It was a gorgeous Friday afternoon in Chicago— the first day that actually felt like May.
I’m getting off the Brown Line. My feet are killing me thanks to the new shoe warrior wounds from the cheap Target flats I bought last minute for a series of interviews. You know, the pointy looking ones that provide almost no coverage to your toes or heel? I hated them, but I hate heels more. I also hated the idea that I might have to sacrifice the comfort of my feet for a job with a strict dress code, but the growing gap in my resume was digging deeper than the cheap fabric that rubbed against my heels. I had never worked anywhere where wearing Chucks was against dress code. I wished I had brought those to change into, but I had no room in my bag. I wondered to myself why so many people have to sacrifice the comfort of their feet for a 9-5. ‘Cause bills, that’s why.
As I got off the el and approached the staircase to exit, I reminded myself that my next destination wasn’t more than a block away. I couldn’t wait to sit down and lift my wrecked heels out of the murderous Target flats. Almost there.
I feel my phone buzz and pull it from my pocket. It’s an email from a company I’m interviewing with. “Copywriter Position – Next Steps”. The subject line has me feeling hopeful. I’d been waiting for an answer for weeks. Impatience gets the best of me and I open the message as I shuffle quickly down the stairs. My eyes hungrily scan the screen. Dear Maura…. While we were very impressed with your background, we have decided to move forward with other candidates. We wish you the best of-“
Seriously? ‘Next Steps’? What a thoughtful way to title a potentially soul crushing email. Speaking of next steps…. I didn’t see them coming. Like, the physical ones, right in front of me. I fly forward, thinking, “F!@#.”
Aaaand I land. With all of my weight on my right ankle. My tumble concludes on the side of the el staircase. Everything stops and there’s just pain and anger and more pain. My inner dialogue kicks in to taunt me. The skin on my foot stings relentlessly both from the abrasion of the city sidewalk and from the fabric of the cheap flats that have eaten away layers of my skin. STUPID EFFING SHOES. I can’t discern the pain from how pissed I am at myself. …Did someone just laugh at me? Of course they did, I’m an idiotic millennial who can’t unglue her eyes from her iPhone for five seconds. Maybe next time she’ll learn not to stare at her phone all the time!
Note that this has all taken place in less than three minutes, not the three hours it felt like. My ankle is THROBBING. I must admit, it was far from the first time I’d taken a fall. I’m super clumsy, but I’ve never sustained a serious injury from it. My stomach churns as I realize today might finally be the day.
I need to get moving. I try to boost myself up- OHHHHHHHH my god OW. Nope. Not happening. I fall back down. My ankle pain multiplies in intensity. I feel paralyzed by the pain, which is only outweighed by the panic that consumes me as I realize that I can’t even stand on my own two feet right now, setting the scene for the perfect panic attack scenario. I remember generic advice about controlling your breathing when you feel anxiety coming on. Inhale. Throb. Exhale. Burn.
A woman in pink approaches. I wish I could remember her face, but I’m not sure I even saw it. Thankfully, she saw me, and said exactly what I needed to hear at that moment.
“Are you okay?”
Like I said, I’m a clumsy girl, and I hurt myself a lot. So naturally, I get asked that question a lot too and, for some reason, my first reaction is always anger. No, I’m not okay. Did you just see me wipe the f!@# out? I remind myself that it’s just an ice-breaker. What else can you really say when you see someone get hurt? Ice. I could definitely use some of that right now.
“Um. Yeah, I’m fine, thanks,” I mutter quickly between breaths, my voice high-pitched and unable to mask the pain I felt. No I’m not, I whisper internally.
She knows I’m lying. “No, you’re not. I saw that fall. Can I look at your foot?” I nod eagerly, feeling like a little kid who fell off the monkey bars, whose mom had come to the rescue.
She asks where I’m headed. I pointed toward LaSalle Street Station. “Train,” I gasped. Funny how five minutes ago, it seemed so close and I thought nothing could hurt more than my flesh-eating flats.
The lady stood by my side and worked with me to regain balance. She patiently waited until I began to slowly rise from the sidewalk. She showed me the best way to limp-walk without putting too much pressure on my injured ankle. She pulls me along as I limp, pulling luggage in her other hand. I forgot to ask where she was going. My ankle throbbed and skin burned with each step. I realized that if she saw me fall, she probably saw me staring at my phone. I felt the urge to explain myself.
I tell her about how I’d been looking for work for nearly two months, and how I got an email from a company I’d be interviewing with and just couldn’t wait to open it, only to find I’d been passed on. I tell her how that fall hurt so much more while paired with the pain of rejection. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more pathetic, as I limped beside her and blubbered about how the world was just working against me lately, and now this.
I’m guessing she was at least 20 years older than me. I wondered if she was thinking about how selfish I sounded; if she restrained the urge to tell me how other people had it so much worse, and couldn’t even afford my so-called shitty shoes from Target, let alone an iPhone. How being unemployed for two months is nothing, and there are people who have been out of work for two years. People who took worse falls and couldn’t work ever again. People with kids and mortgages and other responsibilities I knew nothing about. I knew I didn’t deserve sympathy, but she offered it anyway.
“You’re gonna be just fine, sweetie. I watched you wipe out BAD, and then you try and tell me you were okay! I knew damn well you weren’t. You’re a stubborn one.” We both laughed.
“As for your job search, I’ve been there. You will find something before you know it. You’re a fighter. I could tell that right away. Cuz if I fell like that, I would have been crying so hard!” I think I did cry, or I would have if I wasn’t so focused on trying to breathe. But her words felt so good, I didn’t bother to correct her.
We finally reach LaSalle Street Station. She asks multiple times if I’m going to be okay from there. My eyes fill with tears. I can’t wait to be somewhere safe to let them free. But these tears weren’t from pain; they were from sheer gratitude. “I’ll be okay, thanks to you.” I squeezed her hand as we unlinked arms. Which was weird because I’m not a touchy person, let alone with someone I’ve just met. But I was so touched by her kindness. “Thank you, SO much,” I choked out.
“You’re welcome, dear. Get some ice on that foot right away. And good luck on the job search. I bet you’ll get something soon.”
Sure enough, I received a job offer four days later.
On the train ride back to the suburbs, I stared out the window, watching the world whiz past, wondering just how many truly good people were apart of it. Like that lady. I wondered if she was some kind of guardian angel, sent over to LaSalle & Van Burn at that exact moment, to help me stand on my feet again, to help me reach my destination. There she was, at the right place, the right time, with all the right things to say to make me feel better.
LaSalle & Van Buren is a busy spot— especially on a Friday afternoon. I’m certain multiple people saw me fall and didn’t think twice about helping me. And those who didn’t see had their eyes glued to their own phones, oblivious to their surroundings, just as I was in that moment.
Over time, I too have developed tunnel vision as a pedestrian in Chicago. I too have become coldly conditioned to walking past people who cry out for spare change, for something to eat, for the help of a passerby. As I sit sprawled out in pain on the city pavement, I watched so many feet quickly shuffling past, but one pair of legs amongst a flurry of others stopped to help.
My ankle has healed quickly, and the injury ended up being half as terrible as it felt at that moment. But in that moment, I felt truly stuck. In that moment, I knew nothing but pain. And someone saw, and she reached out. She had somewhere to be, but she chose first to help me.
I like to believe karma exists. It’s a comforting thought; that maybe the lady on LaSalle and Van Buren showed up at that place, at that time, because of the strangers I’ve stopped to help throughout my life. That maybe there is a cosmic circle of universal compassion that thrives thanks to people like her.
To the lady on Lasalle & Van Buren: you could have walked away, but you didn’t. You knew that I needed you; maybe more than I knew I did at that very moment.
Thank you for not being a careless bystander. Thank you for not judging me for endangering myself because of an email. Thank you for pausing your own journey to link arms with a stranger and ensure their safety on the rest of theirs. I saw the luggage you pulled on your opposite arm, and I knew you had somewhere to be just as much, if not more than the flock of people passing me by. Still, you didn’t think twice about helping someone in need, even when they denied your help the first time. You’ve probably already forgotten about me— only because you’re the kind of woman whose kindness always compels you to help others. I’m sure that I was one of many touched by your compassion. I will never forget how selfless you were, and the comfort of your warmth when I felt so completely vulnerable. When I needed someone to help me up and kindly remind me that it wasn’t the end of the world.
To you, it may have not seemed like much, but your kindness meant everything to me.
About the author...
Maura Bilek is a writer and singer, born and raised in the south Chicago suburbs. She loves Harry Potter, wine, slam poetry, classic rock, cooking and karaoke. She is an advocate for animal rights and can never resist the urge to meet and greet each dog in her path. She considers herself a spiritual empath, and feels best when she is helping others. She hates speaking in third person, loves purple pens, laughs at herself frequently, and would choose pie over cake any day.