Lost in Tacoma – What happens when old ladies violate the universal sign of the headphones.

I merely saw her lips move. So frail was she – so frail and low to the ground – that it took some movement on her part to fall into my peripheral sight. Thanks to the wonder of noise-canceling technology, I did not hear her approach, and the movement of her lips was unaccompanied by a voice – that is, until I reluctantly pulled a Bose audio bud from my left ear.

“Can you tell me where the City and State Building is?” she asked. Her voice was wispy – a brittle leaf caught in the wind, and her face was much like a child; in the way that a child so often must look up for direction or assistance from others, she, like a child, had come to accept this fact, and now her face of restrained desperation appeared to me.

“The City and State Building.” I said, my face screwed into a confused expression. It’s not like I could see myself, but I had an idea of what I looked like, because I was making an effort to appear helpless.

There are two things you should know about me in that moment:
1. I did not know the location of the City and State Building. That aside, I did not know if there even was such a thing as the “City and State Building”.
You must agree, it sounds awfully generic. For all I knew, “City and State Building” referred to the DMV or the Social Security Office or the Public flippin’ Library.
2. This old lady with the childlike face was interrupting me.

As a general rule, I hate being interrupted, especially if I am writing – which I was doing – and especially if I am writing while wearing headphones. Headphones are, I believe, a universal warning sign. Headphones are a slightly more subtle way of staving off the advances of others than the donning of a ball cap that says Piss Off or a t-shirt that reads Maintain A Fifteen Foot Perimeter. Those who are unable to interpret the universal sign of the headphones are probably in need of some serious re-education in the mores of modern society. There should be a publicly funded class for this, wherein the universal sign of the headphones is discussed along with the imperative that one not fiddle on one’s phone while at the movies, or the requirement that one know his lunch order before entering the fast food drive-thru – Let’s keep it movin’, folks; keep it movin’!.

So what do you do when a sweet old lady, unknowing of the universal sign of the headphones, disturbs you during your breakfast writing session at Panera Bread in order to ask for directions to a place that probably exists in six different locations? You do exactly as I did – you look confused. You display an expression that says, “You’re barkin’ up the wrong tree, Mildred. I got nothin’ for ya’.”

“The City and State Building.” I repeated. “Gee, I’m not sure.” This was her cue to find some other person, preferably a non-headphone-clad person, to aid her in the wild goose chase.

Turned out, she was as bad at reading verbal cues as she was at interpreting the sign of the headphones. She remained standing there and said, “It’s just, oh…I’m fine down in Lakewood, but I get up here in Tacoma, and I get all turned around. It’s not easy, you know, when you get to be ninety.”

Then I understood. I understood that the old lady was probably not as dense as I’d assumed. It may be she did know that approaching a strange man wearing headphones was against some unwritten rule. To her, interrupting me was just one in a succession of boundary-breaking acts she was forced to perform that day, the first being her decision to exit the ten-square-mile safety zone in which she knew how to get around by herself. When you’re over ninety-years-old, much of your life becomes a disturbance to others. I imagine you get used to it. I began to admire this lady’s guts.

“The City and State Building.” I said a third time. “Let’s see what we can find.” I closed out the word processor on my iPad, fired up Google, and searched “city and state building”. I got…well, you probably know what I got. I got a ton of crap. Weeding through all those dynamic search results was going to be a lot like trying to locate Waldo in a dark room with nothing but a Bic lighter. “What do you need to do at this City and State Building?” I asked.

“I know what to do once I get there. It’s the getting there I’m having trouble with.” she responded.

Okay, let’s keep this more generic. “I mean to say, what goes on at the City and State Building?” I asked. “What do people go there for?”

“Oh, well, all sorts of things. Like, licenses and things.”
That really narrows it down.

Fast-forward about five minutes – it turns out there actually is a place in Tacoma called the City and State Building. I realized I’d even been there before. It’s in a section of town that’s no fun for ninety-year-old ladies. It’s not that it’s dangerous; it’s just a pain in the ass to drive to.

“I hate to be taking so much of your time.” she said, as I strode to the front counter, where I hoped to commandeer a pen. Again, I was struck by the childlike nature of her expression – innocent and pleading.

“Are you kidding me?” I said. “This is like a special mission, now. We’re gonna get you to the City and State Building!” Using my best handwriting, I carefully scrawled turn-by-turn directions on the back of my oatmeal and coffee receipt. I knew as I did this that there was a problem – not with my penmanship – the problem was Tacoma. Getting to her destination from Panera Bread required her to get back on the freeway, merge onto another freeway – a freeway, mind you, that starts out calling itself 705 North, then requires you to follow a sign directing you toward 705 South before dumping you into the catacombs of downtown Tacoma’s one-way, pothole-riddled streets. These directions were nightmare enough for a veteran commuter like myself; for a ninety-year-old woman outside her home’s safety zone, they were a recipe for dozens of wrong turns and at least a half hour of aimless driving in circles around the place she was looking for, without being able to locate it.

Before handing her the paper with the directions, I paused, and I read them back to myself. I read them back to myself two more times. I wanted to convince myself that I’d done enough, that the insignificant act of locating the building’s address and giving her directions would result in her accomplishing her goal for the day.
I know what you are thinking. I know what you’re thinking, because I was thinking it myself. Have her follow you there.

“I hate to be taking so much of your time.” she said again.

“It’s no bother.” I muttered. I found myself silently cursing some imaginary family member – a person who may not even exist – someone who ought to have been driving his dear old mother or grandmother to the City and State Building, rather than leaving her to beg favors from a stranger in headphones – a stranger who was out of writing time and now needed to be heading to the office. I held out the slip of paper. “Now, when you get to this part,” I said, pointing to the place in the directions that read Merge onto 705 N “you need to go real slowly. The signs for what goes where can get confusing.” She thanked me, apologized again for taking up my time, then began to traverse the fifty yards from the shop’s exit to the front seat of her car.

It is an unfailing truth, that when I am writing, I am most aware of the presence of Someone beyond myself, and on this day, I turned my mind toward this Someone and asked, “Is she going to be ok?” The sense I got in return was thus – “She will be just fine. Sorry you’re going to miss out on the fun.”

It says in the Bible that the heart of God is to care for orphans and widows. I find it easy to read stuff like that and become guilty over all the ways I don’t care for orphans and widows, but after what I sensed that morning, I’m starting to realize that guilt is not the emotion God is inciting in us. It’s anticipation he’s going for. Chances are, the old lady I met in Panera Bread got lost again, and chances are someone else came along and led her straight to the City and State Building. I would’ve loved to have seen the look of relief on her sweet face, but I missed it. I missed it this time, but next time – for the next old lady or orphan – I hope I’m up for the task.

The next day, while I was hanging out, swapping words with that Someone I mentioned – the One who comes around whenever I write – the atmosphere in my mind became much like one in which a friend recaps a fun event that I missed out on.

“Ah, you should have been there! She got to where she needed to go, and she was so happy! You should have been there!”
Next time, my Friend. Next time.

5 replies »

  1. When I started at the University of Chicago as a clueless 16-year-old, my tiny almost-90-year-old grandmother used to swoop me up in her lemon-yellow mustang convertible with the built up gas pedal and whisk me off for tea at Marshal Fields, a tour of family graves, a piece of her special coffee cake, and a glimpse of the kind of feisty, independent old bird I hope to be myself someday. She would not have willingly followed your car, but she would have told you your mother would be proud of you for helping an old lady.

    She would not have any use for the universal law of headphones, however…

  2. I know that feeling of being interrupted when writing or being in grossed in something. Being in a state of being annoyed and respectful. With a person of her age we must exercise patients. Because if we’re blessed we will one day need the help from a young busy person one day. You did good.

    • Thanks Kim. In some, more civilized societies, it would be expected that one drop everything to help an elder person. We are far too beholden to the expectation of taking care of business, I think.

      • Also our time is so precious that we tend to be greedy with it. But look at this lady she became a post inspiration. She made you a better person in that moment. And the best gift you have a new character to cast in one of your stories. 🙂

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