As someone who bristles at the canard that horrendous experiences are somehow ennobling - and here I can insert three examples that spring instantly to mind: the decision to end The Diary of Anne Frank with that immortal maudlin line; the insulting Oscar winning film Life is Beautiful; the insidious suggestion that positive thinkers recover from cancer more often than pessimistic ones - I have to report that I learned a valuable lesson from a much less unfortunate experience this week.
I was walking with a friend when I realized that I had to leave her and move more quickly in order to pick up my grandson from school on time. I began to walk very fast, occasionally breaking into a run and just as I could see the subway steps ahead, I took a flying flop and landed face down on the pavement, gashing my nose and breaking some teeth. Two young adults ran towards me, each getting down on the sidewalk to be on my level and check for injury. When I lifted my head, they could see blood streaming from the top of my nose and from my mouth where I had bitten my lip. The young woman was a physical therapist who insisted that I not get up and that it was important to call for paramedics. Though I didn’t think it was necessary, she persisted and made the call. The young man asked if there was something he could do and there was since I needed help making phone calls arranging for someone else to pick up the five year old waiting for me at school.
Fifteen minutes elapsed and no paramedics appeared so the young woman called again, and fifteen minutes later for the third time, castigating the dispatcher for how long this was taking. In the meantime, I noticed the young man making a call which I subsequently learned was to cancel his own appointment. Several other people stopped to help; one ran to a nearby doctor’s office and returned with many squares of wet gauze to use as compresses on my nose. The young man found my metro card and a piece of tooth on the sidewalk, both of which he carefully put in my handbag telling me where to find them. A doctor walking with her young daughter stopped to investigate and reassured me that I didn’t need stitches and that the wound was already beginning to close with neat borders. An elderly couple walking their huge rescue dog asked whether anything else was needed or wanted, and this parade of caring New Yorkers continued for one hour. All this time, the two good samaritans remained seated on the sidewalk with me continuing to chat, to be unflinching at the sight of my rapidly swelling nose and mouth, to be cheerful and unfazed by the amount of time this was taking.
The paramedics arrived 60 minutes after the first call with no explanation for their delay and no sign of discomfiture. By this time, my husband had arrived and I declined to step into the dilatory ambulance, opting for family and private care. I will always be unnerved by the disquieting dread of what would have happened had my injuries been more serious and by what an oxymoron emergency service had proved to be. But mostly, I felt indebted to the two young samaritans who stayed with me while I was feeling numb and shaken and I felt uplifted by the surprising number of strangers who volunteered to help. We are often brainwashed into feeling that New York is defined by the Kitty Genovese syndrome of indifference but this was my opportunity to discover firsthand how wrong this can be. Without attempting to explain the actions of neighbors who failed to call the police while Kitty lay dying, I was privileged to experience the opposite reaction - many people who offered assistance and two who gave it for a period of time that exceeded the boundaries of good intentions.
My accident may result in the loss of one front tooth but it will also result in my determination to pay forward the altruistic behavior that was extended to me. And there is an extravagant lagniappe to this story made more exceptional by its unexpectedness. After I told the friend who was left behind what had happened, she sent a bouquet of flowers that arrived by federal express in a long elegant box containing a vase uniquely suited to the height and colors of the arrangement. While the old adage may be true that it’s better to give than to get, there’s a special glow that comes from being the recipient of people’s kindness. I know that I often forget what I have given other people but I will always remember the very special gifts I have just received.
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