An older model beige Buick turned left around an island in the Trader Joe’s parking lot and hit the red Subaru that was parked alongside it. The driver backed up, adjusted, and pulled past the island into a parking spot. Indignant on behalf of the Subaru’s owner, I waited to see what would happen next, running confrontational scenarios in my head.
Across the lot, another woman was also watching. At an Active Bystander workshop, I learned that if you want to intercede on someone’s behalf in public, it’s best to enlist another observer, because, in part, there’s safety in numbers. Designed to empower bystanders to address harmful situations—abuse, harassment, injustice—safely, there had been no role-playing for this situation: an elderly woman slowly unfolded herself from the Buick and walked towards Walgreens without a backward glance.
Despite the fact that our antagonist presented no apparent threat, I was relieved when the other observer raised her eyebrows at me, wordlessly offering to join me to inform the driver of her transgression and ensuing responsibility.
The driver, who I will call Hilda, had no idea she’d hit a car. She thought she’d bumped the curb. Her distress was so acute that my need for justice was subsumed by the desire to reassure her that it was a minor accident of no real consequence.
We urged Hilda to leave her name and number under the Subaru’s windshield wipers so the owner could contact her, but she was too upset to understand the how and why of our suggestion. She wanted to wait for the owner to appear and when we couldn’t dissuade her, I told my partner in Active Bystander-ing that I would stay with Hilda and she could go.
I learned a lot about Hilda. She was 87, her son was sick, and her daughter was out of town. She was a religious woman and G-d was referenced as often as her son, who she was sure would be worried about where she was and angry at her “stupidity.” We stood at the Subaru, in the gray mist, watching people come and go. Each time, Hilda would say, “Is that the car’s owner?” as if I knew.
We were damp and chilly. Hilda was thin, the skin on her hands translucent. She wore a lavender raincoat without a hood. I begged her to go stand under Walgreens’ awning and let me wait for the car’s owner, but she refused. I had no way of knowing which store the owner was in, but when I saw a man in a day-glow orange vest rounding up carts from Trader Joe’s, I asked if he could have the store announce that the owner of a red Subaru was wanted in the parking lot. A few minutes later, a blond, middle-aged woman in a tan overcoat came striding purposefully out of the market.
It only took a moment to explain the situation, after which the owner of the Subaru took down all of Hilda’s information on the back of an envelope, asking for my name and number as well. With each new bit of information captured, Hilda would say, “I am so sorry. I wouldn’t have known if it weren’t for this angel here.” But I was no angel. When Hilda dented the Subaru, my response was one of righteous indignation; I was prepared to do battle for something that was none of my business.
I‘m sorry that this parking lot episode will create an aggravating, confounding problem for an elderly woman who has plenty of other difficulties to deal with, and part of me wishes I had not stepped in. On the other hand, fixing the damage to the Subaru will be a trial and expense for its owner, who deserved consideration as well. Perhaps I will look the other way next time, or leave it to some other Active Bystander to manage. Given the ridiculous configuration of the Trader Joe’s parking lot, I suspect I’ll have the opportunity to test myself again.