I first saw her when I was waiting for the crosswalk light and she started across the street toward me -- against the light and in front of the cross traffic that had just gotten the green. The cars paused for her to totter to the far side. I looked back a few times before stopping to observe her progress. She was young, and she was weaving.
I don’t think I saw her fall, but I did see her briefly crumpled in the gutter before she got up and continued down the block. I started to follow and watched another couple stop to talk with her briefly before they continued on. She must have told them she was okay, but I didn’t think she was. I was afraid she was going to get hit by a bus, car, or light-rail train, all of which were passing by either next to her curb, across her path, or within a block. Or perhaps a less scrupulous person might take advantage of her in her vulnerable state.
So I continued to backtrack, and caught up with her on the second block where she had stopped to lean against a wall. It’s cold and rainy today, and she was not exactly dressed for the weather: leg warmers on her calves, sure, but a short skirt above her knees, and a thin blouse or tee. She was not wearing her cheap pink imitation fleece jacket against the cold, but had it draped over her head against the rain, and she was lugging a backpack and a shopping bag. I seem to remember a hole in a stocking.
I leaned against the wall next to her and said, can I help you get where you’re going? “I’m fine,” she said, “I’m just resting.” That’s all she ever said. You don’t look like you’re resting, I said, which was not exactly true, but she was so much more. You look like you’re in danger of hurting yourself, I continued, and I’m worried about that, so I’d like to accompany you to a safe place, wherever that may be, but I don’t know where you’re headed. She didn’t say anything or move, so I just continued to stand next to her. Passersby looked at us, perhaps thinking we were together, perhaps even thinking I was bothering this young woman hidden under a pink jacket, but there was no contact between us and no noise of distress from her, so nobody stopped. An older black man was on the other side, almost as close to her as I was and talking on his cell phone, so I kept an eye on him in case he made any sort of move toward her.
She needed a more professional examination. I called home, thinking that Carole would know what to do -- whom to call to get her the proper attention -- but there was no answer. (My wife was out walking the dog, it turned out.) After another moment, I decided to dial 9-1-1. Once she heard me talking and trying to bring more attention, the girl started to move … and I moved with her, keeping the emergency dispatcher apprised of our location for the next 6-1/2 blocks (a right turn, two blocks; a left turn, three blocks; and another left, crossing all the streets in between).
I had a sense of unreality, strolling alongside her, giving a detailed description (dark olive skirt, black blouse, pink jacket, about 5'4", late teens/early 20s, slight build, apparently intoxicated, weaving and walking into traffic, trying to get away from me) on my mobile phone and occasionally moving to block her way and stay between her and the curb.
She walked right into a sidewalk sandwich board on the first block, and would have proceeded into traffic against the light at least once again if I hadn’t stood in her way. At one point I apologized to her, and said I only wanted her to be safe. I remember looking into her eyes and thinking they might be dilated, but I didn't know enough to be sure. I kept expecting her to grab me, shove me, shout at me to leave her alone, but she never did any of those things. She just kept passively moving, weaving, trying to get away from me and whatever else lay behind her.
Finally two police cars pulled up to us and three officers got out to talk to her. I started to walk away, thinking my task was done, then decided I’d better stick around to see what followed, keeping a discreet distance from them, out of hearing range. One of the officers looked over at me, miming a phone call, and I nodded. He came over to note down my name, phone number, and a basic description of why I had called. He instructed me to keep my phone on in case they needed to take her into some sort of protective custody and would require more details. That was two hours ago. They have not called.
I think I did the right thing. Perhaps I’ll phone the police station tomorrow to find out what happened. It’s a hard thing to intervene in a stranger’s life, even a scary one. But what would you have done?