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Neighbors

We saw him coming from about 10 yards away, uncontrolled lunges throwing him across the sidewalk, then small steps sending him stumbling into fence and icy overgrowth as we approached, breathing heavy, just having joked about the early winter and its influence on our running speed. “Careful,” I whispered, probably just as much to myself as my two companions. I’d forgotten it was a holiday weekend, or as most Russians joke, just another excuse to drink. The streets' stillness and relative emptiness seemed even more unusual than what we experience most early Saturday mornings and this guy’s drunken gait immediately pushed into my mind the Embassy’s weekend emergency message: “In the past, some rallies celebrating National Unity Day have been marred by violence, including targeting of non-ethnic Russians. In the last week, the U.S. Embassy has received two reports of American citizens being assaulted in what appear to be acts of anti-western/American sentiment.” Probably harmless, I thought, as we swept past him quickly, turning to see him stagger in delayed response. We continued up the hill, returning to our conversation, while in the back of my mind, “I need to get more pepper spray” kept popping onto my to-do list.

We’d wrapped around our block and were beginning the same ascent when I asked, “I wonder if that guy will still be there… we should try to go around.” We exited onto the main road through a lesser used side-street and begin the climb. Glancing back to check for cars, we saw a new guy in a gray sweatsuit, no socks, tennis shoes, and a black synthetic-fill coat, pulling a body out from under a car parked along the main road. “Holidays, good grief,” I thought, “what’s next?” “Is everything ok?” I asked out loud. “No, this person, is he dead?” The slight accent that even I could sense, the black hair and asian features, the central Asian in the gray sweatsuit continued to pull on the collapsed figure’s shoulders. It was impossible to tell if the body was that of a man or woman. The body was face-down, the fur-lined coat collar at first looked like a woman’s blonde hair falling out of the hood, tight jeans, and Converse only more confused the identity. “Wait,” I whispered to the girls, “is that the same guy?” Both nodded, “looks like the same coat,” said Emily. “We just saw him, probably 10 minutes ago, drunk and walking down this street,” I offered. The central Asian nodded, leaving the body and joining us on the sidewalk. “Should we call the police?” “Probably,” I said, “how do you call the police here?” I handed him my phone after two failed attempts on the numbers I thought I’d seen on the side of local ambulances. 

“Don’t touch him!” boomed a new voice from behind. Startled, we turned, a heavy-set Russian man, enormous glasses, prickly gray hair covering only part of his head, cigarette half-smoked in one hand, winter coat unzipped, and snowflakes landing on chest-hair that his button-up shirt could not contain. “You don’t know what he’s on, you don’t know who he is,” thundered the authoritative giant. The central Asian just finished his report and handed me my phone, “We called the police, he was drunk.” They talked for a while. The central Asian had just gotten into work stocking shelves at the mini-market. He’d taken a box of trash to the dumpster when he’d seen the head and arms sticking out from under the parked car. He’d come over to help when we ran up. “If you called the police, then you wait for them, but if he was drunk…” he shrugged, his roar trailing off. He walked back in the direction of the central Asian’s store. We waited.

I though about how easy it’s become to walk by. I thought about how acceptable it is to pass by here. No one expects anyone to help, nobody really needs to get involved. “If he was drunk…” A shrug seems the most culturally accepted response. And three women out for a morning run, nobody would blame them for a moment for just running by. But this guy, this hero in the gray sweatsuit, where did he drum up the compassion? Where did that mercy come from? Ironically, he’s the very kind of person that groups of ethnically proud Russians gather against on Unity day: the holiday, the vodka, the excuse to drink, and he’s the one pulling Russians out from under cars the next morning.

It had been about 15 minutes. Our running clothes were sadly ineffective against the wind and snow. “The police just take their time and people freeze, they die,” said our hero. In the distance, a police car pulled into a gas station across the way. Typically, they send an ambulance on calls like this, and surely, SURELY, they wouldn’t stop for gas on the way to this call. After still more time, our Russian giant thumped back over bellowing, “what still nothing?” He walked over to the body and in just a few clumsy attempts, the giant pulled the body into a sitting position. His head wobbled unsteadily and he numbly and mindlessly tried to shove his frozen hands into his pockets. I could barely feel my own fingers. “He’s going to break his head open on the curb,” Emily said softly. Seeming to sense a similar possibility, the giant gently pushed the guy’s head against the car’s bumper and leaned him safely away from the car, then stomped back to his chosen supervisory location. Just then, the police car reemerged onto the main street, coming our direction. We waved them down and the passenger door popped open a couple inches.

“This guy is drunk and needs help.” I started, hoping my frozen jaw made my speech sound slurred and unrecognizably “foreign.” “We called you half an hour ago,” continued the gray sweat-suited Samaritan. “Well, if you called, I’m sure someone’s on their way.” Not my job, not my responsibility. The two officers looked indifferently at us and the scene, and prepared to drive off. I took two quick steps toward the police car door to prevent it from closing, more motivated by my own coldness than desire to help the drunk at this point, “we’re frozen, don’t you understand? You’re here now.” 

“You girls go back to your little sport time,” boomed a now familiar and welcomed voice. He’ll take it from here, I thought, and nodded to Emily and Haley, our chilled limbs starting numbly up again to a run. Had we not waiting outside in the cold, the hairy giant probably would not have cared either. And had we not seen the shoot of black hair struggling over the collapsed body, we’d have kept running too. He saved a life that was probably at the most indifferent to his own existence, at the least negatively predisposed. 

In Jesus’ parable, there’s a robbery, there’s victimization. Today, just some drunk. In Jesus’ parable, there are legitimate reasons to walk away. Today, we very well would have done just that. In Jesus’ parable, there’s mercy. Thankfully, that has not changed.

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