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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On My 15,146th Day (In Iambic Pentameter)

Raised in a town known for steel and rebirth,

The product of parents who choked on its ashes,

Groomed to be virtuous among the broken and strife

Yet fell–engrossed in the fears of my home and its streets.

 

The awkward transition to grow mature and with purpose,

Wasting my youth in attempts to find manhood,

Searching six years beyond broken and lost,

A path was made clear through the trials and the errors.

 

The feeling of love brought forth a new passion,

True to my heart I pushed on through rough waters,

Intent on a life to expand my forced boundaries,

Content to pursue my dreams in tight quarters.

 

My son is my rock, my ground is kept stable,

His pursuits are now mine, my goals are left burning,

Purpose was found, my life loved while held down,

He will know my mistakes, shared space will bring triumph.

The Note From A Girl: A tale of uncertainty from 1998

In May of 1998, I was going to community college in Pittsburgh and finishing up the spring semester.  I had four classes that semester, one of which was an advanced English literature class on Monday nights (When I say “advanced”, it was a sophomore year equivalent course at a four-year school).  Part of the final for the English class was essay, and I was a slow writer.  Out of the fifteen to twenty students in my class I was one of the last to leave class that final night.

On my way back up to my car in the top parking lot, I noticed something white was tucked under my windshield wiper.  As I got closer it was clear to me that the white object was a piece of notebook paper folded over.  I opened up the paper and something was written in blue ink.  The writing looked like it belonged to a girl:

“Hey Larry, it was great having class with you this year!!!  Give me a call sometime so we can meetup!  555-555-5555”

One problem–there was no name on the note.

Now, looking at this from afar, one would simply say, “Okay, so just call the number and see who it is!!!”  Yes, that seems like an easy solution.  But going by my gut feeling, that note could have been left by one of six women…and only one of them was worth the risk of calling.

“The One” was Jennifer.  Not Jen or Jenny–she was Jennifer.  If the note had this name inked into it, I would have called her as soon as I got home (Silly Millennials, this is 1998–not many cell phones in the 1990’s).  Since the note had no name, I had to proceed with caution because:

1) With no name, it might have been put there by my on-again/off-again girlfriend to see if I was cheating on her.  My girlfriend didn’t know the names of the women I talked to at school, so that is why I felt the note might have been a trap.  It was a low probability, but if I called that number and it was one of her friend’s numbers, I would have encountered WAY too much drama to stay in the “relationship”.  (SIDE NOTE: If you find yourself in an on-again/off-again relationship, turn the damn thing off and move on.)

2) Some of the other girls that showed interest in me were, uh, clingy.  I’m being nice here.  To be fair, I know many girls from my youth thought I was weird.  I just didn’t want to call the number, have it belong to someone I didn’t like and have to disinfect them out of my life for the next three weeks.  All of this WHILE DEALING WITH MY GIRLFRIEND DRAMA.  It wasn’t worth the risk.

3) I parked my car at 8 a.m. and didn’t return until 9 p.m.  That note could have been there all day.  If the note said, “…great having class with you on Monday nights!!!”, there wouldn’t have been any doubt it came from Jennifer.  It said, “…this year!!!” Shit, with all those exclamation points she sure seemed eager to see me again.

If it was Jennifer, the absence of her name on that paper drastically changed the course of her life and mine.  If I saw her name, I would have called.  I would have stayed with her if we liked each other’s company.  I would have dumped my um, girlfriend and would have saved myself another seventeen months of on-again/off-again with her that mercilessly dragged on far into 1999.

A few months later, I came across a student who knew Jennifer and I asked how she was doing.  Apparently she was dating a guy and got a job not too far from where I lived at the time.  The information I received gave me the opportunity to locate her and try to find out if she indeed put that note on my windshield.  But, it sounded like she was happy spending time with her boyfriend and excited about a possible future with him.  I didn’t want to spoil her happiness by abruptly reentering her life and seeing if there was a real shot for us to be a couple.  So I declined to go see her.

It wasn’t worth the risk.

Living In World #26,734,378,450

In our early years other people decide our direction in life.  What to eat, what to wear, where to go to school and many other choices are made for us without a lot of input from us.  As we grow older, most of us gain the responsibility to make decisions for ourselves.  The outcome of these decisions can be both good and bad, which shapes our being going forward.  According to one interpretation of quantum mechanics, all of our outcomes still exist in alternate or parallel universes that are equal in reality but do not come into contact with one another.

Hugh Everett (1930-1982) was an American physicist who first proposed what he called the many-worlds interpretation.  He grew up in Catholic school and received his undergraduate degree from Catholic University of America before moving on to Princeton.  He is the father of indie rocker Mark Oliver Everett, who is known as the lead singer for the band Eels.  Everett enjoyed reading science fiction and he actually read Dianetics before the church of Scientology was formed into what it is today (Everett did not become a follower).  Later on in life Everett became a devout atheist, which is an awesome oxymoron.

Since this is a schmoey blog and not The New Yorker, I will explain Everett’s theory quickly before jumping into the more entertaining stuff.  When Everett measured a particle, there were two possible outcomes: It was either measured as a particle or a wave.  The universe is actually duplicated, splitting one outcome (particle) into one universe and the other outcome (wave) into its own distinctive but parallel universe.  When this theory is applied to our everyday lives, Everett states that even before we carry out (or not carry out) a decision, two outcomes have already been determined.

As for our outcomes, scientists have many different interpretations on Everett’s theory but I feel the most entertaining and easiest way to chart outcomes is with a Bell curve.  The first Bell curve in 1994 was a chart that reflected the correlation between class structure and intelligence in the United States, but many different disciplines have generated data that produced a chart like a Bell curve, which, yes, is shaped like a bell (or almost like the Snapchat logo).  So let’s make an X-Y axis and chart what I’m up to in my other 26,734,378,449 universes.

In 10% of my universes, I’m either dead or infamous.  At age 10, I got hit by that speeding car through the alley instead of narrowly escaping injury.  At age 34, I didn’t notice that truck blowing through a red light and I turned left into the path of it.  In college I got hooked on heroin and never recovered.  Growing up in a broken home I was subject to many forms of abuse and I evolved into a violent criminal.  The first two sentences I wrote were based on real experiences I remember.  The last two sentences are fiction but if I experienced different outcomes during the course of my life, these events could have happened.

In 20% of my universes, I’m worse off than my current self.  My wife realized she was married to a schmo, so she divorced me.  I have involuntarily lived at my parent’s house all my life, so I’m the real life 40-year-old virgin.  I married the wrong woman and we live in poverty.  I can’t find meaningful employment because of my past criminal record.

In 40% of my universes, I’m living about the same.  My wife and I bought the house that we viewed prior to the one we live in now.  We had a daughter instead of a son.  I’m typing this post on Blogspot.  I graduated from a different college but with the same degree.

In 20% of my universes, I’m better off than my current self.  I landed a great job when my wife and I moved back to Pittsburgh in 2008, which evolved into two promotions and a vice president position in 2014.  We didn’t do the “lease to buy” option on our Nissan.  I paid off my college loans instead of refinancing them twice.  Dad is still alive, and I get along with my side of the family.

In 10% of my universes, I am famous and I have great influence on the masses.  I was the first rap/hip-hop artist from Pittsburgh to make it big on a national and/or world stage, Wiz Khalifa came along years later.  You follow me on Twitter and I tweet WAY more than Kayne West.  Last year I was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame after an accomplished college and professional career.  There is one particular universe that has an absurd but beneficial outcome.

In universe 18,326,817,904 famous astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson hates my guts.  In 2011 I convinced the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to reinstate Pluto as the ninth planet, and during this time I discovered planets ten, eleven and twelve in our solar system. I also convinced the IAU that they should allow any business or individual to submit a bid request for naming rights to one of the planets.  The proceeds would go to a charitable endowment fund which would benefit children around the globe.  The bids generated $2 billion.  The tenth planet is called Nike, the eleventh Sir Richard Branson and the twelfth iPlanet.  Sir Richard Branson is on the board of directors for the endowment.

One life.  That’s life as we know it.  Some of us believe when we die, nothing happens.  Some believe we go to Heaven or hell.  Everett’s interpretation of life sounds absurd, but what I believe as a current Methodist and former Roman Catholic sounds absurd to a few billion people around the world as well.  Everett’s theory states there are two outcomes to each decision.  If we all make good choices that benefit others, maybe all of us can experience more peace than pain in this universe that we all share.  That’s something we should all believe in.