A Boy on the Sidewalk

“Is he sleeping there? God, I hope he’s just sleeping.”

My car crept along in the right lane. I was caught up in the morning rush with other drivers who, like me, were trying to avoid even slower traffic in the I-94 construction. 7th Street is a nice alternative to the freeway. It brings me through old city neighborhoods straight into downtown St. Paul. 7th Street isn’t necessarily a faster alternative, but the fact that traffic keeps moving, however slowly, takes the edge off my commuter frustrations.

I’ve only recently begun to regularly use this route to get to work in the morning. When construction began on my usual route, I needed to find a less frustrating way to get to work. The routine of my new route brings more familiarity each day. Just beyond the 7th Street Bridge, I always notice a sporadic procession of men walking east toward the traffic moving into downtown. I never thought much of them on those random days when I drove 7th Street instead of the freeway. But now that I see them daily, I’ve begun to notice things. They wear jackets even on the warmest of days. They are of varying ages, but are all adults. Many of them tow rolling duffels behind them as they walk. Some have long hair or long beards. Some travel alone, some in groups of two or three. One sits on a retaining wall and watches the cars go by every morning. I wondered out loud to Mark one day, “Are they homeless?” He thought they were most likely leaving the Union Gospel Mission over on University Avenue for the day. I was skeptical at first; they look too tidy, most of them, to be homeless. But each day I look at their faces as they walk up and my car creeps down the street. Maybe Mark is right and maybe I am just naive for not knowing it immediately.

7th Street Bridge

I’ve grown used to the men. Most seem to possess some level of confidence and wherever they are going, they don’t seem too worried. It was the boy who struck me as out-of-place. I could see him sitting on the sidewalk on the corner of 7th and Payne Avenue, his back pressed up against the wall near the entrance of Gregg’s Auto Body. It was after 7:30 this morning, the sun already blazing in the sky and the day shaping up to be another hot one. Yet here he was, wearing a black sweatshirt. He had his knees pulled up to his chest, his elbows propped on his knees and his arms crossed over his chest. His wrists were crossed in front of him so he could prop his chin up.

Traffic was moving so slowly that I was able to watch him for a couple of minutes before I inevitably passed him by. It seemed a strange place to just sit, with busy traffic turning the corner and cars driving up and down the street in front of him. There was plenty of pedestrian traffic as well, both coming from Payne Avenue and of course, the procession of men coming up the street toward the bridge. A group of people waited at the opposite corner for the next bus. A big Sidewalk Closed sign sprawled across the sidewalk right next to where the boy was sitting.

All the while I drew closer, he didn’t move. All I could think was that I hoped he was just sleeping. He had to have been, right? People were coming and going past him both on foot and by car and no one was stopping. Finally, my car drew near him and as I rolled down the street, braking every few moments with the ebb and flow of traffic, I got a good look at his face. His eyes were definitely closed. “Please just let him be sleeping.”

I would guess he was maybe fifteen or sixteen, definitely not older than seventeen. His face was so boyish, so innocent. What was he doing there? Why was he sleeping on a busy street corner on the outskirts of downtown on a bright summer day. He brought tears to my eyes. I tried to tell myself that maybe there was a reason he was there, but what possible reason is there for a boy to sleep on a street corner unless he’s alone, homeless, in trouble … ?

In a matter of seconds I was past him and any chance to check on his well-being was quickly slipping away. If I’d tried to stop, I’d have held up traffic even worse than it already was. And what was I going to do anyway? There was a young girl a few weeks ago on this same street. She was in a visibly heated argument with a young man. His body language was aggressive, though he did nothing but yell while I watched from my car. She kept backing away from him and I wanted to roll down my window and offer her a ride, but in those moments, she took off running behind my car, across the four lanes of traffic and was gone. Mark wanted to know what I thought I was going to do. I said I would have given her a ride somewhere… anywhere away from him. Mark didn’t say so but I think he was glad the opportunity never arose.  I remembered the girl again today as I thought about the sleeping boy.

Really, what is someone like me going to be able to do? Still, that boy kept coming to mind all day long. If he really needed help, did it matter whether I would have held up traffic by stopping? Would I really have the guts anyway? Didn’t he have parents somewhere worrying about him? And how bad does your life have to be before sleeping on a busy street corner seems acceptable? I kept asking myself what I thought I could have done and a nagging voice in the back of my mind kept asking, “If not me, then who?”

I don’t know what, if anything I could have done. But the failure to do anything has weighed me down all day long. It’s a strange feeling to know that a world where people sleep on the street is only just miles from my safe and comfortable world.

Change of Scenery, Change in Attitude

Morning traffic on my way to work has been unpredictable lately. I used to be able to hop on the freeway and zip into downtown, but recently it’s been stop and go, creep and crawl, sit and wait for no apparent reason. One day it took me twice as long to get to work as it ever does. I complained to my friend, Erin earlier this week about the traffic. She has an hour-long commute on a good day and she brushed off my complaints, saying I had nothing to gripe about.

I don’t think people see each other on the freeway. There’s a lack of respect for others, because no one sees each other. They just see cars; not the people inside them. If a driver wants to move in front of you, they will, whether there’s room to merge into the lane or not. There’s no regard for the speed limit. It’s just eyes ahead, seeing nothing and no one.

I stopped being sure of what time I needed to leave home to get to work on time. I was bored seeing the same billboards and road construction and endless lines of cars and trucks and buses. I got very tired of that drive. This week, I decided to travel through the suburbs into the residential part of the city that leads into downtown. The new route gave me not only a change of scenery, but a chance to slow down, an opportunity to think, a sense of perspective.

On the city streets, not everyone is in cars. Not everyone is oblivious to everything around them. People walk in the city. They cross the street. They wait for buses. And when I drive by and glance at them, I find them looking at me. Our eyes meet. I stop and think about who this person is that I’m connecting with for those few moments of my day.

High school students gather on street corners. There’s a chill in the air these mornings and they huddle together as they wait for their school bus. At one busy intersection, a boy trudged through the cross walk with a snail’s pace, holding up cars from proceeding through. He deliberately glared at the drivers as they remained stopped, waiting for him to step up on the curb. Just as he was finally about to reach the safety of the sidewalk, he turned around and lunged back to the middle of the street. My windows were up. I could see his friends yelling at him, but couldn’t hear. A car began to move toward him then slammed on its brakes. I saw the boy’s face light up with laughter as he sauntered back to his friends. I was shocked by his daring and disregard. .

This route takes me through old neighborhoods. The houses sit so close together that you can imagine someone reaching a hand out a window toward the neighboring house and almost touching. Many of them are unkempt. There are so many more people outside in these neighborhoods at this time of day than I’d see in my own neighborhood. Different people. “Non-traditional people” is what my mind thought. But hey, who am I to judge?

Young adults wearing dark sweatshirts walk the sidewalks, with their hands jammed in their pockets and hoods pulled down over their eyes. A disheveled man with untamed facial hair stood smoking a cigarette on one corner by a run down apartment building. An animated guy in baggy clothes strolled briskly down a sidewalk, gesturing wildly and appearing to be talking to himself.

There’s one man I’ve noticed in particular this week. He waits for the bus in a part of the city where I’d not want to live. I’ve seen him twice now and he has stayed in my thoughts. He looks like an aging motorcycle type; a white guy with grey hair long enough to pull back in a ponytail. He wears jeans, and work boots and a flannel shirt. He stands on the corner looking up the hill toward where he’ll be able to see the city bus coming soon. He’d look like a real tough guy, were it not for the dark-skinned little girl he holds in his arms against his chest. She’s maybe four years old and she curls her body against him, her head tucked into his shoulder as she sleeps. He seems too old to be her daddy; maybe not quite old enough to be her grandpa. It’s none of my business, but I wonder who she is to him.

It was slightly rainy both days that I saw these two. Maybe he was taking the bus by choice, but something told me he wasn’t. I don’t know. Maybe it’s arrogant of me to assume that people who ride the city bus would actually prefer not to if they had another choice. Regardless, I felt bad that the man and the little girl had to stand in the rain while I was warm and dry inside my comfy car, heading to a job that pays the bills and lets me indulge myself a little now and then.

Erin was right. I have no reason to complain.

Snow Again

Two days ago, there was a steady, all-day rain. The snow in the front yard had begun to melt away and I could even see hints of green in the matted-down grass. Overnight Tuesday and most of the day yesterday, it snowed. Heavily. The predicted one to three inches turned out to be more like seven.

Rush hour traffic was a nightmare yesterday morning. My normal twenty-minute commute took an hour and fifteen minutes. This was thanks to a jack-knifed semi trailer right in the heart of Spaghetti Junction on I-94. The highway patrol closed down the right lane and traffic was backed up for miles. The jack-knifed semi was reported to be carrying a trailer full of fresh eggs. (Good thing it was so cold out! Can you imagine the smell if that wreck had happened on a hot day?) So as bad as I thought my day was starting, it was nothing compared to the one the driver of that truck was having. Besides, I left the house a good hour before I normally would have, so I just relaxed and listened to music knowing I would get to work on time.

The truck was in such a bad spot that it was decided there would be no attempt to haul it away before the morning rush had ended. Removing it must have been a bigger problem than anticipated. It was still there when I left work at 5:00.

Later next week it is supposed to warm up again, so hopefully that means that spring will be coming to stay this time. I’m so done with winter. I need to get back outside again, feel the sun, and see color.

I just finished reading The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, about a girl who watches her family from Heaven after she is murdered. (I know this book was all the rage a year ago. I’m always behind the times on these things.)

I loved the perspective of this book – the concept that Heaven looks different for each person, depending on who they are and where they were at in life when they left it. This book also led to the possibility that people still learn and grow even after they’ve left this world. The main character, Susie, spends years in “her Heaven” watching her family members. She watches them grieve and she observes the way each one copes with their loss. She spends time with them and lives vicariously through her younger sister, doing and feeling all the things she was robbed of when her life was taken. She spends time as well, learning more about her murderer and following his twisted life over the years, even finding a way to protect another girl from the same fate she suffered.

I enjoyed this book and am ready to download a new one to my Nook. (Have I mentioned how much I LOVE my Nook? I go nowhere without it!) I’ve been making note of books that others have mentioned on their blogs and am ready for a good can’t-put-it-down kind of book. So tell me. What’s the best book you’ve read lately?

Scary

I had a close call leaving work today. I had just exited the parking ramp, and was driving toward the freeway. The traffic light was green and I began to move through the intersection when a car traveling from the other direction blew through a red light and nearly collided with me. I slammed on my brakes and was vaguely aware of my purse and tote bag tumbling to the floor of the car as my seatbelt locked in place and I watched the clueless driver just sail on past me without a second glance. It was all very surreal and quick and it never even occurred to me to blow the horn. The typical voice in my head that’s usually present while driving – the one with the major potty mouth – didn’t even have time to speak up. If it had, it wouldn’t have been pretty.

I had such a strange feeling about the whole thing that as I continued on home, I wondered if it all had really happened as I remembered. What if I thought I had the right of way but really didn’t? Maybe I was the one with the red light and the other driver had the right of way. My uncertainty had me a little unnerved. If I had been just a few seconds earlier crossing that street, there would have been a major crash. And how certain would I have been of the sequence of events if I’d have had to explain them to the police? Would I have been in any shape to explain anything to the police?

When I walked in the door at home, Jake called to me from the living room.

“How was your drive home?”

I automatically responded, “Fine, why?” Not sure why I chose not to blurt out what happened, but I didn’t.

“That’s not what Megan said,” he replied. “She just called to ask if you were alright.”

Megan called. Megan, my coworker and friend. She had left work with me and we had walked to the parking ramp together. I called her back.

“So you saw what happened,” I asked?

“Yes, I exited on the other side of the ramp and was waiting to make a right turn as you were crossing the street.”

“So… I had a green light, didn’t I? Or didn’t I?”

“You did,” she assured me. “And then that dumb bitch just blew through the red light. She never even saw it. She was going fast!

“It all happened so fast, I started to wonder if I had done something wrong,” I admitted.

“No, you had the right of way,” she said. “I’m glad you’re okay.”

“Thanks for looking out for me,” I said before we hung up.

Well at least I know I can trust my own instincts, even though I can’t trust other drivers. Why are we all in such a hurry to get where we’re going anyway?

This kind of thing makes me worry about my kids even more than I usually do. They’re young. They think they’re invincible. As my two youngest ones left the house this evening, I implored them to be careful. Really careful. “Pay attention,” I said to Jake. And to Kacey, who wasn’t driving but riding along with a friend, I reminded, “Don’t distract her. I need you to come home in one piece.”

We forget that our cars, convenient though they may be, can also be very dangerous. I will be more careful from now on, more conscious, more aware. And less impatient. I don’t need to be anywhere so badly that it’s worth risking my life, or that of another.

Snow Woes

So, when I last wrote here, I was marveling over the vast amounts of snow that had fallen in my city. I enjoyed watching the snowflakes fall heavily from the sky hour after hour, from the comfort of my living room. I thought it was fascinating. I thought it was pretty! That was last weekend.

And now? Now that the work week is in full swing and I have to travel through this stuff? My attitude has changed. Those twenty-some inches of snow are no longer a miracle of nature to me. They are a pain in my arse!

There is so much snow on the ground that we seem to have run out of places to put it. The suburbs aren’t so bad. The suburban cities seem to have managed to plow their streets fairly well. The snow plows have created massive walls of snow along the streets where they pushed it all out of the way. The Target parking lot a couple of blocks over is lined by a wall of snow that is much taller than me. But driving is possible.

The city, though? Where I work? That is another story. I grew up in St. Paul and I had almost forgotten what a pain it is to live in the city when there’s been a major dumping of snow. There are more houses in the city because they are built closer together. Therefore, there are more people and hence, more cars. And when the plows need to come through and those cars need to be moved, there are fewer places to put all of those cars.

Mark drove me to and from work on Monday. Traffic reports were not good and I was more than happy to let him exert his manliness through the power of a four-wheel drive pick-up truck while I sat back and relaxed and prepared to be dropped off at the front door of my building, thereby avoiding exposure to the single digit temperatures.

Apparently this guy was avoiding the cold too while he watched from his second-story window for his bus to come:

At least I’m guessing that’s what he’s doing. Why else would someone have their window open when it’s that cold?

We took the side streets into the city since the freeway looked like one massive parking lot. And let me tell you, the streets of St. Paul were a mess! The plows had come through, but there were a multitude of cars whose owners had not bothered to move them off the streets for the plows, so the plow drivers simply plowed around those cars, leaving mountains of snow in the streets and sometimes only enough room for a single car to pass. And where the plows had managed to come through, they often left piles of snow overflowing at the corners of the intersections. It was like driving through an obstacle course. And many of the sidewalks had not been cleared, so amongst the rush hour traffic, there were also pedestrians walking in the snowy streets.

I’m sure you can imagine then what a mess there was downtown, with fewer open areas in which to push the snow. Turn lanes were full of snow and again, there was the problem of narrow streets due to the amount of snow. Traffic was a tangled mess. Getting in and out was an incredible test of patience.

Come Tuesday, I assured Mark I would get myself to and from work. I couldn’t rely on him to chauffeur me to and from work every day until spring. I left way early, anticipating the need to cushion my drive time. And it was a good thing too. My normal commute of about twenty minutes stretched out to fifty minutes! The St. Paul streets were still a mess and it seems everyone who would normally avoid the freeway was now on it. And for me and my car, there was no avoiding the freeway. My car doesn’t have enough clearance to navigate the amount of snow that still covered the city streets. Normally I sail down the freeway at about 70 miles per hour. Since the snow storm? Stop-and-go with max speeds of about 10!

By today, I thought things might loosen up, traffic-wise. Not so. Road rage was beginning to set in. People seem to lose all common sense when it comes to driving in this stuff! I was trying to leave my parking ramp this evening, and was forced to navigate a street that would have normally accommodated one lane of traffic going each direction, but due to all of the snow as well as cars parked along the curb, there was only room for one car to pass. There was a big pick-up truck in front of me and a bus heading toward us. The driver of the truck moved over slightly, I assumed so that he could let the bus pass. I followed suit. The bus passed, and then a line of cars behind the bus. And then? The stupid driver of the truck put it in park and got out and walked away!!! There were cars lined up behind me and cars coming toward me from the other direction and nowhere for me to go. I was stuck. I watched the driver of the truck walk away and I shouted at him… something I can’t say here. But it was along the lines of “Are you FARGING kidding me???” (Luckily for me, my window was rolled up, so he couldn’t hear me.) I have uttered a similar phrase more often than I care to admit over the course of the last few days. Seriously! I have developed such a potty mouth since the snow storm. It happens mainly when I’m in my car, and I’m mainly alone while in my car, but I have to say that this potty mouth is often shocking even to me! Once I even reprimanded myself out loud because I took the Lord’s name in vain in combination with the “farging” word. I cringed almost as soon as the words left my mouth.

I did eventually get around the stupid truck and onto the freeway, not without risk, mind you! But I did it.

I think what is so frustrating is that the city appears to be doing nothing about the excess of snow overflowing into the streets of downtown. In the suburbs, I’ve seen crews scooping up the mountains of snow, depositing it into dump trucks and hauling it away. I wondered why the city can’t do the same, but heard that the plowing budget is so overextended already that it’s not an option.

I am really not prepared to spend the rest of the winter utilizing all of my spare time trying to get to and from where I need to go! And winter hasn’t even officially begun yet! And they are predicting more snow in the next few days!

I refuse to spend the winter complaining about the snow! I do. So if you don’t hear from me for a while, assume it is snowing in Minnesota again.