Who Cares?

Officer Lawrence DePrimo has become a household name. On a cold November night, just a few weeks ago, the NY City police officer, on counterterrorism duty in Time Square, encountered an older, barefooted homeless man. Taking in the man’s plight, the officer disappeared for a few moments into a nearby Sketchers Store, then returned with a new pair of $100 boots, and knelt to help the man put them on.

The moment was captured on camera by Jennifer Foster, a tourist visiting Arizona. Her picture, posted on Facebook, went viral. With more than half a million ‘likes’ and several million views, the officer became a headline in the press and the topic of conversation on talk shows, including New York’s Mayor Bloomberg mentioning it on his own radio programme.
There is so much about this story that tells a story of its own. While the act was unquestionably magnanimous, what made this story particularly sensational? Was it the act per se, or the imagery – a police officer in uniform kneeling beside the homeless man? It is true that most of us would more likely ignore the poor man, if not a few coins in his cup. Giving him $100 is something few people would consider, and fewer still would dare dress his bare blistered feet. But I wonder had it been an ordinary citizen doing the same, would any of us have paid the same attention? Indeed would Foster have still taken the picture? One woman claimed in the New York Times that she had bought the same man a pair of shoes a year earlier. Who knew? Who saw? Who cared?

So what is it that makes this picture generate a fuzzy feel-good factor in some and maybe a twinge of conscience prodding in others? I’m sure there are many people who no doubt give far more charity and maybe offer a lot more help than this one random act. But what speaks to us most about this picture is that it involves a man reaching beyond his comfort zone. Seeing a police officer, for whom this single act of kindness might be considered beyond his call of duty, makes us all consider whether we would go out of our way for the sake of someone we might otherwise believe beneath our dignity to help.

Will more of us who viewed this picture be moved to doing more in helping those less fortunate than ourselves, even it might not come naturally to us? I certainly hope so. But in doing so, think about this as well: It’s not just about the stranger in the street or the orphan in a third world country. Sometimes it’s about someone a lot closer to home. What prompted my thinking about all this is the fact that I’ve had to walk with a rather ostentatious sling on my hand this past week following shoulder surgery. It tends to draw sympathy. Cars and busses will stop enabling me to cross the road. People politely sidestep, allowing me to pass. And there are always those who kindly inquire as to my well-being. But what of those who don’t wear the badge of their pain on their sleeve? There are many who may be hurting on the inside one cannot readily recognise the depth of their wound. When we see someone acting out of character do we pause long enough to consider that perhaps they may be undergoing some emotional difficulty, whether pressure at work, at home, or suffering some other form of personal distress? Asking after someone else’s welfare may not always come natural. But it requires far less effort and costs far less money than putting a pair of boots on a homeless man’s feet. And it could often go just as far in bringing them some relief.

A manager working at the Sketchers store told the press: “We were just kind of shocked. Most of us are New Yorkers and we just kind of pass by that kind of thing.” One act of random kindness has thrust Officer DePrimo into the limelight across the world. If more of us stopped passing that kind of thing – whether on the street or on the home-front – maybe we would be less shocked the next time we encounter it. And think how much more light we could generate across our world.