I recently arranged to have coffee with my friend Peter on a Friday afternoon. Peter and I worked together many years ago and have kept in touch ever since. Ours is the kind of friendship in which we seldom meet – once or twice a year at best – but when we do the experience is like picking up a lively and interesting conversation we began nearly twenty years ago. So on this Friday afternoon, I was looking forward to spending some time with a dear old friend.
We dropped into a popular cafe near my home but there were no tables available, so we decided to cross the street and get a coffee at Starbucks. There were no seats there either, except outside, so we decided to do coffee al fresco. We were settling into our chat and enjoying our coffees and the pretzel that Peter had bought for us when we noticed a woman standing at the other end of the parking lot. She was slightly heavy, perhaps around forty, and was wearing a blue dress. There appeared to be some kind of large button on the dress. The woman was speaking animatedly into a cell phone.
I took not much notice of her until she approached our table and asked if she could sit in the spare chair; we said that of course she could. She was still on the cell phone call and as was speaking rather loudly and seemed to be in some kind of distress, we could not help but overhear the conversation, which she appeared to be having with a 911 operator. It seems that Blue Dress had had an altercation of some sort with another woman, who had apparently tried to wrestle away from her a binder full of papers that our friend was carrying. She told the operator that the incident had caused her heart to race — she claimed to have some sort of heart condition which I had never heard of — and we soon heard her declare that she needed to lie down on the ground as doing so would allow her face to go purple and her heart to re-set as a result. She then proceeded to lie on the sidewalk in her blue dress, on which I now noticed was pinned a button that read “Birthday Girl”; it was her birthday. While she lay on the cold concrete, her white underwear exposed for all to observe, she continued to speak with the 911 operator.
Peter was concerned for this woman and got up from his chair to speak with her and to attempt to calm her down as she was complaining bitterly about the behaviour of the woman who had purportedly attacked her; it seems the operator was also trying to calm her. Passers-by were drawn to this scene, some out of concern, others out of curiosity. One woman sat down in the chair that the woman in the blue dress had occupied before lying down on the sidewalk, and she seemed to want to minister to her somehow. An old man approached and retreated and approached again, offering advice based on his own experience, advice which seemed utterly irrelevant to the condition afflicting the Blue Dress. A Starbucks barista, a young, very effeminate Asian man with a long black pony tail, came out of the coffee shop to offer the woman a glass of water, an offer she declined, declaring that water would not help her condition.
Eventually she got up off the sidewalk and sat down in the chair again, all the while continuing to report to the operator on her condition and asking why people would act in the way her alleged tormentor had apparently acted toward her. Peter sat down in his chair again but he continued to be distracted by the woman’s predicament.
Finally, a police car arrived and the officer approached our friend and began asking her questions. As the officer did not appear to be interested in interviewing us, we moved ourselves to another table around the corner so as to be able to continue the conversation we had begun prior to the arrival of Blue Dress. Soon an inhalator arrived from the fire department and a few moments after that an ambulance pulled into the parking lot, lights flashing.
As I reflected on this incident, I realized that I felt no sympathy at the time for the woman’s physical condition or for the emotional suffering caused by the altercation with the other woman; I simply felt irritated that Blue Dress, who appeared to have a large, permanent sign over her head that read “Drama Queen” (as opposed to being someone who might be suffering from a mental health issue), had interrupted a rare chance at a conversation with an old friend. I was certain that this was not the first time she had attracted public attention as a result of some perceived slight or assault and the manifestation of the “heart condition” brought on by the affront.
Shortly after we moved to a different table, Peter declared that he had to leave as he needed to pick up his son less than thirty minutes hence, and the trip to the place where his son was playing Ultimate involved a drive of much longer than thirty minutes in Friday afternoon rush-hour traffic. I felt cheated.
For some time after this incident my mind kept going back to the behaviour of the woman in the blue dress. And as I saw her in my memory, lying on the sidewalk outside Starbucks emoting into her cell phone, her white underwear exposed, my attitude toward her began to shift. I still saw her actions as an outward manifestation of an unconscious but profound need for attention, but I wondered now what long-standing emotional deprivation, what stark loneliness must be driving this need. Moreover, I imagined her neediness as creating a kind of vicious circle in which the neediness pushed people away from her, deepening the loneliness and further driving her to act out.
The woman clearly needs help. But what kind of help does she need? Or is she indeed beyond help? Is her behaviour so ingrained and so unconscious that she does not herself recognize that she has a problem? And what is the proper attitude for a bystander like me to adopt toward this woman? Do I listen to her with empathy and then simply move on? Do I offer advice? Tough love? Would any action, empathetic or otherwise, that I took simply further “enable” her acting out?
And then it occurred to me that I am, to a certain degree, like the woman in the blue dress, that I also on occasion unconsciously act out my childish need for attention, for affection, for affirmation. Because I am not lonely, I tend to act out in a private environment rather than in public, but am I not nonetheless “in need of help”?
There is, then, a kinship between Blue Dress and me, a kinship that should have led me to react to her pain with empathy rather than with irritation and resentment. So while I quickly recovered from my disappointment at the brevity of my visit with Peter, I shall not soon forget the lesson I learned on that Friday afternoon from the woman in the blue dress.
“Dressing Room/blue dress” by Amy Guth. Creative Commons Flickr. Some rights reserved.
Recent Ross Lonergan Articles:
- The Film-School Student Who Never Graduates: A Profile of Ang Lee, Part Four
- The Film-School Student Who Never Graduates: A Profile of Ang Lee, Part Three
- The Film-School Student Who Never Graduates: A Profile of Ang Lee, Part Two
- The Film-School Student Who Never Graduates: A Profile of Ang Lee, Part One
- Bullying, Fear, And The Full Moon (Part Four)