I pulled into the narrow lane that ran through the parking lot and stopped, waiting for my next fare. I was in downtown Lancaster, waiting outside one of the places people can go if they need a warm place to stay, a meal, a connection. I don’t pick up a lot of people there.
She came out of the building, an African-American woman in her 60s, heavy, her hair in long braids. There was a stairway with six or seven steps she had to descend in order to come down to the sidewalk, and she turned slightly sideways, leaned on the rail, and took them one at a time.
Right foot, left foot.
Down one step.
Right foot, left foot.
Down another step.
When she got to the car, she grabbed the back passenger-side door and swayed her way in slowly, sighing. My small car shifted.
We pulled away, and the sky was a clear blue, and the day was bright. I thought it might be one of these quiet rides, when the passenger doesn’t speak, when we listen. But I usually ask at least one question, so I asked her how she was, and she smiled. She told me about her sister in Maryland, how close she was to her, how they talked every week.
“She’s still my older sister. All these years later, she still acts like my older sister,” she said with a grimace, then a laugh.
“I’m the older brother in my family,” I said, searching for her eyes in the rearview mirror. “Guilty as charged.” We both laughed, and the sun was even brighter, and the day rushed past us. It was a short trip to her destination, and I found myself wishing for more time to talk.
“You can stop here,” she said, and I pulled into an empty space along a busy street.
“Is this okay?”
“Can I help you out?” I asked, and she protested vehemently, almost enough to stop me, but I was already out of the car and closing my door, sliding quickly out of traffic and around to her side. Her door was open and she looked up at me with relief. That weathered, brown skin. Those kind eyes. I reached out my hand I she took it.
It might sound strange but at the moment she touched my hand I felt a sudden realization, or maybe it was more like a sudden wave of wonder: what life experiences had those hands been through? Fifty years ago, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, she was ten. Where had she heard the news? Had she been afraid? Where was she during the race riots? Jim Crow? Had those hands gripped a bus seat in front of her in rage or fear? Had she felt the cool water of a segregated swimming pool? Had she pressed the button on a “colored” water fountain?
Her skin was dry and rough and warm. Her grip was strong. I had a rushing sense of all the years under her skin, all the memories whirling in her fingerprints. The muttered slurs she had heard; the unexpected kindness; the love of family.
Recently, I heard Walter Wangerin Jr. describe the sense of seeing his young granddaughter’s hands, envisioning the hands they would become. I saw that here, but in reverse–her hands shrank and found smoothness, softness. They were the hands of a young black girl, playing on the street, drawing with chalk on the cracked sidewalk. She bit her lip in concentration. Her mother called to her from the house.
I felt her weight on my arm as she stood up out of my car, as she braced against me, as we made our way up the curb and past the fire hydrant to her front door.
“That was very kind of you,” she said quietly, looking for a moment into my eyes, then walking into her house.
I got back in my car, and I sat there for a long time, and I wondered.