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My body knew I was going to stop before my brain agreed, slowing my pace and forcing my eyes to make contact with te man in a wheelchair, cradling a 40 oz. bottle of malt liquor.
“Can you give me a push?”
“Yeah, man, a push–just to Bawry”.
Bowery. Two blocks in the opposite direction, and I was sweating through my shirt and on the verge of being late to work. But I’d already stopped, meaning that unless his request was really out of this world, I was going to be helping him out. It can be hard to walk past a man in a wheelchair, even if it is 9:30 in the morning and he is 20 ounces the wrong side of sobriety.
People tend to pick and choose which down and out people they are going to help out, basing their judgements and offering their excuses on the strength of their biases. Having long recognized that this is mostly arbitrary and based off of a one-off judgement, I don’t do a very good job picking. I’ve picked a heroin addict up out the middle of the crosswalk, and bought him a sandwich while he stood outside drooling one long stream into a puddle on the sidewalk. I’ve ignored a vomiting woman on the subway, too, just to be confused about it. We help when we feel like it, and justify our ability to ignore someone so desperate they’re begging for dimes when we don’t.We help when its convenient, inexpensive and not time-consuming, when we’re not going to feel guilty about it, and why should we help?
I got behind him and leaned into his weight. He didn’t have any leg rests on his wheelchair and every five feet his feet would drag underneath, and I’d have to stop and wait for him to pick up his feet. Twice, I thought he was going to pitch out of his chair, and then we would stop and he would pick up his feet.
“Sorry about that.”
“‘Salright, don’t got any leg rests on my chair.”
“What happened to ’em, did you lose ’em?” I asked, leaning into get him up the ramp onto the next sidewalk.
“Why you assuming I lost ’em?”
“Just asking a question.”
“No you’re not, you’re assuming I lost ’em”
“No, man, I’m making conversation. Listen I’m helping you out, why you giving me a hard time?”
“I’m not giving you a hard time, you just assuming I lost my leg rests”
“You know what? Leave me alone. I know where your heads at.”
Without a second thought I stopped walking and let him, half a block from where he wanted to go and started walking in the other direction,
“Man, you gotta be assuming shit and all I’m trying to do is help you out.”
I’d embarrassed him, and with my lack of self-possession, myself, leaving a grown man in a wheelchair abruptly, angrily, and in the middle of a city block with plenty of people to see. I reproached myself for being insensitive to him, and I reproached him for being an adult who obviously had enough ability to lift up his legs and buy himself some early morning booze. I resented him for being no less of an adult than me, and I was the one who swore at him. I tried to justify myself by the nasty irony that he was so indignant at any perceived judgement on my part, yet he was the one flaunting his drinking problem. The rationale rang condescendingly, and was more sneering than the relatively innocent question that was the root of our fight.
In the end, we were two men with pride, whose natural and wholly un-noteworthy inclinations to quickly assess another person led us to a brief but lingering moment of unpleasantness. Did it stand heavy on the throat of his day?
It won’t swear me off of helping people in the subway with silly arbitrariness–women with strollers, old men with big bags–yo, you’re bag’s unzipped, your shoes untied, you dropped your pen, you’re about to fall of the bench you’re so stone. It won’t be the last time I judge someone maybe accidentally and get defensive, and it won’t be the last time the man with the 40 immediately feels judged. It was just another one moment reminding us how wrong we often are.