Downtown was an anthill: men and women streaming from City Hall, checking watches on the fly, uniformed workers dashing out of the post office. A woman in pleated skirt, blazer over her arm, clacked by, juggled her purse to slip into the passenger side of a double-parked car. The car eased into traffic, but not before a driver behind honked a complaint. At the corner––a nervous herd of high heels, wingtips, and sandals––Don't Walk turned to Walk just as a convertible sneaked through, back-pedaling a couple of us onto the safety of the curb. I window shopped down the block and meandered around another corner, my stomach sweaty from summer humidity, but my attitude smug. I alone was not captive to the clock.
Across the street a bustling throng was mirrored in plate-glass facades. A bus groaned to a stop beside me, too close; I jumped. After the beast sucked a crowd into its maw, it pulled away, coughing diesel fumes. As smoke dissipated, I blinked a double-take––the sidewalk across the street had emptied, pedestrians vanished. I looked to my right. Nobody. To my left. Nothing.
Late afternoon sun dipped behind an office building, casting a boxy shadow from one side of the street to the other. I was alone in a canyon of glass and steel, the distant whine of an ambulance siren as soundtrack to my dread. Twilight had sucked up the city's song and exhaled air as still as a tomb.
In an alley, a dark shape was leaning against a building. Broken glass glinted nearby. I felt the heat of watchfulness on my bare arm as I passed. And why did downtown smell like beer? From street to sidewalk to high-rise to sky, nothing but gray. Nothing but gloom. A man in work boots clomped by, going in the other direction. He glanced at me suspiciously and shook his head. His expression shot me back to another twilight walk in another big city.
My twenties. I worked in the L. A. garment district and lived half an hour from downtown, in a garden apartment converted from a garage. My car in the shop, I took the bus home after work. I boarded at a busy intersection, standing in line to climb the steps and shouldering through the crowded aisle to find a seat. Laden with grocery sacks and lunch pails, others stood, hugging poles for balance. As we traveled in fits and starts down Adams toward Jefferson High, riders trickled off the bus. When I pulled the cord, I was the only one who exited. I strolled past pink and orange cottages with red tile roofs and manicured lawns. The horizon had swallowed the sun; twilight had deepened the sky to purple, but the breeze was California-mild and scented with roses. A man my father's age, watering his lawn, scowled at me. "Girl, what the hell are you doing out here alone?"
"I live down the street."
"Get yourself home."
I shivered, quickened my pace.
The chill that had crept up my spine in Los Angeles reclaimed me in Saint Louis. I donned courage like a too-big coat. Willed my legs into confident strides, though they wanted to scurry. Straightened my backbone, though it wanted to slump. Opened my eyes, though they wanted to cry.
Only when the hotel entrance materialized, lit up like the gates of heaven, only then did panic downshift into tension. The sidewalk led straight to Marriott's M over those revolving doors, but I knew my path was not leading me toward any place I'd call home.
The Right Time