Tonight, as I was driving in Palo Alto, I saw a woman go running from a car that was parked on the side of the road. It was already dark outside, and the woman was dressed nicely in a knee-length skirt, carrying what looked to be a briefcase or attache-type thing. It always disturbs me to see people running out of context, but especially this woman, in the dark of the early fall evening.
She'd run in the direction from which I'd just come, so I decided to watch the car she'd been in or near in my rearview mirror. I told myself that if I saw the car turn around to follow her, I was gonna turn around, too.
And then the car did turn around.
Today's New Activity: Not Standing By
In telling my friend about the incident afterward, I realize that part of what drove me to turn my car around in that moment was having had the experience of sitting by while others reached out to help another and realizing that it makes for long-standing regret. In that previous moment (a big rig lost control, fishtailed, and turned onto its side just a few car lengths ahead of me on the freeway), I was shocked to see people just jump out of their cars and run to help the driver while I sat frozen in shock. I was ashamed to find that in that test--that fight or flight moment--I'd failed miserably. But the positive impression it made was the knowledge that I never wanted to be that person again, sitting idly by.
Anyway, I turned my car around and ended up at a red light in the left turn lane, just behind the car following the woman. I wanted to either find the woman and offer her assistance, or follow the car long enough until I was confident the driver of that car didn't find the woman.
When we made the turn, I saw that the woman was still running at full speed down the street, and the car pulled over about a hundred feet in front of her. So I pulled over right next to her and yelled out my window, asking if she needed help/a ride, and to my surprise and also relief, after a brief moment of deliberation, she just hopped into my car. She was too out of breath to say much, but it seemed she wanted me to pull up to the other car...she kept saying "car" and "straight," pointing to the car ahead. I was very disturbed and kept asking for clarification: she wanted to get back into that car?!
She had a thick accent and was, as I said, very short of breath, so it was hard to make out what she wanted. I started to slowly pull forward behind the car ahead, and then she said, "no, no around the car," to my relief.
Just a little way after I passed that car, she asked me to pull over and let her out. What?! We were at the corner of a parking lot, and the other car was still right behind me. She insisted, "YES, please let me out here" and then hopped out just like that. I saw why then. She booked it to her own car, which was parked in that lot. The other car was trying to pull in behind me, but I just sort of stayed there blocking it so it couldn't follow her--until she'd sped off--and then pulled into the lot myself, drove around the cement barriers, and circled back to where the man following the woman had now parked his car and gotten out to approach me. I paused just long enough to take down his license and take off, leaving him wondering, I'm sure, who this woman was who'd just injected herself into whatever his plans had been.
That moment in the parking lot was a little scary. I realized that, though the woman was now safe for the time being, I was the only other car in that lot with a man now behind me whom I'd almost certainly pissed off. I didn't know if these people were strangers or lovers or former lovers and whether or not the situation was dangerous beyond whatever danger that woman must have been feeling to cause her to go running down the street in a skirt and pumps in the first place. I wondered briefly if I'd just done a really stupid thing. So I didn't waste too much time noting his license and description.
I left him outside his car in the lot and drove a little ways away. I called 911 and told the dispatcher about the whole thing, and shortly after a police officer called me to ask the details. He was going to track down the man, but I never heard anything else about it, so I still don't have a clue what it was all about.
I have to admit I was proud of myself for having followed my instincts to help that woman out. Like I said I don't know if she was actually under any threat, if she'd been in the car or merely walking down the street and scared by the car pulled over, but either way the car did turn and follow her, so the situation didn't look good.
Ever since that big rig turned over on the freeway, I've wondered what I would do if ever in another situation wherein my likelihood to jump in and assist would be tested. I think the fact that it was a woman in distress made the call a little easier for me, but still I was happy to feel that I passed the test this time around. And I'd like to think that the good feeling of having done the right thing as a citizen of the planet would cause me to act in a similar manner in the future.