There are stories I found and stories that have found me. As I sat at the small table outside the local coffee shop, I decided this was a story that found me. And I’m glad it did. I was also glad I was paying enough attention to see it, because it almost passed right by me.
The principal character was your stereotypical little old lady. Seventy-ish. Gray hair and a neatly pressed dress that was the sort of yellow that said Hello Spring! Making her way down the sidewalk in front of me.
The years had not been so kind to her, I noticed. The stoop in her posture gave the appearance that she was about to fall headfirst into the pavement. It was an accident waiting to happen that may have only been averted by the slight limp in her right leg. Yet she managed to not only make her way, but to do so with a smile on her lips and a heartfelt “Good morning!” to anyone in her path.
She would pause in her walk just long enough to offer one of those helloes and to look at the parking meters evenly spaced to her left. The distractions of both people and technology were enough to guarantee added minutes—and quite possibly hours, I considered—to her journey from wherever she came from to wherever she was going. And yet the thought crossed my mind that this was a person unconcerned with neither distance nor time. The destination wouldn’t matter if no enjoyment was had along the way.
She jumped when she came upon the third parking meter and looked around as if some great catastrophe was about to occur. Then she squared up in front of it like an old West gunslinger ready to draw. Instead of a six shooter, out came a coin. Into the meter it went. She waited for the click that guaranteed more time, patted the machine on the side like she would her grandson’s face, and walked on.
Next down the line was a young lady who had walked out of the courthouse not twenty minutes earlier. I had seen the yellow sheet of paper she was carrying and could only assume what was written on it constituted much more bad than good. She slumped against a newspaper box and lit a cigarette, then watched her exhale float up and disappear, no doubt wishing her troubles would do the same. There she had stood ever since, waiting for the miracle of either a better life or a quicker death.
The little old lady paused beside her and spoke. I couldn’t hear what was said and so tried to convince myself it didn’t matter. I had the feeling they were simple words and not profound. A comment about the beautiful day, perhaps, or maybe a short hello.
Regardless, a few moments later the old lady waved and left, continuing her curvy path toward me. The young lady watched her go and finished her smoke.
And then something curious happened.
Just as she stepped on the remains of her cigarette, the young lady smiled. A big, toothy smile. The best sort of smile.
“Good morning, young man,” the old lady said as she passed.
“Good morning, ma’am,” I answered.
She continued on, eyes forward and not back, content to watch what was around her rather than behind. Which was a tragedy, really. Because not only did that nice old lady miss the smile she put on that young girl’s face, she also missed a young man’s reaction when he sprinted out of a nearby shop sure he would find a ticket on the windshield of his car, but confused to find instead plenty of extra time left on his meter.
Yes. Quite a tragedy. Life was full of tragedies, I thought. Like the misfortune of hurrying or the heartbreak of circumstance.
But at that moment I realized what may be the biggest tragedy of all—that we can always see the effect of this world upon us, but rarely the effect of us upon the world.