An unexpected neighbor

I was in full mom mode, in route from an evening parents’ meeting at the elementary/middle school to pick Em up from art class across the city.

I stopped at a red light in North Lawndale, Douglas Park dark and deep on my right, and noticed a girl standing on the corner. The lights from across the street barely lit her face.

But it was enough to make her tears shine. It was enough I could see her mouth, open with sobs, her hands, clenched in fists, pressed tight against her cheeks.

I rolled down the window. “You ok?”

I startled her; then the words came rushing out.

“I missed my bus, and another one hasn’t come. I need to get home, but I don’t know how.”

I pulled around the corner onto the deserted dark street leading into the park and called her to come to the window.

The red line. She needed to get to the red line, and she needed a bus to get to the red line. She’d missed the right bus, ran after, but didn’t make it. And she’d stood there, alone on this corner, till fear kicked in and she started crying.

Anything beyond the green and brown lines, and I’m a bit clueless about the Chicago L system. In that moment I couldn’t even remember which direction the red line runs.

But I knew this girl couldn’t stand on this corner any longer.

“Will you get in?” I asked her.

She hesitated, then figured the gray-haired woman playing soft music in her car was a better option, and got in.

I turned the car around and headed east, into the city. Em’s art class is on the north side; surely there would be a way I could get this child to the red line on the way.

We talked. I tried to drop as many reassuring bits of information as I could. Mom of four (turns out she’s the oldest of four), the ages of my kids (she’s fourteen, a freshman in high school; siblings are 12, 10, and 5), mother of twins (she’s a twin, too, though her brother died soon after birth, right on her mother’s chest. “His lungs weren’t developed enough.”) My name, her name.

She wasn’t breathing so hard any more, but I had to check. “Did anything bad happen to you? Anything besides missing the bus?”

She said no. My shoulders relaxed.

“You need a Kleenex?” I asked her.

“Yes. Is it okay if I blow my nose? Sorry, I got a little cold, so it might be noisy.”

I laughed and told her that was just fine.

She asked if I was a teacher—I have no idea why: do I still give off that vibe?

“Used to be,” I said. “Now I’m a writer.”

She wanted to know if I was famous.

I laughed again. Far from it, I said.

“You write books, though?”

“Well, I have one written, but it’s not published. I write magazine and news articles for a school.”

We talked about her school then, how her mom and grandma and she picked it because it’s college prep, because it helps its students get scholarship money, because she wants to go to college.

I pulled over to check the red line map, making sure I was under a street light, telling her what I was doing.

I called Dave just to confirm what I thought would be the closest stop to Em’s art school.

We talked more as I drove. Her face lit up when I asked about sports. Basketball is a favorite, track, too.

We talked about her siblings, what they’re like. Younger sister by a year is actually taller, but she doesn’t want to play basketball; she wants to be a cheerleader, even with her long legs. Their aunt said she should play basketball like her sister, that if she became a cheerleader, she’d knock out the whole first row of fans when she kicked. We talked about her grandma, a police officer, about her own long commute to school from the south side to the west side, about where she lived before moving to Chicago.

I saw the L track ahead and pointed it out to her. “I’m going to turn left just before it,” I told her. “The side street’s not so busy and I can let you out. And I’m gonna’ give you my business card so you can call or text me when you get home and let me know you made it safe. Will you do that for me?”

She said she would. I told her again where to cross the street, where to go up the steps to the platform. She got out and was gone.

Later that night I got a text from her grandma.

Her grandgirl had made it home safe.

She’d made it home safe.

And her grandma was very, very thankful.

On Roosevelt Road at 7 p.m.

Driving from one mom “job” to another,

Unaware of the Father’s hand orchestrating/planning/moving,

I’d been exactly where I was supposed to be

To see a neighbor.

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