Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Should I say something?

It didn't really seem like a big deal at first.

Then it became an ethical dilemma.

I gazed a half mile into the distance, spotting the bus as it rounded the corner and slowly approached. Swiveling my head ninety degrees, I noticed an elderly woman walking as briskly as possible toward me; she had no view of the oncoming coach as I did.

Was she trying to catch this bus? Maybe, but they come every ten minutes. Should I yell to her that it's coming? I could, but she may not understand and feel threatened. How about if I just motion with my hand to come quickly? Also creepy, plus, if she picked up her gait any further, the specter of a broken hip looms with the risk of slamming to the asphalt.

What did I do?


I boarded the bus and watched the woman's wobbly silhouette diminish through the back window. I then sat and ruminated for the thirty minute trip downtown. By rationalizing each scenario into a course of non-action, I had possibly robbed this elderly woman of a ten-minute chunk of her day. Due to perceived embarrassment and sheer laziness, I had committed, albeit slight, an unethical act.

We encounter these situations more often than we think.

My eleven-year-old daughter and I enjoy watching a show entitled, What Would You Do? every Friday night on ABC. Unsuspecting witnesses are faced with ethical decisions through the use of hidden cameras and actors. For example, a waitress in a diner, played by an actress, refuses service to a gay couple with children and creates a scene in front of a roomful of patrons.

As the cameras roll, some people ignore the situation entirely, while others choose to confront the server and/or comfort the victim. A substantial minority actually side with the waitress. The drama builds until the show's host, with camera operators and grips in tow, bursts into the room to announce that it's all been staged.

The scenarios are intense, like a group of drunk teenagers on a public sidewalk, encouraging a sober friend to imbibe, or an adolescent couple dealing with a new found pregnancy in a coffee shop.

But those types of dramas are rare, compared to the smaller and more common scenarios we face.

When should you say something?

Sometimes, it's simply a matter of reaching a boiling point, like when I encountered a guy scattering his toe nail clippings on the floor of the gym locker room.

Other instances, we're trying to do someone a favor. It's easy to tell your spouse that she's got a piece of chickpea in her eyebrow, but try it with a stranger:

"Excuse me, ma'am, but that leaflet of romaine lettuce between your teeth flaps like a little green flag whenever you make the long "e" sound. I just thought you should know."

I've got a big problem with people who need to just blow their nose, but won't do it, even when an Aloe-lotion-coated nose wipe lurks ten feet away. It's easy with one of my kids: "For the love of Kimberly Clark. You've been sniffing since Monday. Stop doing nose Kegels and get a freaking Kleenex."

But when it's a stranger, I'd feel pretty jerkish asking him if he'd like a tissue.

Yesterday, again on King County Metro Route 21, a man sat beside me, zoning out on his palm held electronic pacifier.

Remember as a kid, when your big brother would pin you down and dangle a thick saliva rope over your face, only to slurp it back in just before it splashed down on your little oily forehead?

That slurper was my seatmate, only he was playing professional Duncan snot yo-yo master, performing amazing nasal feats prior to snorting his inventory safely home in the nick of time. Growing distracted to the point of obsession, I highly considered ripping my shirt off and offering it to him as a small token of my irritation.

Before doing so, however, I felt compelled to play the scene out mentally. You know...a little cost/benefit analysis:

"Shit! Just blow your nose!" barked the pallid, shirtless, middle aged man, extending a torn Old Navy polo toward the startled commuter. The irate passenger's arm quivered as the striped blue material offered itself to no one.

The bus halted and idled at the next stop as Transit Security pulled up behind. The bare chested perpetrator was led away in handcuffs.

I'll just put on some headphones next time.

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