Life: Saint Joan & The Silver Bag Man
Yesterday, I headed into the city, armed with the task of buying ‘Knowledge Quest English Book One’. ‘Knowledge Quest English Book One’ is a Year 7 English text. The errand seemed simple enough and as it was a lovely afternoon, I walked the fairly short distance from my house to Swanston Street, past the Hot Rod Show, through the Carlton Gardens, across Victoria Parade and down Lonsdale Street.
I detoured across the front of the State Library, instead of taking my usual route down Little Lonsdale Street. There were people sprinkled across the lawn and a few sitting on seats and wandering in the library’s front door.
I slowed for a minute to look at the Joan of Arc statue and noticed a man sitting on a bench, eating his noodle lunch, taking in Joan’s magnificence too. We smiled at each other. It was all feeling pretty great. Sprinkled people. Joan of Arc. Noodles. Smiles. Sunshine. What could be better?
This afternoon haze sharpened suddenly, shockingly, when a thin man reeled backwards in front of Joan of Arc, at the hands of another much bigger man. Then the bigger man pushed the smaller man down the stairs. The smaller man banged his head on the steps, but sprung up quickly, his hand flying to the back of his head, his eyes wide.
The bigger man, who I could now see was clutching the silver bag from a box of wine bellowed something unintelligible at the smaller man. His eyes were tight with anger, his face stretched and red. He lumbered clumsily down the stairs to the street, away from the smaller man and jumped onto a departing tram. The doors closed and he was gone.
It all happened very quickly. The whole exchange took about 20 seconds. I looked around me and a few people looked back shaking their heads. I looked for the small man. He’d walked away and now stood behind a tree talking to a companion. He rubbed his head, mouth open, head shaking too. The man with the noodles had gone.
I didn’t really know what to do. The injured man had retreated, standing where he was nearly out of view. The man who assaulted him was halfway down Swanston Street on a tram. I was still standing in front of Joan of Arc.
I wanted to go over to the small man and say how sorry I was that this had happened. I wanted to make sure he was okay. But he looked so embarrassed. Hundreds of people were scattered about the Library. It was impossible to know how many had witnessed the encounter. No one else made a move.
So I walked away, looking over my shoulder every few steps. I noticed that his friend was taking care of him. I noticed that the small man was still touching his head and wincing, checking his fingers for blood. I felt helpless and I felt really guilty about being a human being.
How is it that some people are so capable of violence? Is this just about alcohol? Or race (their races differed)? Or stupidity? And why don’t we/I know what to do, when we/I witness such a horrible exchange? Apart from the small man’s friend, no one approached at any time during this incident. Apart from giving the small man a sympathetic look, I didn’t feel able to do anything either. I felt like I would make things worse or upset the already visibly shaken man.
After I left, returning to the task at hand (‘Knowledge Quest Book One’), I imagined myself running into the big man further down Swanston St and asking him what made him do such a thing. I imagined him looking crestfallen, admitting he’d been ignored by his father or that he was powerless against the evils of alcohol. He would look genuinely remorseful and I’d feel better as we parted. Semi-yay!
But in my heart I know I’d never ask him anything, in case he hurt me too. Does this make sense to you?
I’m on my own remorseful knowledge quest now…
Have you ever witnessed this kind of thing? A sharp, shocking, painful altercation? What should you do when something like this happens? How do you balance your concern for others with your own safety? Or another person’s dignity? Or what is kind and right?
I wish I’d talked to the small man. Dang. I wish I’d broken through those hundreds of seeing/non-seeing people and risked embarrassing him or myself with some kind words. I will do that next time. I have promised myself that.