YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Sometimes We Choose Between Compassion and Caution

November 21, 2000|SANDY BANKS

I was rushing past them to my car when I heard the woman call out from a patch of darkness at the edge of the deserted mall. "Excuse me," she said, in a voice so small it was almost swallowed by the whistle of the wind. "We're stranded, my daughter and I. I wonder if you might be able to help us?"

My heart sank. I felt a rush of annoyance, then guilt. It was almost 11 p.m.; I'd left my own children home alone while I made what I thought was a quick trip to the bookstore. Now, I was about to be drawn into some messy human drama.

She emerged from the shadows, looking small and slightly ashamed. Her teenage daughter hung back, hands stuffed in her pockets, the hood of her sweatshirt drawn tight around her eyes.

"I'm kind of in a hurry," I said more brusquely than I'd intended. "What do you need?"

She stammered out her story . . . something about missing her ride, not being able to reach anybody, not having enough money with her to afford a cab. I wasn't really listening for the details. My mind was locked in its own machinations--how I could get out of this without being rude or unkind?

She told me where she lived--about 15 minutes away, just a few miles beyond my home. "C'mon," I said. "Get in the car, I'll take you." And as they climbed in, I said a silent prayer, trying to quiet the "warning" light flashing in my head.

She told me she was a single mom who'd just moved back in with her mother. She'd lost her home in Orange County after her ex-husband--and his child support payments--disappeared. She'd hit one patch of bad luck after another, but it looked as if things were turning around.

"I don't really know how to thank you," she said, as I dropped them off in front of a small, ranch-style house with a light still burning in the living room. I imagined the story she'd tell her mother--how this nice lady had so kindly delivered them home--and I rode off basking in the glow of my small good deed.

Until I got home and ran into a buzz saw of recrimination--accusations that called into question my judgment, my motives and my commitment to my own family.


My teenage daughter was still up, watching the clock, waiting for the sound of my key in the lock. "You did what?" she said when I explained my delay. "I can't believe you would be so stupid. Did you even think of what could have happened to you, of what would happen to us?"

Truth be told, I had thought of them--of how that could have been us, single mom and kids, stranded alone at night in the cold. But that was not what she meant.

What I did may have been kind, she said, but it was also selfish. I'd put my children--who have already lost their father--at risk of becoming orphans, just so I could feel good about helping strangers. They might have been crazed killers, for all I knew.

So what was I supposed to do, I asked, just leave them stranded?

"They are not your responsibility," she answered. "We are. What happens if that stranger pulls a gun and shoots you? You think it would give us comfort at your funeral? Their mom died doing a good deed."


She got me thinking about acceptable risks. Perhaps I could have kept my distance, given them money for a cab and gone on my way. But could I have slept that night, imagining mother and child alone in the darkness, wondering if they'd made it safely back?

I thought of the mixed messages we sometimes send our children as we try to teach them lessons: Be compassionate, but cautious. Never open the door to a stranger, but don't turn your back on a chance to be kind.

I understood my daughter's questions; her view of the world is shaped by her fears, by the tragedy she has suffered and by the news of mayhem and murder she reads and hears. But mine is shaped by experience, too, and I realized that now was the time to share a particular story with her, one that was part of her history.

It was 15 years ago. She was 3 weeks old. Her dad and I were on our first outing as parents, to show her off to friends across town, when our Volkswagen broke down in 103-degree heat on a freeway 50 miles from home. A pickup truck pulled over and a short, fat guy with a Southern accent and an "NRA" sticker on his bumper got out and offered to help.

How about, he said, if he ran me and the baby up the road to the next exit and let us cool off in the coffee shop while he came back and checked out our car. I climbed into his pickup in desperation, grateful for the blast of cool air. But as we drove off, I glanced in the rearview mirror and saw terror in my husband's eyes. A strange man was driving off with his wife and baby. For all he knew, he might never see us again alive.

But the stranger returned, tried futilely to fix our car, then made an offer so generous that even now I am awed by his kindness and shamed by our fear. He would drive us home, 100 miles out of his way, and he would take no money for his gas or his trouble. All he wanted was a beer, and a chance to sit and watch the end of the Lakers' game.

That encounter marked me, and its lesson is with me still: Maybe the choices aren't always so clear, the motives so pure, but goodness is still alive and well.

Sandy Banks' column runs on Sundays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is

Los Angeles Times Articles