Late Saturday Night Reading: A Newspaper Story

It’s late at night, self should be going to bed, but instead she picks up last Sunday’s Chronicle. The sentence that catches her eye is this:

“It’s the call that every parent fears from the moment your child is born . . . You expect to hear, ‘There’s been a car crash.’ You don’t expect, your daughter has been attacked in a bakery.”

Self has seen son twice this summer. The second time was when she went with him to rent a tow-truck and a dollie so that he could pick up his disabled car in King City. It’s true that she fears an accident every time he drives north and back. Mostly, she worries that he will fall asleep and drift off the road. And so she reads the newspaper story with more than usual interest.

In the story self reads, a 15-year-old girl, sheltered, who attends a private school in San Francisco, drops by the Borders in Stonetown after school. This is the same Borders that self read in, over two years ago. It was March. This was her first reading for her second collection, Mayor of the Roses. Self sees the store so clearly in her mind as she reads the story.

The teen-ager proceeds to West Portal and walks up Portola Drive, looking for a snack. Self, too, has walked on this very street. She, too, has eaten there when she used to teach a writing class at San Francisco State.

The teen-ager enters a bakery. At which point, the story becomes very strange: As the girl is leaving the store, a man hits her — hard — on the back of the head.

Self’s question is: Why this particular girl?

Self thinks that she herself is the type of person who, if there was a maniac in the vicinity, would choose her to hit on the back of the head. As, people who are perfectly nice in the company of others will suddenly reveal a side of themselves to self that seems incomprehensible. Self has never been able to figure this out.

For instance, when she used to live in New York’s lower East Side, her subway stop was Astor Place, on 2nd Avenue. Standing on the platform, waiting for a train, she’d find herself being stared at by this or that person, or being accosted by a homeless person. And there would be a whole crowd of people around self who would very surreptitiously start sidling away, so that self would find herself isolated (in the middle of a crowded platform yet) and she would have no idea what it was that called the attention of these mentally challenged people, the ones who rant and rave.

Self reads on.

The assailant slashes the girl’s wrist with a hunting knife, and the girl yells, at the top of her lungs, “Stop it!”

(Commendable fortitude; self would merely have been reduced to horrified blubbering)

Meanwhile, the image that is forever imbedded in that young girl’s mind, as she recounts her story for a reporter, is the sight of the bakery employees: they are huddling behind the counter.

Yes, even at that point, the girl is filled with a sense of outrage.

A 60-year-old man who happens to be passing by rushes in and pulls the attacker back. The man suffers multiple stab wounds himself. This was Good Samaritan # 1. Because of his action, he received the blows that would almost certainly have ended the girl’s life.

A passing doctor rushes in and administers to the girl’s wounds. This was Good Samaritan # 2.

And, finally, a third passer-by sees the assailant run out of the bakery with the bloody knife, and gives chase. This was Good Samaritan # 3.

What strikes self is how each good person intervenes at three different points in the narrative. And how all their actions somehow combined for the fortunate result: The girl’s life was saved. Her assailant was apprehended. But what a miracle that: (1) a 60-year-old man had the courage to intervene; when men much younger were afraid; (2) a doctor was passing by at that very moment; and (3) another passer-by cared enough to try to apprehend the assailant.

If self were lucky enough to reach the age of 60, she would most certainly not be willing to approach a man with a knife. Even now she would not be willing to approach a man with a knife. Even when she was 30 she would probably not want to approach a man with a knife.

But who knows, really, what one is capable of? When he awoke that morning, did the 60-year-old man think: Today is the day I do the deed that will forever mark the latter part of my life?

The news story went on to describe how the family of the girl invited all three men to their house for dinner. But the story will not end here. Self is very sure that from now on, that young girl will forever question her actions, will forever wonder: If she had not gone to Stonestown first; if she had not decided to stop at the bakery; if she had not been hungry; if she had not been looking for a snack, and so forth and so on.

But perhaps the teen-ager is a strong girl, or at least stronger than self. Perhaps she will have the sense not to second-guess. Self certainly hopes so.

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