Anne J. Lee, 30 years old and seven months pregnant, lay sprawled between the curb and pavement at 15th and K streets NW. Moments before, as she had stepped from the curb, she tripped and twisted her ankle. Lee fell sideways, landing on the side of one leg and hip as she tried to protect her unborn child with her right hand. Her purse and glasses flew askew, and she lay on the pavement, momentarily stunned.
But the truly stunning thing occurred next. At 5 p.m., at this busy intersection where hundreds of people were moving about, no one offered to help her up or to see if she had been seriously injured.
Said Lee, a brown-haired magazine editorial assistant: "The people who were walking toward me crossed the other way, split to my right and left, and walked around me! Now don't get me wrong, I am by no means a prima donna. I try to be independent, self-reliant, and not lean on others for something I can do myself, but good God, where has compassion gone?"
Now, it is clear that every pregnant woman who falls, potentially injuring her child, will not be treated in the same way. But I couldn't get this specter out of my mind.
Is it part of a pattern? What does it symbolize about our society? Why have we become unduly pessimistic and more inhumane to each other?
Years ago, the norm was to give a pregnant woman a seat on a bus or subway. That practice changed. When Lee was pregnant with her first child nearly four years ago, she did not expect to be offered a seat on the Metro when she commuted from Northern Virginia to her job downtown, nor was she offered one. "I wore flat shoes and held on well. I'm not an idealist. I know that everyone is tired at the end of the day and wants to sit."
But this was different. What stopped people from helping her when she needed it?
The first thing that stands out is people's well-known aversion to becoming involved because it could mean interrupting their lives for someone else.
"People might have thought, 'What if she sues the District government and I am called into court?' " speculated therapist Myra Wesley King. "This society is so attuned to lawsuits, someone might have seen himself losing time from work if he stopped to help."
Judith Martin, who writes the syndicated "Miss Manners" column, observed that our society is in transition from one that practiced gender preferences to one that recognizes age and need.
"But there is a basic misunderstanding as we undergo this transition, and it is that you no longer have to be nice to women. But that is not the idea."
The new system of etiquette that hopefully will emerge, where one assesses need and responds accordingly, is more difficult than one that dictates that a person should automatically react to a particular situation in a certain way. A young woman, for example, might give her seat on the bus to an elderly man.
Meanwhile, Martin frets that people make choices in favor of less civility. "I find this upsetting, for here was a woman in a delicate condition who obviously was in need."
Sociologist Amitai Etzioni noted that in the last year or two the recession and unemployment have exacted a great human cost. There has been "an enormous increase in all bad things"--from child abuse to mental illness. "People are more brutal to one another when you put them in a bad environment."
Etzioni, a former New Yorker, sees it also as "the New Yorkization of Washington. The typical New Yorker is so hard-bitten, frustrated and hostile, they stare into outer space to avoid paying attention to one another. On the subway they are careful not to look and touch. To some degree the whole country is becoming somewhat like New York City, except maybe states like Iowa which are full of the milk of human kindness."
If people are more inhumane, is it because of a change in human nature or because the pressures of life eliminate caring? Anne Lee is the first to admit she doesn't know the answer. "I would have helped anyone up who had fallen and in fact, have. I am just bewildered. Is it me or is it them?"