During one of the days we were sent home early from work last winter due to the imminent -40 F Polar Vortex temperatures, I found myself walking down the steps from my train stop. We'd had a ridiculous number of snowy days, so the steep concrete steps that defy the ADA had been updated by slippery packed snow from tricky to treacherous.
As I started down the steps I saw a figure in front of me slowly making her way down the stairs, one hand gripping the railing, the other holding a Trader Joe's bag. One foot sported a cast.
The El stairs have the beneficial side effect of creating small interludes of community. There is a communal agreement that you step into action whenever someone has more than one small child, a baby carriage, crutches, etc. or groceries.
"Can I help you with that?" I asked her.
And as we walked home, the woman -- we'll call her Cheryl -- told me about being laid off from a company where she was bullied, about her foot injury (pulled by her dog), and about her talents as a bartender being less important to potential employers than her lack of youthful sexuality. In her 50s, she had a slow, rambling manner, and seemed lonely despite mentioning a husband.
As it turns out, her building backs up to the same alley as mine, right behind it, so I frequently see her and her husband and the large German Shepherd so detrimental to podiatric health. Each time she sees me she crows my name and then asks why I dont' call her (I don't have her number) and promises to find the card I gave her with my email on it.
Her husband seems pleasant and indulgent. Cheryl is about six feet tall, and if she weighs more than 100 pounds I'd be astounded. She dyes her hair red and looks for all the world like an adorable scarecrow. She has a slow, forgetful verbal style that I at first took for drunkenness, but I'm not so sure; it could be brain injury or something else. She's harmless, and each time I see her she has a new life event. Working a concession stand at Wrigley Field. Tossing that for catering waitressing. Her sister's cancer remission. I had to use the alley for about 10 days when I was heading to the next street to take care of a friend's cats, and more often than not I'd bump into her as I passed through. Our ritual is the same: I see her, hail her by name, she stops, stares blankly at me for a second, starts in recognition, and crows my name. Then to her husband: "This is my guardian angel who helped me home that day with my foot."
"I know, we've met," her husband says resignedly.
Then she tells me what's going on, I respond, and she repeats all or part of the story. She's a little off, but I like her; she's someone you feel is daft but genuine.
The dog is awesome.