The Strangers Who Saved Me

From the mid-1960’s until 1987, one of the most popular shopping malls around Pittsburgh was Allegheny Center Mall in the North Side neighborhood of town.  It was a basic rectangular two-story design complete with an indoor, two-level parking garage directly under the mall.  I remember as a boy my brother Dan and I would tag along when our mother and our grandmother decided to shop there.  They had a variety of stores there, but one of the places I remember spending a lot of time in was Sears.

Even though I was very young in the 1970’s and 1980’s, I remember the vibe Sears had compared to the modern-day big box purgatory it has become.  The Sears of 35 years ago had the department store atmosphere of Target mixed with the product quality of Kohl’s.  It was a much nicer place to shop back then, and my grandmother loved to take her time and look at everything when she ventured out with us.

As a four-year-old in 1979, my grandmother’s appetite for perusing wore heavy on my level of patience, which of course back then was none.  I remember on occasion my mother yelling at me to remain close to her, fearing that I would run off and become lost in the store.  Around this time I developed an unhealthy habit of crawling under circular clothing racks and hiding in the middle of all the items on the rack.  Winter coats were my favorite; the added bulk allowed for a better hiding spot.

On one occasion just prior to Christmas in 1979, I decided to hide among the winter coats.  My mother and grandmother were apparently distracted by something and did not notice I was missing.  After a few minutes under the clothing rack, I noticed it became very quiet.  Upon crawling out of the fixture, I realized I was alone in that particular area of Sears.  Panicked and afraid of getting in trouble, I ran in between the clothes racks in hopes of catching up with my family before they knew I wandered off.  A good plan set forth by a four-year-old, but there was one problem:

I ran the opposite direction from them.

I can still remember vividly standing in a main side-aisle with the tile floor near the first-floor entrance to the mall from Sears.  I wondered if my family walked out into the mall to shop at other stores.  Completely terrified of all of the strange people around me and knowing that this was truly the first moment in my life that I was on my own, I stood there and started to cry.  A few seconds later, I heard a man’s voice:

“Hey little guy, it looks like you are lost.”

He was probably twenty-five but no older than thirty.  He had short, wavy brown hair typical of that era with a light brown coat and wore eyeglasses.  A woman was with him, presumably his girlfriend or wife.  She was about the same age, wore bell-bottom jeans and had long, straight brown hair.  I couldn’t convey my thoughts on attractiveness at the time, but I remember she was very pretty.  It was noticeable.

I confided to the man that I indeed was lost.  During this, I remembered him talking to me at my level, getting down on one knee to talk to me face-to-face.  It was unconsciously comforting and I remember reading from multiple stories through the years that children’s television pioneer and advocate Fred Rogers would do the same thing while talking to children.  Born out of this moment of fear, I have always tried to talk to children in the same manner when comforting them and to let them know that they have my full attention.

I never spoke to the woman, but I remember the three of us didn’t move from that spot right away.  I don’t know why, but it could have been they were hoping my family would arrive to see me, or the woman was informing an employee of my situation.  I only spoke to the man.  Apparently he learned from me that I became lost from my mom in Sears, so a plan was hatched to walk back into Sears instead of taking me out into the mall.

The man picked me up.  He stated that the three of us will go back into Sears, and when I saw my mom, I would point to her right away.  I calmed down a little bit at this point knowing that there was a chance I would get to see my family again.

The most vivid part of this tale is when we rounded the bend on the same side aisle I ran parallel to a few minutes earlier.  Looking ahead of us, I saw my mother, grandmother and my brother’s stroller with him inside of it.  It was one of the only times I remember my mom running.  My grandmother would have if she could, but she was pushing Dan in the stroller.  The man asked if this was indeed my mother, and I told him that it was her.

My mom expressed her thanks to the man and woman for bringing me back to her.  Mom told me many times over the years that this moment was one of the most frightening ordeals she encountered in her life.  It was ten minutes of time, but to her each minute felt like an hour.  She never got their names, but she will always remember them.

THERE ARE GOOD PEOPLE AMONG US

I hope that somehow in this universe there is a way I can personally say thanks to that man and woman who kept me safe in a time of complete vulnerability.  Maybe without knowing, I already crossed paths with them, helping them out in a time of need.  I know how old they would be now and I wonder if they stayed together, having a family of their own.

Without knowing it at the time of our encounter nearly forty years ago, I might have helped them at that very moment.  Perhaps, that look of sheer terror on my face stuck in their memories, and when it became time for them to have children of their own, they kept their kids close to them when going to public places.

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