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I was driving up Alcatraz Avenue…it’s a long east / west street that ends near my house and leads down to the San Francisco Bay.  From where I live, the street itself frames Alcatraz island and the Golden Gate Bridge…a view most of us here just take for granted.

Anyhow, I was driving up Alcatraz the other day when I saw a sight out of Fellini.  An  elderly woman was standing in the middle of the street with cars passing on either side…and she clearly did not know she was in the middle of the street…it was not clear she could even see much in front of her as she shuffled.

I stopped my car.

That stretch of Alcatraz is working class and poor, largely African-American.  It always bugs me how fast people drive through there…and how little they respect the cross walks, which is kind of a religious aspect to civic life in other parts of Berkeley and North Oakland.  It’s almost like folks see that stretch of Alcatraz as second class….not worthy of slowing down, or noticing a woman in the street.

But D_ was not walking in any crosswalk.  She was pretty much blind.  She had made her way, I later figured out, unattended from a senior center on a quest for some mints.  And, as I walked her to the side of the road, it was clear to me that D_’s grasp on where she was and how she was doing…was fading.

I walked her to the side of the street, and parked my car.  And when I rejoined her I tried to figure out where she’d come from.

D_was guarded.  Unclear.  She understood when I told her that she had been in the street and that that wasn’t good.  But, I could tell she hadn’t traveled far…and, for whatever reason…I guess sheer anger and frustration at her predicament, I decided that “what the hell” at the very least we would get her her mints…while I tried to figure how to get her home.

So we walked to the store a half block away and I asked about her life.  She has four sons.  One who looks in on her from time to time.  ‘Would she tell that son to make sure she doesn’t end up in the street like that again?’  I asked…..Yes, yes she would.

Did she have grandchildren?  She grabbed my arm harder.  ‘Do I ever have grandchildren.’  She said with pride.  Clearly, however, they weren’t coming to visit all that often.

When we got to the shop…two blocks from the senior center…I asked the shopkeeper if he had ever seen her.  He said no.  I told D_ to pick out the mints she liked.  And she told me to pick them out for her….standing not three inches from a rack of candy.  I realized that D_ could not see much of anything.

We got three bags of mints…with her money…handed over without any idea of how much she had given the man…and walked back to where I was pretty sure she lived.  (I was lucky that I was right about that, I guess.)

As we walked, D_ told me she was from Mississippi.  That she had come to California during the war, to help with the war effort, and stayed.  Oakland was where she had raised her family.  West Oakland was where she had lived her life.  I told her about my grandmother…92 years old…in Minnesota, how she liked mints too.

As we got closer to the senior center, her strength began to fade.  I saw two women with ID necklaces on…they didn’t seem too shocked to see me walking up with D_.  I guess they thought I was a    mobility counseler.  At any rate, when I told D_ that I saw the women with ID’s, she said…’My word, now I’ll be in trouble, I’m sure.’

I knew then that I had returned her to her home.  It’s a nice building.  A new building.  I can’t say whether D_’s escape reflects a one-time oversight….or a chronic failure.  I can’t say, and don’t choose to.

But when it came time to say goodbye…(the Care Center employees promised to take D_ to the nurse.)….D_turned to me and said, in all sincerity, “Thank you, it was so nice meeting you.”

And I realized that in all likelihood I was one of the last “strangers” D_ will ever meet, one of the last neighbors she will chat with about life and children, and where she’s from.  I felt a sense of pride that we got the mints…and failure in that she was returning to someplace that she really shouldn’t ever have left and someplace that cuts her off from the world of her neighbors.  I couldn’t help but feel that in “handing her over”…I was in some sense failing her, but doing what was necessary at the same time.

I wanted to tell D_, “God bless you,” which I guessed would mean something to her.  But all I could get out was…”It was nice to meet you too”…before I quickly turned away, hiding my face from the  women who blithely chided D_ for leaving and seemed nonplussed that I had helped her.

Did I feel sad for D…or guilty for living so far away from my own grandmother, and not visiting her all that often…or horrified at the prospect that I too might grow old and frail and have people talk to me like I was a child…and worse, talk about me like a child in my own presence…?  Did my sympathy for her come from the realization that I too might someday end up wandering blind in the middle of the street as younger people drove by?  I don’t know.

There’s no point to this story really.  But that is the point, in a way.  That’s life.  We’re born fragile and helpless…and we grow old to be frail and helpless…and we are all one step away from an accident or illness that might change our lives.

A blind woman made me see that, reminded me of that fact.

paul delehanty / kid oakland © 2005

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