The performing arts center I run shares space with the City offices.
Well, actually the City owns the building and we’re there by their good graces and because they don’t know how to run a theater.
The arrangement has its advantages and disadvantages.
The roof leaks and we can just call the department of Public Works: good. Public Works has to get approval from the City Council to fix the leak which takes a month’s worth of meetings: bad.
No alcohol allowed on City property so we don’t have to by that $105 bottle of scotch on an artist’s rider: good. No alcohol allowed on City property so we can’t host a donor reception with wine: bad.
Our administrative / box office is locate right in the lobby of City Hall and often becomes information central. (Incidentally, our phone number is also just one digit off from the local podiatrist, so we also field a half-dozen calls a week for him. I often wonder if they get calls for us too.)
Normally we’re asked where to register a car, how to get a copy of a birth certificate or where the welfare office is located. Once in a while we get a frantic looking person that has a court appointment in ten minutes and no idea where the courthouse is. If you had a court date, wouldn’t you take the time to make sure you knew how to find the courthouse?
One day we had a gentleman come in and say that he wanted tickets. The box office associate asked him which show he wanted to see.
He said, “What?”
She repeated, “For which show?”
He said, “I don’t understand.”
With a smile, she tried something different. “When would you like to go?”
Looking confused the man answered, “Well, Saturday I guess.”
The box office associate pulled up the seating chart on the computer and started showing the man the available seats for the Saturday show.
After a few minutes the man said, “Why are you telling me about seats? I just want some dump tickets.”
Normally we try to help the people who stop in our office looking for city services. We direct them down the stairs to the city offices, or up the road to the courthouse. We tell them where they can find a notary public, an ATM, a bus schedule or the Recreation Department. All in the name of good customer service.
But tonight I had a request that I just wasn’t comfortable obliging.
I was working alone in the office after everyone had left for the day. Sometimes I close the door when I stay late, but tonight we were expecting some volunteers, so I left it open.
I was working on a financial report when a man walked into the office. I’m not sure where he was from, but English was not his first language.
He said to me that he knew I had a fax machine and wondered if it would cost him anything to fax a document.
I explained that we weren’t part of City Hall and that we didn’t actually have a public fax machine. Forgetting that it was after hours, I told him that the offices downstairs might be able to help him with that.
He thanked me and left.
He was back a couple of minutes later, telling me the offices were closed and asking where he could fax something.
I suggested the library, but he said that he had already tried there. I suggested the copy store and he said that they wanted to charge him to fax.
I apologized and said I didn’t have any more suggestions.
He thanked me again, and left again.
And came back a few minutes later, again.
He said that he had to write a letter to the court in Delaware and fax it and asked if I would help him write it.
I paused, certain I had heard him wrong. I said, “I’m sorry, you want help doing what?”
He said, “I need to write a letter to a judge in court in Delaware. You’ll help?” He made a typing gesture with his fingers and tilted his head towards my laptop.
I don’t know if he thought I was more likely to let him use our fax machine if I wrote the letter, or if he was just desperate.
I told him I couldn’t help him.
I’m not a lawyer and I certainly didn’t want to get in the middle of some legal thing in Delaware. Who knows, it could have been something simple like contesting a parking ticket, but my mind ran wild. I envisioned helping him and getting called as a witness to some terrible crime. Or typing the wrong thing and being responsible for the man getting thrown in jail.
He was gracious, thanked me for a third time and left. He didn’t come back.
After he had gone on his way, I felt a little guilty.
I’m not a religious person, but I’ve always liked the parable of the sheep and the goats where Jesus divides the people and tells one group that they didn’t help him when he was in need because they didn’t help strangers in need. (Or something like that… most of my Bible study happened while I was directing Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar so I’m paraphrasing.)
Was I a goat today for not helping the man write his letter? Or was I being smart and looking after my own self interests?
I probably wouldn’t have been out much other than a few minutes of my time and a long distance phone call if I had typed the man’s letter for him and ran it through our fax machine. And it might have made a big difference in his life.
But my imagination made me paranoid, worried about the potential consequences of assisting with a legal matter I didn’t understand, even if it was only as a scribe.
Would you have written his letter for him?