John and I decided to go out and eat tonight... much as we do, um, every night. As we were pulling into the shopping center where there are several restaurants, we see a small black man in a wheelchair. He's using his feet to push himself backward up the hill toward the main road. He isn't using his hands and is swerving into traffic. People are driving around him. They stare and point, but no one stops to help or even rolls down the window to ask him if he's okay. It's obvious that this man does not belong in the middle of the street. He is lost or confused or both.
As we drive past him, I turn around to see his face. Immediately, I know that something is wrong with him. I insist that we stop. John pulls into the O'Charleys parking lot. I kick out of my flip-flops and walk barefoot up the grassy slope to the main drive.
I call out to the man across the street, asking him if he's okay.
"I don't know," he says.
I ask him his name. I hear something that sounds like Kit or Kip, but with the traffic I can't tell for sure. I go with Kit.
"Well, Kit, I want you to sit still. I'm going to come over there and get you."
I run across the street when traffic lets up. When I get to Kit, I take a good look at him and try to assess the situation. He is dressed in clean clothes and does not smell. I assume he's not homeless. Kit is not well, though. The whites of Kit's eyes are a dark yellow and look very milky. One eye slopes off to the side, half of his iris hides behind the edge of his socket. His other eye doesn't seem to focus very much. Kit has some type of dermatological condition that causes large knots and bumps on his face, neck and arms. His feet are turned in and slightly curled up.
When most people see someone like Kit, they do one of two things: immediately avert their eyes or they stare.
I will not lie to you. I was taken aback by Kit's appearance. Even a bit repulsed at first.
Regardless, I leaned over and put my hand on his arm.
"Kit, what are you doing out here by yourself?"
His voice is soft but clear, slow and childlike.
"I'm trying to get to the bus stop by the gas station."
"Well, pick up your feet and let me push you, okay? I'm afraid some drunk person may run over you leaving the restaurant."
I roll Kit back down the hill and into the parking lot at O'Charleys. By now, John has parked the car and joined me. I tell him that Kit needs to get to the bus stop. John walks up to the street to find out exactly where it is.
Meanwhile, I talk to Kit. Kit tells me he took the bus across town because he "needed a trip" and wanted to get something to eat. He'd just left White Castle and was trying to make it back to the bus stop. He knew he was headed in the right direction, but the cars were getting in his way.
He doesn't seem to realize he had been in danger.
John finds the bus stop in front of the gas station. We end up having to push Kit down the main street after all because the parking lots are divided by fences. Once we get to the bus stop, Kit gives John a few dollars and asks him to buy him a lighter.
As Kit smokes the cigarette he had stored behind his ear, I ask him questions.
He says he lives alone, though I don't understand how he can possibly care for himself. Since he smells clean, I assume someone bathes him.
His mother, father and siblings also live in the city. They check on him now and then.
He used to take the bus over here all the time but "things have changed."
He loves double cheese Slyders from White Castle. The single burgers "tease him."
His father is from Somerville, a town not far from my hometown of Henderson.
He's smoked since he was eleven, which he estimates was about 25 years ago.
As we talk, John and I noticed a large surgical scar through the closely cropped hair on the back of his head. We don't ask about it and can only wonder what happened to Kit. Was he always like this? Did he have surgery to try and "fix" him? Was he in an accident?
Another man waiting for the bus tells us he'll wait with Kit if we need to go. I thank him but politely refuse. I suppose my faith in fellow man was running a bit low at the moment after watching so many people pass Kit by on the street. I am not about to leave him alone.
The bus finally arrives. I panic a little because I don't see a wheelchair lift. Kit assures me there is one. He tells us to stand back and wait. Sure enough, the lift comes out from under the steps.
Kit tells us to have a good night. I tell him to be careful. We wave goodbye and the bus pulls away.
We met Kit hours ago, and I still can't get him off my mind. Why wouldn't anyone help him? It's not that they didn't notice him--they had to go AROUND him to avoid hitting him. I watched both white people and black people keep driving. Was it a fear of the color of his skin? Or perhaps a fear of his condition? All I had to do was speak to him and I knew he wasn't dangerous. Why were we the only ones who seemed to care?
Some people might consider me foolish. I jumped out of my car and approached a stranger who could have been crazy or dangerous. My philosophy is this: God, fate, karma--whatever you believe in--surely you will be kept safe when you reach out to help a fellow human being. Now, I realize this isn't always true. A lot of good people have died trying to save someone else. But if it is my time to go, at least I have the peace that I was trying to do something unselfish.
I'm not telling you about this because I want a pat on the back. I am no saint, no Samaritan.
I am writing about this because my heart is at the same time breaking and boiling over.
As cliche as it sounds, we live in dangerous times. There are plenty of people who will take advantage of kindness or charity. But we can't forget the many, many people who truly need our help.
By all means, be cautious and careful. But don't be so afraid that you won't reach out to someone who is obviously in danger or need.
You don't have to save the world. You don't have to save even one life.
Just do what little you can do. Don't ever look back and wonder what you could have done to help. Look back and say, "I did what I could do."
There comes a time in all of our lives when we are at the mercy of strangers. Strive to be the stranger you'd hope to meet in your time of need.