Russell Broken, Unbroken

The lonely
stand in dark corners
of their hearts.

I have seen them
in cities,
and in my own neighborhood,

nor could I touch them
with the magic
that they crave

to be unbroken.
Then, I myself,
lonely,

said hello to
good fortune.
Someone

came along
and lingered
and little by little

became everything
that makes a difference.
Oh, I wish such good luck

to everyone.
How beautiful it is
to be unbroken.

-Mary Oliver

At the red light at the corner of French Broad and Patton, I sat in my Ford Explorer with the new "13.1" sticker on the back, proudly announcing my completion of the halfathon.

I was headed home from my workout at the YWCA, the kind where your arms feel like noodles at the end, shaky from the exertion. As I waited at the red light, I dialed the elementary school, having gotten a call that Tess wasn't feeling well. And as the teacher answered, just at that moment, half a block ahead of me, a man fell hard to the ground. He crumpled quickly to the sidewalk, so fast he went face first into the cement, a hard fall such as I had never seen, no arm to stop his descent, it seemed so sudden, just down and down hard.

"Hello?" the teacher's voice rang out. "Hello?" "I…um…", I stammered and hung up, so shocked I was by the witnessing.

After a moment of paralysis at the shock of it, I nearly went into on-coming traffic, my impulse to go to him was so strong. But I waited, traffic streaming past on Patton Avenue, and I watched. People walked past the man on the ground, veering to the right to make greater space between them and him, heads turned but only briefly in his direction, then on. Some shook their heads, disapprovingly; I sat shocked at the light.

It turned green. I sped to where he was, and parked, turning on my blinkers to acknowledge I was stopping where there was no parking. I was shaking as I ran over to him, kneeling down to him, my palm instinctively going to the middle of his back where I laid it gently on him. "Sir? Can I help you? What hurts?"

He started sobbing. "Is it your legs?" They looked at odd angles, he seemed unable to move them. "Your face?" It had appeared he fell without breaking the fall, right on his face. He sobbed, finally saying, simply, "Thank you for stopping."

I sat down on the sidewalk, and dialed 9-1-1. People continued to stream past us me on the sidewalk with my hand on this old man's back, talking to him. The most medicine I could provide was to soothe him in some way.

He stopped sobbing and said again, "Thank you for stopping."

I tried to comfort him the best way I knew. And when the EMS arrived, I told them his name was Russell. They didn't move toward him until they had pulled on their blue gloves, and then no one leaned down to him, but stood above him, yelling questions at him.

"Have you been drinking?" they asked.

When my stepfather died from lung cancer, people asked if he was a smoker. At that point in time, does it matter?

I stood back, watching. Knowing now why he had sobbed at my touch.

Finally, one of the EMS responders leaned down to see his face, but still didn't touch him. They dismissed him, standing above him making comments about him as if he couldn't hear them.

It is not hard to extend human dignity to people who stand upright and don't fall. It is harder to bend down to those who don't.

Probably they have seen many homeless, drunk men and women in their careers. But this one was named Russell and perhaps a healing touch would go far, a thoughtful hello, a nod to his certain humanity beneath the drink and the pants he had wet and the hurt.

They rolled him onto a stretcher. I walked over to him and whispered goodbye.

Tweenbots are human-dependent robots that navigate the city with the help of pedestrians they encounter. Rolling at a constant speed, in a straight line, Tweenbots have a destination displayed on a flag, and rely on people they meet to read this flag and to aim them in the right direction to reach their goal.

Given their extreme vulnerability, the vastness of city space, the dangers posed by traffic, suspicion of terrorism, and the possibility that no one would be interested in helping a lost little robot, I initially conceived the Tweenbots as disposable creatures which were more likely to struggle and die in the city than to reach their destination.

Because I built them with minimal technology, I had no way of tracking the Tweenbot’s progress, and so I set out on the first test with a video camera hidden in my purse. I placed the Tweenbot down on the sidewalk, and walked far enough away that I would not be observed as the Tweenbot––a smiling 10-inch tall cardboard missionary––bumped along towards his inevitable fate. The results were unexpected.

37days Make 10 Challenge: Guide your tweenbot to safety

Sometimes we are in the care of no one but ourselves. Or so we think.

In reality, we are always in the care of others, whether we acknowledge it or not. And they are in our care. A "no," a passing by, a frown at the drunk homeless man who cannot move on the sidewalk before you, all are a form of taking care of. A negative form, but a form nonetheless. We must live with those decisions.

Honestly, I wonder what our days would look like if we helped each other this way. Just a touch to guide. Just a moment's notice. Just a hand on the back. Perhaps you could spare 10 minutes today for just this.

[Thanks to Janet Smith for pointing me to the poem by Mary Oliver. And thanks to Ashvegas for pointing me to this.]