Friday, July 18, 2008

The Samaritan Paradox

Last night my wife and I had a "date night". It was great - dinner at Altruda's (great Italian place for you non-Knoxvillians), then went to Downtown West to see the new Helen Hunt/Bette Midler movie. I haven't been to Downtown West in years, so it was fun to see the old haunt again. I remember seeing Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan there, lo these many years ago - and also Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country with Big Orange Michael. But I digress.

The movie was over around 10pm, and as Laura and I started to get in our car a pickup/SUV pulled up beside me. Driving was a clean-cut, mid-20's young man who was nicely dressed. Beside him in the passenger seat - a less than neatly dressed, slightly unsavory looking gentleman who kept his head down during the entire conversation. The driver pulled up and asked me for a moment of my time through his open window. He assured me - repeatedly - don't be scared, he's not up to anything. He told me his wife had just miscarried in Dandridge, his other child had cerebral palsy, he worked in a security systems business, and he just needed some gas money to get to Dandridge. He was very polite, yet fairly insistent.

A couple things flashed through my mind immediately. First I was glad Laura was on the other side of the van and blocked physically from the guys in the truck. She also (unknown to me) was getting her own car keys and the cell phone ready in case of trouble. Second, I thought quickly about his story: wife just miscarried? in Dandridge? and you have a kid with Cerebral palsy? Security systems? Sounds like a lot of unfortunate coincidences at once, and almost too many specific details about his life to start off a plea for assistance. Thirdly, I thought if you're running too low on gas to get to Dandridge (which isn't that terribly far away from Knoxville, really) why are you wasting gas driving around anonymous dark parking lots at night asking strangers for gas money when it would make more sense to take off for home immediately upon receiving word of the trouble. Or better yet, call someone from home to come and get you. More and more illogical circumstances.

Fourth, I tried to recall any shelters or churches nearby in West Knoxville that migth be available, but there really aren't - all the homeless shelters are downtown, and no churches would be open this late at night on a Thursday.

Fifth, I tried to remember where a gas station was nearby that I could direct him to drive to, where I would safely pay for his gas. I'm not terribly familiar with the Downtown West area anymore, at least in remembering where nearby gas stations are, and I didn't want to stand there giving them more time alone with us while I racked my brain for the nearest Weigels or Pilot.

Sixth, I thought if they needed some gas money they should just go to the box office of the theatre nearby. Much better than hitting up random anonymous folks in a dark parking lot.

So I politely told him, sorry, I couldn't help him.

He hesitated, started to say something else, then thanked me and drove off.

We quickly got in the van and locked the doors, just in case. Laura scanned the area to see where they'd driven off to but we couldn't find them. We left and went home.

My question to you is: What would you have done? Would the same thought processes have gone through your mind? What other options should I have considered? What made me more nervous than anything was the fact that he was neatly dressed, apparently a professional and still needing gas money. Which led me to believe he didn't need gas money after all, but something else I'd rather not think of, like my wallet, my car, or...


I'll also just say this - buddy, if everything you told me was true (or even most of it), I apologize. I sincerely hope and pray you got your gas money, you made it home and tended to your family. Although I hate that your wife may have miscarried, that your child has CP, I almost hope that story was legit because the alternative is pretty scary. And that if real life situation like that happens to anyone else, they'll have the sense not to hit up total strangers in a parking lot and contact someone in some kind of public setting.

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