“That’s what people do.” So replied the North Dakota farmer when asked why she had sheltered and fed dozens of people whose cars were stranded in a prairie blizzard. That’s what people do. My grandparents in North Dakota would have said the same thing, and in the same tone, as if the reporter were slightly addled to ask in the first place. For them, helping when needed, righting wrongs, and providing comfort were not extraordinary actions but everyday acts, a part of living in a family, a community, and a world.
It’s easy to associate neighborly assistance with small towns or rural areas where families have built connections over generations and people know each other well. The small town where I live is quick to offer help to those in need, from fundraisers to food drives to watching each other’s children after school, even when people are new to town.
But it’s rarer to picture that kind of person-to-person aid in a large city where people often don’t know their neighbors and the hard pace of living can easily leave someone behind.
Last week I was teaching digital storytelling in Denver at the historic Milheim House on Race off Colfax Avenue where the Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop has made their new home. Colfax is a major east/west street that runs past the state capitol and legislative buildings just south of downtown. But other businesses on Colfax aren’t so auspicious. Depending on the block, the street gets a little rough around the edges. Liquor stores, fast-food restaurants, and tattoo parlors line parts of Colfax and street people who lack a home or a job or both are a familiar sight along the way.
I never drive to Denver; I take the bus. I don’t like city traffic and I’d rather read than watch out for other people’s cars so I ride RTD to get to Denver and around the city once I’m there.
Last Thursday morning, I caught the eastbound Colfax bus near the capitol just past the last stop for the 16th Street Mall shuttle. I didn’t have to wait long for the bus, but it was a little crowded with morning commuters so I had to sit a few rows back from the front. Because I’m not very familiar with this route yet, I sat on the aisle side so that I could watch the order of the street signs as we made our way east. I was a little nervous about overshooting my cross-street and paid extra attention to the road as we headed out.
At Humboldt, our bus stopped at a red light and I saw a man with a long white stick standing at the sidewalk to our right. He was tapping the edge of the curb with his stick to see where to step off. Because he was taking a long time to start across the street, I worried that he wouldn’t be able to cross all four lanes of Colfax before the light changed again. As I watched him tap and move closer to the street, I hoped he would realize that the light would soon change and he would wait onto the sidewalk until the next chance to cross safely again.
But he didn’t. Finding the edge of the curb with his stick, he stepped off into the street in front of our waiting bus and started slowly across the avenue. I watched him as he made his way, checking carefully for what came ahead with his stick in front of him. Halfway into the street, he must have realized that the light changed as the cars heading west drove toward him. He stopped for a few seconds and then turned 45 degrees straight east into the oncoming traffic. I gasped and waited for a car to hit him as he circled the middle of the street. Thankfully, our bus driver must have seen the man crossing and didn’t move the bus, which kept the cars behind us from moving too.
Somehow, no one hit him. The oncoming cars stopped in time; I didn’t even hear any honking. With traffic at a standstill in the middle of Colfax, the other passengers now glanced out the windows on the left side of the bus and murmured their concern. Finally, the man headed back toward the sidewalk where he’d started and disappeared from view. I think someone on the street ran out to help him back to the sidewalk because when the crossing man appeared next at the door of our bus, he had another man by his side. One of them asked our bus driver where to catch a different bus. I couldn’t hear which bus they requested, but I did hear our driver say that bus would stop a block behind us. The second man volunteered to take the sight-impaired man there. We all breathed a sigh of relief as our bus headed down Colfax once more without tragedy so early in the morning.
The next evening, heading back to my hotel on the westbound Colfax bus, I saw the man again. He was waiting at the stop this time, and asked for the bus to Franklin, which was east, not west, of where he stood. The bus driver told him that he’d have to cross Colfax to catch that bus. I gasped again and said to the young man sitting next to me, “I saw that guy almost get killed in the middle of Colfax yesterday.”
“That’s tough,” he said. As I hoped that we weren’t going to repeat the previous day’s near-tragedy, a man getting off the bus volunteered to help the guy cross the busy street. Good. He was safe again for now.
I don’t like to drive in Denver but I can’t imagine navigating a busy avenue like Colfax on foot with less than perfect vision. I worry about the man still but knowing that even in the big city, he can depend on the kindness of strangers to help him through his day makes me feel better. We all have to depend on others at some time in our lives. Wherever we live, it’s good to remember that helping others is what people do.