Allies and Stanwix

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Her name is Debbie. She's a legal secretary. Whether she will be one again, I do not know. She has broken ribs, a battered skull and, if God is merciful, no memory of 6:51 a.m. Monday at the corner of Stanwix and the Boulevard of the Allies.

I'd caught the early 36A out of Mt. Lebanon while it was still dark, so I could stop at the Theater Square box office to get tickets for "Wicked." I was in a rear seat, just behind the back door, when I heard, in succession, a thump, some screams and the sound my face makes when it hits a metal-and-plexiglass partition. My next memory is ankles turning into legs turning into the faces of the strangers who raised me from the floor. I wondered if my left eye had gone blind. It was clouded by blood.

"We hit a woman," someone told me.

"You're bleeding," another said.

What about the woman? I asked.

Someone called an ambulance. Someone called two. The driver shuddered in the front seat, a cigarette giving him no comfort. His eyes were wet. He looked at me.

"I'm sorry," he said. I wanted to hug the guy and apologize for spilling my coffee. I tried to tell him it was all right, that he needed to feel better, but there is no reason to think he will. A man has two options: cool detachment or shared identity. He had chosen the latter, an act that at once made him more alive and more prone to the wound that now bled in his spirit.

At the hospital, a young doctor laid me down and sewed my face. I heard someone talking about the woman. Head injuries. She would live. What would come after that, no one seemed to know.

Stitched, swollen, my eye throbbing, I dressed, looked around to see if anyone from the Port Authority was handy, then walked Downtown to catch a bus. At Allies and Stanwix, a man was staring into a red splotch several feet from a chalk line that recorded the front of the bus.

"Woman got hit here," he said. "I heard it on KQV. There was an accident."

"I know. I was there."

"You saw it?" he brightened.

"I saw shoes," I replied, and walked back to catch my bus. I'd seen nothing and felt every bit of it.

At home I tried to sleep. A poorly briefed Port Authority claims investigator called to tell me I'd been a passenger on a bus that hit someone and asked what I'd seen. I explained I'd spent much of the event bleeding and dazed. He coolly replied that my status had changed to claimant, took down the details and told me to watch the mail for some forms. The process is routine, apparently.

This cataloguing and quantifying of misfortune has been my trade for 32 years. The newsroom has a police scanner and I have spent hours eavesdropping on the staccato narrative of others' tragedies: fire in the Hill District; pumpers dispatched; man trapped; coroner called. In the bad years I have listened to reports of men on bridges and been sent to witness their fall into the river.

My friend Lillian sits by the scanner at our news desk and takes in the soundtrack of lives dissolving. "I listened to a guy drown," she once said. "Just the dispatcher saying that he hadn't come up, that they'd lost sight, that river rescue was on its way. Couldn't get it out of my head for days."

I started some phone calls. Knowing what happened to this woman was a desperate need. A neighbor had been on the bus Monday morning and she had some scant details: a first name, a job. It was less than we get on our grave markers.

How old was she? Does she have children? A husband? Will she thrive? Will she be able to come Downtown? Was the last thing she saw what I had seen -- a glassy wall rushing up on her, except, perhaps, with a horrified man gaping back in shared disbelief?

The commonness of a bus-pedestrian accident means it doesn't always make the papers. I phoned in a brief item that morning for the Post-Gazette Web site. The next day's print edition had nothing more. The enormous change in this woman's life was lost amid Monday's events with no more ceremony than a footprint leaving a beach.

I spent Tuesday on the verge of tears, a condition that left me feeling at once angry and ridiculous. I have three stitches in a swollen right eye, a mild headache and a sore shoulder. I am the physical equivalent of a boxer in a tie match.

The cut near my eye should leave a handsome dueling scar. I wanted to know about Debbie. I wanted her to cross Stanwix at Allies in a world made right. I wanted to imagine her roaming Downtown, her arms flooded with Christmas shopping, laughing at something she heard from a friend she'd bumped into outside a department store.

I wanted the world to reverse itself by a day and sunlight to flood the corner where darkness and velocity conspired against the simple act of living.

My daughter was home sick the other day and wandered upstairs to my desk.

"You feeling better?" I asked.

"Pretty good," she said. Her eyes drifted to the purple lump on my right eye.

"What about you?" she said.

"I'll be fine," I said.

"You know what? Why don't we just take care of each other," she said.

That's what we did. It was all we can do.

Dennis Roddy is a Post-Gazette columnist, , 412-263-1965.


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