Sometimes You Have To Put Down the iPhone and Call the Police

This week I dialed 911 for the second time in a year. Then I tweeted about it.

Sep 28, 2011 at 11:00am | Leave a comment

This week I dialed 911 for the second time in a year. It’s always a funny dance, phoning for help, especially when it involves a stranger, someone who would usually get nothing more than a head nod from me.

Because in a silicon age where making silly comments about your surroundings trumps actually living in them, it takes a jolt to log off your mental Facebooking. Yesterday I came face to face with a boy bleeding in the street.

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He couldn’t have been older than 16. It’s strange to think there was a time when 16 seemed so old. But yesterday he was nothing but a kid. A child I watched get beaten by four other tall boys pretending to men. Suddenly whatever seems so important to me before -- hitting the update button on my Gmail for the umpteenth time -- was instantly not.

I only call the police when clicking the camera on my iPhone seems too voyeuristic even for me -- a woman who describes her heretofore body of work as “literary pants-ing.” How many times have I opened an email or tapped a TwitPic with the subject line “Crazy lady on…”?

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Whether it be on the bus, subway or grocery store line, there are all manner of strangers ignorant to the fact that there is persistent photo evidence of them picking their noses, wearing neon paisley or plastic bags as shoes. Social networking has made virtual hall monitors of us all, as long as the digital demerits we hand out remain anonymous.

Yesterday, I had to come out from under my own palm. Around four in the afternoon, I walked home from the grocery store, preparing myself for an hour in the future and not paying attention to my present.

A group of boys bumrushed a nearby bus stop in what looked like a spontaneously choreographed mosh pit. I shook my head in disgust and tapped the little birdie on my iPhone screen. I was prepared to type something pithy and poignant. For example, “Kids these days…”

The adolescent crowd dispersed as quickly as it appeared, leaving in its dust a skinny 16-year-old struggling to stand. This was not a play fight. Something bad had happened. I squinted  to get a better look and two more teenagers flew past me. They ran right up to the still shaking victim and beat him some more. I was shocked out of whatever superiority I had felt only seconds before.

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“Hey! HEY! Get the hell outta here!” flew from my mouth faster than fear. I dropped my grocery bags, created a “noise diversion,” and ran to the now semi-conscious and bleeding boy as he lay shaking on the gravel. 

I shook his shoulder. “Are you okay?” No answer. I shook again. Painfully muffled moaning.

When the emergency operator picked up I immediately apologized. “I’m sorry. Yes, sorry, but something fishy is happening, sorry, …” The professional on the other end is trained to deal with anything from axe murders to treed kittens. In that spectrum, my problems always seem less than. They, of course, are not.

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The situation soon got out of control. More kids from the nearby high school swarmed the "friend" they watched get stomped and punched. More adults from nearby cars honked their horns. Human beings started behaving like animals. A 15-year-old girl in a soccer uniform called me a bitch when I told her to "please calm down."

The whole scene was surreal. The exact type of thing we're now wired to want to tell the world about in real time. But in reality, a boy was bleeding on the sidewalk. His mouth was stained red. His right cheek a ruined gash.

I stayed until the officers and EMTs came. They asked me what I saw and my throat pinched at the start of the sentence, "Three African American men..." They asked me what they looked like exactly and there was another turn of the stomach; "Black guys."

Frozen chicken leaked pinkish goo in my grocery bag. I wasn't needed anymore but I couldn't imagine leaving him there. He was shirtless now, screaming at the professionals trying to stretch him out on the gurney. His "friends" were screaming too, performing for other people's smart phones, taking pictures of the scene to show at school the next day I'm sure. I walked away shaking my head.

I had to tweet my feelings in tiny bites before I ate them whole. So maybe participating in my own share and tell made "things" easier to swallow? Maybe if I didn't tell thousands of avatars what happened then perhaps it didn't happen at all?

That's a rabbit hole I couldn't get my mind to go down. Situation only sort of resolved, I turned to frame the spectacle -- fire trucks, flashing lights, frightened children -- on my screen. I turned my phone off before the real world was choked into a thumbnail.