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It’s 10:07 PM CST on Sunday, December 27, 1998:
Today I was sitting at a stoplight on Big Bend Road in Maplewood, Missouri (a suburb of St. Louis) and I watched a woman storm down the sidewalk with a car following along beside her. It was obvious she was determined not to stop – or at least, that she wanted to give that appearance. I watched her breath shoot up into the sky in angry billowy white clouds from beneath a hood and a scarf and a heavy winter coat. I watched the red break lights of the car flash on and off as it stopped and then surged forward trying to keep up with her pace.
When you see a situation like this, open your eyes. Think about it. What are you witnissing? It’s a snapshot, a random photo from someone else’s life – a glimpse into something of which you’ll never know the ending. It’s like this one time I was waiting for a bus and a yellow Corvette flew past me, blazing down the road at 100 miles an hour with the car alarm blaring. Took me about 5 seconds to realize: God damn! That’s a stolen car!
Same thing with the determined woman and the car following along behind If Norman Rockwell painted something and named it “Love Finds a Battlefield,” wouldn’t it look like that? She kept walking in her determined way. The guy in the car kept pulling forward and stopping and yelling things out of the passenger side window.
Sitting in my toasty-warm 100% green 95 Ford Taurus at the light, suddenly I remembered another time, a time way back in Chicago in 1992 when I was waiting on an “El” (elevated train) platform on a frigid winter day .
I was all alone on the train platform and I couldn’t sit down because there were “Fresh Paint” signs all over the place. I wasn’t sure what had been painted and what hadn’t. Everything was painted the same shiny, shit brown color as every other Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) train platform. How was one to know?
I jumped around underneath one of the platform’s heat lamps, afraid to sit on the brown metal bench, and trying to stay warm. The heat from the lamp was little comfort, it went upwards and warmed the sky.
I waited and waited and waited. No train. No people. No train… no train… no train…
The platform was empty. And then I heard a woman crying from somewhere beneath the platform. I stopped jumping around… I listened. The sound of her sobbing was strangely affecting. I know it sounds corny, but really, instinct made me want to jump up and run for the sound, to comfort her, to help her somehow. Before long a middle-aged woman stepped up onto the opposing, northbound platform. She sat down on one of the benches and continued to cry.
I watched. I beat my hands together to stay warm and I watched. . It was pretty obvious that she was as oblivious to me as she was to the “Fresh Paint” signs. Her misery consumed her – it blotted out all else. I watched her cry and I wondered what had happened to her. Was she on her way to a hospital where her child lay gravely injured? Had a family member died? Had she discovered her boyfriend or husband with another woman? Had she lost a pet in a tragic accident, or her apartment had burned?
I wanted to tell her it would be alright. I wanted to offer her help. But it was Chicago. No one helps anyone in Chicago, or at least that’s not the norm. Why should I be any different? Would she even accept my help or conversation if I offered it?
My train rolled into the station before I could consider all of the possibilities and I climbed onboard and took a seat on the far side.
Through the windows of the train, as if the yellowed graffiti-scratched glass were some sort of bizarre magnifying glass to reality, I saw what I had managed to miss from my vantage point on the platform. The woman sat on the bench underneath the heat lamp, just as oblivious to the newly arrived southbound train as she had been to me. And all around her, the flimsy paper signs blew fluttered in the freezing winter wind. Looking at the signs now through the lighted windows of the train I noticed that someone had methodically torn off a few inches of the right side of every one of them.
“Fresh Pain,” the signs read.
Yes, I’ll concede that it sounds melodramatic. But it really happened that way. And I remembered this all today for the first time in seven years while I was sitting at a stoplight in Maplewood, Missouri, waiting for the light to change, watching someone else’s life on my way home from the store to the warmth of my apartment.