If you've never been to the intersection of Madison and 19th, go by it one day soon. The old Fratelli's ice cream building on the northwest corner has a painted pastoral landscape with cows under Mount Rainier. Not just any cows: one is a surrealist Dali-esque cow, one a Jackson Pollock cow, one a Pi-cow-so, and there are many others. Go by and take a look if you can, as that area is under redevelopment and the building may soon be gone.
One summer day maybe 5 years ago I was bicycling to class, stopped at the red light at that intersection. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a woman coming towards me, disregarding oncoming traffic. That was my first warning sign. She's still at a distance when she shouts her question: do I live in this area? I shake my head, and she continues approaching and shouting her tale:
"I was driving home from a camp for disabled kids--I'm on staff there--when my car broke down on I-90. And I need to get home, I live in on Whidbey Island, and I need some money for the ferry. Could you help me? I tried my parents, they live around here, but how was I to know they're in New York for the week, and I left my key to their house at home. I also left all my credit cards at home, and my cash, I can't believe I did that! I really need to get back, I have two dogs to feed! I asked a guy for money, and he said sure I'll give you some, if you give me some, and he wanted me to suck him off, so I decided to only ask women because I don't want to deal with guys like that."
Did I mention this is a LONG red light?
I pointed to the church across the street as the light FINALLY turns green, said I don't carry cash but someone in there may be able to help. She gave me a disgusted look as I pedaled across and away.
I'd been teaching self-defense for a while, and I knew about ploys and manipulations. I assessed her as not a physical threat, recognized the pattern of ploy with layer upon layer of excessive detail, and intellectually knew NONE OF IT WAS TRUE. Still, as I rode away, I felt pangs of residual guilt. I recognized that I felt more comfortable justifying my refusal (by saying I don't carry cash) rather than just flat-out saying NO. Like many of my students, I want to feel like a helpful human being, a mensch (BTW, that's Yiddish for "good person"); the thought that I may have turned down a person in need wasn't so easy to settle. Days later, I felt some anger at the attempted manipulation--after all, if it wasn't for connivers like her, it'd be lots easier to help the truly needy, right? Much later, by a couple of years in fact, compassion crept in. People who are homeless, or have so little in such an affluent culture, have learned a crucial lesson: you do and say what you need to survive. I learned that when I was teaching safety skills to women in day shelters and transitional housing. Who among us can't say they might do the same?
I never saw her again, and likely never will.
Go see the cow mural, before you never will.
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