Monday, November 7, 2016

Does Gold Tarnish?

I am complaining, not bragging.  Please keep that in mind as you read my story of this past Thursday.  It concerns a dear friend of mine of thirty-five years.  Let’s call him KB.  He was the first published novelist I ever met in person.  Is also a delightful conversationalist with a great sense of humor, a splendid cook, and gallant to a fault.  He has the most perfect manners of any person I have ever known.  He is also an intensely private person, something that—like everything else about him—commands respect.

KB and I had a lunch date.  He had invited me to a favorite eatery to sign copies of my latest book that he had bought for his friends.  But there was something odd about his designation of our meeting time.  “13:30,” he wrote in his email.   It was unlike him to use military time, so I emailed him back to ask for clarification.   He didn’t answer.  Not like him at all.  A day later I left a message on his voicemail.  No Response.

Ordinarily, one would not be alarmed by this.  But I was.  Here’s why.  Exactly one year and two weeks before, KB didn’t show up for an appointment—totally out of character for him.  All the more strange because we had date to celebrate his birthday with dinner and show.  Last year, I had gotten no answer to many attempts to contact him.  So the next morning I had gone to his house and banged on the door.  Eventually, I heard him, faintly moaning.  I managed to talk to him.  A handyman with a key was called, and KB went to the doctor.  They tested him seventy way from Sunday over the next several months but never figured out why he had passed out for a couple of days.

So, a year later, when I had trouble reaching him and when he did not show up at the appointed place for lunch, I got very worried.  I called a mutual friend who knew how to get in touch with a family member, which touched off a rescue operation involving Cousin Fritz driving from Connecticut to Brooklyn and the NYPD door-breaking squad.

In the meanwhile, I returned to the restaurant on the off chance that KB might show up at 3:30.  Walking along on my way, I stopped to take a photo of same nice fall foliage.  When I turned back to continue, a man was walking toward me, very slowly, very tentatively—tall, extremely thin, looked to be in his 80’s.  His face was shockingly injured.  One whole side of it covered with an open wound, his teeth revealed in a grimace.  For all the world, his face looked like a Halloween horror mask.

I took a few more steps as I passed him.  You see we New Yorkers don’t react strongly to sights we see on the street.  We can pass Leonardo di Caprio, a bearded dwarf wearing a dress, or a skinny sixteen-year-old-girl walking twelve large dogs without doing a double take.  You see that kind of stuff all the time if you live here.

But that man—with the awful injury and the vague expression in his eyes?  He needed help.  So I dialed 911.  And I waited around, following him, until the rescue squad truck and an ambulance showed up.  It only took about four minutes.

Then, I continued on to the restaurant, where KB still did not show up.  It was not until early that evening that I got a call from Cousin Fritz.  After the cops broke down KB’s door, the EMS folks had taken him to the hospital.  As I write this two days later he is still resting comfortably there.

I said earlier that I was complaining.   My beef is this:  Last year and this year, I have gotten too much admiration for doing something when my friend did not show up for appointments and otherwise behave normally.  Also from people on the street who began to take an interest while I was following that old guy with the fright-mask face.  When I told them I had called 911, they said things like “God bless you.” and “You are such a good person.”

What I did deserves no such special recognition.  It’s embarrassing.  I did only what I would hope someone would do for me if I were to be an injured or a missing person.  Why is such behavior considered so extraordinary? What has happened to the Golden Rule?   Has it become tarnished on this crowded planet of ours?

That would make no sense at all.  We all need to do such things because we are all in danger of needing such help.  And after all, what did I do that was so difficult?  Last Thursday, all I did really was show up for a lunch and make a phone call when KB didn’t.  And for that poor injured man, I made one call and waited around for four minutes.  Is this such a very lot?  Last year, I took the subway to Brooklyn and banged on my friend’s door until he answered.  But come on.  We have been friends for over 35 years.   Doesn’t that require that I make sure he is okay, even if that means a couple of hours of my time?

People should not be thinking that these acts deserve so much admiration.  Such behavior should be so common that it is hardly remarked at all.

When a woman with an infant strapped to her chest told me what a lovely person I was for calling the ambulance, I said,  “We are New Yorkers.  That’s our credo: ‘If you see something, say something.’”


This anti-terrorist slogan became prevalent in New York after the September 11th attack.  But it is also applies to getting help for people who need it.  Do it.



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  2. Just this weekend, at Afrikadag in Amsterdam, I talked about the amazing ability of human to ignore the suffering of other humans. I talked about this in the context of resentment towards immigrants fleeing bombs and Isis.
    Is this becoming part of what it means to be human? This ability to be unmoved by the pain, suffering, hunger, persecution of other people? This ability to walk undisturbed past a beggar camping out in the cold of winter. To vote to send immigrant boats back to air raids and crucifixions.
    I like to think that growing up in Africa has made compassion for strangers a part of who I am, that it is a western things this apathy in the face of human suffering. But truth be told, it is a human thing. A modern human thing. And it is scary.

  3. Leye, it does not surprise me in the least that our minds are not the same track. I also think that there has been a hardening of some hearts of late. There seems to be an upsurge in that, for sure. But it is not universal by any stretch of the imagination. The Greeks and the Italians are showing great compassion toward the immigrants. The Italians are even taking special care of the dead--creating a DNA database of them--out of resect and the need of their relatives to properly mourn for them. Nor is this trend to indifference certainly a permanent direction for humankind. Canada is now a paragon among nations when it comes to compassion. But before Pierre Trudeau, it had one of the most racist immigration policies anywhere. We need only to think of the parable of the Good Samaritan to understand that compassion is a lesson that humans have always needed to learn. We need to be teaching and preaching it now, for certain. But people can learn. They can.

    1. You have managed to renew my hope in mankind. Thanks for that. :-)

    2. Leye, anyone would think that someone who got to my age in 2016 would have developed a whole bunch of cynicism. I sympathize with my cynical friends, even the ones who say that to be a crime novelist one must be a cynic. But I am just not made that way. My father taught me this attitude in these words: If you love and trust everyone, you will be right 99% of the time. My life has taught me that he was right. And I am happier than any cynic I know.

  4. A very thoughtful column, AmA. I suspect that what you've called out is primarily the result of two things, one cyclical and the other all new and possibly with no end. The first has to do with the ebb and flow of society, as the generations pass, and right now we're at the low point of the cycle (as I've mentioned in comments before), where society is pulling apart and it's "every man for himself" (to over-generalize). That's going to continue, unfortunately, until some global calamity that lasts long enough for a new generation to grow up during it (such as happened during the 1930s and 1940s), and then society will pull back together more (unfortunately, that also entails great pressure to conform, but that's part of the cycle).

    The other (possibly non-ending) change is what's being driven by technology. High speed communications, entertainment in our homes... at the same time that technology makes the world 'smaller,' it also makes it 'larger.' It makes it smaller in that we know more about what's going on in every corner of the planet, and we know it almost instantly. It makes it larger in that we know more, we're overwhelmed with vast 'inputs' of information about unrest, war, disasters, dangers, etc, and that makes us "shut down," become inured to the suffering of others through numbing repetition.

    My hope (which helps me sleep at night) is that the great cycle of society WILL swing back again, AND that eventually the greater exposure to events via technology will push us, as a global society, and thus indirectly as individuals, to more and more 'humane' (if you'll forgive the use of the term here) standards of existence.

    1. EvKa, I knew we were in for it in the last 70's when, for the first time, I saw an ad on the subway for an about-to-launch new magazine called "Self." I immediately wondered: Do people really need a magazine that encourages them to focus on themselves? It seemed to me then that there was already way to much of that. It has, as we all know, only gotten worse. But as I said to Leye above, we have, right now, examples of selflessness and compassion. And people can learn it. And we can all do our best to spread the notion

  5. Your reflections are consistent with what makes you the unique person you are, sis. Ask me what I think of the rest of our society on Wednesday.

  6. Jeff, something tells me that I won't have to ask. I have a feeling you will tell.

  7. Wonderful piece, Annamaria. And sadly, the lack of response to the injured man does not surprise me. We have become a society that will either step over the fallen and keep going, or film them on our cellphones in the hopes of going viral on YouTube.

    Sometimes I feel that human society has gone from barbarism to decadence without first passing through civilisation.

    And you *are* extraordinary, both for your actions to help a stranger, and for not thinking your friend's failure to turn up was all about *you*.

    I accidentally caught a bit of the start to the UK version of The Apprentice recently. Listening to the candidates boast on camera about their ruthless ambition and go-get-'em-and-don't-care-who-you-have-to-trample-on-to-do-it greed was stomach-turning. And these are the examples being held up to youngsters of what is admirable.

    I bet if any of them had been faced with the prospect of helping that injured old man on the street, their first response would have been, "But where's the profit in it?"

    So YES, you are truly extraordinary, and that's why we treasure you.

    1. I have always hated The Apprentice for this reason. This glorifying of nasty self interest.

    2. Wow, Zoe, am I glad I have never seen even two minutes of The Apprentice.
      But you underline my point with your praise of me. Compassion should not, MUST not be the exception. It ought to be the rule. If it were, society would serve EVERYONE better, including people who tend to be selfish. It's election day here. My candidate's slogan is "Stronger Together." YES!! And safer together too. It's only LOGICAL, isn't it?