Cross Over The Road
Perhaps the most important thing I learned from my English degree’s Late Medieval Literature module – other than how fun it is to pronounce “ght”- came from a section of the York Mystery Plays concerning the last judgement. Jesus damns some people who protest that they never did him any harm, to which he replies that they did – every time they refused alms, shelter or food to a beggar. I’m an atheist, but not a strict one, in the same sense that I’m vegetarian but eat mussels, because I tell myself that they’re basically plants. Any iron, or morality, that I receive incidentally is a bonus rather than an inconsistency.
So reading that made me feel with a shiver that if there is a hell, it’s reserved for those that refuse to help those that ask for it. On a more practical level, I’d like to live in a world where, if I genuinely needed 50p for the bus, then I could ask passers by without feeling like the scum of the earth. I was recently walking down Heslington Road when I heard something, and, looking up, saw a man waving at me. I took out my headphones. He was in a wheelchair (something that you only see when not wearing headphones), and it seemed he needed my help. I crossed the road – cross over the road, my friend, sang a voice in my head. The man had no legs, and asked for me to give him a hand by pushing him up the hill. I needed to go to the shops and be back by two so I accepted begrudgingly, assuring myself that “at least he really has no legs,” which was small recompense for the dubious hygiene of the wheelchair’s handles.
I inwardly chastised myself for being so condescending, and started to push. On the walk, he assured me that the plastic bag attached to the wheelchair contained his medication, a protestation that aroused my suspicions, and subsequently my guilt about having suspicions. He was from Lincoln, I from Newark. How nice. Could he have some money for the bus? Oh. How much? £3.50. The largest amount of money that’s too small to refuse, and also, uncannily, exactly the amount of change in my wallet. For a moment I didn’t reply, and wondered whether I could pretend I didn’t have it all, and only give him a couple of quid? No, then I’d go to that hell I don’t believe in. Stop being so selfish, be altruistic. He showed me his filthy fake leg, an old, worn and stained instrument that bore no resemblance to a human limb, and assured me, “I don’t often get legless.” By anticipating my suspicions he aroused even more suspicions, and more guilt. Money was given, farewells exchanged, and off I went, admitting to myself that if I were in his position, I’d probably try to get legless pretty much constantly.
For the next two days I had a shield. I’d helped The Disabled, and Done My Bit. I inwardly shouted triumphantly to passing charity workers, “No thanks, Cancer Research – I’ve given all my change to a guy with no legs.”
I mentioned my adventure to my housemate while washing up, a casual brag disguised as anecdotal curiosity. She sighed. “Wheelchair guy? Yeah, he got some friends of mine too once.” Apparently one of these friends had once pushed him up the hill, but refused to give him the money he asked for. He shouted at her then wheeled himself back to where she’d found him. It became increasingly clear that I’d probably been had. Oh well. At least I had an almost clear conscience. And maybe I’d helped him in some way, which is nice. Like buying a CD in a charity shop and later finding the disc was missing, or paying more tax than you owe because you can’t be bothered to sort out a rebate. It’s helping out the economy. It might not be fair but maybe it helped someone who genuinely needed some help, a bit, at least. So on balance, I’m glad he had no legs.