Making my way to the British Library from Southwark, I came across a scene in one of London’s Tube stations: an elderly woman was at the top of an escalator, with a crowd of people gathering around her. “I can’t do it,” I heard her say. Her voice was panicky – in fact, I think it was the urgency of her tone that drew my attention in the first place. People packed in behind her and her family members. Unable to move forward, they pressed closer as she stood there on the grate, looking unsteadily at the ribbed metal spooling out into stairs at her feet. Across the way, my ascending escalator drew me closer to the group.
“Please don’t make me do it!” she cried out. In that moment, I realized what a terrifying thing an escalator could be. There she was, standing precariously on solid ground, contemplating this machine that would propel her forward, no doubt throwing her off-balance and making her fall all the way down.
At that moment, two personnel walked up to the group and gently pushed closer to her and her family. I watched as they soothed her, gave her a quick pep talk and then flanked her. They each grabbed her elbow and guided her off of the platform onto the stairs. Cheers and applause erupted from behind them: not cheers of “Hurry up already!” but genuine, congratulatory whoops from the crowd. In that moment, I felt like all those people were as proud of her and happy for her as I was. Tears prickled in my eyes to see all those strangers show such goodwill.
Waiting at the gate in Terminal A, passengers were starting to fill up the seats around me. Our flight had been delayed for a second time. I looked up from my book to see an airport official pushing an elderly woman in a wheelchair. The woman was frail, and shaky. They pulled up to the line of seats next to me; the seat closest to me was still empty. The airport official stopped the wheelchair and ordered the occupant out. Her tone was no just brusque – it was impatient and downright insulting. She was treating that poor woman like a sack of potatoes that she was tired of lugging around. The older woman strained to stand up; she failed. She rocked back in her seat and tried to stand again, then faltered. She obviously needed a hand. I was so close to her that I felt I should help, so I put my hand out to steady her. She grabbed my arm and tumbled over into the hard plastic seat beside me.
“Where’s your cane?” the airport official demanded.
“Your cane. You didn’t lose it did you? That was all you had to do – you had to keep up with that cane.”
Muttering under her breath the airport official railed against that “silly old bat” and “now I’m gonna have to hunt down that stupid cane,” and walked away from us, pushing the chair.
I looked over at the old woman beside me and looked like she was close to tears.
“Where is she going?” she asked me. “Did she take my cane? I need my cane!”
I told her that the official was probably going to look for it. Did she know where she’d left it?
“Oh, I may have left it in the bathroom,” she told me. I watched the airport official walking off into the crowd and thought this might be information she needed to know.
I told the woman that I’d be right back and I picked up my bags and caught up to the woman with the wheelchair.
“She thinks she may have left it in the bathroom,” I told her.
“I was GONNA get it! Why you gotta get involved? I’ll get her durn cane!”
She thought I’d come up to chide her.
No, I told her, I was just trying to help – I thought she might want to know where to look.
“Mind your own business,” she said, and walked off in a huff.