The other day I was walking back to my car after a pretty decent workout at Fitness SF (and by “decent” I mean I stayed for a full 60 minutes and when I left my clothes were damp with sweat, which I usually take as a sign that I have been sufficiently active for the day). I made my way down Grand Avenue, crossed through the parking lot beneath the freeway, covered the grassy knolls of Splash Pad Park and headed toward the Trader Joe’s parking lot on Lakeshore, when an elderly woman in a black floral-print dress reached her arm out, as if to beckon me.
Having lived in this neighborhood for some nine months, I’d become used to people stationed along Lakeshore reaching their arms out, asking me stop school bullying and start supporting the D.A.R.E. program, requesting that I sign a petition to increase minimum wage, wondering if I have two minutes to save an orangutan or if I want to donate to Green Peace (Do you care about the environment? You should, you live in it!). I usually avoid making contact with these people as I speed-walk toward my destination. But that day I stopped.
“Can you help me?” the elderly woman asked softly, slowly stepping toward me. She had short thinning strawberry blonde hair and was wearing thick black glasses that covered her eyes and a portion of her face–the kind you might see someone wearing after cataract surgery.
“What can I do for you?” I asked, thinking she might need directions and hoping I could give them.
“Can you…?” she said, reaching for my arm. “…I just need to get over there.”
She pointed toward the cross-walk and grabbed my bicep, her frail white hand soft as satin and warm against my cool damp skin.
“Of course,” I said, not quite sure where we were going, not really caring how far it might be or how slowly we needed to go.
“My eyes are so bad,” she continued. “I can’t really see very far.”
We took a few slow steps toward the curb, heading for the cross-walk, when I noticed a 30-something Asian man in a uniform polo standing beside the passenger side of a white car. A logo on the door read “Lake Park Retirement Residence.”
“Where are you going?” I asked the woman.
“Sutter Hospital,” she replied hobbling toward the car.
I wanted to say something kind. To tell her to have a good day or that it was nice to meet her, but nothing came to me that didn’t seem ridiculously trite, especially in light of her destination. So I just stood there, watching the man help her into the car as he thanked me for getting her to the curb.
“Of course,” I said, never thinking there had been another option. “No problem.”
As I continued to the parking lot, I felt the memory of the woman’s warm hand on my damp arm. I thought of my great-grandmother who passed away when I was 18 and who hadn’t really come to my mind for years. I remembered the softness of her skin and the powdery warmth of her tiny home back in Nebraska. I recalled the day she moved into an assisted living community and the way that my mom would go and wash her hair and paint her nails, to care for her in ways she could no longer care for herself. I wondered if the woman in the dark glasses had family living in Oakland.
And I wondered at these encounters I keep having–with young mothers who need a hand with their groceries, visitors requesting directions on public transportation, college students who ask me to watch their laptops in coffee shops, panhandlers looking for some spare change or even just a spare smile. I feed on those moments, on the divine spark that passes between us when one of us provides for the need of the other. It makes me feel human, bringing life to my life. I wondered how many of those moments I had missed caught up in the list of things I need to do, focused on checking the messages on my phone, shaving time on my errand-running and distracted by my desires. I wondered what would happen if I moved a little slower, if I gave up the habit of speed-walking through life.