Saturday, March 03, 2007


I don't know what made me think about this. It's been close to seventeen years.

Late afternoon and a girl calls in from a public phone; she's got our number off a card that lists "crisis lines". She sounds scared. She's fifteen, hanging out in a rough part of Detroit, across town from where I am. She's a runaway and wants to come in off the street. We talk for a while and I hear voices.

"What's that?" I ask.

"There's a couple of guys bothering me."

She argues with them for a moment, one of them wants her jacket. I manage to get her attention. "Don't argue with them," I say. "Listen to me...don't argue. Is there a store around you somewhere?"

"Yeah, I'm outside a party store."

"Okay, go in the party store. Tell the manager who you are and ask to use the telephone. If he won't let you, then give him the card you have and ask him to dial it for you. Or ask him to call the police."

She's arguing again. Things become heated. I feel the situation becoming more serious. I get her attention once more, convincing her to go immediately into the store, hoping she'll be safer there. The girl agrees. As soon as she hangs up I call 911. The 911 operator tells me that since I am calling for a location across town that she can't help me. I will have to call a police department where the problem is occuring. Disbelieving, I identify myself as a crisis worker. She's unmoved.

Several minutes later, after figuring out which precinct she is in, I call the police and ask for assistance. The man answering the telephone doesn't sound too concerned. "She went into the store?" he asks.

"Yeah, I think so."

"Well, I'm sure she'll be okay. Look, we'll send a car over there. She's a runaway, so we can pick her up."

I hang up and dial a runaway shelter closer to where the runaway is at. No one is ever allowed to go and pick up a teenager. The shelter worker and I discuss a way around this. The van can go to the party store, then wait there until the police arrive. Then, they can get the police to transport her to the shelter. It's not a perfect plan; the worker and I know we are both on shaky ground.

As I hang up the phone rings again. It's her.

"Are you in the store?" I ask.

"No, I'm at the pay phone."

"Why aren't you in the store?"

"The guy there wouldn't let me use the telephone."

"Did you tell him what was going on?"

"Yeah, but he still wouldn't let me use the phone."

"Did you ask him to call the police or to call me?"

"Yeah, he wouldn't do it."

The voices again. She is arguing. This time I can hear the situation becoming tense. Yelling. I hear her shouting and then nothing. The phone hasn't been hung up, but she's no longer there. I call for her repeatedly, but there's no response. I call the precinct again, talk to the same police officer. The other telephone rings. I hit the line and a man is calling, he has a deep voice and sounds nervous.

"The girl told me to call this number," he says.

"You're the store manager?"

"Yes. I didn't want her to use the phone. I just didn't know. I didn't want to get involved. I didn't know what was going on. "

"Where is she now?" I ask.

A long silence follows. I can hear him breathing.

"I watched her get on the pay phone," he says. "I watched her through the window. Then she starts arguing with these two guys. Next thing I know a car comes up and they force her in. The car drives away."

He hangs up. I hang up.

The telephone rings again. This time it's a teenager asking for information about the emancipaton laws.


Travis said...

Whoa. That's something that can haunt you for awhile.

Carol said...

OMG! Do you know what happened to this poor kid? WTF is wrong with people today! This makes me so angry. Kudos to you for being there for kids in Crisis!

Cazzie!!! said...

A very ironic story, one girl trapped, the other inquiring of freedom!!

SQT said...

Oh shit! There is no way you get paid enough.

I was doing my student teaching at a low income school several years ago and there was an 11 year old kid sleeping on the roof of the school because his parents kicked him out. Last time I was there they had been unable to get CPS to take him in (God only knows why) so the Principal of the school was trying to so what she could, legally and appropriately to see he had food and shelter.

It was a freaking mess and we saw this stuff everyday. The burnout rate at that school was 5 years. I barely made it through student teaching. I don't know how you do it.

lee said...

Quite a change from the previous post. The poor little bugger.

Kate S said...

God, how awful, Stewart.

I've worked in a mental health agency that serves the low income population, as well as an agency that trains volunteers to advocate in court on behalf of abused and neglected children, so I know the emotional toll having to witness this type of tragedy without always being able to stop it can take on a person. There wasn't a day that went by at either place that I didn't spend some time crying at my desk.

Bless you for at least trying.

deslily said...

I hope I read a setup in there. if the girl walked away from the store how would he know your number to call? and then a different call only moments later? It sounds like you were being "had".. I hope that's what it was!

(strange how I read something different from the others so far hmmm , since i'm always wrong I feel bad for the girl and hope she got found ok)

Danny Tagalog said...

Ahh, a sad tale, still reflective of these times. You did everything you could...

... maybe deslilly has read correctly....?

Stewart Sternberg said...

Trav, all those horrible stories are in my past and don't haunt me. I let them go and bring them out occasionally.

Carol, no kudos. I do not know what happened to her. Thanks for stopping in, by the way.

Cazzie..with three exclamation points..the story is ironic. Thank God the laws for emancipation have changed. It used to be parents of sixteen and seventeen year olds were throwing their kids out left and right and calling them emancipated. No more.

SQT...No..I deserve much more money. However, this is a story from another job, not from my teaching. I have a bunch of different stress producing stories for that. Did I tell you we were on a secure mode last week?

Lee, I like to keep my readers guessing what they're going to find here.

Kate, no blessing needed. Unless it means I win the lottery and develop the powers of invisibility and flight.

Deslily, no slip up. Apparently she slipped my card to the guy. In that part of town there are heavy plexiglass shields between the merchant and the customer. When he called he stated she had given the card to him and asked him to call me. I think seeing he sensed that she needed help and was afraid. He cared enough to watch her. He also cared enough to call. I only wish he had been brave enough to have let her behind that plexiglass shield. But it's a hard call to make.

Stewart Sternberg said...

By the way, Danny. Great to see you.
And is too crazy. I'll have to relate some more of these phone calls. I have a lot of stories.

spyscribbler said...

Wow, Stewart. I couldn't handle that. I'd be furious and it'd eat me up for months. Years.

I think it would be nice if more people taught, but only for 3 - 5 years. (If they had the constitution for it, then they could keep going, of course.) That'd take care of the teacher shortage and give the kids lots of bright, enthusiastic teachers to learn from.

It's just hard to maintain enthusiasm for what is really a situation mostly out of your control, and usually you're helpless to do anything, anyway. Or maybe I just need a five-year break or something, LOL. And I have it good compared to you!

Charles Gramlich said...

Hearing such stories just wilts me. For one, it illustrates perfectly well how the police as an entity really don't care about the safety of citizens. Many individual policemen do, of course, but the "POLICE" is a government agency whose primary concern is its own existence. As for the shopowner, I hope he dreams of that girl every night for the rest of his life.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

There is nothing more frustrating than having to fulfill stupid bureaucratic requirements when someone needs help.

I managed a domestic violence shelter, and ended up taking some of the clients home after the administrators decided they had been at the shelter long enough. I was told repeatedly that I was not being "professional" because I actually cared about those women and kids.

It's hard to imagine how many natural (I think) emotions must be turned off to enable someone to ignore a young kid in trouble.

Stewart Sternberg said...

In residential programs that deal with crisis the average worker is there about three to five years Scribbler. I was there about eleven. I am stupid.

Hearts, I had a lot of dealing with domestic violence shelters. And I hate non profits. I hate the mentality of them and how they carry out their missions. They mean well, but there is so much absurdity that occurs. In my novel "Food For The Flies", a horror novel I am working on, I take out all my frustration and anger on the American foster care system and non profits in feels great.

Charles, I hear you. As for the shop keeper. I don't know what to say. In Detroit there is tremendous tension between African Americans and the Middle Eastern people who run the party stores. I imagine it is akin to the Las Angeles friction between the Asians and the African Americans.

Avery said...

It's cruel that the humanity that spurred you to try and help her is the same that probably won't ever let you forget this. But, you tried where many would have not wanted to 'get involved.' Says a lot about you.

Nathalie said...

What a riveting story. Wasn't sure whether it was a novel or a true story. Reading the comments it appears to be the latter. Frightening, exasperating, disturbing, shocking story. The title, Indifference, says it all... If only it could be used to raise awareness!

As a mother of three in an loving family, I've never been exposed to that sort of stuff. Scary.

I'll bookmark your blog and come back. You should be published.

Cheers from Sydney.

DonkeyBlog said...

I've been in that kind of situation a few times - trying desperately to help someone from afar, and pulling-up completely powerless due to distance or, more often, bureaucracy. Is pretty chilling stuff, just how cold and unhelpful can be those people/organisations in society in whom we place our unwavering trust that they will protect us.

etain_lavena said...

People never help, even when they see the fear in your eyes....god, this world is messed up:(

Sidney said...

Reminds me of the real-life Kitty Genovese case which always connects the dots in my brain to Ellison's "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs."

There is a Wikipedia entry on her with a picture, the first I've ever seen of her face.

ShadowFalcon said...

oh dear, that poor girl.

Its awful having no control to help in that situation...

Tammie Jean said...

"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." -Edmund Burke

At least some people (like you) try. Sounds like you don't have many allies though.

Lucas Pederson said...

Man! Why do people have to be such dimwits? There's no trust in this world and as for the police, why, they never seem to do their job when it's nessesary. It's scary what our world is becoming. IF everyone tried to help eachother out then maybe things would be better all around....well, until you meet some lunatic, some human monster. I guess I could see both sides. But that poor girl, that's really sad.

Claudia said...

That breaks my heart. I can only hope she ended up ok (yet thinking she probably didn't)-- I can't help but wish intense bodily harm to that manager.