I “rescued” a little old lady / hoarder neighbor this morning. She lives in the worst house on the block, one that appears from the outside to be filled entirely with crap. If her van is a microcosm for her house, there must be tons of stuff crammed in there. Tons. Because her van was full to the brim with disposable cameras, fliers, ratty blankets, extension cords, mismatched shoes, stacks of poster board…god knows what else.
Her car was stuck on the street on the very steep hill beneath our house. I was hurrying the girls into our CRV to take them to school, while neighbor-hoarder lady was spinning her front wheels on the ice.
Cars get stuck on that hill every time it snows or sleets. They always just roll back down the hill. But neighbor hoarder lady just kept spinning.
Next time, the rock’ll stay on top of the hill. Next time.
Her house is the one the Habitat for Humanity people visited this summer. They all wore matching t-shirts and worked in the yard, trimming hedges, piling yard waste in recycling bins, scraping out the gutters. The little old lady sat in a rusty lawn chair and watched them work.
This fall, I left a broken lawn mower and weed eater out by the curb; I was going to find an Omaha version of Freecycle. They were gone by evening. The next day, they appeared in her yard with hand-written “for sale” signs draped over them.
Neighbor-hoarder lady has huge Santa Claus poster in the window of her side screen door. All year. It makes the arrival of Christmas season feel anticlimactic.
Just as was about to throw the car in drive and head down the hill, I realized that I was standing next to neighbor-hoarder lady’s van, asking if I could help. “Can you get me to the top?” she asked.
“No. You’re on solid ice. Can you get yourself back down?”
“No, I can’t.” Rheumy redness around the iris, sagging epicanthic folds draped over the eye sockets. Patchy jaundiced skin. Arthritic knuckles clenched-white on the wheel. “Can you?”
Can I what? Save you from whatever familial, financial, or mental state has consigned you to driving a 20-year old Lumina filled with shit, plugging the holes in the dike that holds back the demons or the grief with piles and piles of accumulated trash? Save my grandmother from a wailing lung rattle and desperate lunge for death? Make my daughter suddenly NOT autistic? Keep my mother happy despite her disabilities and loneliness? Comfort the three of my good friends who are struggling through divorces? Find jobs for all my colleagues? Catch the wind?
“I think so,” I told her.
I opened her van door and offered her my arm. She clutched it like a long-lost maiden aunt whom I could always charm. I caught her twice as we scuttled from the middle of the street to a nearby driveway.
I got in her van and slowly backed it down the hill and pulled into an alley--but only after I put it in gear and tried to make it to the top. Jesus. We just have to experience suffering for ourselves, don’t we?
I walked back up the hill and found her sitting in the snow. She hadn’t fallen. I walked on, got in my car, and turned to look at two very wide-eyed daughters. “Everything’s okay,” I said. “We’re just helping a neighbor.”
I eased down the hill and hopped out to help her into our car. “I thank the good Lord for you,” she said. Katie became the welcoming committee. “Hi, Mrs. Neighbor Lady! What’s your name? I’m Katie, this is my sister Abbey, and that’s my Daddy. He’s still a college teacher. His name is Eric. Are you okay?”
Katie’s smart. She’s empathetic. Her autism only manifests in awkward socialization: over-the-top reactions, immoderate enthusiasm, obliviousness to another’s personal space, a complete deafness to social propriety or decorum. Thank god. She was instantly caring and concerned. She forgot to be scared of the neighbor-hoarder lady or to worry about the social awkwardness of a smelly old lady’s humiliation about getting stuck in the middle of the street.
Neighbor hoarder lady's name is Sonia. We drove her down the hill, and I walked her to her car and waited while she pulled out of the alley and turned north, headed around our block from the other side of the hill.
Somewhere, Adam Smith writes about sympathy, about it being motivated by a fear of the object that inspires the feeling. As if the fate of the other person will reach out and infect you. One of the New Historicists calls the process “interpolation.” The object somehow reconstitutes the subject by placing him or her within its gaze. “There but for the grace of God go I.” The kind of shuddering realization that all of us are one bad decision away from spending the rest of our lives muttering in the gutter.
Or from ending up old, alone, impoverished, decrepit, buttressed only by piles of crap.
“Know what our jobs are, girls?” I waited for them to think as we drove to school.
“Are we late?” Abbey asked.
“Yeah, but it’s okay,” I said. “Know why?”
“Because helping her was more important?” Abbey asked.
“Yep,” I said. “Our job is to remember that.”