Driving On

This essay aired 16 October 2009 on NPR affiliate WVPE-FM. 

I was terrified that she was going to turn around and slug me. I can only imagine the look on my face that one of the teens was gleefully capturing on her cell phone.

I was lost in thought driving home one September evening, considering how fortunate I was to have just paid only $88 for over $1000 worth of medication. I was about a block or so from my house, when I noticed a crowd gathered around two teen girls fighting in the street.

This was not a simple exchange of punches: one girl was beating the crap out of the other. Both girls were on the ground; Girl A had two fistfuls of hair in each of her hands and was pulling with all her might as she kicked Girl B as hard she could in the shoulders and ribs. Girl B was struggling to break free. The two were surrounded by 8-10 teenagers who were doing nothing to stop the fight. About three houses away, two men in their twenties were standing by a car in the street, not making any move to intervene.

Instead of turning the corner toward my house, I drove forward, past the snickering men, into the crowd of laughing teens, and up alongside the two girls. The situation was a bit harrowing for me as a woman alone in her car in the evening, the circle of teenagers separating just enough to let me into the circle, but not ceasing their jeers and taunts.

Calmly, but firmly, I said to the girls, “Stop. Stop. C’mon, get off of her. Get off of her. Now step apart.” When Girl A stood up, she was no more than about six inches from my head. I was terrified that she was going to turn around and slug me. I can only imagine the look on my face that one of the teens was gleefully capturing on her cell phone. Girl A took a couple of steps away, still facing Girl B, her eyes filled with rage, taunting her to fight again. “Walk away. Walk away,” I continued to urge in a clam, steady voice, trying my best to cover my fear with an infusion of patience and kindness.

Though the girls had stepped apart, my presence in my car with its “Peace is Possible” bumper sticker was not having the diffusing affect I had hoped for. The taunts were rising, the crowd was not dispersing, the cell phone continued recording, and my pleas to walk away were going unheeded.

It is excruciating for me to admit, dear listener, that at this point I drove away, watching the scene in my rearview mirror. I drove about thirty yards when the girls started lunging for one another again. I pulled over, called 911, and reported the scene. The dispatcher asked me if I saw a weapon. “No,” I replied, “but this is a particularly brutal fight.” He told me to call again if I saw a weapon. “I don’t live on this block and I have to get home to my family, ” I told him. “Alright,” he sighed, “I’ll send someone out.”

I returned home, deeply shaken, handed over the chemotherapy medication to my husband, and related the story to him and our two teenage daughters.

So many questions about this incident keep swirling around in my head: did Girl B suffer permanent damage to her neck or shoulders? Was her hair pulled out by its roots? It was a warm evening and the houses all had open windows and doors and this fight went on for some time, and yet no adult came out to break it up. And why would the 911 dispatcher not take seriously the gravity of the situation? No one was willing to protect Girl B.

Mostly, though, I have been consumed with the coulda-shoulda-woulda’s. I could have driven back and, again, urged the girls to stop fighting. I should have driven up to the men and demanded that they intervene. I would have gotten out of the car when Girl A started her taunts, but when I saw the rage in her eyes, all I could think of was my thirteen year-old tearfully insisting in the face of her father’s rapidly advancing cancer that I must stay alive. So I drove on.

These days I drive down the block where the fight occurred every opportunity I get. I know that I will not be able to redeem the choice I made to drive away from the scene. I just want to continue to be a steady, friendly presence, waving hello to everyone I see, hoping, hoping that peace will be more than just a possibility.

2 Responses to “Driving On”

  1. Elizabeth Burke-Dain Says:

    I remember a time when I saw an elderly woman in an Ikea parking lot who obviously was wandering around trying to open car doors ‘to find a place to knit’. There was a group of women who had noticed her, saw that I had taken up the torch by talking to her and left me to take care of the situation. In my mind all I could think about was how furious my husband was to leave the store and was waiting for me to drive up to the pick-up area. I told the woman, “just wait here for a moment and I’ll be back”. In fear of the reprisals I would receive from my exhausted (you know the Ikea exhaustion) family, I left her. When I got back she had been struck by a car. It wasn’t serious, but I couldn’t help but be ashamed at how much I could have done and with such little effort. I really gave me pause. There is always that niggling feeling that we could do more, that ‘woulda, coulda, shoulda’ that you mention in your piece. In your case, of course, having the global view of your life and its value to your children in such a difficult time, was absolutely the right thing. Having intervened at all was valiant especially since there were so many desensitized people milling around.

    In Chicago, just a few weeks ago, a young boy, Derrion Albert, was beaten to death by his classmates just steps from his school. He wanted to help, to intervene, to stop the madness in whatever way he could. It was too great a price.

  2. Jennifer Delanty Says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful and troubling story, Elizabeth. Please do not ever underestimate the power of a nonviolent and loving act. Although the fight was only temporarily interrupted, your brave action planted a seed in every other person who was there. They were shown a different way, another way, a less violent way. Your action will create a recollection that very well may produce a different choice, another choice, a less violent choice in the future. I commend your effort!

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