMAN INTERACTION IN VENICE
I was going through some old magazines when I stumbled upon this rare (for me) foray into the world of serious writing that was published about 9 years ago. I was actually an email that I sent to some friends after the event in question. It got forwarded around and eventually it got sent to the editor of a magazine, who asked if he could publish it. I said he could.
With a few grammar edits, the piece is unchanged from the original email. The only thing the editors altered was the title. I gave it the title you see above as a reference to the David Mamet play "Sexual Perversity in Chicago." I've never seen the play, nor have I seen the movie they made out of it, so I don't know why I chose the title.
Of course, the editors chose a title that was even more obscure to me. Anyway, enjoy, and I promise I'll write something funny later this week.
The Urban Samaritan: Being and Nothingness
Published March 1998, Sunstone Magazine
In order to fully explain this story, I need to tell another one. About six years ago, just south of my hometown of Rochester, New York, two football players from a local college saw a woman trying to get help at the roadside. They pulled over, got out of their truck, and asked what the problem was. Seconds later, a man jumped out of the bushes and shot each of the football players three times. The man drove off in the football player’s truck, and the woman drove off in the car she said was broken. I read the story later in the newspaper and was, of course, appalled.
But now I’m in Los Angeles—Venice, actually. It’s not the nastiest part of town, but it’s not all that nice either. That’s actually one of the cool things about it.
So I’m off to Hollywood to see the new Parker Posey movie I’ve been dying to see for a long time, but I have to go to the ATM first. It’s after dark, so I drive to an ATM not too far from my house, near the Coast Highway. Across the street from the ATM is a red van with drapes in the window. I park behind it, and an old, somewhat grungy-looking man walks up to my car. He asks me to roll down my window, and I inch it down just a hair.
“Do you have jumper cables?” he asks.
Without thinking, I answer, “Yeah!” because I do.
“Good, I need a jump. My battery is dead.”
I pull my car around to the front of his and realize just how stupid I had been. What was I thinking? This could be any nut, or a killer, or a mugger, or a carjacker, or someone like that. I get out of my car, open my trunk, and look down at my jumper cables.
“Dude, I guess my cables are at home. I was using them for something else, and I forgot to put them back in my car. Sorry, man.”
I drive across the street to use the ATM while the man tries to flag down other drivers. With my money in hand, I scoot back into my car and drive off.
And I feel like crap. I had just lied to a guy and left him stranded on the street. While staring at my jumper cables, I told him they weren’t there. I run through all the questions in my head. What would he have done to me? Would I have helped him if he was a white guy? (he wasn’t) How much danger was I in? How awful a person had I become where I wouldn’t help somebody who was in trouble?
I pull over, take the jumper cables out of my trunk, and put them on the passenger seat. I want to make it look as if I had gone home and found them. Still nervous I drive around the block a few times before heading back to the street with the ATM. And the guy’s still there, trying to get a jump. I pull up next to him, hold up the cables, and yell, “Behold, yon cables!”
“Thanks. You know, most people are just too scared to even help,” he says.
I shrug and give a big sigh. Then his friend comes over. When I was doing my risk vs. morals math, I had only factored in one guy. Now there are two. The second guy is younger, and bigger. He just sort of stands behind the older guy and looks at me. Absolutely positive that I’m going to be on the front page of tomorrow’s LA Times, I hand them the cables.
“Can you come over here and help us?” asks the younger guy. “We don’t want to blow anything up.”
Trying to conceal the sweat that is now forming on my forehead, I quickly attach the cables to my battery. Fifteen seconds later, the van is running. They thank me and I throw my stuff back into my car and drive away quickly.
And I’m still wired and upset from the adrenaline that is now coursing through my veins. And I’m upset by how upset I am over the incident. And I’m upset that I’ve been taught to fear the people around me. And I’m upset that fearing the people around me is basically a good idea and pretty much essential for survival in a big city.
And I turn up the radio as loud as it will go. And I keep telling myself, “You are not a liar. You are not a bigot. You are not dead to the suffering of others.”
And in a few weeks I may believe that again.