December 23, 2014

East Village & overcoming the bystander effect

Not the usual fare for this blog, but a little vignette I wrote up for my local paper – quite a change from my usual subject matter. As one comment writer noted, “The most interesting part is that a number of people will stop to help once one person does.” I think that is true of many things.

On Tuesday, a follower of The Local East Village’s Twitter page tweeted about how some East Villagers had helped a missing man back to his home. Seeing a counterpoint to the tragic death of Eason Alonzio, we asked her to tell us the whole story here.

On Tuesday night, my husband Ben and I settled in at Standings. The low-key sports bar has become the default home for one of our “integrate into America” projects: acquiring a love of baseball, or at the very least starting to work out what all the fuss is about. It’s not the most straightforward endeavor for a couple of Aussies raised to believe cricket is the best game on Earth. Becoming Mets fans has helped though; we are culturally wired to support the underdog, and they fulfill the role with aplomb.

It was around 10:30 p.m. when we finished watching the Mets throw away their 8th-inning lead against the Marlins. Defeated and more than ready to be home, we crossed Second Avenue over to St. Marks, Ben pushing his bike ahead of me. In my peripheral vision I caught only a fleeting glimpse of what seemed to be a hunched figure leaning up against a tree trunk; it wasn’t until I had gone several feet further that the image even registered.

“Wait up,” I said to Ben, handing him my backpack as I returned to investigate.

An elderly man, perhaps 80 years old, was struggling to reach the walking cane he had dropped on the pavement. I picked up the cane and put it in his hand. He started talking in Mandarin. Within a few moments it became clear he spoke no English, but by this time he was holding my hand.

“Can you go and find someone who speaks Mandarin?” I asked Ben, as the old man tried, and failed, to shuffle further along the pavement.

Ben came back from Second Avenue with no luck, so we swapped roles and I headed in the direction of First Avenue.

We moved to the East Village last year, but I’ve been working in Sudan most of that time, so I don’t know our area very well yet. In search of a better strategy than asking random people if they spoke Mandarin, I asked a homeless man, sitting on the corner of the street, for help. Those who spend most of their days hanging out in public spaces are often the best guides to any neighborhood.

He thought about it for a second. “I figure they speak Chinese at Chinese restaurants, right?”

He pointed me towards the nearest one.

At a hole-in-the-wall Chinese takeout joint, I was directed to the owner’s son, Jay, who was busily tucking into a tasty-looking bowl of noodles. Before I’d even finished my explanation Jay was on his feet, walking with me back to the old man. In the meantime, Ben had attracted some good souls of his own. Two 20-something guys had stopped to check if Ben needed any help. They too had peeled off to find a translator. Between Jay and the translator that these two found, we finally managed to communicate.

It was readily apparent that there was some kind of dementia in play. The old man didn’t know who he was or where he was supposed to be. At various points he thought he was back in China, asking Jay to come with him to pick up something from a pharmacy in a northern Chinese province.

Realizing there was nothing any of us could do for him, Ben got on the phone to 311. Assured that the situation was now in the hands of social services, our makeshift team of helpers began to disperse.

“You’re not from around here, are you?” one of the young men asked Ben, as everyone went their separate ways.

We waited with the old man, who once again had his hand in mine. In less than ten minutes a police car arrived. Officers had matched Ben’s description of the man with a missing persons report that had been filed in the Chinatown precinct. We began walking back to our home as they drove him back to his.

There is a stereotype about New Yorkers. That they are always too busy, too preoccupied with their own lives to notice what is happening around them, or to act even when they do see something awry; the Kitty Genovese tragedy has cast a long shadow. But there are everyday exceptions to the rule, and it was heartening to see that in action this week in the East Village – my new home.

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