‘Procrastination’ was the name of the game that day, no different than other day. I had been monotonously refreshing my email inbox for a few minutes, waiting for a distraction before Ringo burst through our front door on a leash with my partner Sam trailing closely behind.
“I found an old Japanese lady stuck in the construction area, and I’m going to go help her,” she said, rushing to the backyard to grab one of our cheap turquoise-mesh lawn chairs.
“I’m going to go help her, do you want to come help me?” She was halfway out the door and had no time for my lackadaisical mind to process her words.
With his leash still attached to his harness, Ringo stared at me, sensing his walk prospects vanish. He didn’t understand why he was already back so soon. Sam had asked me less than five minutes ago if I wanted to go on a walk with them, but it was too hot and I had some browser tabs to reload. I got up, apologized to Ringo, told him to ‘stay’, and felt bad for him. He's such a good boy. We are very lucky to know him.
Grabbing the house keys, I sauntered out the door and followed Sam up the block with curiosity, not quite sure the level of urgency I was supposed to display. They were doing construction immediately adjacent to an apartment complex nearby. An ever growing pile of dirt occupied the middle of the site, speckled with stray trash and opportunistic weeds, flanked by a giant green shipping container, doors flung wide open. Wheelbarrows, shovels, and other equipment sat out in the open, waiting for their next menial task, and a single small dozer dared any neighborhood children to jump in for a joy ride. Chain link fences kept the mess contained (or was it hooligans out?), and a heavy industrial padlock held the entrance gates closed. I was confused how a senior citizen could have slipped in.
I came up to the scene and saw the old lady trapped behind a wooden section of the barrier. She looked haggard and had the signature hunched back, stereotypical to old Asian ladies. I’ve Googled ‘old asian women hunched backs’ in the past. It’s called kyphosis, an excessive outward curvature of the spine. I had found a few articles here and there attributing it to agricultural work and daily living on the floor. Seemingly outdated lifestyles. My cursory investigation hadn’t taken me anywhere; I didn’t dig too deep. But I still wondered why she had a hunched back.
Sam quickly climbed over the wooden fence. She’s always so willing to help. She doesn’t even think about it. She just...helps. I still admire her for it.
I am not the same. Usually a second or third responder, I always survey the situation to get as much information as I can before I attempt any action. I watch the first responders. What are they doing? What can I be doing? What do they need me to be doing? I think it’s because I want to be as helpful as I can. At least, that’s how I explain my inability to act quickly. I should probably work on that.
A stranger -- let’s call him Str1 -- was there, unclear how he could contribute. Sam likely corralled him into helping, but he looked like he wanted to get on with his day. After having him hoist the chair over the fence, she set it down as a stepping stool for the old woman who started speaking frantically. I expected to hear Japanese, but I couldn’t recognize any of the words. All those years of watching Studio Ghibli as a child, and you’d think I’d pick some of it up. None of us understood her, but she kicked off her sandals and slowly stepped up onto the chair. I stood on the other side, quickly strategizing with myself. Should I pick her up with two hands and lift her over? Should I have her jump into my arms at the top? How much does she weigh? What if I drop her? That would be terrible. I thought about how my day would be ruined. And then I felt bad for thinking about how my day would be ruined.
She tried to climb over the fence herself as Sam and Str1 supported her from the back. The group of us tried to direct her with a combination of English and body language, but of course she didn’t understand.
How come she can’t understand our pointing? I thought to myself, frustrated, but not particularly at anyone. I’m going to have to wing it and hope for the best.
I put her upper body over my right shoulder and held her steady. All COVID precautions were out the window, but there was nothing we could really do. She was the first person I’d had direct contact with outside of Sam since the pandemic started. I believed I was negative, but that didn’t stop me from envisioning a world where I passed the virus on to her. It was unfortunate. Unfortunate that we had to make a decision between leaving her to rot in the construction zone or possibly killing her off with coronavirus. A predicament.
I asked the other two to bring her legs over, unsure how else to instruct them because I didn’t truly know myself. Whatever they did, it worked. Grabbing under her thighs, I shifted all her weight onto my shoulders. The old woman was surprisingly lighter than I expected. I put her down slowly, taking care not to snap her in two. She looked incredibly grateful and babbled something over and over, still incomprehensible to us, as we kept asking where she lived. I asked Str1 if he spoke Japanese.
“She’s not speaking Japanese” he said politely, slowly inching away from the scene. “I have to go, good luck.”
My inner courtroom immediately materialized. As the prosecutor, I would yell about how this man didn’t care about his fellow humans. As the judge, I would bang the gavel and declare him guilty without a chance for the man to defend himself. I despised Str1 for a millisecond as the courtroom doors closed before I realized I felt the same way. But Sam was intent on helping, which meant I had to be intent on helping.
Suddenly, Str1’s revelation that the woman wasn’t speaking Japanese slapped me in the face. She was speaking Korean. The tones and pronunciations distinct to the language finally made their way past the unintentional blockade. Still, I didn’t understand what she was saying.
The old lady walked down the block to a side entrance of the adjacent apartment complex. We didn’t follow her at first, and I hoped she knew what she was doing. Sam inevitably decided to walk over and investigate.
“She’s trying to open the door,” Sam yelled back.
The door was locked, so they walked back over to me. The old woman grabbed my hands, still speaking, what was to me, still nonsense, as her dentures chattered uncontrollably between each breath. My mind raced as I flipped through my mental Rolodex of Korean friends or friends who spoke Korean, but for some reason, every card turned up empty.
An idea hit me, and I put all my hopes on it working. Pulling out my phone, I Googled the closest Korean restaurants. I called one, and a woman, Str2, answered. I asked her if she spoke Korean, and she confirmed.
“Okay, this is a very weird request, but we found an old lady stuck in a construction zone, and we managed to get her out. However, we have no idea what she wants or where she lives, and she only speaks Korean. Do you think you could talk to her and translate for us to see what she wants?” I felt my stomach drop because it sounded so absurd.
I put the phone on speakerphone, amazed that this new stranger didn’t think it was a prank, and she spoke to the old woman in Korean for a couple minutes.
“Hello?” Str2 said, switching back to English.
“Yes, I’m here.”
“She says she wants you to open the door for her.”
“Okay, we’re not sure how to do that…”
“Yeah, I don’t know, but that’s what she’s saying. Good luck!” She hung up quickly.
I walked over to the door, annoyed that Str2 provided no new information. A rustling sound came out of an open window on the first floor.
“Excuse me? Could we get some help?” I called out, feeling guilty about pulling another person into our peculiar afternoon. I heard what I thought was a confirmation.
“This is a very weird request, but we found this old lady stuck in a construction zone, and we managed to get her out. Now she’s trying to get into the apartment complex, and we can’t understand anything she’s saying. Do you think you could open the door for us so we can help her look for her apartment?”
Some feet shuffled across the floor, a lock clicked, and the metal door eventually flew open as Str3, a white man in vertically black striped pajamas, stood holding the door. I asked him if he'd seen the old lady before, and he shook his head. The woman looked around confused. I decided to point at the mailboxes, specifically, at the apartment numbers, hoping she’d understand to look for hers. For the first time, we understood each other and she started searching, reading each mailbox number closely as if she was learning her numbers for the first time.
“Where do you live?” Str3 asks, pronouncing each word slowly and loudly. He looked annoyed, but was trying to help. I found myself annoyed at him for being annoyed.
“Ee yeong chil!” she exclaimed pointing enthusiastically at 207 with the last name, Kim, scrawled underneath. ‘Chil’ sounds like seven in Mandarin. At least the last name was Korean.
We walked her up the stairs toward 207. I was surprised how fast she made it up the steps. She looked around confused at the top, and I immediately felt dejected again. Luckily, before we got to 207, she recognized where she was and shuffled over to the unlocked apartment door, opening it. Sam walked in with her while I stood outside with Str3. He told me that they all had just moved back into the apartments recently after a remodel. He didn’t know anyone who lived there, but he mentioned a lot of his neighbors were Korean or Chinese.
Sam and the old lady walked back out to us.
“Is this her apartment?” I asked Sam, hoping she would know for sure so we could get out of there.
“Well, she just showed me a bunch of pictures of her family. She’s not in any of them, but it looks like she knows them.”
The man spoke slowly and loudly again to the old woman as she looked up at him. “I live right there in 201. If you need help, come get me.” I appreciated that he tried. I also hoped he wouldn’t kill her.
“Alright, good luck guys.” he says, walking back to his apartment. I wondered why all the strangers told us ‘good luck.’ It made me impatient, and I wanted to leave.
An anxiety abruptly possessed me. We lived with an escape artist. The last time the black cat wandered, we had to secretly take apart our neighbor’s back porch in the darkness of the night, coming up on psilocybin before a Modest Mouse concert. Now the anxiety of losing the cat is so deeply ingrained in our souls that we would impulsively look for him for no reason. And I wasn’t sure if I had fully closed the front door to the house.
“I need to head back. I’m not sure if I closed the front door.”
Sam understood what that meant. “Leave me your phone.”
I walked down the hall, noticing the old woman in my periphery scrambling after me. The hands of guilt began to claw at my conscience. The muscles in my neck tensed, and I forced myself to continue looking forward. Did I make up the anxiety in my head so I could leave? What if something happened to her? Would I be complicit? My initial descent down the stairs was slow, as if an invisible force held me back, but my legs accelerated step by step until I was out of the building, whisking me away from a problem that I no longer deemed mine.
The front door was, of course, fully closed. Latched. It always was. Sitting down at the computer, my mind agonized, both relieved that I was no longer in the situation and ashamed that I had just left Sam with a possibly demented old woman. She was going to help until she couldn’t because she is objectively a better person than me. All I could think about was pulling the ejector cord and parachuting down into the green fields of my own safe monotony.
And then, just like that, I did what I do best. I pushed all the thoughts out of my head and got on with my evening. For better or for worse. I was just like the strangers. Str4.