Thursday, December 27, 2007

’Twas the night before ...

I was talking to veteran owner-operator Howard Hart not long ago about a topic on which I was, frankly, idealistic. Until Christmas Eve. The topic was helping strangers and the quandary that presents: When do you let yourself be guided by the “goodness of your heart” and when do you listen to the voice that says “the dude could have a gun and shoot you dead.”

Howard said he used to always help strangers – on the side of the road, in a rest area, in the truck stop parking lot – but it’s too much of a risk these days. I said, “Isn’t it hard to turn the other cheek on somebody down on their luck?” He said something like “Wise up. You simply cannot know if that person has another motive. Heckuva world.”

I think I said something like I had never been one to be “standoffish” if someone needed help. Howard, who has some law enforcement background, laughed and said, “These days, you gotta use your powers of observation.” He reminded me that every once in a while, an incident forces you to sharpen those powers.

The night before Christmas, I got one of those sharpening lessons.

With me in my jammies and husband in jeans, no shirt, we had just settled down to watch the news at 10.

The doorbell rang, followed by an insistent kind of knock. My husband reacted with the “who in the hell could that be” growl and we both proceeded to the front room to peer out the window. My old neighborhood is not the ritziest in town and if I were a drug addict, I probably would not have to leave the block to score whatever I wanted. So caution in my ’hood is always warranted, no matter what time of day.

We could see from the front window that under our porch light, a tall head-shaved teenager in a big parka, obviously half-frozen, was hopping from one foot to the other, blowing on his cupped hands.

I stood close to the door and called out “who’s there?” He yelled, “Neighbor.”

I had never seen the kid before.

I opened the door and he said “Can I ask you a weird favor, man? My car broke down (he pointed down my street) and I need to, um, call for, um, help. Man, umm.” That was followed by some “I am freezing to death” talk and more umms. It was about 18 degrees and yeah, he probably was miserable, but he acted way too edgy and I didn’t ask him in.

I handed the phone out the door to him and he appeared to call someone, begging for this other guy to come and get him. From the one-sided conversation I could hear, I guess the guy said no. Odd, but the kid never told the guy on phone where he was. No location, no details, nothing. Then he told the person on the phone he would walk to some undisclosed place and he could pick him up there. Again, no details.

Based on that weird info, I suspected it might be a ruse.

My husband stepped to the door and talked to him briefly, got the phone back. As the door opened, the kid, with piercings and scruffy half mustache, looked at us from under the hood. Part of me was thinking: This is where he pulls the gun and shoots us dead. My dyed-in-the-wool good Samaritan half was thinking of Mary and Joseph trying desperately trying to find shelter for an impending birth of their child. Sappy, maybe. But it was Christmas Eve and maybe God was putting me to the test.

Then the kid mumbled something, turned and left. I quickly locked the door.

Temps were dropping, lights in the homes along the street were going out, and it was a very long walk to the nearest convenience store.

We watched him from the window as he walked up the street. Then he did an odd thing: he turned around and walked back to our corner. He approached the house across the street and lurked around the bushes by their porch. We watched him curiously. He did not go to their door, but after about 20 minutes or so he stepped back into the light, wandered back up the street, shoulders hunkered, hood over his shaved head.

He was either up to something or was a really dumb, stoned kid in a tight spot. Either way, I made a decision to get involved indirectly. I called our local emergency number and recounted the incident. Soon, a cop car was slowly cruising the street. If the kid was casing the neighborhood, it sent a message. If he needed help, here was someone willing to assist.

Howard Hart was right. It’s a heckuva world.