I’m not a quick thinker. I’ve never had a gift for improv. I don’t have instantly witty replies on hand and practically the only thing I can summon at will are puns. It’s a niche subset of skills and in most situations it’s not particularly useful. There is a skill I’d like that requires intuitive understanding, a fast read of a situation and the willingness to act. It’s a quality in others that I’ve always admired and have always desired for myself: I’d like to learn to step in and help.
Scenario: My girlfriend and I were walking down to the subway. An animated (as in active, this was real life not some Roger Rabbit style caper) fellow was reaching down, tugging on a woman’s boots and flashing a magazine clipping close to her face. I caught snippets of the word “boots” and some awkward slightly nervous laughing from the gal. My spider sense flashed as my girlfriend asked me “do you think they know each other?” It doesn’t really look like it” I replied. We kept an eye on them. Frankly it was hard not to, the behaviour just seemed to deviate from Torontonians’ usual reserved nature in public. We sat down and continued to look. The guy continued, but a flicker of something passed around the woman’s face. She nodded, then turned and started to walk off. The guy followed. Something about his manner of speech also appeared to be different. Perhaps a little developmentally challenged, social cues not recognised. She pivoted and walked back the other way, he followed again.
I started to turn towards my girlfriend, who’d already risen to her feet. Before I could ask what the best course of action was, she’d already headed towards the situation. Like a useless limb, I stood but watched, not knowing how to intervene. “Toni” my girlfriend said loudly, looking straight at the woman “how’re you doing? I haven’t seen you in ages!” The gal latched on immediately “I know, right? How many years has it been?” My girlfriend brought her over to me while the guy stood awkwardly behind. He walked off to the back of the subway car then got off at the next stop. The girl exhaled deeply. “Thank you so much. I didn’t really know what to do. I work with developmentally disabled kids, so I didn’t want to do anything aggressive. I think he didn’t understand the situation, but I was starting to feel threatened. Toni though? Why Toni?” I beamed a little with pride at my girlfriend’s quick thinking and felt slightly in awe. Swift, decisive and effective. She thanked us for the help (us? What the hell did I do?) and we wished her a good night.
We talked about it later and I voiced both my desire to be able to step in during situations like that and my inability to think on my feet. I thought back to the Zanta incident. I hope that this doesn’t come off like an intended excuse, but I do have a legitimate concern in a harassment situation like the Zanta case, that intervening as a male can cause the situation to escalate to a physical one rapidly. With a lack of pride I voiced my concern to my girlfriend of my desire to help, but fear over coming to actual physical harm. Uncharismatic as it is but willing as I would be to pitch in, my disinclination towards walking away with black eyes and fewer teeth counterbalanced this. She nodded and suggested intervention in a non-physical way, either alerting officials or in the case of the TTC, pressing the passenger assistance alarm. She’s a wise one. The only thought that popped into my head when thinking of a non-conflict resolution was blurting out some kind of strange non-sequitur. Seeing some kind of heated argument, walking up close and loudly asking “seriously, what’s with dogs being made to wear human clothes? Isn’t that kind of fucked up? Like, what happens if a dog gets a T-shirt put on and doesn’t have the opposable thumbs to take it off. Is that animal abuse?” Are hack Seinfeld impressions a viable option? Please say yes.
The bystander effect is a real thing and I understand why it happens. Not knowing how to resolve a situation, fear of personal harm and a wish that someone could come along and make everything better. I feel like there’s only been one time I jumped in without thinking. We were at the beach on holiday, a bunch of friends all hanging out. Two of our friends were out a bit deeper and one of them wasn’t particularly active. Someone called out and asked if they were ok. One of them replied that she was fine, but she wasn’t sure about her boyfriend. I knew I was a decent swimmer and instantly started running in. A friend and I kept him floating, but ultimately it was a local surfer who stopped off and gave us the information we needed. He guided us to get ready and brace for some upcoming rocks, that they’d be our best chance of latching on and climbing back up to shore. Everything worked out fine in the end, but that moment could’ve changed our lives forever without a quick reaction. His eyes were pale as milk. I still think about it from time to time.
Then again, I also think about dogs wearing human clothing.