Monday, September 23, 2013



“The strangest things happen to you on your way over here.” Julie had said. 

She sat across from me, and was completely focused on what I had to say. Julie is good at that; her dark-brown eyes remain focused on me, and seldom break eye contact. She weighs what I say with a level of sincerity. It’s a skill that I wish more people had, even in everyday conversation. What I told her that afternoon was another example of the bizarre coincidences of my daily life. It’s another one of those, “Guided” moments. 

I cross a bridge to get to therapy, literally. The Smithfield Street Bridge spans the Mon River, and connects Station Square with the rest of the city. This isn’t one those now famous bridges that was featured in the Batman movie The Dark Knight Rises. So I can’t claim to have seen Joseph Gordon-Levitt driving a school bus across it (in the film‘s climax). It does however boast some neat graffiti, which I often photograph. That is when I’m foolish enough to walk to therapy on an eighty-five degree day, as opposed to taking a bus to cross the bridge. At least I get some exercise, while conquering my fear of heights. 
It’s not uncommon to see other people walking along this bridge. It’s a major vein to Station Square; a location full of shops, restaurants, and home to KDKA TV News. It’s also a major path for shirtless joggers (all of whom are male), and the occasional bike rider. I’ll have to step aside once in a while to avoid a spandex-covered cyclist, or eco-friendly commuter on an old beater. I’ll then do a paranoid check to make sure another bike rider isn’t heading from the opposite direction. It’s my bogus way of adding excitement to a routine trip I make each week. It’s like I’m on some kind of quest for peace and serenity, and must face obstacles along the way. I’m sure that sounds all new-agey and stuff. Yeah, we’ll go with that. Cue white doves in flight! Next thing you know they’ll start putting that crud on greeting cards.

I try to avoid clich├ęd sentiments. They carry no weight with them, and are soon forgotten. Instead, I look for real experiences. Or, rather, real experiences find me. That day in September was no exception. I’ve talked before about conversations with homeless youth, helping injured people along the way, and the like. 

  That day contained another one of those experiences. 

I was at the end of the Smithfield Street Bridge, when I noticed a man walking on the outside of the footpath. He could have very easily been hit by oncoming traffic, but miraculously avoided it. 
He was a heavyset man. He had a bulging stomach and large arms; both of which were covered by a gold-colored Pirate’s shirt. He also wore a matching striped Pirates cap, like the kind you would see Roberto Clemente wear in old photos. I noticed that his legs looked a bit thin for a large man. They were like spindly roots that can’t support the upper trunk of a large fir tree. As he approached the curb, I noticed he crouched down, and then slid over it onto his stomach. He was either doing a snake impression, and trying to wiggling his way in, or he couldn’t physically step over the curb. 

I watched with a bit of curiosity, as I sized up the situation. That was until I realized this guy would need help. And soon, he did need help. He had slid over the curb, and then landed onto his back. And much like a tortoise, he was unable to flip himself over. He let out an agonized growl as back rolled onto the pavement. 

This is one of those moments in life when one is uncertain of what to do. The usual checklist of procedures flashed through my mind. 

Do I move him? Couldn’t I injure him more if I do that? 
Do I call an ambulance? 
Do I ask him if he’s ok? 
Don’t just stand there, help the guy! 

I chose a combination of the last two options. I walked over, and then asked, “Are you ok, sir?” 

I knew that he wasn’t ok, but one must always ask in these situations. It seemed like the polite thing to do. 

He looked directly into my eyes, and then said, “I need your help getting up.”

His knees were bent, and his arms reached into the sky. It was like he was trying to grasp the clouds, as if they could lift him up. 

I stepped around him, so I’d face him. I then took hold of both his hands, and tried to pull him up. 

I thought, “He just needs a little boost. His legs will do the rest of the work.” 

But this was to no avail. Instead, I could feel the weight of his body resist, as if it were glued to the concrete underneath. I then realized that he’d fallen over because his legs weren’t strong to step over the curb. That was why he was trying to roll over it. I then tried to lift him up from behind. I put an arm under each of his armpits, and then tried to do a military press by bending at the knees. I’d been hitting the gym around that time, but there’s no way I could lift more than fifty or so pounds at a time. Which meant there’s no way in hell I could lift a man who looked like he’d just won the Ernest Hemingway look-a-like contest in Key West.
I felt his weight, and could almost lift him up. However, I nearly lost my balance, and ran the risk of falling over as well. I did that awkward back step to regain my balance, and thankfully stayed on my feet. 

It look liked Papa was staying on the pavement.     

I didn’t panic in this situation. Instead, I reached into my pocket to pull out my cell phone. I thought I’d call 911, and see if this guy needed more than just a pick me up. But a moment later another Good Samaritan arrived. He was about average height, with an olive complexion. He had black hair that was slicked back, in a style reminiscent of the early 90‘s. And he wore both a black t-shirt and jeans on an eighty degree day in September. He was brave in more ways than one. 

He said to me, “Let’s each grab an arm, and then we’ll pull him up.” 

I complied, and took the fallen man’s right hand into my own. I then supported his shoulder with my left hand. On the count of “three” we had the ersatz Hemingway off the pavement. 

But then, something interesting had happened. The old man had continued to hold onto my right thumb. His massive palm was wrapped around it, much the same way an infant will grasp an adult finger. I had already slid my palm out from under his hand, but he continued to hold my thumb. He squeezed it gently, as if he needed reassurance. I didn’t mind this, and felt that it was best if I just let him hold my thumb for a moment. I was in good shape, as long as he didn’t try to take it with him.  

He then said to us both, “I was walking from downtown to the South Side. I tripped over the sidewalk. God bless you both.” 

He then let go of my thumb. 

I said to him, “You’re welcome, sir. Are you sure you’re ok?” 

I would have offered to walk with him to his destination, in case he needed more help. 

“I’ll be alright,” he said. “Thanks.” 

I then noticed that he was limping as he walked. His feet waddled below him, as he treaded cautiously on the sidewalk.

I arrive at my therapist’s office on time. And the first thing I said to her was, “The most unusual thing happened to me on the way over here.” 

Julie was genuinely touched by what had happened. She absorbed it the way a child does while hearing a bedtime story. Her deep brown eyes widened during the exciting parts. And she smiled at the conclusion. 

And when I came to the part about the man holding my thumb, she asked, “Why do you think he held onto your thumb?” 

I replied, “I Think maybe he needed reassurance and comfort. Maybe he just needed to know someone was there for him. One of the things about people is that they need contact; but at the same time people will push each other away.”

“Yes,” Julie said. “People will do that. To open up to someone makes you vulnerable. It’s like a double standard that people have. They’ll desire connection, but they’ll stay closed off.”

We talked about that need for connection. A baby will die if not held. And a person will grow colder and most distant if never hugged.  

“Well,” Julie smiled, “I’m glad you could be there for that man today.” 

She then added, with a really big smile, “The strangest things happen to you on your way over here.”

  Copyright Riley Joyce 2013