Friday, December 24, 2004

A call for help

One of the assistants walks up to me in the newsroom Wednesday and asks me if I can take a phone call. There’s a guy on the horn with a story idea. I can tell from the tone of her voice it’s one of “those calls.”

The caller obviously didn’t want to leave a message, but he didn’t have a normal request or suggestion. He wanted to talk to someone about his idea. I happened to be the only editor at my desk, so I drew the short straw by default.

There is a strange phenomenon where people who don’t know what else to do or who else to call, place a call to the newspaper.

The call was transferred through, and the caller started talking. He was a talker. It was one of those days where I didn’t really have time to spend on the phone. The call came through moments before I was supposed to walk into a meeting. The caller had his own timeline. I missed most of the meeting hearing the pitch.

The man on the phone, John, has a suggestion for a “human interest story.” He knew a guy who was in a nursing home after suffering a life-threatening infection. John never asked for help for himself, but the more John talked the more it became apparent that he needed help for himself as much as he wanted it for his friend.

John said he had been trying to get his friend, Gerry, some help. But John was in no position to help Gerry himself. John had been staying with Gerry and his partner, but after Gerry ended up in a nursing come, the partner tossed John out on the street. John had slept outside the night before, yet he was more concerned about Gerry. Or so he said. And I think he even believed it himself on some level. But John’s call was a call for help on his own behalf. He was either wholly selfless, or a practiced con artist. As much as I empathized with John I couldn’t quite stifle my skepticism.

John talked for about a half an hour or so, until he ran out of quarters for the pay phone at Denny’s. But John called back later in the evening. John had tried to check into a motel for the night, but they required a credit card, and he didn’t have one. His debit card number was on a piece of paper in the mobile home he’d been kicked out of by Rick, Gerry’s partner. And John’s actual bank card was in his apartment, which he had been evicted from and locked out of by a vindictive property manager. Again I empathized, but couldn’t quite get past the thought that perhaps John was looking to see if I would give him my credit card number. John said he had no family in the area and his friends had apparently turned their back on him after he suffered an injury in some sort of crime, which he didn’t go into detail about. But he said he suffered physical trauma, and some mental effects from the crime.

John was calling for help, and I offered suggestions for different organizations that may be able to help. John had plenty of reasons why those ideas wouldn’t work. But one suggestion seemed to offer some promise for John, and the hour was getting late, so John was going to try to do something about securing lodging for the night. I wished him well and he rang off.

Maybe it’s because the call came so close to Christmas. I’m not sure what it was, but John’s call touched on a personal fear. And that fear is the loss of independence. I so wanted to help John because I so don’t want to become John. One of my biggest fears is having to rely on others. OK, so the fear goes deeper than that, because we all have to rely on other people from time to time. And I am no different. I have relied heavily on family and friends the last several months to get back on my feet, physically and emotionally, following the breakup with my former fiancée. But there was a period in the early days of that breakup where I felt as lost and alone as John must feel. My home was no longer my own, and I didn’t feel comfortable there. Yet, I had nowhere else to go. It felt as if I had no one to talk to either, and yet I really didn’t feel like talking. For a while it felt like I had no one. My fear was that I never would again. I was terrified of living – and dying – alone.

The upshot is, I did ask for help. I talked to a therapist. I talked to family. I talked to friends. And each day got a little better. I hope John finds the help he needs but seems so reluctant to ask for too, if in fact his story is genuine (again the skepticism won’t quite leave me). John was asking me for help in his own way. But it was obvious he had heard about the various shelters, legal aid and other free or low-cost services available to him. He just didn’t feel he really needed them. He still thought, all things considered, that his lot in life was not yet that dire. Either that or, he was trying to scam me, which is possible. But I wasn’t quite willing to buy into his story and assign a reporter to put it into print, nor was I willing to reach into my own pocket when he wasn’t taking advantage of other options for help available to him.

Who knows how many stories of loneliness and desperation there are out there in the world this holiday season. But John, in spite of his own sad story, seemed primarily concerned with helping someone else. And he needed someone to talk to, that much was obvious. Maybe that was the only help I could truly offer him. I hope John will take advantage of the help people have been trying to point him toward. Unfortunately, we often ignore the helping hands reaching out for us out of pride, vanity or shear stubbornness. They say in so many circumstances that the first step is realizing when you need help. Another key step is being willing to accept it.

I am so thankful to family and friends who have given me a shoulder to lean on, or cry on, when I’ve needed it. John’s call reminded me of what this season is all about. Thanks for calling John. I hope you find room at the inn, or at least a warm dry place to sleep this Christmas.


ak said...

hope you have a happy holidays G and a very happy new year!

The G-man said...

Thanks for the post ak, and the very best of the holidays to you and yours. Happy New Year.

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