Friday, April 13, 2007

Strange encounter

Not 20 minutes drive from my house, there's a little mountain whose trails I run when I'm getting myself in shape. Amazingly, since from its slopes you can see all of San Francisco, the Peninsula and on clear days the East Bay cities, hardly anyone enjoys its trails. I can run a 5-mile loop over the summit and see perhaps 2 other people on an average circuit.

Last week I lumbered along up there on a gorgeous early afternoon. Just before leaving the asphalt trail not far from a parking lot I noticed two plastic bags on the grass with a few grocery items -- a half-gallon of orange juice, a box of cereal -- lying off to the side. Odd. But I've heard there might be a hermit somewhere up in the thickets -- maybe someone had dropped supplies there and meant to pick them up later?

So up I went up and over the top and soon was running back through the same area. There was a person lying across the trail, stretched out on some cardboard, almost blocking the way. The feet were bare, pink, and didn't look damaged. A coat covered the person's head and upper body. The groceries were still lying beside the path.

I jumped around the body and ran on. Ever since I was about twenty-two, I've lived in neighborhoods where it is not uncommon to see people passed out on the sidewalks. And I've learned not to get involved: unless there is blood, evident distress, or the person is lying somewhere dangerous, I let them alone. I assume they are drunk, or crazy, or simply enjoying a chance to sleep in the sun.

I had run nearly a quarter of mile before I realized that I had left a person lying across a path on the side of an exposed mountain where no one was likely to come along for hours, if that day. I was stunned enough to turn around and trot back.

Happily, the body had moved and proved to be a man who was now lying on his stomach reading a pamphlet. His shoes were set neatly next to him. I recognized that this was a guy who had been feeding birds in a nearby picnic area when I went up the hill.

So I turned around and left him to his reading, figuring that an ambulatory person could be left to his own choices.
No moral here. Besides recognizing that my behavior confirmed Robert Cialdini's theory of social validation, I have no idea what to make of this little episode. I do wish though, that I didn't live in a society where we have to develop strategies to deal with the reality that people lie passed out on the street.

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