Being a riverside dweller, I can’t help but be moved by the plight of those living along the Ohio River right now. In fact, just a month ago, I drove along the “Scenic Ohio River Byway” in Southern Indiana, on my way from Cincinnati to Louisville, and I’m pretty sure the road I drove along is mostly underwater now, as well as much of the Louisville waterfront. I was there, too, doing some sightseeing, and it was there that I also suffered a small, rather comical, mishap. But at least it came with a little revelation.
When I was at the Thomas Merton Archive at Bellarmine University, I picked up a bookmark describing Merton’s “Louisville Epiphany.” At the corner of Fourth and Walnut Streets, he writes (in his book, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander) of being overwhelmed with the realization that “I loved all those people and they were mine and I was theirs…” Which seems at odds with his determination to live a life of solitude, but there it is. I decided before leaving Louisville, I would have to go and see this fabled spot, but getting downtown from Bellarmine was no easy matter, especially late on a weekday afternoon. Even with the directions printed on the back of the book mark: the first road they recommended, I-264 West, was like a parking lot, so clogged you couldn’t even get on to it. Phone Siri, usually my trusted pal, was no help at all, and kept trying to make me drive the wrong direction down one-way streets. I decided to drive as closely as I could to the river, then park and reconnoiter on foot (on a freezingly cold gray day with the winds whipping down from Indiana), but surprise, no street parking, only those claustrophobic and expensive parking garages. I chose what I hoped would be the least expensive option, locked up the car, and set out to find the magic spot.
Walking east on Muhammad Ali, I kept vainly checking my Google map to make sure I was heading in the right direction. It was absolutely frigid, in this city I’d always associated with balmy spring Derby Days and baseball, and I was clad, impractically, in a dress, short jacket and my prettiest but not most comfortable pumps. I stalked about miserably, ruing my impulsive decision to hunt down this random corner of the city and for what? To say I’d been there? To write about it, in my blog?!!
But then, all of a sudden, I was there, and all my frustrations fell away. I gazed at the metal sign denoting the spot as Thomas Merton Square, in awe to see this official, municipal acknowledgment of his existence, and work. Then I looked around for people walking around “shining like the sun,” but saw very few, though the streets were clogged with cars and traffic. I turned around, and confronted Fourth Street Live! in all its commercial glory, and thought, well, there’s some strange city planning. I decided to walk down the block and loop past the Louisville Slugger museum back to the parking garage. The street was paved with those granite Belgian blocks which don’t always give you a level surface to walk on, and suddenly, I felt the heel of my pretty pump thunk against something, and felt myself pitched forward: I actually saw the gray granite coming up toward me, and instinctively threw out my arm. Pain shot through my wrist and fingers, but fortunately I did not hit my head. The next thing I knew, half a dozen people were trying to help me up. My un-guilty bystanders. They helped me to a nearby outdoor café, its metal chairs still set out in January, but I was basically OK, only my left arm and hand had been scraped up.
But what I felt more keenly than the pain, was an overwhelming sense of humiliation and shame. Falling in the street was such an old-lady thing to do! Was I becoming prematurely old and feeble? Was this it, the end of my independence, my sense of well-being, my sense of balance? I was actually thinking and fearing these things, when a rather unkempt woman came up to me. Maybe homeless, maybe not, but probably about the same age as me. She touched my arm.
“You okay? I seen you go down, honey,” she said to me. “I seen you trip on that stone. It wasn’t your fault! Anybody coulda trip on that stone. If I was you, I’d sue!!!”
I smiled, and assured her I was okay, and not planning to sue anyone. Still, she insisted on helping me up and walking with me to the end of the block, then tottered off with a friendly wave. No, she hadn’t been looking for a handout: Just being kind. They were mine and I was theirs… In any case, her words were an unexpected consolation, and made me realize I was mentally making too much of what had simply, and literally, been a misstep. And considering, I had gotten off easy: a few scraped knuckles, an impressive bruise on the underside of my arm, probably far more bearable than what parts of Louisville are experiencing now, with the flood. Though for weeks afterwards, I would feel a twinge in my fingers whenever I flexed them: A reminder of that cold day in Louisville, and the simple decency of some human beings on this earth.