C COPYRIGHT. This article reproduced with permission from the August 4, 2019 edition of Universal Digest and Ed Smith
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When you are a security guard you see a lot of unusual and interesting people in your duties. A particular person at any particular time may or may not grab your interest, and in as much as guards are trained to watch for special points of interest, one person scuffling along a sidewalk on North Theresa Avenue near Washington Street kept attracting my attention; not so much as that he or she may be involved in some criminal activity, but because of their physical condition. I first noticed this individual bent over and crouched against an alley wall, and my thought at that point was that this person was drunk and intoxicated to the point of incapacity. The person made a weak wave to me with a hand, and I sloughed that movement off as a hobo that probably would be moving on in short order.
After a few minutes of patrolling the vehicles lined up and down an adjoining street, my view again came in contact with this person, who now had moved onto the sidewalk near the apartment building, and I could plainly see it was an elderly black person that was having great difficulty walking, had a metal cane for support, huddled beneath a rather large trench coat that hung sloppily over a misshapen frame. The person obviously was injured and possibly in pain.
I continued to watch on each additional trip past that point, and noted that this person was handicapped, made many encumbered steps, was bent almost at a seventy degree angle from the hip and could only move a few inches at a time. The person would stop, rest, and then hobble a little further in a desired direction, and repeat that sequence over and over. I recall the words “My God!” coming to mind. The next trip this person appeared to be heading my way, but changed course and went back towards Washington Avenue. “This is not right,” I said to myself, “I better see if help is needed.”
I slowly walked towards the person whose head seemed completely hidden beneath the collar of the coat as I approached from the rear.
“Hello, do you need some help?” I asked as politely as I could. In tight little increments of movement a head began to rise and the body turning artificially to allow an African-American lady’s face to arise, reminding me strangely of a turtle’s head coming out of its shell to look around, and two large brown eyes in the middle of a face, I swear, resembled “ET,” the extra-terrestrial, in Steven Spielberg’s movie: all the wisdom, pain, longing of a lifetime written there. She was mustering strength to talk, one foot shuffled ahead of the other finding footing in her worn boots. Then she seemed prepared to speak:
“Yes, no, ah….” she appeared at a loss for words, words that sounded weak and unsure. “I … I’m just walking…” And barely at that, I thought. We stared at each other for a minute or so, her with both hands cradling the top of the cane, looking for the entire world like George Steven’s Yoda movie character, but a Yoda that was seriously injured.
“She lifted her head and this time gave me a strong, soul–searching look from two gorgeously bulbous and pitifully sad eyes: ‘Annie!’”
“Are you in pain?” I asked. I could see her eyes were matted by the cold weather and the tears that continued to wet her face. Her mind was dulled by age, but she still was active in searching for words, lips nervously moving to form expression.
“Yes,” she barely spoke audibly, “I…I…walk…walk for exercise.”
“Does it help, I mean the pain?” She nodded slowly.
“How long have you had this condition?”
She gave a weak laugh, “Long time, now…” She would glance up briefly as she spoke and then glance down at the sidewalk and remain gazing at the concrete. I thought for a moment.
Her withered and crippled hand slowly crept into her coat pocket and, grasped in a mangled fist, she brought out a wrinkled and dirty page of paper; Annie painfully placed it into my palm and folded my fingers over it as best her aged hand could. She again attempted a weak smile.
“What’s your name?” I asked. She again gave a weak laugh.
She lifted her head and this time gave me a strong, soul–searching look from two gorgeously bulbous and pitifully sad eyes: “Annie!” She expressed it almost defiantly as if a different plateau of relationship had been reached. I smiled back at her.
“My name is Ted, Officer Ted Darling,” I replied. “Ted,” she repeated in almost a whisper. There was silence for a moment. “Will you be out here in the cold long?” I asked. “No, no, I have to take my medicine…” It was obvious that I shouldn’t go much further into her personal business.
“Well, if you need any help at all, I’ll be walking by here every so often, don’t hesitate to call out for me, okay…Annie?” She slowly lowered her head up and down.
“What…what…arthritis, rickets….what…?” I felt I should probe a little further. She insipidly nodded at the paper she gave me.
She gave another weak laugh: “Yes, everything,” but her words came slow and almost in gasping breaths, “arthritis, diabetes, and neuropathy…everything…”
“Okay,” I relinquished. And for a few more passes on my patrol I continued to watch her struggle moving diseased limbs and joints slowly down the sidewalk and slowly back in the other direction, occasionally resting her weight on the apartment wall. Then, sometime after sunset, she was gone and did not return.
The soiled and worn paper she gave me was headed in large bold letter: “If Annie Williams should be found ill and needs help, the following is a list of medications and medical conditions you should know about…,” and what jumped off the page was a conflagration in a menagerie of disease and medicine that even I could not comprehend, and I promised myself I’d research the mysterious text as soon as possible. That mission came that evening before the public library closed. I headed home with a bag of medical books, settled at the kitchen table beneath a laptop computer, my investigatory juices parleyed the Internet into an ink pen dirge of medical facts. Annie’s ailments seemed daunting and unflinching: “Friedreich Ataxia, spinocerebellar tract, Hulter monitor, rheumatoid arthritis, crippling skeletal fluorosis, osteosclerosis of pelvis and vertebra, musculoskeletal fibrokeratoma, scoliosis, bursitis, Paget’s disease….” Photo after photo showed broken, disjointed, twisted and medically diseased bodies, many with strained looks of fought-against pain. The list of medication used in treatment was just as disheartening as it allowed me to create in my mind belched visions of therapeutic mayhem that, I had read, such torture surely existed in the 18th century London Bedlam madhouse: “…Paracetamol, Pfizerpen-G, Percocet, Oxycontin, Naproxen Ibepuron, Ibuprofen, Neorontin …” About an hour into my indefatigable, cavernous research, a creeping reportorial nausea and sweating enveloped me, causing me to slam shut an opened medical book and slump crumpled into my chair as a dilapidated shack of depressed and weary flesh and bone. It was a sleepless night.
I certainly was on the alert for my new-found friend. The first night of patrol: nothing. The same disappointment for the second, third, and the fourth nights: sadness took hold of me, an almost heightened sense of freight that I might not see Annie again. Then, on the fifth day, there she was standing at the alley way, she slowly moved her hand side to side at her typical stomach level, her style of waving beneath her chronic pain.
“About nine-hundred-feet away, on the next street, time seemed to agonizingly creep as I attended to the lady’s problem.”
“Annie! I’ve been hoping to see you again!” But just as I lifted a foot to walk in her direction, a hysterical voice came from behind me: “Officer! Officer, can you assist me? I think I locked my keys in my car! Can you help?” Caught in the dilemma of decision, I shouted to Annie: “Stay there, please; I’ll be back in a minute, please wait.” Annie’s awkward rolling of her head on a nonexistent neck indicated her affirmation to wait for me.
About nine-hundred-feet away, on the next street, time seemed to agonizingly creep as I attended to the lady’s problem. Suddenly, the wail of sirens filled the air. From my vantage point I could barely see where on North Theresa Avenue the panic and canopy of scintillating blue-red, white circus of EMS and police lights were coming from. I knew something serious had happened; but I also knew the police were fully in control.
“…the panic and canopy of scintillating blue-red, white circus of EMS and police lights…”
It was ‘sometime’ before I was finished with the locked keys incident. The EMS and the police had long gone from North Theresa. The street was empty and dark and forlorn in the cold chill. I could only stare in desperation towards Washington Avenue. And then – ‘He’ came – turning the far corner of the building, quickly, swiftly, courageously, directly towards me as if on a mission, the pillar of his body passing through shadows created by the silver moonlight; tall, almost if on stilts, uniformed in stylish dark tailored linen trousers, his full-length solid black overcoat caressing his stride, syn-chronically whipping around his legs as he placed one foot strategically in front of the other in some seeming choreographed dance or march. I had no fear of his advance. He suddenly stood before me, a towering black man with sparkling black eyes as if polished coal or those of a gazing deer, his complexion a viscerally hearty ruddy-brown. He had no furrowed brow and appeared to be a caricature of the best of health. The silence seemed to go on forever.
“My name is Olorun Smith. I’ve known Annie Williams for a long time, a very long time.”
“You are wondering about Annie?” he spoke very authoritatively.
“Yes. Yes, I am,” I felt entranced, gripped by almost feelings of euphoria, “who are you?”
“My name is Olorun Smith. I’ve known Annie Williams for a long time, a very long time. She is all right now. Oh, so many prayers have passed her lips. She is the happiest she has been in a long time.” His tone was not typically Afro-American, but had the brogue of direct African descendants. “There was a lot you did not know about Annie. Did you know that Annie was an artist when she was young? Indeed, the best of the best. In 1911 she was a world-class act at the Dark Town Follies at the Lafayette Club, was one of the originators of the Cakewalk, Ballin’ the Jack, and knew J. Leurie Hill, yes, yes, indeed. She danced nightly at the Savoy Ball Room for many years, and, and, in 1923 she was part of the Ziegfield Follies, the all black cast of the ‘Running Wild’ troupe. Annie was part of the 1936 Brown Sugar Revue at the world-renown Cotton Club; she sang with Lena Horne and performed regularly. But there is more: in 1925, Annie starred alongside Josephine Baker at the La Revue Ne’gre in Paris.” In a perspicacious flood of words in rapid fashion, for a good ten minutes, Mister Smith spoke in a symphonic deluge of panoramic life events and historic narration, reciting about a life that only could have been a fantasy-world panoply for many a young lady; a wishful dream to most young girls.
“There was a lot you did not know about Annie. Did you know that Annie was an artist when she was young? Indeed, the best of the best.”
“Where did you get all ‘that’ information?” I blurted out in total astonishment.
“I’ve held black teenage Civil War soldiers in my arms as their blood oozed the life out of their wounds; that life-giving serum flowing through my fingers. I stood by Sam Clemons as Cub Pilot aboard the riverboat Paul Jones as we fought Mississippi River sandbars. I have watched with Captain Kermit Beahan, as we dropped the Little Boy atomic bomb upon Nagasaki – we looked into the Eye of Beelzebub and saw the face of Hell. I whispered words of comfort and salvation as living bodies fell from flaming ledges of the Twin Towers on 9/11…..” Olorun’s eyes darkened even further in majestic intensity, a growing wisp of romantic fragrances emerging in the air…..
Olorum paused, then grinned in a beaming smile that demonstrated a mouth of uniform and brilliantly white teeth, “I have seen things that you could not begin to accept; events that stretch far beyond the capabilities of your mind. I have been to places that exceedingly surpass the meager events of this tiny planet. I have walked on beaches trillions of miles from here with water so pure and so clear that as you walk in it, it washes your soul. I have known a succulent tropic plant on a very distant world whose juices would cure all known diseases. I have been to the center of your sun, indeed, I have been to the center of a million suns. I have sat abroad comets and raced through the solar system. I rode the comet that rained its watery tail down on Noah. I have come face to face with Evil itself, and I have ‘won’.”
Olorum suddenly looked ahead, over my shoulder, abruptly realizing that something new, something propagating and urgent beckoned him, and he quickly rushed past me, whipping his overcoat against my side, dispersing mystical, aromatic, tropical scents of a combined unknown perfume reminiscent of Ralph Lauren, Michael Jordan Regal, and Chanel Pour Monsieur Concentrate. Stunned, I thought to myself only for a split-second, and then swirled around to confront him once again, “Mr. Smith!”
He was gone! Gone!
And I was left standing there with my heart pounding, immersed and lost in a violent mental flood as a rain drop fallen into an emotional sea, left with solemn and fantastic memories of Annie and the realization that this world was not nearly as real, or far more real, than it was before I met her.
Steve Erdmann, St. Louis, Mo. August, 2019
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A Nearby Street
Neighborhood Parking Lot
Scene from the neighborhood
Steve Erdmann – Independent and investigative Journalist