Friday, August 21, 2009

Lessons from Leviticus

When I was living in London in 2005, my adventurous (albeit small) group of friends there would occasionally trek out to the Comedy CafĂ© on Wednesday nights somewhere in the dorpies of North London for free stand-up comedy and drink specials. I had friends living in all areas of the city, so I usually made the journey home alone on the last metro ride through Kings Cross station, where I’d pick up the night bus that would bring me nearly to my doorstep. On March 23rd, I hopped off the metro and found myself in a dimly lit, nearly vacant metro station with not a person in sight, merely echoes of footsteps coming off subways on other platforms throughout the massive station.

As I turned the corner to approach the exit and continue my journey home, I witnessed something that not even the best digital technology, makeup, and actors on Grey’s Anatomy could replicate. Warning: things are about to get gory. A blindingly drunk man who appeared to be in his thirties had obviously tripped or fallen, and was tumbling down an escalator backwards, each razor-sharp step cutting up his body while his head limply followed suit. If he had been lucky enough, the escalator, moving at somewhat of a rapid speed, would eventually drop him off safely at the bottom and he would be treated for scrapes and bruises. Maybe a concussion. And definitely for a brutal hangover. But this man wasn’t so lucky. The elevator happened to be going UP while he was going DOWN.

In the millisecond that it took me to realize that gravity wasn’t working in his favor – that he might never make it to the bottom - my heart sank in to my stomach, I felt my face turn white as a ghost, and I proceeded to find the emergency stop button on the escalator. I pressed it as I prayed for a smooth and controlled halt. The man somersaulted slowly to the ground, blood squirting out of his wounds as he whimpered, helplessly. I couldn’t bare the sight for another moment and ran screaming through the station to find security, relay what I saw, and direct them to the scene of the accident. I promptly left the building, traumatized and hoping for the best.

To this day, I wonder if that man made it out of the station alive. I wonder how he fell, where he was coming from, if he had children, and why I was chosen to be the one lone ranger to witness his gruesome plunge that night. While the experience haunts me, I am humbled by the lesson I learned that night. Life is fragile, and when your character and strength are being tested, do not stand idly by.

And today, I remembered that night. I hurried through Target on my lunchtime escape, carefully watching the clock to make sure I kept my break under an hour. I made my silly purchases - you know, vitamin water, a pack of "New" Orbit gum, a birthday card and a t-shirt - and approached the exit, when I noticed a young boy hunched over in fetal position sitting against the cement wall, alone. He appeared to have spilled his Icee and was throwing an uncontrollable tantrum.

I watched not one, not two, but five people turn, give a puzzled look and continue on their way. They probably had to get back to work as I did, or home to watch Oprah.

“Did you spill your drink?” I asked the boy. No response. “Did you spill your drink” I asked again. He shook his head no. “Did you fall?” I asked. No answer. “Did you fall?” He shook his head yes. “Is your mommy or daddy here?” He shook his head no. “Are they inside the store?” He shook his head no. Keeping one eye on him, and with one foot inside the store, I flagged down the nearest Target employee in a red shirt. Ironically, she was filling up an Icee at the machine. “I’m sorry to bother you – it looks like you’re on your lunch break too – but there’s a kid outside, and I think he’s in trouble.” She confirmed that she was actually a store manager so in her mind, there’s really no such thing as a lunch break anyway. She followed me to the boy and within 30 seconds, between the two of us, we learned seven things.

The boy’s name is Xavier. He didn’t spill his drink. He fainted, hit his head hard on the cement wall, and threw up the entire Icee as a result. His family apparently saw this happen, and walked away. The manager politely thanked me for alerting her to the situation and gave me the “Can I ask you to walk away now? I've got it under control” nod. I slowly walked to my car, turning back often to check on Xavier. I didn’t feel like my work was done, but at the same time, I know he was left in good hands. I’ll never know what really happened, how serious his injury was, and if his parents actually had the audacity to walk away from the situation. Maybe we were just lost in translation somewhere.

I sat in my car for a few minutes and when I pulled out of the parking lot, Costa Mesa police (who had obviously been contacted by store security) came zooming in. I felt at ease either way.

I'm not trying to make myself sound heroic here. If anything, in retrospect, I could have waited around a little longer in both situations to ensure that Xavier and the anonymous metro station man were going to be okay. I could have offered my phone number in case anyone needed a witness. But I didn't, which is why I merely wanted to reiterate the underlying lesson that those five others at Target might have missed. Life is fragile, and when your character and strength are being tested, do not hesitate to follow your heart. Do not stand idly by.