Push the button – don’t push the button

Something strange just happened to me. I was walking to the post office and enjoying how self employment means I get to see what my local surroundings look like in daylight, when an elderly woman caught my eye and asked me ‘will you do me a favour?’. Those of you familiar with the London way of life will know that the appropriate response to anyone addressing you directly is to suddenly become overwhelmingly preoccupied with literally anything else and walk away as fast as possible. If you are still nursing the remnants of humanity then you might mutter something like ‘no, thank you’, even if they weren’t offering anything.

Having not been on the tube for a few days I was out of practice ignoring my fellow man, and so I stopped. She was pushing a buggy laden with shopping bags and balancing a crutch. She asked me again ‘will you do me a favour?’. I said yes.

I waited for her to sign me up to a charity, sell me something, then stab me and steal my neatly wrapped parcels. She didn’t. She just asked me if I would push her (very heavy) buggy of groceries to the next bus stop, which was about 200 meters away and on the other side of a busy crossing. She took her crutch from the buggy and walked beside me as we slowly made our way up the street and away from my destination.

She told me that her sister was in the hospital having broken both her legs ‘and she has cancer!’. Only moments after beginning our journey we passed a bakery, where she got quite excited about buying a snack – she was on a diet, she chuckled – and offered me something. With the pastry added to the buggy, we continued. She told me that she was from Pakistan. Then she asked where I was from in that way that always makes me awkwardly specify that I am from the UK, because saying it seems obvious and patronising, but not saying it is presumptive and patronising too.

At the crossroads we waited for the green man. A few people had already gathered, but they hadn’t pressed the button yet. This infuriates me: lots of the busier crossings are pre-programmed, and the button is just a placebo to stop people from taking the law into their own hands and marching across three lanes of busy traffic regardless. Some of them. Not all of them. I pushed the button, and the ‘wait’ was illuminated.

The lady asked me if I had plans for Christmas, and where my parents lived, if I got to see them often. She told me that she had been a teacher, that she got a degree in History and Physical Education in Pakistan and then another qualification to be a teacher in the UK. She told me that when her husband died her nephew and his family came to join her and her daughter to look after her. When we reached the bus stop, she told me I was an angel, she gave me a kiss and exclaimed ‘and you didn’t even let me buy you anything from the bakery!’.

Smiling, I headed once more to the post office. I pushed the button again and crossed the road again. I often wonder what people are thinking of when they stand and wait without pressing the button for the green man. Maybe they think that the buttons that aren’t connected to an outcome are duping us into believing that the button means something. It’s tricking us and making fools of us all. Is it that fear of being led on which seems come along with city life? Like taking a freebie or a flyer on the street. When this lady first approached me I too was held back by a fear of being taken advantage of, of losing out somehow or feeling stupid. Thankfully I was forced into engaging with her by my own innate awkwardness.

But it’s a modern day Pascal’s Wager: pushing the button may not summon the green man, but if it does you can cross, and if you don’t you will be standing in the cold, breathing in carbon monoxide, forever (or until I come along) – so push the button. If the button is just to give you something to do with your hands while you contemplate jumping in front of busses, then pushing it wont cause you to lose anything. Not even your dignity. Anyway, pushing buttons is fun – so push the button.

Today, when the lady asked me for a favour, she risked being dismissed out of hand, ignored, or (I hate to suggest it) abused. I could have made her feel feeble and weak, or unworthy of help, I could just have made her feel angry at the bastard youth of today, who don’t know they’re born. It’s hard to ask for help from anyone. But by asking, you infinitely increase the chance of someone saying ‘yes’.

There will be a time for everyone, everywhere, without exception, that they will need a helping hand. When you get there – you could ask for help, and risk rejection, or you could struggle on the long way round, proud, independent, and risking long term damage to your back.

Just push the button. You might not even have to buy them a bun.