July 16, 2010

Laying your life on the line

Last night during book club someone asked, “In what circumstances would you, or have you, put your life on the line for someone else?”

Great question.

I racked my brain. After growing up in inner city Cincinnati, spending college summers in inner city Chicago and then inner city Boston, living in a rough neighborhood in Rochester, surely I’d been in a life threatening situation!

All of a sudden I remembered one incident. I related the following story to the group:

The summer of ’91, I lived in a Christian community in a really rough neighborhood in Chicago. As part of community life we had to ‘volunteer’ once a week; I chose the women and children’s shelter. It was a second-stage shelter so the women could stay there for up to 12 months while they earned money and took classes or worked. Every Thursday night I walked two blocks and descended into the darkness of ‘Blood Alley’ as the neighbors called it. We walked over in a threesome: a big guy, another woman and me. At night the guy kept watch at the front desk while the other woman and I bunked upstairs in an open dormitory with the women and their kids.

Every night at 9 pm the doors were locked. No one could go in or out (trying to make it harder for drug users to get out or boyfriends to get in). Many evenings I sat up and chatted with a woman named Sydnatta. We were both 20 years old and enjoyed each other’s company.

One Thursday we met a new resident. As soon as the doors were locked, she started complaining about being hungry. Can’t we order pizza? Why can’t she go out and get some food. What kind of place is this?

I looked around and saw a big pile of bread that had been donated, “Well, I’m sorry you’re hungry, but you can’t leave. If it’s that bad you can have some bread so you can survive until morning.”

She glared at me and pointed her finger in my face, “Honey, black people don’t eat BR--E--AD!” I shrugged, “Sorry. You won’t starve, but that’s all we have.” I got the cold shoulder or random jabs about bread the rest of the night.

The next morning (remember, I am NOT a morning person), I woke to loud shouts from the other end of the dormitory. I jumped out of bed. The other ‘staff’ worker was downstairs with the guy getting breakfast put together.

I saw Sydnatta and the new woman shouting at each other. Sydnatta brandished an iron toward the new woman who turned and snatched up a pair of scissors. I ran over and jumped between them. I forced my face in front of Sydnatta’s and told her in a loud, calm voice to go walk over and sit down. Don’t get into it with this new woman, we’ll sort it out. She kept yelling as she walked over, but then she quieted down. The other woman put the scissors down. Everyone wandered back to their respective bunks and I took a deep breath. I waited to make sure that nothing else was going to happen, then went into the bathroom to brush my teeth.

A couple minutes later the new woman cornered me in the bathroom. In a quiet voice she whisper yelled at me, “OTRgirl, don’t you know better than to put yourself in the middle of a fight?! You couldv’e gotten hurt real bad.”

It suddenly occurred to me that I’d turned my back on an angry stranger with scissors. I thanked her for the warning and she nodded, “You’re ok, honey, but you gotta be careful. You’re gonna get hurt, girl. You got to think.” I kept my ironic laughter inside and nodded solemnly while thanking her again. “Allright then.” I never had any other problems from her that summer.

In our book discussion, after I’d related that story, we discussed the fact that the reason I jumped in was because I had a relationship with one of the women. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have trusted Sydnatta to listen to me so would have called downstairs for the guy to come up and deal with it. When I jumped in, it honestly hadn’t occurred to me that I might get hurt. In some ways it feels like it doesn’t count as a ‘life on the line’ moment because I didn’t ‘choose’ it despite danger. I just did the obvious thing and then thought about it later.

What about you, have any of you laid your life on the line? Did you have time to think it through first? Or have you chosen NOT to intervene? Why or why not? I think I might use this as a conversation starter at parties.


Inkling said...

I've been thinking about this question a lot since you posed it. Since becoming a mama, I've thought a lot about how I hope I would react if anyone or anything tried to hurt my child. Most specifically, I hope that I'd come between a bear and my toddler if it came down to that. Yesterday at the beach, when I allowed him to be carried around by three young girls, I thought about how they might not be willing to be as protective if their lives were put in danger. My imagination went a little crazy as I kept them in sight at all times, knowing that I have to relax enough to let others care for him, but also knowing that I can't expect others to lay their lives on the line for him. Does that make sense? Anyway, that's what I've been thinking about.

OTR sister said...

I don't know if I've ever BEEN in a life-threatening situation, but I THOUGHT I was in one.

I ran like hell. Although I had the presence of mind to take a round-about route home so they wouldn't know where I lived.

No one else (innocent) was involved so I don't know if I would try and protect someone or not.

Oh wait, there was the 2001 earthquake out here. I worked in an old skyscraper which developed huge cracks in the walls as we watched, windows were blowing out, the works. As we ran down the stairs I didn't push my way in front of the slow woman in front of me even though I wanted to. Does that count?

OTRgirl said...

@Inkling: I think that mother instinct is really powerful. If the premise is that relationship enhances one's willingness to sacrifice self for the other, that's one of the most potent relationships around.

@OTR sister: not pushing counts for me! When I'm tense or stressed I'm very prone to pushing.

Inkling said...

Totally off topic, but I wanted to ask you a question about the comment you left on my blog. I like your suggestion of the crocs. Where did you get orthotics to put in them? I think I'm up for trying that if I can find the right kind of insert to help with the overpronation issue. Currently, my hope is to avoid the super expensive, custom made orthotics. While the culture here would probably forgive me for wearing shoes inside, it would be a lot easier during the 9 month rainy season to have dry shoes to wear inside when I'm visiting. Thanks for the idea! It's a great one that I totally didn't think about.

Anonymous said...

One time I was on the subway in nyc with my friends 2 kids when a guy pulled out a knife and started running it back and forth along a pole like he was sharpening it. All I could think was 'these are not my kids and I don't want to have to tell their parents they are dead'. There were other people in the car, no one moved. At the next stop we hopped off, that was all i could think to do and luckily he stayed on. We were all slightly freaked out