Just for the record, just so you know who you are dealing with here, when that unexpected detour came along all I wanted was to stay alert and keep moving. After all, we were two women in a neighborhood famous for street robberies, out after 7:00 on a work night, in a record-breaking cold snap, running for a bus which shows up every 30 minutes maybe.
But Aniette, like me, must have made a mental note of the man sitting on the wall on the corner of a busy intersection. He sat all bundled up in layers of clothes, hunched over and tuned out, not tracking the people who hurried by.
My snap decision was to let him be and keep walking. On this main drag no matter where you look there are men in view, often whole groups of them, who are completely derailed by chemical substances or other forms of adversity. In the course of a lifetime I’ve stepped in as a kindly helper to many men grappling with issues, and had to firmly retire after a long eventful career in amateur intervention. During a thousand and one nights of 12 Step meetings down at the Alano Club in Kansas, my drill sergeant of a sponsor and her husband kept insisting “Get it straight, Hon: What an alcoholic man needs is other alcoholic men who have been there already. What he doesn’t need is one more sweet girl like you. Butt out.”
But there is another reason why I kept on walking that night. It grieves me that mature women don’t value close bonds with other women. Single women over 50 could improve their security and quality of life if they joined forces and helped each other. But they are always (always) much more eager to rescue and indulge a male human with anger or other issues. (I’ve been working for years to forge some kind of cooking/home services swap, where we older single ladies can pitch in and barter our talents and support. But as the Russian saying goes I might as well be writing with a fork on water.)
So that was my attitude, going into this incident.
Aniette though, a refined petite dove-like soul with bright eyes and bright smile and balmy voice and a waterfall of shining silver hair, wished the man a good evening. He didn’t respond. Now to me, that would be a good reason to leave someone alone. But not Aniette; she got right in his personal space, inches away, eye to eye, raising her voice and holding out her hand. “Hello. HELLO. My name is Aniette. How are you this evening? What is YOUR name?”
Me, I edged away, thinking about Ms. Sara Houcke. At age 22, Ms. Houcke is a tiger trainer (portrayed here in The New York Times). She has explained that whenever one of her tigers is not whuffling (= a happy tiger noise), she calmly leaves the tiger in peace and works with her other charges rather than poking at him with a kitchen chair. In other words, if the tiger ain’t whuffling, then walk on by.
And isn’t that what all of us need sometimes?
Recognition is one thing. A nod of respect, a couple of dollars if someone has a jar and a sign out, dialing 911 like we all do in this town when somebody needs help. But any trauma survivor I ever met, including me — when they are overwhelmed and blocking out people and surroundings, the last thing they want is someone in their face with eye contact and hands out and “Hello, what’s your name?” That just seemed invasive to me.
“Oh, it’s Ernest?” Aniette went on. She reached out to clasp his mittened hand. “Well hello, Ernest. It’s cold. Where are you staying tonight?”
Then the two of them joined hands and huddled together, bowing their heads. Aniette started praying. She was calling down, demanding, the immense and infinite power of the Immaculate Conception, naming the lights and depths and qualities of who the Virgin is, calling it all on ERNEST, Mary’s precious and beloved child.
Ernest sat right up. He held on to Aniette for dear life. Then he toppled over, grabbing for my shoulder so the two of us could balance him on his ledge again. There he burst into prayer too, straightening up with his hands in air, fervently praising God for his two sisters and asking him to protect us both. “Because they are women, and you know that women are not like us men. They are delicate, and they need protection.” He asked God to stay with him and in him and give him power to treat all sisters, and brothers too, with complete respect. “Doesn’t matter who they are, where they come from. Absolute respect. Amen.”
Then he gave us both a long clear open look. “Aniette, I would like to go to detox. Will you please help me? I’ve got the phone number.”
Aniette called. The EMTs showed up in no time; they picked him up and put him in the ambulance. Ernest was on his way, rejoicing and praising God.
Aniette and I waited in the wind at the bus stop outside the tattoo parlor and cigarette/bong store. “Gee, you really did the right thing,” I told her. “That really worked out. If he’d tried to walk in that condition, he could have fallen down right into the traffic. Or gotten hypothermia, sitting on that wall. You might have just saved his life.”
That concluded our evening, crossing paths at church. Aniette and I were there for the solemnity Mass for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. The service was absolutely beautiful and moving, with real old-time hymns like this one, the “Salve Regina.”
She and I hopped around to stay warm, watching the bus headlights in the distance headed our way. We talked about the Gospel reading and the sermon.
Immaculate Conception is a great feast for us Catholics, and certainly for Aniette and me. I had to admit though; both she and I went to the same Feast day, but came away with two completely different outcomes:
I held it to my heart.
She took it to the streets.
“I held it to my heart.
She took it to the streets.”
I love that closing.
Dear Mr. Hook,
Heartfelt thanks and appreciation to you. How fitting that here you are skilled in helping wanderers (whether they appreciate it or not at the time) with their BAGGAGE, and here I happen to have fairly crippled hands and have a rough time gripping handles. So in the level of words and thought you have in effect helped me with my inner luggage for a part of the journey. Now I want to come back to your blog and be a perfect guest.
One of the very finest Christmas stories I have ever read. Thank you.
Oh, how nice to be up in the wee hours and see your comment here! And on second thought now that you mentioned it, that would be a Christmas story wouldn’t it? One earned by somebody else with better reflexes than mine and a finer eye for circumstance… Blessings! m