Bystander Effect

Last night my friend and I were on an 11pm bus from Westwood to Santa Monica. We’d just finished up at an LA pre-fashion week event, invitation by my coworker, Jenny. It was at the W Hotel, lounging poolside and munching cupcakes as fashion models strutted past. It was nice to see a show again as it’s been months since my last, and even better to see creativity still blossoming in a place so stagnated in the past by the denim and t-shirt industry. But the moral of the story remains yet on that 11pm Blue bus ($1 rides by the way). As we sat near the back exit we watched, dazed by the evening’s hour and previously consumed Diddy Riese ice cream sandwiches, as a woman in a stained, deep blue T-shirt and shaved head boarded the bus. She sat down and as  we continued vaguely gazing, I realized and began to wonder why we were not pulling off again. Before I was fully aware of what was transpiring, the bus man began telling the woman to get off. Just as she stepped out, I realized the situation; the woman had not paid the $1 fare.

What consumed me for the remainder of the ride was that I had not acted on the instantaneous reaction to getup and chase her back onto the bus after paying for her fare. It was a dollar, and I’d paid more than that for an ice cream. Because here’s the thing, this momentary laps of initiative alluded to a pattern I have found myself in for the past month.

There are A TON of homeless vagabonds chilling out in LA, Santa Monica especially, as it is a great place to be homeless, if ever there was a place. Southern California is decently clean (okay, smog is bad), temperate, close to the beach, and to be honest there are always full dumpsters or people rich and laid back enough to dole out a couple cents. And the homeless aren’t very confrontational, they just kinda hang out.

Well, the pattern I was speaking of earlier was this nagging little problem of self conscious do-gooding or “Bystander Effect”. See, when I witness someone in poverty, whether monetary or other, I have a genuine desire to help them out, but I hate if others see. I don’t like just giving change to pan handlers, but I don’t mind buying them some food. On my walks from work to get lunch there is a particular fellow who has obviously lived his life wild and sits under shaded awnings or by the local coffee shop, head down, quietly living, as I pass by. I have a desire to give him my lunch or a drink, because it’s been hot, but something stays my action. In this instance I believe it is a fear of his rejection or of the public eye watching me. Another occasion was at a 7-eleven last week. I went in to get some food and when I came out, this homeless man asked for a hot dog. I said, “Yeah, sure.”  He asked to come in too, and I said yes, of course. He was nice, not looking for anything besides a hot foodie and I had him order what hot dog he wanted.  The weird thing was that I knew everyone was looking at us, perhaps judging him for his need and lack of ability to self sustain,  and observing me like I was perpetuating the problem of homeless neediness. That old adage “feed the dog your scraps from the table and he’ll never stop begging”. But it was probably just me in all my self consciousness. The closest reasoning I can come to is that I can’t stand if people think it is a superficial act of derived kindness, because it’s not. I also just don’t like being stared at by strangers.

Today, as I scrolled through some online art forums ( I found a great piece of fiber art work by June Lee dealing with this “Bystander effect” as she calls it:

“Korean artist June Lee’s haunting mixed media installations deal with uncompromising subjects such as isolation and alienation. Her brightly colored sculptures are created by wrapping plaster casts in thread and fabric. These unique patterns and colors represent individuality and estrangement from society. Through her work June explores the phenomena of the Bystander effect, in which individuals do not offer help to a victim when in the presence of others”.

bystander effect

Back to the girl on the bus.

See, that woman on the bus that I didn’t help out because of a societal fear might have walked around all night. If she had no way of getting home, or whatever her circumstance was, she may have even been brutalized. Our actions or lack of actions have an affect on those we do or do not interact with. Mine may still be perpetuating an old man’s thirst or have cost a woman her safety one night.


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