To Touch or Not to Touch

Last night, I attended a City Council Candidate Forum on Homelessness. Since moving to San Diego, nothing’s disgusted me more than San Diegans’ lasseiz faire attitude toward the ever-present and increasing population of homeless persons in our region. I’ve encountered a lot of shrugging, a lot of folks saying “it’s a shame,” and most infuriating, questioning as to why such a problem exists. When rent is absolutely unaffordable and the outside elements won’t kill you, I wouldn’t think it’d take a rocket scientist to conclude why we see so many beings out on the streets. Add the fact that San Diego is the 8th largest US city but doesn’t facilitate the 8th largest economy, and conditions are ripe for social disparity across a number of issues.

While one of the candidates elaborated her ideas on the need for attitudinal change around how we view those living in the city without the safety & security of a home, the woman next to me broke out into an audible sob. My knee-jerk reaction was to reach out and grab her hand, but a voice from the recent past welled up in my throat, and I hesitated…

Three weeks ago, I witnessed a terrible accident while on my way home from work. A man on a lime green motorcycle zipped through the intersection where I was stopped at a light before being slammed into my an inattentive driver pulling out of a drive-thru. I blinked at the moment of impact and upon reopening my eyes, I saw a cloud of smoke rising from a silver Volvo. I didn’t see anyone moving, so I pulled my car across the two lanes to stop any oncoming traffic. As I got out of my car, I remember thinking “I hope the cyclist isn’t pinned between his bike & the car,” because I probably would’ve fainted at sight of that. He’d actually flown several feet in the air and rolled about 10 yards from the the crash site. As I approached him, he regained consciousness and began screaming, writhing around on the pavement in agony. A woman who’d also been a witness, yelled at me from the sidewalk “don’t touch him! Whatever you do don’t touch him!”

She said she’d already called an ambulance as a crowd started to form around us. She continued to yell at me as I knelt down next to him and started to ask him some questions to get his mind off the pain. He was able to tell me his name and where he worked in between screams and after a few minutes of hesitance, I grabbed his hand. He squeezed it. Hard. I stayed there with him while spectators took photographs, until the medics arrived, and the rest is a blur.

I ended up having to wait two hours to give an eye-witness account to the police and wasn’t able to wash this man’s blood off of my hands or knees until I got home. I thought about that night for a long time and questioned if I made the right decision by getting involved.

And, there, in the North Park Observatory yesterday evening, I wondered again if my touch would help or harm the situation. In a time, when attention is being called to the ways in which boundaries are often disrespected, how does one honor the space of another to whom they want to offer a show of physical support?

I waited another 30 seconds and finally reached out my hand to the woman sitting next to me. She clasped it immediately and began sobbing harder. We sat hand-in-hand for the next half hour and during the intermission, she shared her story and struggle with homelessness with me. It was only after we thanked each other for taking the time to get to know one another that I realized I made the right the decision to not only offer my hand to her but to grab the hand of the man lying in the street those weeks ago as well.

The circumstances I write about here describe the very few instances in which there’s a question around whether or not touch is appropriate, safe and/or warranted. And in both instances, there was an immediate affirmation that the offer was welcomed and accepted. How we continue to perpetuate the narrative that ambiguity around social encounters makes things like rape permissible is yet another gross reminder of that which we are unwilling to address.

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