Like you—like most people, I imagine—I tend to see myself as kind. I like to think of myself as compassionate and willing to help. But I wonder at times—perhaps you do too—if I don’t go too far, mistaking my own neediness for helpfulness.
A few weeks ago, one wet afternoon as I wrestled my bicycle through the heavy front door of the building that houses my physical therapist, a young woman approached me. In an American accent, she asked if I knew where—holding out a piece of paper—an address was.
‘That’s the main train station,’ I said.
‘Well’, I said, ‘I’m not exactly sure how you get there from here, but it’s nearby. You’re not far away.’
I looked around me, over the tops of the buildings, vaguely noting the elevated tracks of the S-Bahn interurban train, not a block away, and consulted my mental map.
‘I can’t tell you exactly how to get there from here, but I know it’s off in that direction,’ I continued, pointed in the opposite direction from where the tracks headed directly toward the station, which was, as I came to recognise later, less than a block from where we stood.
In the weeks since, I’ve thought many times of the brief exchange, imagining the young woman cursing the eager but poorly informed woman who, I hope, she ignored and asked the next person she met.
(I call to mind the afternoon I wandered along the edges of Harlem, looking for the Cloisters Museum. I stopped a elderly woman, tiny under an amber felt hat, who pointed me in, I was sure, the wrong direction. After she walked off, I stopped and asked a neatly dressed younger man. As I did, the woman stood about a half a block away, watching.
‘What did he tell you?’ she demanded of me when she approached after he walked on. He had, in fact, pointed me toward to right bus. She, to her very great credit, escorted me to the bus and boarded it with me.)
In the weeks since I blithely pointed the young woman in the wrong direction, I’ve felt a nagging every time I pass the neighbourhood of the train station. I should have simply said, as Himself so often tells me, ‘I don’t know.’
But I didn’t. I tried, as always, to help. I want to be helpful. Or I want to demonstrate my knowledge. Is it, perhaps, that I want to show off?
Not long ago, I had to run an errand late on another wet afternoon. I put on my raincoat and waxed hat to cycle to the bus stop. Tent-shaped and solid black, the voluminous coat falls nearly to my ankles; the hat, also black, looks absurd, like Mary Poppins’ hat, with a silly black velvet rosette. But the coat covers my legs as I cycle and the hat’s wide brim protects my face, so, despite looking like a crow, I wear them both when I must cycle in the rain.
Our bus stop is the northern terminus of the line, so normally the bus discharges the last passengers before it turns and departs. But on this day when I boarded, already drenched by the heavy rain, the last passengers remained aboard. From the back of its double-length I could hear the bus driver’s voice rise in broken-English frustration.
‘Not this bus,’ he said.
The woman leaned in to question him further but he seemed to lapse again into German. Then she turned and walked back toward her husband, who consulted a tourist map.
‘Can I help?’ I asked brightly.
She looked at her husband and two children, about 9 and 11.
Again, I asked, ‘Can I help.’ This time, it looked as though the light dawned. I was asking in English.
‘He says we need the Number 1,’ in an Australian accent. ‘But I don’t know. . . .’ She trailed off, shrugging.
‘I know,’ I said, with genuine sympathy, thinking of how unhelpful Salzburg bus drivers can be. ‘It’s very frustrating.’ I wondered how they had ended up at the end of the line on Number 7. The Number 1 doesn’t come this direction.
The husband, backpack at his side, looked up from his map. ‘We want to go to the Messe Zentrum Park-and-Ride. It looks like it’s on this line.’
I turned it over in my mind. I was puzzled. In my many trips along the route, I’d never heard the Messe Zentrum announced as a stop. But then. . . it’s only a few hundred metres from one of the bus stops, I recalled.
‘The bus driver told me he’d tell us where the right stop is,’ said the woman.
I pushed ahead. ‘You want Messe Zentrum? Not the Europark Park-and-Ride.’
‘It’s Messe Zentrum Near the circus. We saw it this morning.’
Well, yes, there is circus there now. And we were just one—or was it two?—stops from the turn into enormous car park where its tents can be seen.
Thinking fast—proud of myself—I told them I could show them which stop. ‘It’s coming up quick,’ I said. ‘Press the “Stop” button and I’ll show you.’
With my sleeve I wiped thick fog from inside the window. ‘Look—it’s coming. See? There. Go back from the bus stop and turn up there. You’ll go the roundabout next to the motorway.’
Doubt crossed the woman’s face. ‘Is it safe?’
For the first time I hesitated. What to say? I’m sure she could read it in my eyes and in my silence. But the bus was pulling up to the stop.
They looked at each other. ‘We’ll try it,’ he said, pushing aside his hesitation.
‘Come on, children,’ said she.
And the four of them stepped into the grey downpour.
I settled in. Across from me, a man who had just boarded wore an orange rain jacket. He looked past me. Or was he staring? Suddenly, I felt unusually self-conscious.
I turned my mind to the Australians. It was very wet. I thought of the four of them, wondering if they’d make the turn at the corner. I considered what it would be like to walk the short but ragged ground between the corner and the entrance to the Zentrum car park.
And I finally heard what she had said: The bus driver said he would tell them where the right stop was.
From the back of the bus, I looked at the driver’s reflection in the mirror. He must have watched all this and wondered at my interference. For I had interfered. They had not asked for help.
The bus ploughed on through the rain and, as I sat, the warmth of shame and doubt rose within me. What had I done? How far from the entrance to the car park to where they had left their car would they have to go?
I heard myself again, my voice too loud and overbright: ‘Can I help?’
I heard again my husband’s repeated admonishments: ‘It’s all right if you just say you don’t know.’
A few stops on I heard a stop called. I must have heard this announcement scores of times before, but it had never registered. It was the connection for Line 1 to Messe Zentrum.
What had I done?
I don’t know the end to this story. I hope I didn’t send them too far afield. But I think of those two children, weary after a rainy day’s sightseeing, slumping a little as they stepped off the bus. I think of the woman’s hesitation when she asked, ‘Is it safe?’ And, my mind writhing with shame, I hear my voice, uninvited. ‘Can I help?’
What drives me to do this, again I ask myself. Is it that I want to make a connection? That I am lonely? That I want to boost my own sense importance. Or is it perhaps an ingrained American trait, that characteristic desire to reach out to one’s community that is, I think, actually part of the American culture?
I will say this: I swear—I promise solemnly—I will never again give directions unless I actually know what I’m talking about.
And I hope, without hope, that I don’t become part of a family legend somewhere in Australia. I hope, without hope, that a young man and a young woman don’t find themselves saying, about 10 years from now, ‘Remember that weird woman, dressed like a witch, who sent us off, tramping for an hour through the rain, one day in Salzburg?
I hope, as I say, without hope.
Wherever you are, I am truly sorry. I have learned my lesson.