Tonight, below the window of my 1st Ave. and Adams apartment I overheard two people shouting at each other. That happens sometime, the (additional) price you pay for living in the heart of downtown, but tonight I heard words that alarmed me: hit, scared, get away, don’t touch me. Now, I’m not the kind of guy who thinks he’s tough enough to step into any situation, but I couldn’t ignore this one so I pulled up the non-emergency police number on my phone and I headed downstairs.
It was ugly. A man and a woman, close to each other and off to one side of the sidewalk, like folk only get when they know they’re being inappropriately intimate or aggressive with each other in public. Their voices were low and angry, escalating into shouting then self-consciously dropping back down into strained, hushed tones. From the street I heard another word that put the whole scene into context for me: drunk. She was drunk. He was drunk. They were clearly drunk.
I’ve worked with enough hard-living folk to know better than to engage people when they’re drunk but I also know that sometimes drawing a private moment of anger out into public can embarrass even drunk folk into deescalation. I asked them if everything was okay.
“Yes, everything’s fine.” Him.
“No, it’s not okay.” Her.
“Do you need me to call the cops?” Me.
“Yeah, go ahead.” Her.
For the moment we were all in agreement. I called the cops and then hung out for about 10 minutes waiting for them to show. He’s feeling pretty smug. She punched him in the face and he’s going to find witnesses. He rides off and she tells me he has her keys and she’s afraid to go home, and by the way, she needs a shot if I’m drinking tonight. I’m not. He comes back. They fight about who’s house it is that he has the keys to. She pays the bills. He buys food. She bought the dog. He pays for it with love. I’m not judging. He rides off again. She asks about nearby bars. I express sympathy for what appears to be a bad night. He comes back and claims not to have her keys anymore. She stomps off toward home. He stays and smugly tells me he’ll wait for the cops. He gets bored, tells me his name and says he’s going home. He rides off. I walk to the corner and can no longer see either of them.
I stepped out of my house and into other people’s business so I could try to keep a bad situation from getting worse and in the end I accomplished absolutely nothing. They’re both still drunk and angry, only now they’ve presumably gone home to fight rather than doing it where someone my be able to intercede. I feel… awful.
So what do I do? I walk back to my apartment, head swimming with all the ways I’ll intervene more effectively next time (“If you’re scared he’ll come to your house do you have a safe place you could go instead?” “If you think this is all because she’s drunk, do you have a place you can go tonight until you both sleep it off?” The list goes on) and I do the only thing I know to do when I’ve failed. I pray.
Believe me, I’m not the kind of guy who asks God to step in so I don’t have to. I’m not a passive pray-er. I am a roll-my-sleeves-up-and-get-in-the-mess kind of guy but I’ve been doing this long enough to know that more often than I’d care to admit their comes a point where I have to recognize my own inability to effect change in a situation. I hate it, but there it is, none the less. I am infinitely fallible.
If you have ideas about how I could have handled the situation better, I do too. I’d love to hear yours. They’re fantastic and they’re ready to help. But if you’re just like me and you regularly find yourself in situations where you come face to face with your own limitations, know you’re not alone. I’m right there with you, along with every other social worker, nurse, chaplain, paramedic, teacher and anyone else who cares enough to help all the way up to that point where they can’t help anymore. And God is with you too.
It’s a humbling experience, but it’s pretty good company to keep.