Two-weeks ago while driving home with my step-daughter we had a moment together that will stick with me for eternity.
As we made our way home for the evening we approached the last major left-turn we had to make before arriving at our home. Arriving at the intersection, the light in front of us turned red and we stopped. Being the lead car in the left-turning lane and now paused, my eyes gazed slowly around to view my surroundings. It was rush hour and a slew of people were making their way home from work. The intersection was bustling. Cars were coming and going in both directions and the lanes were packed.
The boulevard we were on is a major thoroughfare between neighborhoods and is regularly backed up all the way to the previous major intersections on both sides, especially during rush hour. For a pedestrian crossing the cross-walk, even if the light is green, it can still be dangerous. Looking before stepping onto the cross-walk, to ensure no cars are headed in your same direction without stopping, is not only a good idea, it’s a mandatory one.
As my eyes looked around, I became immediately aware of a homeless man approaching the northwest corner of the intersection. By the time he got to the corner, he was less than 20 feet away from our car. A few things caused me to completely lose sight of what my step-daughter was saying to me in the car. And, as she realized why I had become distracted from our conversation, the chatter we had both been engaged in dissipated and the car fell silent.
The man was attempting to inch his wheelchair down the edge of the sidewalk onto the cross-walk. It wasn’t an electric wheelchair either. I’d like to say that someone was pushing him, making his commute a bit easier. It is after all a horrible street for a wheelchair to cross to the other side, electric or otherwise. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. He was alone.
Being in Los Angeles, earthquake damage has taken a toll on many of our major streets. Often you’ll find deep grooves and cracks in the concrete. When you’re driving however you take the convenience of not having to deal with those cracks and grooves for granted. Many cracks are made even wider and also become uneven due to water that flows down the streets during our annual rain. The net is, if you’re walking, or biking, or in a wheelchair you’re going to run into difficulty maneuvering around the city. And, I was witnessing that difficulty first-hand.
As I watched the man struggling to move his wheelchair onto the cross-walk without tipping over, time stood still. Feeling as if I was in a straight-jacket I sat there frozen. I was at a red light in a left-hand turning lane with a slew of cars behind me during rush hour. Totally incapable of opening my door to run over and provide some relief to the man.
My step-daughter and I both watched as he attempted multiple times to push himself down from the sidewalk and onto the extremely cracked and broken concrete. We watched as his wheelchair wobbled around as he tried to face the back of his chair towards the other side of the street. I thought maybe he did so as to provide more leverage to push himself.
After getting the wheelchair onto the cross-walk, he pushed himself backwards and I prayed that the cars headed towards him would stop at the light. We watched as he pushed using all of his strength. Shockingly, he also pushed with only one foot. The other, covered in bandages, which were visibly dirty and torn. His other foot lifted a few inches off the ground was of no use to him in this endeavor. It was limp and futile. It was as if it was being mocked by the other foot that was so obviously taking all of the burden. Yet it seemed to maintain a semblance of dignity by holding itself high and not dragging on the pavement beneath it.
My God, really? This man needed such obvious help! I sat in my left-hand turning lane waiting and pleading with my eyes for the light to turn green so I could possibly do something. Waiting, we sat at that light and stared at him taking in every second of his journey. I started to speak out loud.
Someone please walk by and help him. Please.
Finally, we saw a person coming around the corner. With ear buds in her ears, she walked briskly towards him and then right past him. She stepped onto the cross-walk, and then miraculously, she stopped. She must have realized something.
Oh, thank God.
She turned around, perhaps acknowledging some internal alarm that had gone off inside of her. She addressed him. I couldn’t hear what she was saying, but she motioned in the direction she was headed. South? He pointed east. My heart fell again. She waved at him and continued to walk on. Her earbuds back in her ears and her destination on her mind.
I heaved a deep sigh. Time continued to pass and I now noticed the man was half-way across the cross-walk. One push of the chair and one revolution of his wheels. Over and over he pushed. One side of the sidewalk now past him and only one more hurdle still ahead – getting up onto the other side. He pushed on. Another person now walked from the other side of the street towards him. See him. I said in my mind this time. Look at him. I willed the young man who walked by to turn his head and see the other man struggling to push himself across the street. The young man instead walked by the homeless man oblivious to his presence, and oblivious to the man’s state of being. I was crestfallen. Nothing happened. Only one continued push of the chair and one continued revolution of his wheels.
Finally, I looked up and the light had turned green. He was almost to the other side. I told my step-daughter to hold on. We turned the corner quickly. I tried to turn safely, too, not wanting to jerk her, but more so, not wanting to hit him! I thanked the universe for the gas station on the corner. I pulled my car in and sped up to the corner he was headed for. I stopped. I shifted the gear into park. I told her to wait for me. I jumped out of the car and ran over to the man.
He was there at the other side. And, just as he had done on the previous side of the street, he was attempting with all his might to push that damn wheelchair up that fucking sidewalk across that fucking broken and cracked street. He was positioned right on the corner and I called out –
Hold on man, let me get that for you.
I grabbed the handles of the wheelchair and pulled. I realized then just how hard it is to get a wheelchair up onto a sidewalk. Gravity sucks. I yanked hard to get it up and over the lip and on to the flat part of the pavement. I silently exhaled a sigh of relief. He had made it. I bent towards the side his right ear, not seeing his face. I said softly to him –
Which direction are you going?
He motioned east. I pulled back, and rolled the wheelchair around to face it east. I put my hand on his upper back, felt the warmth of his body through his thin jacket, and said with my voice cracking –
Please take care.
I gave him a little push. He held his hand up to me and offered a small wave. Himself so unaware of the impact he had made to us over the last few minutes. Still, a connection was made between us. A moment in time where nothing else existed (for me at least) except he and I.
I turned and walked back to our car.
What just happened I asked myself? My eyes welled-up with tears as I got into the car and sat down. How much time had passed I wondered? Five minutes, maybe, six? Is that all? It felt like an eternity.
All of sudden, I became acutely aware that my step-daughter was still sitting there in the car. She had been watching the entire exchange between the man and myself. I turned to face her. My eyes were on hers and hers were on mine,. She covered up the silence, cheerfully saying, “You did a good thing”! She said it with such enthusiasm, as young people so often do when awkward silences surround them. I looked at her beautiful expressive face, and took her hands in mine. I emphatically said,
Promise me, love, no matter what you will always do that. No matter what. You will always help people in need. Promise me.
My eyes pleaded with hers; our fingers woven tightly together. She looked at me. I knew she felt the intensity of the moment we were sharing. She understood. I saw it in her eyes, and without hesitation, she softly said to me,
That’s all I can hope for, right? For my children to have compassion and empathy for all human beings.
All human beings.
No matter who they are, where they live, or how they show-up in the world. I can hope they will choose to align their lives to values and principles containing these same attributes. I can hope that they will never allow fear, or allow any pressure to conform, or allow any guilt to change the way they feel or the way they choose to live their lives in wholeness and in kindness. That’s all I can hope for.