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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Big Apple Good Samaritan

In the spring of my junior year in high school, I was able to take a wonderful trip to New York City. I was going to be one of the editors of the student newspaper in the following year and, thereby, earned the trip to a student journalism conference at Columbia University. New York. Columbia University. I was excited beyond belief and a bit nervous.

Our wonderful English teacher and newspaper adviser, Mrs. Headstream, was our guide and chaperone. She took us to a Broadway play, to the top of the Empire State Building, to Sardi’s for their famous cheesecake, to a multi-course dinner in the Village, and for a stop at Tiffany’s. Wow. We had wonderful experiences, and . . . oh, yes . . . the journalism classes inspired me. It was an amazing time.

As we quickly felt more comfortable in the big city, a classmate and I decided to cut classes and hop a bus to visit one of New York’s famous museums. I don’t recall whether it was the Smithsonian or the Metropolitan Museum of Natural History, but I remember wandering through marvelous exhibits all day and having lunch in an area that looked like a Roman atrium with white pillars surrounding a reflecting pool. It was magical and it may have been our best day in the city.

It was getting late and time to rush back to Columbia to meet up with our classmates. It seemed simple. Ann and I would simply cross the street and grab a bus headed back in the direction of the university. We climbed on, paid our fares and sat on the long bench across from the driver. We felt a little tired, but quite satisfied with ourselves and our ability to be out in New York by ourselves despite being 17-year-olds from the South.

We rode silently for a while before noticing that too much time had expired without reaching our destination and that the neighborhood looked unfamiliar. As we became attuned to our surroundings, we also became certain that we’d never been there before and that the surroundings were looking rough and scary. We were surely some place that we shouldn’t be.

I crossed the aisle, said, “Pardon me, sir,” and told him where we were trying to go. “Is this the right bus?” Nope, it wasn’t. From his expression, I could tell that he was certain that we shouldn’t be in that part of town. I think I asked him if we should transfer or what we should do. He quietly told me to sit back down.

I suspect that Ann and I looked as frightened as we were. The bus driver picked up his hand-held radio mic and summoned someone. We’re really in trouble now, I thought. About a block later, he pulled the bus over to the curb – not at a bus stop – and sat. We looked out the windows at the rough neighborhood. Shortly after our stop, we saw another city bus pull to the curb on the opposite side of the street – also not at a bus stop.

Our bus driver stood up, looked at us and said, “Come with me.” We followed him off the bus and were escorted straight across the street by the tall, broad-shouldered black man. He took us directly to the open door of the other bus. He directed us to sit down and get off only when the new driver instructed us to do so. He conveyed our destination (again probably) to the new driver. Exited the bus. Crossed the street to his bus and drove away.

You never know what a knight in shining armor is going to look like in real life. I liked to think that he might have had daughters our age and was protective to us as he would want someone to protect his girls. Whatever his motivation, he made sure that we weren’t in harm’s way.

Ann and I returned safely to Columbia and I’m sure we didn’t tell anyone for a long time. Over the many years since then, I’ve heard repeated stories of rude New Yorkers, thoughtless New Yorkers. When I hear them, I always remember the Good Samaritan who ensured safe passage for two teenage tourists from Memphis.

(In the high school photo above, from left: Jimmy Kiersky, Mike Hettinger, me, Jon Wax -- on our way to New York)

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