Two times I felt helpless.

1. There was a point in time, not all that long ago, when my mom and I lived with my sister, brother-in-law, and my then-newborn niece in their condo.

I don’t remember if the sound woke me up, or if I was already awake, but I heard it. It sounded distant, maybe a few blocks away in any direction. “Help!” It was a man’s voice, probably, elevated in a gut-wrenching shriek unlike anything I’d ever heard with my own two ears. “Help!”

Sleep is an impossibility with a sound that terrifying trickling into your ears, so I listened, thinking it would stop at some point. Surely someone screaming at the top of his lungs for help would eventually receive it— and in a hurry, one would assume.

But it went on. On and on. I have no idea how long, but it felt like at least twenty minutes. I wondered, Why won’t someone do something?

I actually got up and looked out of my second-story window, wondering if this person was anywhere nearby, in the condo complex maybe. The thing about the complex, though, is that the condos didn’t face the street. The front of the buildings were turned inward, perpendicular from the main thoroughfare, and faced each other. I couldn’t see anything except the shared driveway and the drawn curtains across the way.

Should I call the police? I thought. What could I possibly say? “Yeah, um, there’s someone screaming for help. Somewhere. Nearby. I have no idea where, though. I live off of Main Street. Does that help?”

Now, I don’t know. I’m guessing that there is actually a range of possible explanations and outcomes for this situation. It could have just been a drunken incident, though “help” is a pretty serious thing to scream. Maybe he stopped because he actually got some help. But I don’t know, and I never will.

I’ve always felt guilty about that. I don’t know what I could have done though.

2. I think it was the Fourth of July. It must have been, because I know it was a holiday in the summer requiring the purchase of barbecue vittles. My sister and I went to Safeway to grab some extra things we’d forgotten to purchase earlier in the week. She was also going to buy strawberries, shortcakes, and the whipped cream that she always leaves in our parents’ fridge to go to waste, every year. None of us eat whipped cream.

The store was packed, naturally. We wove in and out of the parking lot aisles, waiting for someone to pull out. Maybe 10 minutes later, a spot was in the process of opening up, closer to the back of the lot. Fine with us. We waited patiently as a petite woman popped her trunk and started transferring her purchases into it a bag at a time. She took her time, which for some reason seems to be the tendency when you know there are people waiting for you. Her cart stood somewhere behind her, with the long basket-end closer to her and the handlebar and toddler seat just out of her reach. Her purse sat in the toddler seat.

A few feet behind the woman was a man on a bicycle.

I’m sure you know what happens next.

The man idled briefly on his bike, and I thought he was just taking a breathing. For a second he eyed my sister and I. We both made eye contact with this dude. There’s no way to describe these moments without making them sound drawn out, but I swear, it all happened in a few blinks’ worth of time. While the woman’s back was completely turned to the cart, the man on the bike rushed forward and snatched the purse out of the toddler seat. He made a loop and pedaled away like he was out to win the Tour de France. Like it was the next thing on his To-Do List. Steal purse. Win race. Bake cookies.

You know when something so shocking happens that you can’t even get complete words out of your mouth for a couple seconds? Yeah. Complete disbelief. We looked at each other just to confirm that it had really happened. Amazingly, the woman had no idea what had just occurred. For a few moments the inside of our car was nothing but shouts and windmilling arms, all to get the woman’s attention. We had to honk before she finally looked at us, and then gesture wildly at the empty space in the cart.

I’ll never forget the hurt look on her face when the situation finally dawned on her. She burst into tears.

The police were called. We stayed, told the officer everything we’d seen. But that woman was never going to get her purse back, and the officer said as much from the word go. A simple holiday afternoon for her was now a day to be spent contacting the bank, canceling cards, and planning to replace her license, phone, and who knows what else. I felt awful. I wished I could have done something more. I wish I’d seen that man on the bike and done something before he even moved forward. We should have honked sooner, gotten the woman’s attention and scared him off. I should have known, I thought, seen it coming. I felt bad, but I can’t imagine how she must have felt.

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