Saturday, March 15, 2008

Helping a Stranger

The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent IBM's positions, strategies or opinions.

Helping Family

The Philips Lifeline bill came in today's mail. It's for my mother; I've been a customer in her behalf for the past seven years.

It occurred to me to call Customer Service and set up online bill paying and then I realized that the more realistic thing to do would be to suspend service for the next three months. As a policy, they didn't suspend service; they canceled it and then re-instated it if necessary.

It was a sad conversation for me. Who knew if my mom would be able to return to her house when her three months of rehab from her recent car accident was done? The house had many stairs.

If I were Indian, in India, there would be likely no other scenario than my mother coming to live with one of her daughters and our family; in India, there was no Social Security and the culture also was such that most parents did live with their kids when they became elderly.

As my American culture, or my own individual sense of what could work differed from that culture's, my mom would need to go to assisted living or a nursing home, if she couldn't return to her house ultimately. And she has been so fiercely independent that it has been painful to see her totally immobilized right now. My mother's spirit never would be elderly and that has been making it harder, and easier, for her right now.

One of my sisters was away, celebrating her 20th anniversary and one could not afford to catch my mother's staph infection and so this past week, I was the most present daughter.

A number of times during the week, I shuttled back and forth to the rehab facility and then stayed at my vacationing sister's to watch over our nine-year-old twin nephews, Max and Sam, from Thursday to nearly midday today. Pat didn't have a desire to join me, as she knew it would be challenging...more about all that in a separate blog entry.

The Stranger -- Not as Complex as Camus'

Monday night, I rolled my briefcase down Broadway toward 121st Street, thinking about the class I had just come from, and wishing that I had left my classmates, wanting more in reading my narrative. I was being comparative -- really, competitive -- with the classmate whose narrative we interpreted that night. By the time I reached my car-door, I was fully self-involved. Pat and I were talking on my cell phone about how bad I felt and she was indulging me.

I turned on the engine and a man, who appeared to be an Orthodox Jew based on his fedora and big beard, motioned to me from the sidewalk. Still on the phone with Pat, I opened the window of the passenger side. Apparently having seen my license plate, he said, "I'm sorry to bother you, but are you going to the New Jersey Turnpike?"

"No, I'm going to the Garden State Parkway. Sorry."

"Umm, I just left my wallet in a taxi and need to get back to Cherry Hill [which is at the southern tip of New Jersey, just outside of Philadelphia]."

"Wow, sorry. I'm just going to Montclair [which is just 14 miles west of midtown Manhattan], which won't help you much."

Pat said, "Give him a ride to the Port Authority."

"You're right across from the Jewish Theological Seminary [JTS]...and you're dressed like an Orthodox Jew, so please tell me you're not a killer."

"I'm not," he said, smiling and lifting his fedora for me to see a woven kippah (skull-cap). It struck me that it was white, with a blue border, rather than the typical color that the Orthodox wear, pure black, but it was a barely-conscious thought.

"OK. Come on and get in, but I'm going to stay on the phone the whole time just in case."

"I can sit in the back seat."

"No, come up here."

"Oh, my mother would turn over in her grave to see me asking a single woman --" he said anxiously, getting in the car.

"I'm not single," I said assertively.

"I'm [the Jewish equivalent of John Doe -- among the most common first and last names a Jewish man could have]."

"I'm Sarah Siegel," I said and knew not to extend my hand to shake his, since Orthodox Jews are not supposed to touch a person of another gender unless they're married to each other.

He got in the car and thanked me while calling 311 to report the mishap. "It was a blue, velvet bag with a Star of David on it and the driver was Sikh...."

When he hung up, I said, "You're lucky that the driver was Sikh. A Sikh friend in India told me that Sikhs are all about standing up for what's right."

"Yeah, I just have to worry about who got in the cab after me."

"Well, they don't want your tefillin. They just want the money."

"Yeah, and I did cancel all my credit cards."

"Good, but the tefillin probably were from your Bar Mitzvah --"

"No, they were my great-grandfather's and I had just sent them to Israel to be repaired."

"Oh, that's too bad!"

In between this exchange, he called the Amtrak station and learned that at that time of day, the train ticket cost $60. I had already given him the $17 I had in my wallet.

"We'll have to stop at an ATM."

"Thank you so much. You'll give me your address and I'll send it back to you."

"Wait here, since I need to double-park, and don't steal the car, OK?"

"I'll do mincha while you're gone...though it's probably already reaching the time for ma'ariv."

"OK, please, just don't take my car," I said, leaving the engine running and walking toward the Chase building on the corner.

Coming back, I saw him, finishing his prayers from a tiny prayer-book -- the sort that should have been in his tefillin bag, but maybe he carried a spare in his coat, and I said, "I heard you confirm that it was $60 for the train ticket, and so here's $60. That ought to be enough, with the money I've already given you."

"Well, oh, but I'll have to get my car out at the other end!"

I was annoyed. "Your wife, or someone from the synagogue, can help you at the other end."

He was quiet, seeming distraught about how he'd manage at the other end, but I wasn't willing to give him any more money, or delay my dinner still further by stopping again.

"What do you do?" he asked.

I told him, and that I was just coming from class in the field.

"Your company's paying for it, of course?"

"Yes, I'm fortunate. What do you do?"

"I work for Steven Spielberg. Actually, I was up there [by JTS], scouting a location."

I had zero curiosity about the film -- didn't wonder about it at all. Instead, I wanted to know what this Orthodox Jew, who worked in the film industry, thought about "Trembling Before G-d."

"Ah, you're the perfect person to ask: Did you see 'Trembling Before G-d?'"

"I did."

"What did you think of it?"

"I have many gay friends in the industry and I think that things have to change."

"Gay, Jewish friends?"

"Sure. I know an actor, who at Passover --"

Passover? Why didn't he say, "Pesach," (the Hebrew word for Passover), since he knew that I was Jewish, too?

" -- said that he just wanted, more than anything, to go home."

"Well, I went to a Modern Orthodox Jewish day school for eight years...[Sarah, take a breath, but why should I feel nervous? After all, he was a captive audience, who needed my help(!)]...and my partner's female [ah, done!], and I was troubled by the movie. You know why? Because I'm convinced that Orthodox congregations screened it as a cautionary tale, to tell parents, 'See, you've got to keep your kids from being who they are if they're gay because look how miserable they'll be."

"I don't think Orthodox congregations will show it at all. It was too positive. What about that rabbi in the movie, who spoke positively?"

"He was an openly *gay* rabbi."

"Sarah, I want to hang up," I heard in my earphone, from Pat, who by now, had established in her mind, as I had, that he was not a killer, and so I said goodbye to her.

"Oh, right, well...I was raised differently than most Orthodox --"

"If it's not too personal, do you mean that you're a baal teshuvah?"


"What inspired you to become so?"

He told me and necessarily, since we were approaching the train station, I wrote down my address and phone number during a red light while listening.

"You can just let me out here," he said, and I handed him the address, which he seemed startled by, and then recovering, said, "I'll send you tickets [to the Steven Spielberg film]," as he exited the car.

Don't send me tickets; send me the money, I thought.

I called Pat back when I got through the Lincoln Tunnel. "You know, I don't know if I'll ever see the money from him, but it was worth it, to get out of my self-absorption, to have the sense that I was helping another person."

Pat agreed, as did my oldest sister Deb when I told her the story. "I'd have done the same thing," she said.

The next day at work, my colleagues told me how sweet and lovely and naive I was and one even hugged me, saying, "We love you, Sarah," and another declared that he wouldn't have even rolled down the window more than half an inch, let alone let the man in his car.

"I smelled distress from him," I said, "It wasn't the sort of smell of someone who hadn't bathed in a long time, but rather of someone, who was weathering a crisis."

"Well, we're very different," said my colleague, and then, "Did you even see him go into Penn Station?"


P.S. It is five days later and no money, yet, has arrived in the mail. In parallel, I feel foolish and fine about the whole experience....I want to believe that he has simply lost my address.

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