Last week I saw something in Manhattan that I've never seen before. That's a statement that could be made any day out of my summer and some years of my life, I suppose, because every time you step into Manhattan you see something you've never seen before. But most of the bizarre is all so unremarkable. The extraordinary becomes the ordinary, such that I'm not going to write a blog entry about the guy in the big rubber chicken suit on the street corner near my work. If I lived in, say, Topeka and saw that, then sure, I might write you a few paragraphs on how strange it was. But when I tell you I saw a giant chicken in Manhattan, of course you should shrug it off or at least ask what happened next (e.g., did the chicken try to sell me drugs or offer me an expired coupon). What makes this one sighting so remarkable was that it replaced something ordinary, a new twist on a sight I come across almost every day. I'm downtown, walking to work, waiting for a stoplight to change, when I see a bus approaching from the left. Out of a habit I couldn't shake if I wanted to, I look up to the sign at the top, a screen that displays the name of the bus and where it's going. Except this time, instead of reading "QM2 via Blah Blah Ave" or what have you, it read "EMERGENCY" in big, urgent letters. "CALL POLICE," it said next, alternating between the two alarming messages. I looked through the front windshield, searching for an explanation, a hijacker or a terrorist on board, but I saw nothing but a calm-looking driver and a few passengers. Maybe I imagined it, I was thinking as it passed, until I could see the smaller screen on the back, switching between "911" and "CALL COPS."
What would you have done? Do you pick up the phone and call 911? What do you tell them when they answer and ask about your emergency? "Hello, I just saw a bus with an emergency." Then they'd ask where you saw it, and if you're like me then you aren't paying attention to where you are, but you could read the street signs and tell them which corner you're on. But then they'll ask which way the bus was headed, and that's the moment I really dreaded when I played out this imaginary phone call in my head, because I don't know north from south from east from west outside of looking at points on a map, my awful sense of direction is overshadowed only by my miserable ignorance regarding geography, so the best I could do in that moment is race in the direction it was going, stop at the next corner, find the street sign, and say, "Toward XYZ Street," or whatever it would be called. But none of that happened, or not to me at least, because maybe someone else had the sense to call 911 instead of standing, watching, thinking, and going about their day. Like I did. Does that make me a bad person? Or does it just make me a bystander? That's my understand of what's meant when people say "the bystander effect." It means, you see something going on, and someone should probably intervene, but everyone is thinking all at once, "Somebody else will probably take care of it," and then no one gets their hands dirty. I remember once, some time in grade school, my class got advice on what to do in an emergency, and the one detail that stuck with me was this: Point at someone and say, "You, call 911." Because if you just yell "Call 911!" at a group of people, no one's going to do it. They're all going to stand around, watching, waiting for someone else to make the call, so you have to single someone out for the job.
If only the bus could've done that. What if the bus had singled me out? Flash back, start over, I'm still standing on the corner waiting for the lit up walking man to replace the red hand, when I look over at the bus and see "EMERGENCY," then "CALL POLICE," except instead of stopping there, next the screen read, "WILLIAM HOFFACKER." Or even "YES, YOU! CALL 911 NOW!" Would that have been enough to get me to pick up the phone? I've never dialed 911 before. I hope that I never have to. But I've wondered about it since I was a kid. If I picked up my cell phone now and put in the numbers 9-1-1, would I have to press the send button? I remember years ago I once heard that you can dial 911 at a pay phone and you don't have to put in any coins. Maybe my idea is like the cell phone equivalent, you don't have to press send because it will just dial automatically. And what could've been going on in that bus to warrant that "EMERGENCY" sign? If they can put "CALL POLICE" up there, they should also broadcast an explanation why if they really want people to help. I bet I would've been way more motivated to pick up my phone if I'd seen "BOMB ON BOARD" or "MAN WITH GUN" or anything to that effect, but maybe that would create widespread panic. But if there is a real emergency on that bus, wouldn't creating some panic be better than the apathy of the bystander effect? Since I saw the endangered bus early last week, I haven't heard any stories in the news about it, so I'm content to believe that it was nothing serious, maybe just a clumsy driver who turned on that message by accident. Now that I know that "EMERGENCY" message exists, though, I'll always be on the lookout for it as MTA buses pass me by dozens of times a day. It's unlikely that I'll ever see it again, but for a while at least I won't be able to get it out of my mind, waiting and watching vigilantly for the next moment I can stand by and do nothing, unknown lives at stake, while potentially real danger rolls by unheeded.