Wednesday, August 26, 2015

No Good Deed

Vulcan Trail, a beautiful, tranquil spot
for a walk — or a nap.

Just as quietly as it descended, summer's heat has relinquished here in the sunny South. It is as though someone flipped off the the humidity switch and suddenly, there is relief!

At 8 a.m., the cool morning air felt chilly when I stepped outside for my daily two mile hike. During the sweltering summer months, I find myself getting out earlier and earlier to beat the oppressive heat, but today there was no need to rush.

I walk this trail so frequently that I have made friends with the other regulars. There's The Cocoon Boys (three old men) who walk together each morning with two white dogs; Happy Walking Dude, a former athlete turned artist and art professor; and Jogger Lady, who inspires me as she runs up and down the hill every day.  We don't really know one another, but we always smile and wave, exchanging morning greetings and occasionally stopping to chat.

Today, as I reached the crest of the hill, I saw a person on the trail who I had never seen before. He was — in fact — lying in the trail. As I approached, I could discern than it was a man dressed in old, dirty clothes. He was curled in a fetal position in the middle of the paved trail road. (The Vulcan Trail is a paved road that was once a railway for Red Mountain mining.)

I immediately stopped and used my phone to call 9-11.

As I waited for the emergency crew, the Happy Walking Dude art professor walked up. He was ending his daily loop and said he had seen the old man lying in the trail too. He recognized him as a homeless person who "lived" in the area. He said he had asked him if he was OK and then kept walking.

"Oh, gosh," I said. "I called the paramedics. Maybe I shouldn't have done that?"
"No," Happy Walking Dude assured me. "You did the right thing."

HWD went on his way and I waited for the ambulance and fire truck and police. They all arrived in short order. I directed them up the hill (the road is wide enough to drive through) and hiked along ahead, showing them the way. I thought they'd scoop up the old man, place him on a gurney, start an IV, give him oxygen, and whisk him away to the ER. But within a few moments after the emergency workers approached, the man who I thought was collapsed in the trial got up and limped down the hill.

"We see this guy all the time," the policeman said. "He will just go to sleep anywhere."

"Are you OK?" an EMT asked me. "Did he scare you?"

"No," I said. "I just felt so bad for the guy ... Seeing him makes my heart hurt."

I watched the old man shuffle away, his slumber interrupted by a well-meaning woman, a fire truck, EMT and police team. He looked to be in his 70s, but he was so dirty and unkempt, it was hard to discern his age. He certainly appeared to be in need of medical assistance, but he waved off the guys with the stretcher and ambled down the hill. I felt so bad for him and there was nothing I could do. But beyond that, I felt ashamed.

In truth, the homeless man did scare me. I was so fearful that I hadn't approached him and asked if he needed help. I just assumed that because he was lying in the middle of the path, he needed help — and wanted help. And I was wrong.

"I'm sorry I brought you out here for nothing," I said to the emergency workers. "I thought that man needed help. Can't you take him to the local shelter?"

"He's not interested," said the EMT. "You can't help someone who doesn't want help."

The trucks turned around and slowly rumbled down the mountain. I walked home with a very unsettled feeling in my heart. I should have felt relieved when the old man got up and limped away, but I didn't. There was a part of me that was embarrassed I had called for help when he really wasn't dying or hurt. I felt foolish for assuming the man was mortally wounded or something.

I also felt bad that I had inconvenienced the emergency crew and brought them out when they weren't really needed. I certainly didn't mean to cry wolf. Was I supposed to just walk by an old man lying in the trail? Other people did. Maybe they were wiser than me. Maybe they saw the truth: That the man just wanted to sleep. And I had taken from him the one solace he could find on this cool, beautiful, clear fall morning. All he wanted to do was sleep and this stupid (but well-meaning) woman called the cops and the EMTs who shooed him on his way!

I felt twenty different types of crappy over the whole situation. But feeling crappy doesn't do anyone any good. If I really wanted to do something helpful I should get off my ass and volunteer at a shelter or donate money or food or clothes or do something useful. I felt like a dilettante calling 911 on my iPhone and demanding that the authorities clean this man up and making him better — as if I really knew better than the old man did what it was he needed! Ugh.

"You can't help someone who doesn't want help," the EMT said. And he was so very right.

How many times in my life have I foisted my idea of help onto someone when they didn't feel they needed or wanted my brand of help? Just because it makes me feel better to see someone get help, doesn't mean I'm actually helping that person. I might be making it worse. And yet, I don't want to be the person who blindly walks past the homeless man lying in the trail and doesn't do a thing. Of course, I also don't want to be the one who foolishly calls 9-11 for someone who just wants to sleep in the street. Sometimes it's just hard to know what to do. Either way, my heart aches.


  1. "Awareness should come with a warning label."

  2. I love this. A sad truth about life.