Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Fraying the Social Fabric

Today was one of those days where every fifteen minutes or so, something new was threatening to inspire a blog post. Little things just kept popping up as I wandered through life, each of which going into my mental rolodex of potential topics for me to rant about when I got home. But near the end of my day, something unextraordinary happened to me, and it made me so simultaneously sad and angry that it trumped all the other minor annoyances of the day.

I attended a work-related training session/vendor event in the city today. (In case you don't know "the city" = Chicago, and I live and work in the suburbs.) I love the city. So after my work thing was over, I dropped off my work stuff in the car, grabbed my camera, and wandered around just taking pictures. Fun stuff.

It was just after 5 p.m. and I was two blocks from Union Station, so there were throngs of people (aka lemmings) all funneling their way through the concrete canyons to a single point, where they disappeared through the doors of Union Station and disappeared underground where their trains were waiting. I wandered through the crowds, snapping pictures of buildings and people. While I was wandering, I heard a couple different people, tourists or suburbanites, asking for directions, specifically, where Union Station was. The answer if you're ever in Chicago at 5:15 pm is to just ask yourself, "What would a lemming do?"

I was about done taking pictures and was headed back towards the parking garage, walking slowly, glancing around to see if there was anything that caught my eye, when a very senior black woman caught my eye. As soon as she saw me look at her, she stepped closer and asked if I knew my way around the city. (FYI: I am directionally challenged. I could not direct you to my house if you were a mile away. If you call me and ask me how to get to my house, I will hand the phone to my husband. I do not give anyone directions to anywhere.)

"Not really," I told her.

"Well, maybe could you... I just don't know... I am so scared... " She held out a map with writing on it. "I drove my car into the city and I will never do that again. I talked to the police officer/crossing guard/whatever he is, over there. And he told me what to do. They towed a lot of cars, so he told me I need to just walk to the Greyhound station and it's three miles that way. Can you hold on one second?" She steps out of the middle of the sidewalk where scores of commuters are passing us on both sides and puts down the two bags she's carrying.

Three miles? This lady's in her eighties. She's gonna' walk three miles?

She reaches for something in her bag. She's taking her time. She's muttering about not knowing what to do and telling herself to calm down. She pulls her wallet out of one of her bags. As she does so, I notice that she's got two boxes of cereal in her other bag. Interesting choice. A woman who's apparently not from the city, drove into the city and then purchased two boxes of cereal which she's carrying around with her. And of course, she hasn't told me what she wants from me yet. Just keeps muttering that she doesn't know what to do and fidgeting with her wallet, which I'm not sure why she's even taking out. By this point, my mental alarms are going off, but I'm gonna' listen just in case she's the sweet little lady she appears to be.

I offer, "Ma'am, I think you should just walk across the street to Union Station. It's that building right there." I point to the building literally one city block from where we're standing. If I recall correctly, Greyhound is not at Union Station, but CTA buses obviously are.

"No, no," she says, "the officer told me I need to go to the Greyhound station. And the ticket is $31 and I only have $22. And they're not gonna' care about me or that my car was towed. And I don't know what I'm gonna' do."

And there we have it.

"I'm sorry, Ma'am. All I have on me is my camera, as you can see. Is there anything else I can do for you?"

"No, no. You smiled at me and that helped a lot. Thank you so much."

With that, we part ways. It's pretty clear that nothing about her story or her "props" were true. I head back towards the parking garage. On my way, I spot one more building to take a picture of. I pause and as I turn to get a different angle, I see her behind me. Walking towards me. The opposite direction of that Greyhound station that's supposedly three miles in the other direction.

If you've lived or worked in our city, and I imagine most others, there is absolutely nothing remarkable about this story. It's happened to me before; will likely happen again. Some wayward soul who's stranded and is $10 short for bus fare or cab fare to get home. My husband who works in the city tells me that there is a man that is a regular in front of their building and he has three different stories that he rotates between. But today it just made me so mad!

So. Very. Mad.

Here was this very senior woman, telling me that she was scared, surrounded by hundreds of Chicago commuters rushing past her to catch their trains, asking me to help her. Everything about what is good and decent in me, everything that makes me human wants to do what I can to help her. It is common decency. If you see someone in need, you do the right thing. Be a good person. You help them. And we all do just that all the time. Until people like this woman make you distrust anyone asking for help. Until people like this woman make you doubt the good intentions of everyone. It is a large part of why I, and thousands of other people in the city today, walked right past the homeless people sitting in the cold and the rain with their cups out, and gave nothing. It is why so many people despise welfare because of those welfare mothers who have extra kids just to get bigger welfare checks, regardless of how accurate or prevalent that story actually is or is not. It has become the perception. This blatant dishonesty is eroding our willingness to do good for our fellow human beings. It is so cliche, but it is tearing apart the social fabric.

And I wanted to go find her and shake her. And I was mad that I had been nice to her. And then I was mad at myself for being mad that I had been nice, because of course I should be nice and try to help her. I should not assume that someone is trying to con me. I should keep my faith in people, even though some people will abuse that trust. But I wish the punishment for abusing that trust was greater. I wish we didn't write it off as unfortunate, but not really illegal. So many of our laws are designed to protect the social fabric that keep our society whole and functioning. Laws against murder, theft, assault are all there to keep us from hurting each other in ways that hurt the society at large. And while I'm sure there is some law that this woman was breaking, I'm pretty sure that if I dragged her ancient ass over to the police officer, he would have looked at me as if I had three heads. Telling me a fabricated story and asking me for $9 is not really at the top of the priority list for Chicago cops these days.

But it's about so much more than the $9. So much more.


Katie said...

But don't you think this story is as old as the hills? People have been scamming each other since the beginning of people. I'm sure it was far worse before the introduction of social safety nets. Not that that's an excuse and not that I don't share your resentment at the woman's attempt to play you—it does erode a bit of one's faith in humanity. Your story makes me think about all the people who were moved to donate after reading Three Cups of Tea...I can only imagine their anger now.

TheNextMartha said...

I have a friend from out of state and she often thinks I'm nuts for my skepticism. I'm going to send this to her. I'm not saying I would have kicked her, but I would want to.

rubyspikes said...

I absolutely think that this is a story as old as mankind. Homo Habilis Harry fakes an injury to get Homo Habilis Henry to share his carrion so that Harry can get himself some extra carrion. It's just one of those things that when you hear about other people getting scammed, you think, "Really? You fell for that?" I always react as though it's a purely logical transaction. And having been in it, I was strongly reminded that it is a very psychological reaction. When you see someone in need and you think they need your help, there is a biological reaction, we FEEL like we need to help them. So when I thought about it later, how she had been (this is so cliche) preying on people's good intentions, it just made me mad. It made me wonder how much more good people would do for each other if we weren't so skeptical and cynical because of people like this woman. It ain't ever going away. But it is damn disheartening.

Next up, maybe I'll ruminate on world peace or global poverty, just as solvable.

Leighann said...

I agree. It's unfortunate that people have found ways to use others' trust. It makes us form an emotional wall and not let ppl in.

AllisonO of O My Family said...

"It has become the perception."

So true.

Kimberly said...

As someone who easily gets drawn in by these people, it angers me too. Because then I've been duped. And I'm not someone who wishes to be duped twice. So, I'm far less likely to help the next person.

I feel the same way about these crazy ass people who kill their own children, then go on TV begging for help to find the killer. Now, every single time I see a grieving parent on TV, I have to question it. Shouldn't have to question something like that.

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