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Street scene tugs at the heartstrings

SOAPBOX • A woman following her lonely routine awakes unbidden emotions

There's a woman I see on the streets of Northeast Portland who moves me in a way that's sometimes embarrassing.

After crossing paths with her, I've had to pull the car over to rearrange my emotions. She's made me late for appointments and forced me to end a run before it began.

I don't know her name, but I speculate it's Alice or Anita or Lucy. I know she lives nearby and probably is in her 50s, maybe even my mom's age. Her hair, auburn and wavy, is neither treated nor cut professionally. Her hands, clenched tight around her metal canes, look like my nana's, with gentle age spots and loose skin that has worked too hard for 50-some years.

I don't see her in the same place, but she's always alone and often is drenched in the inexorable rain that stops for no one, not even a woman on her way home from the Laundromat with clean clothes that are still warm like chocolate chip cookies. I know it's laundry in her bag and not cans of peas or liters of Coke because I've seen her standing against the dryer Ñ folding each sock and each knit top. The bag around her wrist swings with each difficult step, like a child in a hammock, as she skims the dirty sidewalks on the insides of her shoes.

Her pace is the same, whether she's on the sidewalk or in a crosswalk, always twice as slow as the city has calculated for people crossing the street. The 'Walk' sign vanishes and is replaced with the blinking 'Don't walk' sign before she's even taken four steps, while the cars, growling like animals, exhaust carbon monoxide and their patience.

More than once, I've come upon her at midcrosswalk. The light already has turned red again, and those with the green light, thank God, have seen her and wait until she makes it to the curb. The first time, my running shoes couldn't tread fast enough to get in between her and the cars idling behind the line. I positioned myself, awkwardly, with my arms up like a gate protecting her, the way old men do, if they were raised right, when they walk down the street with their wives.

Don't think I'm a saint Ñ you would have done it, too. I know this because I've seen other neighbors with their arms out and the same self-conscious smile, blocking her from harm, sure to let her get both canes on the curb before waving the traffic on. I sat, in my car this time, and watched and wondered through my suppressed sobs, if everyone is affected as violently as me.

She never looks up, only intently at the rubber capping the end of each cane. Her feet curl inward in a way that makes me sure they've been like that for a while, yet there was a time when she could run and do cartwheels in the grass. The cane wraps around her wrists like Wonder Woman's bracelets as she scoots deliberately, knowing that after 5,000 lefts or 7,000 rights she'll be home, to her studio apartment, where she knits and takes her medicine.

This woman ruins me every time fate brings her into my life, even if I look away immediately. I don't know why I see her as often as I do or why she makes it hard for me to breathe, but I trust there is a reason. Will I be her friend one day, helping her fold her laundry and making her life easier? Or will she just tenderize me from afar and make my life easier?

Will she remind me of tiny flowers and the way my mom and dad smile when I get off a plane? Or of my nana's perfume or the way my brother's toes look more like my dad's every day?

Or will Alice or Anita or Lucy forever be nothing but an epitome of determination, burned like public humiliation or regret in my mind, reminding me that we are malleable and soft, yet nothing is insurmountable?

We have sunrises and rain.

We have music, art and fresh bread.

We have the smell of a baby's skin and the warmth of each other.

How can we not be inspired this new year, even when our world is fragile, to keep walking?

Gina Daggett is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Nervy Girl magazine and Just Out. She attended Arizona State University and Pacific University; she lives in Northeast Portland.