Sunday, November 28, 2010

   Walking from the Potomac Avenue Metro stop in downtown D.C. today, I witnessed a most distressing situation. I was, however, the least suffering of those involved, as I suspect my story will prove.

   I had arrived in the vicinity for dinner at a friend's place at six. It being a bit past three at the time, I had plans to set up shop in a coffee shop and grade papers until then. I was walking down Pennsylvania Avenue, then, in the direction of downtown, when I caught sight of a young woman about twenty yards ahead of me, sobbing and holding a hand to her mouth. Unsure of what was the matter with her, I kept walking towards her, anticipating that she was mentally infirm, or something of a similar nature. Yet this thought was fleeting, as my growing proximity to her showed her to be fully in her right mind. She was bleeding from the mouth, and it was apparent that her bottom incisors were mostly gone. She was crying, a look of stunned bewilderment mingled with shock and horror stamped upon her otherwise pretty face.
   "Are you alright?" I asked, approaching her.
   "No!" She cried, "They just hit me! I was walking back from Harris Teeter with my groceries, and these four guys just hit me in the face and ran away!"
   By this time two other passers-by were hurrying towards us, alive to her distress.
   "What happened?" One asked her. She repeated her description of events, evidently trying to recall more pertinent details of what had transpired, as much for her benefit as for the inquirer's. She held a hand to her mouth still, her words impeded by blood and saliva and interrupted by intermittent sobs.
   "Oh my god. I'm missing teeth aren't I?" She asked in horrified disbelief. "You poor thing! I'll get some paper towels," the lady who had just arrived said. "Can you hold my dog while I run and get some paper towels?" She turned to me and asked. I nodded and immediately took the dog by the collar. Another lady had taken our her phone and called the police. I turned to the dumbstruck girl and knelt beside her, still holding the dog.
   "They just hit me!" She said. "Why? I was just getting my groceries." Tears were filling her eyes once again.
   "I am so sorry," I said, the words falling out of my mouth. I put a hand on her knee. "What did they look like? Did you know them?" I asked her. She shook her head. "No," she said. "They were just standing here and I was walking towards them. One of them had a Foot-Locker bag and he was holding up a pair of pants, showing the others. And then they just hit me, and took off." She was so confused.
   I heard the lady on the phone giving a few details to the dispatcher. "I don't know -- should they send an ambulance?" She asked me. "Yes," I said. At this point the lady who had run to the Harris Teeter grocery store -- the very store that the hapless young lady had just patronized -- returned with some paper towels. The girl took them and began to dab at her broken mouth awkwardly. I handed the dog back to its owner and put my hand on her knee again in an attempt to be comforting.
   "Why?" She said to me, imploringly. "Why would they do that?" I didn't really know what to say -- or rather, all I had was the stock theological response. So I gave it: "Because people are terrible."
   And I meant it. It was all that I could think of to say at the time, and it certainly seemed apropos to the senselessness of the crime. I continued to look at her, and realized that the only thing I could do, and, more importantly, what I had ought to do, since all other details had been admirably seen to by others and the police and EMTs were en route, was to do my best to comfort her. But what do you say to a girl who's just had her teeth knocked out by some thugs -- for the sheer hell of it, by all appearances, for they didn't even dignify their assault with theft? "They just wanted to hurt you"? "There's no reason"? Both true, I suppose, but not the best things to say.
   "You're going to be alright. It's OK. They're going to take care of you. They're going to fix your teeth. You're going to be OK."
   That probably wasn't the best thing to say either. But it's what I said. Even thought I knew it wasn't ultimately about her teeth. The teeth seemed an important thing to mention for some reason -- a tangible aspect of the travesty that had just occurred that I could give her some hopeful assurance on, however small.
   Because they were her teeth.
   Because it was a beautiful day, and she was walking back from the grocery store in the crisp fall air, very much a part of the beauty of that day, and knowing it, and enjoying that fact just a little bit, probably, as we all have from time to time in those happy moments. And then some guy just decided to punch her in the mouth just to see what would happen, and in a mere moment her lovely face became bloodied and disfigured.
   So I wanted to reassure her about the teeth in the midst of everything else. I repeated similar things to her, all revolving around the assurance that she was "going to be alright." Also, that it wasn't her fault. For some reason I felt it was important to tell her this. Again, I don't know why.
   The policeman finally came, and kindly asked her the standard run of questions -- who were they, what did they look like, where did they go? Another witness who had seen two of the assailants from a distance told the officer what she knew. I in turn told him that I had really seen nothing, and was sorry that I couldn't be of more help in the matter. He told me that it was alright, and thanked me for staying with her. I said, "Of course," and meant it, and suggested that we look for the teeth in case they could be recovered when the EMTs arrived. It was a strange thing to even hear myself say, let alone suggest at all, but then again, it was altogether a strange situation. He agreed, and said it was a good idea.
   The officer, the other witnesses and I looked for teeth. We didn't find any.
   That poor, poor girl. The EMTs finally arrived. After a few brief questions they bundled her into the ambulance. A few moments later I was walking towards Starbucks again, as if nothing had happened. Except something had happened.

   And the thought occurred to me at one point that she probably wasn't even a great person, that, considered in another vein, she was just the typical DC Hill-dweller, and that in view of that fact I could probably have named her vices, and been right. I don't know why this thought occurred, or where it came from. I'm bothered by it nonetheless, though not surprised, for it is typical of me to have this callousness in me, if not outright then at least in lingering wisps in my mind and soul.

   I hope, though, that in spite of this fleeting thought my actions and words were somehow comforting to this poor girl in her distress. In a situation such as this it is tempting to wish that one could have done more, but this is a vain desire. At the end of the day we must entrust all things into God's Fatherly care, trusting that He whose watchful care does not let even a sparrow fall unnoticed will surely attend to the needs of His children, even those children who do not know Him as their Father. But again, where this has not been given to us to know, we need not speculate.

   I hope she is alright, and that she recovers well and quickly. I pray that an oral surgeon is able to restore her teeth, and that God, in His gracious care, restores her happiness, and leads her through her suffering to the all-availing suffering of her Lord. As is my prayer for any and all whom I meet, I pray that Christ would find her. But since it has not been given me to know the state of her soul, but rather only the state of her body and her emotions, I pray for them right now, and ask that you would, too, if you are reading this. Her name is Sam.

Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.