Personal Essays

American Samaritan

In the past five years the U.S. has had no closer partner than the U.K., and though it’s not always a perfect marriage, Yanks and Brits can still come together to solve a problem—even on the steps of the British Library.

A few years ago, I spent a number of fine mornings outside the British Library, circling it like an opposing magnet. I was living in England, the summer light was milky, I’d just read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, and this was my best impersonation of an American writer in London, but I didn’t know how long I could keep it up. I possessed a reader’s pass to the library, having narrowly survived the interview required to get one—an interview in which I had to assert I was a published writer, albeit for American magazines the interviewer had never heard of. And for this reason, or perhaps because of the way the interviewer managed to imply that it would be a miracle if I was still a writer by the time the pass would need to be renewed, I was finding it difficult to actually go in and choose a reading room and get to work. The great Humanities 1? The more intimate Humanities 2? Why wasn’t there a training room, a Foolish First Fiction or Pathetic Amateur Biography, where one could warm up?

Then one morning I saw something odd: an obese woman in front of the library tumbling face-first out of her wheelchair. She’d mistaken a broad, wide staircase for a ramp and had been pitched forward when her chair tilted down the first step. She lay sprawled on the ground, her wheelchair somehow still upright above and behind her, a small black dog attached to it by a red leash.

In a frenzy of do-gooding, several of us in the vicinity threw down our backpacks and briefcases and got the woman rolled over and sitting upright. Her chin and palms were scraped but not bloody; she seemed concerned about her predicament but not frightened. She’d let out a yelp when she hit the pavement, but was now quiet, smoothing her book bag. Many in the group crouched to her level, the way one might address a child, but I wondered if this would embarrass her and remained standing.

She was paralyzed from the waist down, huge, soft, and very crumpled from a spine-destroying disease. Understandably, her immediate desire, which she expressed in American English, was to get back into her chair. Our first attempt, however, was a failure. A man in a suit and bowtie who had taken the rear position threw out his back. He walked around cursing someone named Robinson—his osteopath, I presumed—then benched himself at a café table. On the second, try two people grabbed the woman’s legs and, during the lift, wrenched them apart. She cried out in pain; we froze. Then she asked, quite calmly given the circumstances, to be put back on the sidewalk

Settled on the cement, she said it would probably be best if an ambulance crew assisted her, and so a gentleman from our group ran into the library to call one. Another man took this opportunity to wander off, looking at his watch and muttering an excuse. The rest of us remained grim and committed, pulling up sleeves, taking off jackets, overheating, it seemed, in our roles as good Samaritans. The woman sat on the ground, staring at our kneecaps. I felt sorry for her, and intensely curious about the contents of her book bag. Had she been working in the library? But the situation didn’t lend itself to pleasantries. Not really. Not unless the woman said something first. And she didn’t. I admired her composure, the way she offered no explanations or excuses, the way she’d said it would “probably” be best if we called an ambulance. I decided she’d lived in England much longer than I had.

Then an older Englishwoman asked her if she’d like a cup of tea.

“Good God, no,” the American replied.

Just then, a waiter from the café appeared with a pan of water. Everyone was confused, and the woman sitting on the sidewalk said “No, thank you,” as if it were the unwanted tea after all. The man who’d hurt his back staggered up, listing to the left, one hand on his hip, the other gesturing angrily toward the dog. The waiter served the dog the pan of water as if he rather preferred canines to homo sapiens anyway, then walked back to the café.

By now a small crowd of onlookers had gathered, turning some of the Samaritans even more serious and solemn. I think they wanted to appear knowledgeable. I wanted to turn and say, “We’re trying to get her back into the chair. She fell out.” But the situation wasn’t a play, I reminded myself, and I wasn’t the narrator. Explanations of any kind, whether pointing out the broken dishwasher to the repairman or telling someone I was working on a book usually earned me a dismissive “Right.” The English seemed to know everything already, or were embarrassed by anything made explicit. As an American in London, I was still learning to fight the urge to clarify.

We remained grim and committed, pulling up sleeves, taking off jackets, overheating, it seemed, in our roles as good Samaritans.Another man in a suit approached, perhaps from the crowd, but something about his manner suggested he’d just happened upon the scene. He quickly calculated the weight-to-strength ratio and decided to help us out of our misery. “Oh, goody!” the English woman said, and convinced the American to let us try once more. “You can’t be comfortable down there,” she added. How she wanted her in a tea shop!

I was now in the position closest to the woman’s legs, and, remembering what had happened the last time, I wrapped both my arms around them and clasped them to my chest. They were soft and heavy, and the absence of any straining movement while we struggled to lift her was unsettling. Disturbing, even. We succeeded in getting her bottom on the footrest of the chair, but no higher. Then she looked right at me and said that what I’d done with her legs was good, and that if we could try it that way just one more time, it might work. Somehow, I did, and finally, the woman was back in her chair.

“Right,” said the last gentleman who’d approached, actually wiping his hands as if he’d just cleared a pile of brush. “Glad to help our American cousins.” It was the summer of 2001.

The group dispersed quickly. The man who’d run into the library to call an ambulance reappeared with a library clerk, and the three of them began the process of filing an accident report. The woman in the wheelchair didn’t want to, actually—also rather noble and un-American of her, I thought—but the clerk told her she must, it was required, and so she conceded. She stroked her dog while the clerk readied his papers.

I wanted to step in and say something—Have a good day? What are you working on? How long have you lived here?—and with my voice reveal I was a compatriot. But nothing seemed right or all that relevant. Instead I picked up my bag and headed straight into the library. The previous day I’d started writing a story with a dog on a red leash, and, American that I was, I decided the whole episode was a sign just for me.