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. I was just making a point to Neighbor Aniette about the vanishing art of conversation in the 21st century, when suddenly I was talking to myself. Aniette was nowhere in sight. I spun around to look for her. Then I stopped and waited, pushing the WALK sign button, so she could fall in again and we could be on our way.
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 adversity, 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.”
And another thing. It grieves me that mature women don’t seem to 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 more eager to rescue and indulge a male human or dog 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. She got right up to him eye to eye and said it several times, 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 hovered and fidgeted at the traffic light, wishing she wouldn’t do that.
Tiger trainer Ms. Sara Houcke, portrayed here in The New York Times, 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?” (I keep that in mind around children, too. Instead of asking “How old are you?” and other lame questions, I just say hello to the parents first; let the kid experience Mom and Dad’s response and decide whether he feels safe looking at and speaking to me. Same with dogs; as Cesar Millan says, the best approach is no approach at all: “No touch, no talk, no eye contact.”)
“Oh, it’s Ernest?” Aniette asked. 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.
I tiptoed closer and listened in.
Aniette was praying. She was calling down, demanding really, 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.
When I have troubles, and people say “I’ll pray for you,” I just figure “What, my prayers aren’t good enough for God?” One time a total stranger saw fit, without a word of explanation to me, to grab my hands and start praying over my arthritis. That did not sit well with me. So how was this going to work?
Well, it must have been the way she went about it. She was understated and gentle in simple audacious trust, clearly accustomed to communing with this particular Protectress of hers. It drew me in to listen and watch. Ernest couldn’t stand on his feet, but he sat right up. He held on to her for dear life, then as he toppled over he leaned on 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.
Aniette and I waited in the wind at the bus stop outside the tattoo parlor and cigarette/bong store. I had to hand it to her; her intervention came out fine. “If he tried to walk in that condition, he could have fallen down right into the traffic,” I told her. “You might have just saved his life.”
That was the conclusion of our time at church. Aniette and I ran into each other there, at the solemnity Mass for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. It was absolutely beautiful and moving, with real old-time hymns like this one, the “Salve Regina.” Immaculate Conception is a big deal for us Catholics, even with all the jokes people make about it. And why wouldn’t they? I just looked up its history and definition and rationale, and couldn’t make heads or tails of all those scholarly views down through history. But to me those traditions are like English grammar; sure, it doesn’t make sense, and it’s not the only way for the peoples of the earth to view reality, but it’s the only mother tongue I have.
Anyway, at the bus stop we got talking about the Gospels, and how these familiar stories that we’ve heard a million times can take on new angles that were never there before.
“Like that wedding feast at Cana,” I said. “Turning water into wine. Jesus didn’t launch into blessings and prayers and a little sermonette for the bride and groom. All he said was ‘Fill these jars with water,’ and then ‘Give some to the steward.’ Done. He made them do all of the work themselves, and nobody at the wedding figured out that Jesus had anything to do with it or there was a miracle at all. Reading that just last night, I noticed there were six jars, each holding 30 gallons. Whoa, that’s 180 gallons of water! He could have changed ONE gallon of water to fill those jars. But no, he wanted them to go fill them all. There’s your miracle right there: the waitstaff with their hands full from this wedding already, they had to go track down 180 gallons in a desert and, like, carry it back on their heads!”
“Well yes,” said Aniette. “Of course, those weddings were huge operations anyway. Huge. Isn’t it something that at first, all he said was ‘It’s not my time yet.’ And Mary didn’t even try to argue with him. She told the servants ‘Do as he tells you.'”
“And those are the last words we hear from her! Ever! She says two sentences to the angel, The Magnificat to her cousin, then two sentences at that wedding — that’s all they wrote. So how come nowadays at Medjugorje she never shuts up? That can’t really be her.” Then I realized that for all I know Aniette might go on pilgrimages there or something, so I hurried back to the main point. “But those old stories — things about them keep looking new.”
“That’s why,” she said, “they still can resonate and hold a meaning for people even now. People anywhere.”
“Like on Rocky and Bullwinkle,” I remembered. “Didn’t one of them have a joke about holding up a little card? And then that little card unfolds and expands like an infinite accordion.”
As the bus came in sight way down the Avenue we hopped foot to foot in the red light of the tattoo parlor and the display of bongs. To Aniette it was all in a day’s work: church, and a nice visit with her new friend Ernest with whatever kind of time he was having. To me it was still thinking over how I walked right past him.
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.