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This news story breaks my heart. At about 7:20 am on April 18, 31-year-old Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax saw a man threatening a woman with a knife on a city street in Queens, New York City. Tale-Yax stepped in. His reward? He was stabbed. The woman he saved ran off, as did the attacker. As Tale-Yax lay on the sidewalk in a pool of his own blood, a security camera from a nearby business filmed people walking over and around him. Of the few who gave him a second look, one man snapped a cell-phone photo, then left. Another shook Tale-Yax, got no response, and walked away. When emergency workers finally arrived, Tale-Yax had been lying on the street in full view of morning traffic for an hour and 20 minutes. He was dead when EMTs got to him.
After telling the story, the AOL news article goes into theories on how this could have happened. This may be an example of the bystander effect: the psychological theory that, the more people are around, the less likely any one of them is to help, as we each tend to assume that someone else will take care of it. Another theory proposed is that people today, especially those in big cities, are too stressed and preoccupied to really look at each other. Yet another suggests that in a large city, where people get used to the homeless sleeping on the sidewalk, passersby may not have realized that Yale-Tax was doing anything other than taking a nap.
While that last one is hard to swallow for those of us from smaller cities and suburbs, when I lived in San Francisco last summer, I did see people napping in the middle of busy sidewalks, at all times of day. I was amazed, and I stopped to look them over, timidly checking to see if they were still breathing, but I’m a bumpkin from Colorado. A veteran city-dweller would be used to sidewalk nappers, and it would have taken a closer look for someone to have seen the pool of blood under Yale-Tax’s unmoving body. Still, how can we explain the man who shook him, lifted his shoulder (clearly exposing the pool of blood), then walked away without doing a thing to help? How can we explain the man who found him interesting enough to photograph, but not enough to call 911 for?
I’m reminded of Neil Gaiman’s TV series (and later novel and comic), Neverwhere, in which businessman Richard Mayhew stops to help a tattered-looking young woman who is lying injured on a London sidewalk. This simple act plunges him into her world, called in the book “London Below”: a world of magic, communicative birds and rats, angels, vampire-like life-suckers, and extremely eccentric people. It reads like a fantasy novel, but at a few points, Gaiman makes it clear that this is really the world of the homeless and mentally ill. Read on this level, it’s a touching and disturbing commentary on how we treat our homeless. In Neverwhere, people from “London Above” are literally unable to see those from “London Below” . . . unless, like Richard, they are heading towards madness, themselves. In the real world, we actively choose not to see the homeless—and the news story notes that Yale-Tax was homeless when he was killed. Whether it’s due to the bystander effect, the Neverwhere effect, or some other aspect of human nature, there are too many examples of the basic human tendency to ignore fellow human beings when they most need our help.
There is some hope to the story of Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax, though. Not everyone ignored strangers in need. The whole story started when Yale-Tax, a young man down on his luck and low on society’s totem pole, stepped in to help a woman who was being robbed. And someone, eventually, called an ambulance for Tale-Yax.
I want to be the rare person in these stories: the one who notices a person in need and does something to help. Every time I see a story like this, I want it to remind me to try to be the one who doesn’t follow the crowd. I want to be the one who sees other people. I want to be the one who helps. I’m afraid I’ll forget, become complacent, and stop seeing other people, as so many of us do. Then again, there will always be more stories like this to remind me.