A Weekly Column

By Joseph Walker



It was an accident. Honest. I wouldn't kid you about a thing like this.

Joseph was just a baby at the time. I was dashing from our beat-up old Volkswagen to our apartment with groceries under one arm and Joseph under the other, his head resting against my chest and my hand around his right thigh. With the reckless abandon of a struggling college student who hadn't discovered room in the budget for insurance, I bounded up the stairs two at a time, hesitating only slightly to adjust my position when the shopping bag began to slip from my grasp.

Unfortunately, that alteration on one side re-shaped my physical alignment to the point that Joseph's head popped out from under my arm and lunged forward. Suddenly, his drowsy little body was tense, his fists clenched anxiously near his face, as he hurtled toward the wood stairs face first. So it was a natural reflex, really, when I grabbed the leg that was slipping from my right hand, snagging him like a third baseman plucking a hot shot out of the air. I would have felt incredibly relieved, almost heroic, if I hadn't felt something pop inside his leg when I clamped down on it.

I had broken my son's leg. Not intentionally, of course. In fact, I probably saved him from even more serious injury (and yes, I know I shouldn't have been carrying him like that in the first place). Still, the confusion on his face and the pain in his cry shot pangs of guilt directly to my heart.

Oh, and by the way -- I dropped the groceries anyway.

As hurt and upset as I was about what I had done to Joe, however, it was nothing compared to the guilt heaped upon me at the hospital emergency room.

"You want to try that story again?" one nurse sneered, barely concealing her accusation.

I was devastated. Not only had I clumsily broken my baby's leg -- in my bare hand, no less -- but now I was suspected of having done it maliciously. Of course, I understood that the people in the hospital were just doing their jobs, and in retrospect I'm grateful for their concern. The plague of abuse demands such vigilance -- even if that means a few innocent bystanders like me feel guilty.

Still, it makes me wonder: how many of the people I silently condemn each day are really guilty of the "crimes" I attribute to them? That scruffy man who begged for my spare change -- is he really the lazy alcoholic I judged him to be, or was his story of hardship and woe accurate? Those teenagers who hang around the neighborhood with their music (and I use that word loosely) booming -- are they really shiftless and irresponsible, or just troubled? And that guy who nearly ran me off the road this morning -- was he really . . . well, whatever it was that I muttered under my breath as I swerved to miss him, or was there a family emergency that prompted his recklessness?

The fact is, people and the situations they get into are usually too complex to trust to a first impression. It takes time to really get to know someone, and it takes information to really understand why they do the things they do. And it seems to me that we owe our fellow humans at least that -- time and information -- before we try to pass judgment in the real-life "People's Court." Like that cab driver who charged me $75 for what should have been a $20 fare the last time I was in New York. Maybe he isn't the scoundrel I've made him out to be. Maybe he needed the money. Maybe he accidentally broke his son's leg or something, and he doesn't have medical insurance, and . . .

Nahhh. Who'd ever believe a story like that?

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--- Joseph Walker


Look for Joe's book, "How Can You Mend a Broken Spleen? Home Remedies for an Ailing World." It is available on-line through and