“Ma’am! Excuse Me Ma’am!

lone figure night streetIt was late and I was walking farther than I would have liked to get to my hotel, since, as the woman at the front desk had told me, the gate to their garage had malfunctioned.

“Drive down a block to the city garage,” she had said airily, vaguely indicating a scarcely visible concrete structure a quarter-mile away.

I had made the trek, and parked, and had just finished walking back, past several vacant office buildings and a woman talking loudly to herself with a pair of pants wrapped around her head, when I heard another voice, just as I approached the hotel entrance.

A man was asking a young couple for money. “Hey howya doin’, folks,” he said, stepping in front of them. ”I wonder if you can you help me out here. My momma’s in the hospital up in the next county. Seems she was brought into Emergency. I’m dying to get up there but I can’t afford the fare.”

The Styrofoam take-out containers the two 20-somethings were balancing tipped a little in their hands when they found themselves thus halted, but the ‘asker’ seemed pleasant enough, which is maybe why they paused before politely declining his request and walking on.

Or maybe they paused because it’s human to pause and acknowledge people when they address you.

I know I’ve stopped to listen to an ‘asker’ many times in my life. Once, back in the 80s, when New York City was a far wilder and woolier place, I had a whole line of askers following behind me in Penn Station because, at my own foolish suggestion, they were waiting for me to change a $20 at the nearest storefront.

It’s true I had poorer boundaries back then, but it always seemed to me part of the social compact NOT to barrel along, acting as though you didn’t notice when someone was speaking to you.

I’m not saying I’m some saint when it comes to these things. I’m definitely no saint at the mall when the salespeople at the kiosks run toward me calling, “Ma’am Ma’am! YOU’D like to have softer skin wouldn’t you?” When did we become such a nation of hucksters? I grouse to myself in those circumstances. And why have I become that mall shopper who no longer dares even to smile out at the world but rather keeps her head down and just barrels on past these polished young hawkers?

It troubles me. I miss the open person I once was – and yet I know it’s not smart to engage with just anyone.

I learned this all over again upon leaving that same hotel two days later.

I had my laptop bag and my purse over one shoulder and was dragging my suitcase behind me, when a young man with what looked like a big bag of groceries began approaching me from behind and a little to my right.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw him pull an apple from the bag and kick it toward me.

”Whoops! Could you get that for me?” he said, much closer to me now. “It fell out of my bag and my hands are full!”

But my hands were also full.

And in order to help him I would have to set my own bags down.

Plus: I saw him kick it over to me. I saw him.

He had such a nice smile but it cut no ice with me. I said “Sorry pal,” kicked it back and kept on walking. And what was lost and what was gained in that decision I guess I’ll never know.

3 thoughts on ““Ma’am! Excuse Me Ma’am!

  1. Terry, this entry reminds me of one night in 1965 when I was leaving Columbia Univ, and driving down 125th street in Harlem toward the Triboro Bridge.
    It was snowing and blowing hard this dark night. There were no cars on the road, no pedestrians – except one lone black fellow in a baseball jacket hunched over and walking backwards, thumb out. I wanted to pick him up, but my judgment said no. I kept going. That decision left me safe from possible harm, but infinitely sad. I’ll never forget it.

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