Several years ago, I was shopping along a busy street in Portsmouth with a friend when we passed a parked car which had been left running with the windows cracked. Inside, a three or four-year-old girl climbed around on the seats, over and around the console. All her little light-up sneaker had to do was hit the shift to send the car in motion.
Without thinking, I tried the door. Locked.
"I'm waiting for the driver," I told my friend.
We stood by the car like sentries, hoping we'd discover that the driver had made a quick run into the dry cleaner, maybe an ATM stop. The little girl inside the car waved at us.
More than ten minutes went by. My face got warm, my pulse quickened and I knew I was going to initiate something in the next couple of minutes that would be unpleasant. I suggested to my friend that if a confrontation would make her uncomfortable, she should find something else to do for a moment.
"Are you kidding?" she said, "I'm not going anywhere."
After several more moments, the stranger exited a Starbucks - grande in hand - and I stepped toward her.
"Excuse me," I said. She was startled. "I can't believe you left this child in a running car. What would you have done if she'd put the car in gear?"
The woman ignored me, and searched for her keys.
"We've been standing here waiting for you, and it's actually been over fifteen minutes," I said.
The stranger, rummaging still, said, "The line was long."
"She could have put your car in gear! Or climbed out of the car!" I said.
A little crowd had gathered and my friend filled them in. Then there was whispering, "What?!" "You're kidding!" "Really?!" "That's inexcusable!" Someone blurted out, "You don't deserve to be a mother!" and another said, "Some women never get the privilege you know!"
It was turning into Lord of the Flies with mothers. Without responding, the woman got in her car and drove away, while I considered how crowd-think had ruined my perfectly good intentions.
A few years later, I watched a woman attempt to herd several teenagers through their back to school shopping. They were raucous and silly and she was already on edge when she came in the store . In only moments one of the teens did something that pushed her too far and she began to scream and swear at them.
"Get the f*** in that f****** room before I kick your ass!!"
My face got warm, my pulse quickened and I knew I was going to initiate something in the next couple of minutes that would be unpleasant and so I suggested to my daughter that if a confrontation would make her uncomfortable, she should wait outside. She was gone before I finished my sentence.
At the counter, quietly, I said to the woman, "I want you to know I am appalled by how you spoke to those kids. I can only imagine how you talk to them at home." She turned, looked me over, and snorted, "Oh! Really? You're appalled." I thought she might hit me. The teenagers circled like a gang of dogs and when she let loose with a profanity laced rant about people like me who didn't know how to mind their own business in their little worlds where nobody says bad things, they laughed.
Later on, I thought it over. At arguably some risk, I accomplished nothing. In fact, rather than inspire this woman to reflect on her inexcusable behavior, I supplied her with a story to tell her friends back in the other little world where they do say bad things.
I vowed never to approach a stranger again on another stranger's behalf.
I made good on this two nights ago.
I watched a man pull into a handicap parking space , hop from the car, and not walk, not limp, but jog into the restaurant. Upsetting , yes, but maybe, I thought, he'd been handicapped until recently and just wasn't anymore and so I checked. Nothing. No placard, no plate.
He just didn't want to look further for a space.
Inside my brother waited to meet me. He suffers from a lung disease which requires him to use oxygen almost all of the time and has a placard hanging from the rear view mirror which he finds humiliating. Had he not been dropped off, had he arrived after the man took the space, he would have had to circle endlessly for another or go home.
I watched the man park and leave his car but I said nothing. After I found my own space and went into the restaurant I saw him sitting in a booth behind my brother, and still, I said nothing. Nothing about how those spaces are for others who face greater struggles than limited parking. Nothing about how an unavailable space could spell the end of the evening for someone who has just spent the day indoors. I said none of those things.
For two reasons: First, because unlike the situation in Portsmouth, there was not a specific victim of this man's bad behavior in sight, only potential ones. I had no doubt that, had I'd seen him taking the space as my brother was rounding the corner, I would have spoken up. But in this situation, it was a principle I would have been defending more than a person.
Second, had I approached the man and been met with a response like the mall-woman's it would have ruined dinner for both me and my brother, something we both look forward to each week.
And so, with little reason to act other than to defend my own principles, or the dignity of another who deserves respectful, humane treatment, I said nothing.
And when people learn to need reasons greater than defending their own principles and standing up for others, to be sure, they will do it less.
And that is inexcusable.
It's wonderful to learn things that will solve problems in the future. After the questions I have asked myself in the aftermath of acting, versus failing to act as I should, I know this: I may have other dilemmas in the future, but I won't have that one.