In my little town, there is a bottle depot. I had just exchanged bags of returnables for a little receipt to turn in at the confectionary next door. They would give me cash.

In my little town, there is also a problem with homelessness due to addiction due to poverty due to hardship due to generational addiction due to harsh treatment of indigenous people in compulsory residential schools for decades past. This is a huge generalization, but pretty much everyone knows the story where I live and very few of us have ideas to match the enormity of the devastation.

This wasn’t on my mind, though, as I opened the glass and metal doors of The Red Rooster and nearly stepped on a human being sprawled on the ground.

He was breathing. I wasn’t. Then I was, and there was the reek of alcohol, only slightly stronger than the reek of my uncertainty.

What to do?

I hurried to the cashier on duty, a tall teenage boy. He looked at me as I gestured to the entryway. “There’s a man on the floor.” He nodded, slightly flustered. He had a line of customers, a phone on his shoulder, and a middle-aged lady asking him what to do.

It turned out he was calling the police for assistance. Overhearing his half of the conversation, we both knew they were coming — sighs of relief, and back to the business at hand.

I got my $40.22, and went to exit the building.

There he lay: black, straight hair protruding from under a plain baseball cap, also black; jean jacket, jeans, worn running shoes. His face was brown, mottled with red, and appeared swollen around the nose and mouth. I stood looking down at him, so unsure. Two people came through the doors — “The police are coming” from me, and they, too, stepped over his awkwardly prone body. He reminded me of a troubled baby, twitching with its dreams, holding its own hands, drooling, eyes fluttering— a big, blue, brown, drunk baby.

My kids are waiting in the car. I don’t have a clue what to do if I talk to him and he barfs or tries to grab onto me or asks me for money or dies right while I’m watching.

So, I left through the door opposite him, walked away from that great denim heap of helplessness.

The police would know what to do.

On the way home, I mentioned the incident to an acquaintance — the incident of my dilemma.

“What I’ve learned to do is step over them,” he said.

By that time, the man on the ground was in a concrete cell sleeping off his incapacity to cope. As if it would be gone when he woke.

Reflection pinned me down.

Others’ need often shakes my kilter. What to do? How to help? Desperate need can derail it. I feel both ruffled and defeated. It’s all bigger than I am….

How did the Good Samaritan do it? He’s in the middle of treacherous territory, likely on a business trip. There’s just been a violent crime. He’s considered the wrong guy to attend to any decent person’s needs — at least according to the custom of his day. He comes across a beaten, bleeding, dying man. Where were the robbers hiding now? What if the man were diseased? How could he possibly lift the dead weight of an unconscious, wounded stranger? What of his own errands? His own safety? What if he hurt him in the act of rescue?

Yet, he stopped, long enough.

I know now what I would have done earlier, at the confectionary.

I would have asked if he needed water; if he’d eaten that day; it he was hurt; if he was sick. I’m first-aid certified, for Pete’s sake. I had cash in my pocket. I was in a store that sells food.

I would sit with him until stronger help came.

It was daylight. People were passing the spot often. There was nothing to prevent me but my own indecision, my own quandary. It may not always be that easy or that safe.

But I knew.

It will never be easy or safe or reasonable or proper or right until I make one change: the decision to stop long enough to feel, to think, to act…and not to step over.

Originally published at


  • Heather Burton

    educator, writer, whole foodie, coach, wistful idealist. Keeping it real {to make it better}.

    My life is pretty glorious and messy: nine awesome kids, working mom (teacher), writer, struggling member of the 5 am Club, believer. I'm thinking "life awkwardness empathy" should probably be my unique value proposition -- if it weren't so long and awkward. Did I mention my messiness loves company?