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Monday, April 16, 2012

Holding Hands With a Stranger

      I grew up skinny. I remember as a high school senior getting measurements for a band uniform and my pant measurements were 30” x 30”. These measurements were in spite of frequent Hostess-Os binges where I would eat all six powder-sugar coated, raspberry-jelly filled donuts in a box in one sitting. I would dunk them in milk. It was so easy. Oh, how my mouth waters now.
     It was just a year or two after getting married that my charmed weight maintenance changed and I started gaining. Weight gain, like age, can just sneak up on a person. I think it had something to do with having children.  It is not unusual for women to gain weight as they have children. I, being the father of these children, should have been exempt from this phenomenon, but as a partner in the birth of these children I also became a partner in the weight gain. I gained about 13 pounds for each child born into my family—and we had eight children.

    What does this have to do with holding hands with a stranger? When I first noticed the troubling weight gain—I think I had two children at the time—I tried to do something about it. I was working in an office about thirteen miles away. I availed myself of public transit and took the bus to work and back. Making time for exercise is difficult and as my pants got tighter I was motivated to figure out a way to incorporate a little exercise into my current routine. The answer was quite simple.  I would get off the bus a stop or two before my home stop and walk the rest of the way. This worked very nicely as it gave me time for solitary, evening reverie before I arrived home to my small apartment, wife, and two children.

     Evening reverie is a pleasant word. It denotes calm thoughts about the current status of your life, about your family, your future plans, or general philosophical questions. Although my “reverie” often included such thoughts, my thoughts weren’t always so pleasant. I was a person who worried a lot and feared many things. I was a man who hated confrontation and avoided it at all costs. A simple argument with my wife was traumatic and verbal altercations with strangers could devastate me for days. During my walks home I would relive some of these personally traumatic events and in my mind go through things I should have said rather than being the wimp that I was. In addition to my fears I had a vivid imagination. When I heard of tragic events in the news such as mothers killing their children or of once honorable men being arrested for child sexual abuse or other depressing things I had the rather questionable ability to see from the transgressor’s point of view. How had they ended up in such a state that they could commit such dark acts? And so with all kinds of thoughts in my head I would walk home.

     One evening, an evening of happier thoughts, I got off the bus two miles before my home stop and began my walk. I don’t know if I was losing weight, but my health was improving, and I felt good. Getting off so much earlier put me at the bottom of a rather steep hill. I turned off a commercial street onto a residential street and began my trek up the steeper grade.  Ahead of me was another pedestrian—well a pedestrian with roller blades. Roller blades would normally give a person the advantage over the person without wheels, but going uphill this is not the case. As I got closer I saw this “blader” was a girl of about eleven-years-old. She had a Snickers Bar in one hand with one bite taken out of it. She was struggling against gravity as she worked her way up the sidewalk and was not having much success. She was doing the backwards snowplow in an attempt to keep from rolling backwards down the hill and into the busy cross street below. In fact it seemed she had hopes of not just stopping herself from rolling backwards, but of actually climbing up the hill. She had made some progress when I first saw her, but there was a lot more rollerblade-dancing-in-place going on than hill climbing.

    The girl was wearing long, homemade, denim cutoffs that showed off a pair of skinny knees that had seen a little sun. She had a helmet on from under which unkempt yellow hair ran down to her shoulders. This was a girl who had gone down to the corner store on a hot summer evening more because she was bored than because she was hungry.

     It took me just a moment before I caught her and passed her as I leaned a little into the hill. I had to step around a flailing arm with a melting candy bar. I could smell chocolate and peanuts. It seemed to me that she would soon be forced to take off the roller blades and carry them up the hill. She had another idea.

     “Excuse me! Mister?” It is always a little disconcerting when a stranger calls out to you. You always think they must be speaking to somebody else and pretend not to hear. But she was so close behind me, and since there was nobody else on the street in front of me, I turned around. This girl had a bright face with a couple of freckles.  There was chocolate on her lips and a smear off to the side of her mouth. She was grinning sheepishly as she continued her frantic little roller-dance. “Could I hold your hand?” She briefly reached one hand forward before throwing her arm out to the side again to catch her balance.

     Hold my hand? Is that what she had said? I was caught off guard. When does a stranger ask another stranger to hold their hand? Holding hands is reserved for lovers. It is reserved for a father and daughter. It is an intimate physical expression between those who have an emotional bond. I didn’t know this girl. There was no bond. Of course I also understood that she was asking for help, not to create a bond, but still I hesitated.

     “I’m having trouble getting up this hill,” she said. She was out of breath partly from her roller-dancing, and partly from trying to chew a chewy candy bar when she was already out of breath. She looked me in the eye hopefully, her smile maintaining.
I was struck by how plainly she stated her problem and how readily she looked with hope to a passing stranger. As a father of two young boys at the time I thought of how unwise it was of a young girl to ask to hold the hand of a strange man. I would have told her, “Smarten up, girl. If you are having trouble getting up a hill in roller blades you take them off and walk. You don’t ask for a strange man’s hand!”  Yes, if I were her parent this is something I would try to correct before it led to a tragedy someday.

     The look in her brown eyes told me that she really thought I might help her. As an adult this was something else I knew she would have to learn—that you can’t count on the help of a stranger.  I held out my hand and she grabbed it nearly falling over as she did so.
“Thanks,” she said, still breathless.

     Even now that she had my hand her roller-dance continued, but she actually made progress up the hill pulling heavily on my arm. I know my hand to her was just a trailer hitch—a tool to get her up the hill. Her hand to me was much more. My walks home were normally solitary. There were people all around me in cars, on bicycles, or walking, but I was still alone in the world in my head just as they were alone in theirs. There were no connections between us as human beings. To find myself unexpectedly holding hands with this human being, this young girl, was extraordinary to me—an unexpected connection. Once my grandfather, one whom I saw rarely, reached down and took my hand unexpectedly. We had been crossing a street and I guess he thought I needed help. Maybe it was just because he loved me. In any case it had embarrassed me because I, at eleven or twelve, felt far too old to hold hands with a grandpa. He’s gone now and I am ashamed that I took the first opportunity to remove my hand from his. Would this girl hold her grandpa’s hand as easily as she held a stranger’s? I hoped she would.

     This girl and I chatted a little on the way up the hill. She talked easily and happily about her life.  There were disjointed snippets about her little brother and his friends and how she lived with her grandmother. Her grandmother had kidney stones. I was a little worried all the way up the hill that some relative of hers would see me holding her hand, think the worst and confront me. Maybe they would call the police.  I would be arrested and registered as a sex offender. I considered telling this girl about the danger of asking for this kind of help from a stranger, but she chatted so happily and innocently that a lecture from me would confuse her and ruin the happiness.  In the end there was no confrontation or police.

     As we neared the top of the hill it wasn’t so steep and I thought she would be able to skate on her own. I loosened my grasp, but she still hung on. I didn’t know how she could be so comfortable with a stranger. I was pleased by her trust in me. At the same time it worried me that she would probably trust anyone this way. Finally I came to a cross street I had to take. She let go of my hand then and waved goodbye. I told her that she might need to take off her skates and walk next time. That was as close as I came to telling her not to hold hands with strangers.  She smiled, waved again, and then skated haltingly on her way. I never saw her again.

     When my eleven year old daughter told me she had been talking to a stranger sitting in a car outside my shop one evening I gave her a lecture. She told me he was a plain clothed policeman who was watching a man down the street. That didn’t make me feel any better and I lectured her some more. The thought of losing a child to a stranger is any parent’s nightmare. Why had this “policeman” let my daughter talk to him? Didn’t he know better than to let a young girl approach him in his car? But he didn’t harm her and he has met a very unique girl.

     It has been twenty-five years since I helped that girl up the hill. I can still remember the feel of her hand in mine. There was nothing intimate meant and no intended bond. I was just pulling her up a hill. But the memory of the feel of her hand is special to me because it was the hand of a stranger. It was the hand of innocence and trust. It was a hand that needed mine and I gave it. In giving it I was given back a remote, but very real hope that the world may be so kind and forgiving to my children. 

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