the reluctant good samaritan

streetOne Saturday night, my husband and I were downtown with two dear friends. We attended a foodie event, stopped for a glass of wine at a lounge, and were heading back to our friend’s car. We were walking down our main street, Jasper Avenue, and it was about 10 pm. It was dark and getting chilly. The sidewalk was filling with loud and rowdy revelers. I was happy we were heading to a quieter part of town.

An old lady walked quickly past us as we were piling into the car. We all turned and watched her, as she was quite elderly and did not have a coat on. She lurched to a stop at the traffic light, and waiting for the light to turn green. My radar perked up, but I was in a jolly mood, and looking forward to our next destination, so I settled into the car.

Suddenly, our friend John said sharply, “Someone should go help that lady.”

We all looked at each other. I was the only female in the vehicle. We figured I’d be the least threatening person to approach her.   I was voted out of the car. I walked to catch up to her, and the light turned green. She was walking FAST. I half ran to catch up to her. I didn’t know what to say.

I put my hand on her arm. I said, “hello, are you out for a walk somewhere?” Her arm was paper-thin and freezing cold. I noticed that she had no socks on.

She looked at me closely with her light blue eyes. “I’m going north of St. Albert,” she said. “I’m going home.”

Now St. Albert is a suburb of our city and many kilometres away. She was also heading east, not north – entirely in the wrong direction. I knew then that John’s instincts were correct. This old lady was lost, and confused.

I wasn’t sure what to do. A young lady came up and was softly speaking to her too. My friends had inched up with their car. I wanted to get her warm, and get her off the mean streets. I asked if she would come with us and we could take her somewhere safe. She hesitated for a moment, but thankfully she agreed to get in.

John was our driver. He spoke to this cold, lost lady so gently and with such great kindness. It was as if he was talking to his grandmother. He found out her name, and he kept using it as he chatted with her, keeping her occupied and calm.

“I got confused when it got dark. It got dark so fast,” she whispered. This was true. She was steps from our vast river valley, which is deserted and would have swallowed her up whole. I was thankful for the warmth of the car.

She kept repeating a street address to us. She had no purse or ID. Should we drive there? we thought.   No, she didn’t know the day of the week. I’m sure that address was a home address from a very long time ago.

We decided to drive a few blocks to the central police station. I got out to explain our situation, but oddly, the station was pitch dark and all locked up. There is no public counter on Saturday nights – having watched a lot of Hill Street Blues and Law & Order, I found this really strange. I had to call 9-1-1.

A police officer arrived immediately. We waited for another car, as he had a vomiting drunk gentleman in the back of his car.  (Police officers!  What a job).

When the other car arrived, the officers said they’d been looking for this lady all day. She was an official missing person. She’d been reported missing from a local hospital many blocks away. She’d been wandering the streets for over eight hours. Cold, lost and hungry.

She seemed wary of the police car. “You aren’t in any trouble,” I assured her. She gave me a big hug before she disappeared into their car.  “Thank you, dear,” she said. And then she was gone.

Now, I’m not telling this Good Samaritan story for any accolades. To be truthful, I saw this lady on the sidewalk and dismissed her because she was waiting patiently at the light, and walking so briskly. But our friend John is the real hero. He insisted that we help her out. So that’s what we did.

I’m haunted by the coldness of her arm. How long before she wandered down by the river, or got disorientated in the remote river valley trails?  How many people passed her on her during her eight hours on the street?   And why, oh why, didn’t anybody help to stop her?

Reflecting back on that night, I wonder why we have such reluctance to help a stranger. Is this an urban, city thing?  Are we so busy that we think we don’t have time to help?  Do we think that this isn’t our problem?  I have renewed respect for the young police officers who were searching for this lovely old lady all day and finally brought her back to safety. I hope she’s finally found her way back home.

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