It’s late April now; daylight has been saved, summer’s heat is in preview, and it is still light as I commute home.
The bus lets me off at a three-pronged intersection–two streets perpendicular to each other and one diagonal–thus I must cross three streets, each with lights timed against the others, in order to reach the corner closest to home.
Rush hour traffic seems somehow more aggressive when the sun is still out. Hoods of cars push out past the point of safety like runners nosing over starting lines. When the light turns red (the starting gun not going off after all), the cars going the opposite direction must veer into neighboring lanes to avoid them. Maybe the promise of arriving somewhere and using the remaining hours of daylight is what encourages greater extremes. At each curb, I step out, skittish and alert for the drivers trying to snake a last-minute turn, holding my self upright, my “not a victim” stance, as I march across the street and wait, march and wait.
One recent evening I had reached the final corner (the one by the Carl’s Junior) and turned toward the final leg of my journey. When I heard a man call “sir, sir.” And I saw the “Sir”– a man in a suit about to cross the opposite direction from which I’d just come. He didn’t hear or turn to the man half a block down in the wheel chair, maybe homeless, maybe not, a tattered case in his lap, no plastic bags. Black. One leg. I had already looked, already met his eye, so I approached, thinking “please don’t ask for money, please don’t ask for money,” because despite the impression any other part of this story might leave, I am not generous in this way. I will sometimes give money to individuals who ask, but seldom without feeling somehow duped and misused.
But the man did not ask for money. He asked, “can you push my chair across the intersection?” And I said I could, because I could–and I felt a flash of gratitude for that–for my legs and my strength and health and the very normal things I take for granted every day. So I took the handles and steered us back to the corner where I was struck at once with a half dozen facts that someone walking does not notice: that his chair was not an electric chair, so he had to turn it by the wheels, the ramped curbs have a certain steepness that is helpful for gaining speed to move in a straight line, but when obstructed by cars pulled up too far requires a too delicate use of brake and muscle; that the same cars necessitate one to weave into the intersection in order to get in front of them, all of which quickly burns the short seconds before the red hand begins flashing that the time is almost up.
And so I pushed him across the intersection, and on down the block. “How far are you going?” I asked, looking ahead to the intersection now ahead–three lanes wide in each direction with a small median in between–and setting my boundaries: I could take him to the other side, but just that, and that, the teeniest bit grudgingly as it deviated from our original agreement.
But he said, “I’m okay from here,” he said, and I though about offering the intersection ahead, but didn’t want to become so involved in his life. Maybe he would ask the pedestrians at that corner, maybe he was turning right. Even if he wasn’t, there would always be another intersection, and I was headed in the opposite direction–or wanted to be. So I let go the handles and –feeling a little self-satisfied at my goodness in comparison to hurried men in business suits, and quite aware of my stinginess of spirit in the non-comparative truer sense–and walked my own way.
PS. As I traveled the blocks between the corner and home, I heard a loud K-thunk in the street, and turned to see two cars T’d–one had been trying to turn through traffic into a left hand lane, the other had entered the lane too quickly. A woman walking her passed me at that moment and said, “Oh goodness–that’s the second time today–the second time!”