Caring Despite the Questions

WHILE traveling home the other evening through a spring rain, I saw an incongruity: a young boy, perhaps 11, standing in a hooded sweatshirt, streetside, with two large plastic bags of clothing heaped at his feet. If it had been New York, I might not have noticed, but in small-city Bangor, Maine, things like this stand out.

I drove on, but I didn't want to. I was welling with a combination of curiosity and charity. The pressure of the traffic pushed me on, but I found myself instinctively looking for a place to turn or stop. I wanted to go back - to see if this boy was as homeless as he looked. To see if I could be of help.

But even as I deliberated, I sensed my anxiety rising. In this day and age, I would feel uneasy about approaching a strange child on the street; yet I was brought up in a time when such an act was impulsive, like a mother's hearkening to the wailing of a baby.

I HAD felt like this only once before - indecisive, willing but not quite able to act. But the venue had been different: not the sedate, semibusy downtown of a small New England city, but the exuberant, loud, and crowded streets of Cuernavaca, Mexico, where nights explode with all the color, music, and conversation pent up during the torrid hours of the afternoon's siesta.

I recall standing on a street corner, waiting with a gathering crowd for an opening in the torrent of vehicles that heed neither traffic light nor policeman. In the distance, a mariachi band filled the night with a brassy cadence, providing a rhythm to which I and the Mexicans around me surged and receded as we probed for openings in the stream of cars.

Body shoved against body, people stood on tiptoes to see over the heads of others, and children were held close to their mothers. And then, a young boy appeared standing in front of me - he, too, leaning out for his opportunity to sprint to the other side of the street. He wore broken sandals and tattered clothes, with a haversack slung about his shoulder. I wondered to whom he might belong to, if anyone.

And then he started off into the street, even though the traffic had not yet ebbed. I placed my hand on his head and in Spanish told him to wait. He turned and looked up at me, smiling, his dark, dirty hair awash over his eyes and his teeth bright against his dusty face.

Finally an opportunity came, and I was carried along by the mad rush of 20 or so people into the street. Halfway across, though, I looked back, and the boy was still standing at the curb. Resolutely. Obediently. I understood immediately: I had told him to wait. ``Come!'' I said, waving him across. As soon as he started, I turned and went about my business.

I SPENT the next two hours savoring a warm evening in a Mexican city: the bakeries, the cafes, the fruit stands, and the mariachi band still singing and playing its heart out in the town square.

I bought gum from a tiny Indian girl pressed through the streets by her mother. I read a newspaper. I sat on a park bench. And then, toward 11 p.m., I took my place in yet another crowd, waiting for the bus.

The bus, or publico, swayed as it slowed to a stop, spilling its immense load of passengers onto the sidewalk. We were their replacements. Once again, I was swept up in the human current, through the publico's open door. Halfway up its steps, I felt a tugging on my shirttail. I turned and saw the same Mexican boy. Had he been following me the entire evening?

I hovered for a moment, surrounded by people struggling to get on board, sensing the impatience of the driver. Should I step down and see what this boy wants? Maybe he needs my help. Should I proceed into the publico, mindful of the fact that the boy is only one of a countless throng and there is really nothing I can do for him? I felt myself leaning down, reaching out. But not quickly enough. The driver made the decision for me. He closed the door, cutting me off from the boy, and the publico moved away from the curb.

I returned the next night, naively expecting to see the same boy again. But of course that never happened. For some weeks afterward I thought of him, the way one thinks of a friend in another part of the country and what he might be doing at the moment you call him to mind.

But for years now, I haven't thought of him at all. Not much, anyway. Until the other day when I saw the Bangor boy. I never did find a convenient place to stop or park, and when I drove the same route the next day, he was gone. I told my friends about the child, and about my feelings. ``You don't know what will happen when you try to help someone today,'' one said. ``Especially if it's a child.''

Maybe that is the point, then. You don't know what will happen. But if I had gotten off the publico, or stopped the car, I might have had some idea. And therein lies the difference.

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