This morning I watched an old woman cross Sunrise Boulevard, which is a wide street that requires eight lanes of travel to get from one sidewalk to the next. She looked ancient from where I sat across the intersection, a veritable crone, tiny and stooped, bent nearly to a horseshoe curve like some bipedal camel’s hump buried beneath a heap of filthy clothes. Her right shoe, if she had one, was wrapped in a plastic grocery bag, which the breeze of passing traffic inflated and set to billowing like a lost and perverse weather sock.
In her small hands she clutched tangles of old shopping bags, the lot of them bloated and ponderous with whatever she called dear. A third cluster dangled from her right forearm, heavy and pendulous, seeming as if the weight of them were about to drag her down.
Her path across the avenue took forever. She barely made half a foot in a pair of strides. She went so slowly that, when I first noticed her, I thought she was simply standing in the middle of the street. I watched her inch across the lanes and thought to myself, she’s going to be two turns of the light before she gets to the other side.
She spent what felt like hours just making it to the median. As I looked on, emotions began to rise in me, a swelling of conscience suggesting I should go help her. She was the proverbial, and literal, little old lady crossing the street. This was my Boy Scout moment. I could be the knight errant. The benevolent soul.
But I didn’t go.
So, just as inevitable guilt and futility began their nagging work—me convincing myself I was too far across the massive intersection to do anything, and yet, during that introspective malaise, plagued by the awareness that my indecisiveness insinuated an unpleasant variety of cowardice—I saw a man dashing across the parking lot towards her. A young man, maybe thirty or thirty-five, he looked the perfect part for kindness. He was fit and clean, well groomed, his hair cropped short and neat, his mustache immaculate, dark in that tall-dark-and-handsome way that made me think he must be a fireman. Only his trousers, light blue with a narrow stripe of navy down either side, suggested otherwise. A postman. Half in uniform, on his way to work. The post office just around the block. A mere mortal. Not so different than you or I.
Hurrah! I thought when I saw him. You go, man! He ran towards her, coming from the side of the street to which the old woman was so slowly making her way. He leapt the shrubs that separated him from the sidewalk and entered the street. He approached her with care, his manner gentle as he tipped sideways at the waist to make himself appear smaller and unthreatening. He tilted his head, inclined it respectfully, even submissively, and reached his hand towards her burden, tentative and slow. I could see that he was speaking, likely saying, “Let me help you with that, ma’am.”
But she jerked away. Violently. She stood bolt erect and flapped him off with a flinging of arms that made a storm of all those dangling bags. She shook at him, quaked with all the menace her fragile body could produce. He backed immediately away.
Her defiance filled the span of long seconds, a protracted fit like that of some wounded creature pressed into a corner and needing certainty that an intruder has really gone away. The delay of this episode turned the eternity of her crossing into two as I looked on.
I could trace the violence of the tirade she sent upon the noble postman—her assailant—through the spasms that her words sent rippling through her rags-wrapped frame, her body shaking with every furious syllable. The postman continued to back off, hands up, palms forward, fingers splayed in surrender, unthreatening as he gave her back her space.
Still she chastised him from her place in the center of the street, the center of Sunrise, blowing out her wrath in puffs that turned to fog in the chill November air. The rage and fear, the dyspepsia of a soul that has known every day of an endless solitude, all of it brewed to poison in the glands of forgotteness, and here it spewed like the venom of an ancient viper’s spit. A tired, frightened, withered old thing. A creature of neglect.
The postman retreated all the way to the sidewalk under the protracted spray of her outrage. Retreated back through the shrubs, back through the parking lot across which he’d so recently, thoughtfully dashed. He got back into his truck and closed the door. I saw him shut it, lost sight of him behind the blackness of tinted window glass. I felt bad for him. Could imagine his emotions. His kindness rebuked. Perhaps ridiculed by some shallow charismatic soul in one of these on-looking cars, his effort deemed foolish and pitiful on the grand stage of a populous boulevard.
I hoped he wasn’t embarrassed. He didn’t deserve to feel it, but he might have. Who handles rejection? No man does. Not of his romantic advances, not of his kindly ones.
The whole of what I witnessed saddened me. When I first saw her, I’d wanted to assist too, to show her she was not alone, that someone would help her with her burdens. But clearly it was too late. Her journey was much longer than those eight lanes she had to cross. It had been much longer. It had been for a long time. In her weary, timeworn world, she’d known the truth about that for eons, long before my momentary empathy. Long before the postman’s. Long after. She knew it with every pang and every pain in her cold, bent bones. She knows it each morning as she picks herself up from the chill of a concrete bed. She knows. No one is going to help her with her burdens. No one. If there were, why would she be here? Why draped in rags and wearing one wind-inflated shoe? No, there is no one going to help her. No one ever was. That truth already had a long abiding proof. The postman was simply another threat. Not to her person, surely, not to take her stuff. But to her serenity. What use letting him into her solitude, even for an instant. Dismantling the barricade, even briefly, only lets in the cold. Oh, the wiser one she was today.
In the end of all that, I came away feeling that I had failed. Not her, for I know now how it would have turned out if I’d tried to help. It just would have been me out there instead of the postman, run off like some stupid, well-meaning cur. So no, I did not fail her. My sense of helplessness was plainly ill assigned in that, and I am good with God or the universe on that score. But I did fail. I failed because I did not go and thank him. The man in the blue striped pants. The postman. I did not thank him. I could have. It would have been as simple as turning my truck into that parking lot once I’d gone through the light. He was still sitting there when I drove past, likely reflecting on what he’d just been through. I should have thanked him. I thought it. Told myself to. Told myself he deserved at least a nod for having taken the initiative, having endured that wrath that was not truly his to bear. But I did not.
So here I am. In the few minutes before I go to a soft bed with a soft wife and belly made soft by a full meal and a soul softened by an evening spent with family who love me and laugh at the silly things I say…, here I sit, tapping this story out. My confession. The confession of us all. Of a nation that lets its old ladies age so miserably. A nation that has passed its easiest opportunities to do good deeds.
But hey, at least the postman got out of his truck. The hope of a nation lies in that.
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