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When your first responder is named Karen, you rethink the meme

This person did what no one was able to do: She was able to listen to me.

woman on the phone
Photo by Siavash Ghanbari on Unsplash

A week ago I asked a stranger on the street to call 911 for me, because I wanted to die.

To answer any initial questions: No, I was not on drugs; no, I am not suicidal; no, I do not have the urge to hurt anyone, and no, I have never attempted suicide before. She did call 911, I did spend a week in the loony bin, and I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

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The woman who helped save my life was a stranger, and I don’t know who she is except her first name.  She isn’t the first Karen to change my life, and my new purpose is to put a new meaning behind the name Karen.

The first Karen came into my life two years ago. My friend Hannah and I had been looking forward to moving in together since the previous summer, when we were the only two girls who stayed in our college house during the start of pandemic. We were like two peas in a pod and we helped each other handle the stress of reaching graduation and passing all of our finals at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities. Hannah and I turned our apartment into an oasis of knowledge and zen, and we made it out mostly just fine.

Anyway, it was summer of 2021 and I was touring an apartment in the heart of Uptown. Uptown had gotten a bad reputation due to the events of summer 2020, but Hannah and I had our own reasons to want to live there. We both were 23, we both are silly, we both love our friends and we both love Minneapolis. Also, we are both white girls so we knew our privilege would be on our side. I found an apartment that checked all of the boxes. Allows cats? Check. Two bedrooms? Check. One bathroom? Check. Front porch AND back porch? Double check. It was perfect, so I scheduled a tour.

I went to the tour by myself because I am a confident and capable individual, and my eventual landlord Karen set it up. Karen immediately made me feel safe and encouraged. She also knew my previous landlord, which gave me a leg-up. Karen loved this building, and Hannah and I grew to love it as well. Karen assured me that she cares for her tenants; she was always on the property either vacuuming, planting flowers or simply checking in with her people that paid her rent.

Karen loved our cats, and gave us a “MEOW” magnet when we moved in and a bottle of champagne on New Year’s Day. I can’t express how amazing she was. However, starting in February 2022, we started seeing her less. Hannah and I had our own priorities so we weren’t too worried. Until one day a letter slipped under our door told us that we wouldn’t be seeing Karen as much anymore because she was battling cancer. About a month later we heard that Karen passed away. I didn’t go to the funeral, and I didn’t do anything to follow up with her family. I regret that, but I also know that when it comes down to it she was just my landlord and I was just her tenant.

Fast forward to this summer. A series of events unfolded that I am not comfortable sharing unless you are in my circle, and it led to me, barefoot on the street, sitting with a woman named Karen. This person did what no one was able to do: She was able to listen to me. She sat with me, she cried with me, she held my hand and she comforted me until the police showed up. When they did show up, she asked if she could leave to which I replied something like “absolutely. (I don’t remember much.)

Isabel Brandt
Isabel Brandt

A week later, and I can’t stop thinking about this woman. We all think we know a “Karen” or two, and we all know the assumption of how they might act. They might call the police on you for being slow in the checkout line, or they might just raise their voice at you and then deny all accusations of doing so. “Karens” seem to be everywhere.

Yet I am lucky to have had experiences with Karens who have only helped me in this little thing called life. Thank you to Karen on the street this month for seeing me, hearing me, helping me and consoling me. She probably doesn’t know that she was my real first responder.

Isabel Brandt grew up in Minnesota, and has lived in Minneapolis for the last seven years. She is passionate about social justice, feminism and all-around kindness.