a stranger and a story shrouded by an orange coat

The person strikes a troubled figure.

Sitting on the curbside, hunched over. Dark pants. Shirt of unseen color. Shoes. Head and shoulders shrouded under an orange jacket.

Impossible to know whether man or woman.

A dark backpack, unzipped, upright on the sidewalk just to the left of the person.

What’s someone doing sitting here on the curb? In this neighborhood. At this time of night?

The hour is a quarter past midnight.

Here’s a largely industrial pocket of town. Older buildings and small shops like auto body repair, scrap metal, a furniture store, a dive bar up the way, seemingly a musicians’ rental studio. I’ve caught wind of loud rock ‘n’ roll from a source I can’t pinpoint late at night at the radio station where I work.

During the day, this avenue is a small thoroughfare. At night, it’s deserted. Only the very occasional car passes by.

There’s a parking lot around the furniture store. Usually it’s empty but tonight there’s cars. Perhaps a party or the nearby music studio?

It’s only because I’m on my way home from work at 12:15 a.m. that I even drive past the hunched-over figure draped by an orange coat.

I follow the road with its distinctive sharp curve to the right. “No. I can’t do it.”

I make an illegal U-turn in the middle of the road. Hopefully no cop just happening to pass by.

I pass by the hunched person slowly to get a better look but not so slowly to around suspicion.

It’s dark. The area’s lit only by dim streetlights and the brighter lights of the parking lot.

I can’t know who’s under the orange coat or what he or she’s doing here at this hour. My street smarts and common sense are well honed. Always err on the side of suspicion and caution.

The biggest mistake anyone can make is to trust or assume good intent. This is my guiding principle in life. I’d have made a fine detective.

I continue on and swing another illegal U-turn for another drive-by, this time slower that the last. Who’s under the orange coat and why?

Should I stop?

The opened backpack. Has the person been robbed?

Is this a guise? A setup? Is there a bad man under there waiting to spring on someone?

Or is the person in distress? Trouble? Unable to move or walk?

Here’s certainly not a taxi or bus route. Is the person, perhaps a partier, waiting for a boyfriend to pick her up?

I roll down the passenger window and bring the car to a stop while maintaining a safe distance. Through the window I holler: “Are you OK??”

The person rises. A woman. Exposed in the shadowed light of the street lamps. Young. Maybe 5-6. A little fleshy.

Darkness around the eyes. Perhaps mascara or eye shadow that’s been smudged. Perhaps she’s been crying.

She answers my question. “No.”

She’s unsteady on her feet. Weaves my direction. She’s a somewhat frightening spectacle of unsteady and unstable and troubled.

I know not who she is or what brings her to sit hunched over on a curb with an orange coat over her head and an unzipped backpack at her side.

I just know that I truly and sorely want to help this strange.

And I do not want to put myself in danger.

As a streets-smart cookie, my first three rules of survival are:

1. Always trust your instincts.
2. Trust no one until they’ve proven s/he can be trusted.
3. Use common sense.

She’s troubled and disoriented and distressed. As evidenced by her uncertain gait and tone.

“It’s OK, it’s OK,” I say. I roll up the window and drive quickly the 5 minutes to my apartment.

Soon as I’m in, I dial the police.

“There’s a woman at such-and-such location,” I say. “She looks to be in trouble.” I describe the scene. “It’s not a good area. She may be drunk. If she is, he’s very vulnerable.”

I also mean she’s a sitting duck. If she’s indeed as inebriated or drugged out as she seemed and as the picture painted, she’s a target for a bad man. Or has been assaulted and is traumatized.

I can’t know. I just know she may need help that I can’t directly provide and should be checked on.

The nice dispatcher gathers more details. I provide as much information as possible except my name — “a concerned citizen” suffices — and my phone number.

“We’ll send an officer over to check.”

“Thank you. Thank you.”

I am so relieved and grateful.

I hope the officer made it in time. That the woman, having been brought to her feet by my drive-by, didn’t gather up her unzipped backpack and begin walking. Or try to.

Did a companion emerge from a maybe-party to help her? Someone arrive to drive her home?

I can’t know. I can know only that I did the right thing. I acted on:

* Conscience. I just couldn’t drive by and leave a person hunched under an orange coat there on the curb at night in an isolated area.

In the same way that I couldn’t leave the dog that I’d encountered dead in the road the other week just lying there. That’s another story untold.

* Compassion. I’ve been there. Too drunk to walk. Distraught. Vulnerable. Unable to help myself. Plus as a woman, I’m acutely aware of the dangers that a vulnerable or incapacitated female presents to men of ill intent. Though I’ve no idea what her story is, I couldn’t allow THAT story for her.

* Common sense and street smarts. Already addressed.

* Community. Prescott is a town of community. One of the rare places in America where community thrives. Where people watch out for one another. Give. Do good things for one another, including total strangers.

Every week there are letters to the editor of a resident or visitor who’s been on the receiving end of a random act of kindness. While I’m cautious to extol the virtues of my community — I DO NOT want to encourage the Californians and others from their gawd-awful liberal blue states to move here! — I also want to sing well-deserved praises!

This is a community that steps up to the plate. That cares. There is no walking by or standing around watching someone being beat up on the street like happens so many places in America (Seattle, New York, Los Angeles for starters). I live here BECAUSE I’ve lived in crap places. I CHOOSE to live here because I’ve been sooooo around and know how people are.

Whatever the circumstances that brought that young lass to sit on a curb at night on an isolated street in an industrial part of town hunched under an orange coat with an unzipped backpack at her side, I cannot know.

I pray she was merely emotional and drunk and that her circumstances were neither life-threatening nor an act of violation.

I pray that the contents of her backpack were not tampered with or violated.

I hope today that the only aftermath of her predicament is a hangover.

I hope that the officer arrived in time to help her because help is what she needed. And thank you law enforcement!!

I hope that today her face is washed of the smeared makeup that in the shadow and streetlight cast an eerie raccoon spetre-ish appearance.

I want her to be safe and OK. Whoever she is.