A while back I shared this story on Strangerville. Here's the audio and text. Please enjoy.
Woman In The White Sedan
There was a crosswalk just between my neighborhood and the school I attended until the sixth grade. It was at the southwest corner of the school property. The school building was shaped like the letter H, which you would notice if you flew over it in a plane. I didn’t know this from personal experience, of course. My friends and I had figured it out though from walking the three halls—two long and one short—of the simple elementary school.
The place was cozy enough. Not particularly fancy, but nothing you would see in a rough neighborhood because we didn’t live in a rough neighborhood. This was a very middle class town with very middle class people and Mormon churches every block and a half. Sometimes the churches were even more abundant than that. The elementary school was neighbored by two Mormon churches, each barely more than a stone’s throw from the other. It’s entirely possible that there were more Mormon churches in my town than there were people who weren't Mormon. That sounds like hyperbole, but I truly mean it. By 1995 there were at least twelve Mormon churches in my town and I don’t recall a single person of color at my school at that time.
South Jordan, Utah was a farm town transitioning into city suburbs in the early 90s. Today it has grown into its own metropolis with hip cafes, artificial lakes, and a light rail for commuters. But when I was growing up, it was a place for cattle and young families breaking ground for modest new homes with peach colored living rooms and a Jacuzzi bathtub in the master bedroom. They called the town it South Jordan, I guess, because it was just south of West Jordan. The name always felt like an afterthought to me. I imagine that whoever chose it later regretted the decision when people started moving in and the nearly-nonsensical label caught on. Fortunately, the cool youth modified it to “So Jo” at least by the mid-90s, so our town felt slightly hip, like something from MTV.
When my parents decided to move to South Jordan from West Jordan, a bold statement, they were basically frontiersmen. They broke ground for the home they live in to this day in the middle of desert land, vacant on all sides, stripped of any semblance of civilization.
When I was in middle school, I humbly accepted a lead role in my church congregation’s hit musical “Oh, South Jordan,” which was a loose loose parody of Oklahoma. As I recall, the entire plot rested on South Jordan’s complete lack of trees and basic infrastructure. I assume it was written by a dissatisfied stay-at-home mom who secretly kept vodka under the frozen beef in the deep freeze out in the garage. “Ooooooh South Jordan where the wind comes sweeping ‘cross my yaaaard!” I sang with accompanying big hand actions during the entire one-night run of the show.
It was strange how far the place felt from anything else back in those days. For years, deer walked through our neighborhood in early fall when the mountains grew cold and wildlife had to migrate a few miles for food. I don’t know what food they found. There wasn’t a restaurant in all of South Jordan until I was thirteen. When it opened, Grandpa Maddox, as it was called, we felt like our city was finally put on the map.
A good portion of my neighbors were investors in Grandpa Maddox. I used to babysit for one of the families that helped start the place. The best part of the job was that they would bring home cold rolls and cornbread from their night out of South Jordan fine dining, where they no longer had to travel to eat. The restaurant instantaneously became a South Jordan institution. Grandpa Maddox was my first employer. My sister Krisanda was my supervisor. Krisanda met her husband, Jeff, there. I met my prom date in the kitchen. She was a dishwasher and I was a busboy. We were both covered in chewed-up food nearly every time we interacted. It was almost impossible to not fall in love under that pitched-barn roof.
The point is, South Jordan was a town of change in the 90s. The community outgrew our modest elementary school building years before I arrived. The population growth far outpaced the budget, and so resources were always stretched thin. Because there wasn’t enough money or time to build a new school building, the district had set up a handful of what they called “portable classrooms” over large parts of the playground in order to accommodate a few hundred extra students. The portable classrooms were basic rectangular structures that resembled extra-large double-wide trailers. A line of these aluminum grey constructions ran down one side of the school in a straight line, which meant that when combined with the main building, our school spelled “HI” to anyone traveling over us. This was an incredible architectural achievement as far as we, the children of Jordan Ridge Elementary School, were concerned.
They said the portable classrooms were temporary fixes to a population influx—something that was only supposed to last a couple of years until new elementary schools were constructed in the community, rendering the portables obsolete. These same portable classrooms still sit, now a few decades later, greeting passenger jets, a stone’s throw away from even more Mormon churches that never seemed to struggle to meet the needs of the growing population.
The crosswalk at the corner of Elementary School and Our Neighborhood wasn’t particularly trafficked—maybe just enough that they felt they needed a crossing guard. My friends and I thought the job was unnecessary, especially by the time we were ten or eleven. We could cross the road without the help of some person’s mom.
All of the crossing guards were women, and for several years they all looked like they were probably someone’s mom. We saw them every day, but strangely we didn’t know where they had come from. They weren’t moms from our neighborhood, as far as we could tell. It was like they had shipped these moms in from another town to make sure our town’s kids didn’t get hit by cars. There was something offensive about this. A gaggle of snobs who probably lived up on the mountainside had collectively determined over a glass of sloshing red wine that it was their civic duty to come down to the slums to keep us ignorant swine from voluntarily walking into our own deaths.
The crossing guards were usually chatty but firm, directing us with all the seriousness appropriate for their task at hand, while simultaneously warm in the way moms often are. They seemed to know our names, but we usually didn’t know theirs. It never occurred to us to find out if they had names. This is just because I was nine and not yet socially sensitive enough to understand that people are called something and it’s humanizing to know what that something is. I’m not sure I’ve ever totally grown out that.
For two years in my late twenties I walked passed a homeless man every day, one who had taken residence in front of a Starbucks. He cursed at me, calling me a number of unique and offensively-accurate names, but I wasn’t special. He talked to most people this way. He sat, drowning in a pile of dirty blankets, not asking for anything, but yelling at people to move along and get out of his way.
The people who worked inside the Starbucks called him “Angry Jesus” because of his long hair and recent weight loss. I learned about this name because the Starbucks employees weren’t shy about using it whenever I was there. In addition to the look, I think the name also had something to do with the number of times he screamed about how we were all going to hell, for no reason in particular. “Be ye ware! You blood-sucking pieces of vomit shit!” He was more like the Old Testament God in that way.
The Starbucks employees had a complicated relationship with Angry Jesus. On the one hand, they were constantly engaged in peace talks with him, with the ultimate goal to get him to move to another stretch of sidewalk, or at least to stop telling people in suits to “eat a bag of shit and choke to death on it,” as he was wont to do. On the other hand, they felt defensive of Angry Jesus, and regularly brought him extra clothes and food.
On one occasion I heard a man in his 50s—they’re always in their 50s—complaining to a Starbucks employee about Angry Jesus, referring to him and the other homeless men out on the sidewalk as “rodents.” He looked like he was from out of town. At least I assumed that he was because I didn’t like him. It caught me off guard the way he said “rodents”—so hyperbolically nasty, like I usually imagine no real-life villain can possibly be. The five-foot-tall Starbucks employee with a pixie haircut and peace sign tattooed onto her clavicle hissed at the customer, “oh I’m sorry—is the existence of that poor shivering man who hasn’t had a break in his life inconveniencing your line of vision?”
I started taking some ownership for him around that time, too. There was something about the way this prick said “rodents” that really got to me. I didn’t rally the troops and start a foundation for homeless people, but I did start giving disappointed looks to passersby if ever I saw someone wholly ignore or mistreat Angry Jesus in any way, so you could say the peace clavicle barista was no longer fighting this battle alone. Sure, I didn’t love when he called me a “moldy scrotum,” as he did on at least five occasions, and sure, I sometimes felt inconvenienced when I had to leap over his urine puddles to get to the front door of the establishment, but I was allowed to have feelings about him. He was our Angry Jesus, not that cranky probably-out-of-town Starbucks customer’s.
Around 1994 a new crossing guard showed up on the corner of Elementary School and Our Neighborhood. She didn’t look like a mom, and I assumed she wasn’t one. She had mousy brown hair and wore the same thick gray coat every day. Her facial features were harsh, like she had been waiting at a bus stop in a Rocky film. She was less warm than her colleagues, rarely greeting us with anything that remotely resembled a smile, instead opting for a shriek every time we saw her as we funneled through the crosswalk, snapping at us for going too slowly.
She had an accent. I was a child, and had barely gone outside of my neighborhood, let alone my country, so there was no way I could place it. All I knew was she was different. In my memory, she sounded like she was from Iran or Saudi Arabia or somewhere else in the Middle East, but she looked eastern European. In reality, she was probably from somewhere like Houston or Brooklyn, both of which might as well have been Iran to me.
We called her “Zelda.” I don’t know why. That wasn’t her name. I’m positive not a single one of us knew her name. But we had to give her a nickname because it was difficult to make fun of her all day long without referring to her as something.
We mocked her outfit that never changed, day after day and week after week. We mimicked her accent distastefully enough that if ever a recording surfaced not a single one of us would be allowed to run for office.
Zelda’s demeanor and general iciness egged us on. We assumed that she didn’t like children because she never seemed happy to see us like the other crossing guards who cheerfully greeted us and told us to have a nice day. “Move along. Get going. What’s taking so long?” Zelda sniped at us. “I was caught up admiring your bargain bin boots,” my friend Jacob whispered in response to Zelda’s last question, prompting snickers from our posse. It probably doesn’t need to be said, but Jacob is gay now.
Zelda finally gave us some new material after several weeks of forcing us to find unique offensive ways to refer to her home-knitted hat that was coming un-woven at the back. It was a frigid day, and my mother decided to drive my friends and me the two blocks to school.
“Look!” I gasped as we pulled up to the crosswalk at the corner of Elementary School and Our Neighborhood. “Zelda’s wearing bright orange lipstick! Maybe she’s trying to get a job at the zoo now!”
My mother’s head whipped around 180 degrees the way only moms’ heads can do. Her eyes bore into me. She didn’t look angry—more disappointed and exasperated than anything else. “That’s a person,” she half whispered. “She’s a person.”
My friends were quiet the way friends usually are when they see someone else’s parent in rebuke mode. My mother turned her head back around and pulled through the intersection, gripping the steering wheel. The squeaks from her hands tightening on the rubber seemed to scream “I’m disappointed in you.”
It’s odd that I remember this detail, but as we pulled forward I caught another glimpse of Zelda and I was surprised to see that she was smiling, ever so slightly. I was pretty sure I hadn’t seen her do that before. It was almost like she knew that some form of carpool justice had been served in her honor. Of course it was much more likely that she had met a man, decided to start dolling herself up, and was feeling more pleasant than usual because she had finally found something to start looking forward to.
My mother pulled in to the drop-off area and stopped. I don’t remember her saying a word as we opened the doors to exit. We sheepishly got out of the car and shuffled into the school. I had a stomachache for the rest of the day.
By the time I started high school I had learned never to mock a crossing guard, especially not an immigrant crossing guard, and especially not in front of my mother. Sometime over the next few years it occurred to me that the crossing guards at the corner of Elementary School and Our Neighborhood back in the mid-90s were probably not coming from the mountainside to civilize the impoverished masses. It was more likely that they drank boxed wine and took on the job of shepherding snot-nosed brats because they needed the paycheck. We didn’t know them because they lived in a poorer town than ours. Every time I thought back to Zelda and how we mocked what I later realized was her poverty, the same stomachache I had the last time I did it came back to me.
In my later teens I would occasionally think I saw her out in public, but it was more likely that the lookalikes had nothing more in common with her than sharing the same mousy brown hair and I was only seeing a resemblance because I badly wanted to run into her again. I didn’t want to say anything, if I did see her. I just thought that if ever our paths crossed and she looked well and happy, it would totally absolve me of all of my clandestine mocking from the mid-90s.
My guilt complex was fully developed at least by the time I was 16. I lay awake a lot of nights thinking about times I was disrespectful to grownups, like when my friend Rachelle and I wrote a poem about a science teacher that was not particularly flattering. We gave him a copy of it, apparently unaware of how gutting it might be for a fragile and unpopular educator to read the line, “he writes with chalk, or sometimes a pen, and usually he waddles around like a hen.”
One day I was driving up a road, the same one that ran into the intersection of Our Neighborhood and Elementary School. I was 17 by this time. Rush-hour traffic had caused some stop and go, but there seemed to be something else holding us up. I finally realized what it was as I passed a beat-up white sedan sitting halfway in an intersection and with smoke billowing out from under the hood. Inside was a woman at the driver’s seat. She had long grey hair and tattered greyer coat. There was no one else in the car. I got a really good look at her because traffic was moving at a crawl. She was probably in her 50s—they’re always in their 50s—both hands gripping the steering wheel, probably making a squeaking sound as they did. She was rocking back and forth, ever so slightly, her mouth gaping open, and tears pouring from her eyes. I couldn’t hear her, but she was obviously wailing.
The desperation of the look on her face and the intensity of her movements made me think the wailing wasn’t really about the broken-down car. That may have set it off, but no one looks like that after a car stops working on an otherwise great day.
The spectacle struck me as strange as I slowly inched by her with the flow of traffic. Maybe it was because we were all in our own cars, all of us drivers on that road, occupying our own artificial environments that made it so we couldn’t hear another person crying. Maybe it was because everyone else on the road was moving and she was stuck in place. Maybe it was all of those things, but she just seemed so alone in her beat-up, broke-down white sedan. This woman was stuck there, and getting out of the situation was up to her. It wasn’t going to be anyone else’s problem unless someone else made it their problem.
By the time the white sedan was out of sight of my rearview mirror, it occurred to me that I made a mistake by just driving by someone in the midst of lonely tragedy, and I could hear my mother’s voice in my head telling me as much over the squeaking sounds from my hands gripping the steering wheel. It would have been hard to stop there where she was, but I could have probably found a way to pull over, somehow. Instead I had driven on. I may as well have suggested that she was about to get a job at the zoo.
I made my way back to the site, but because of the traffic it took fifteen minutes to get there. She was gone when I showed up. Someone who didn’t mock crossing guards when they were ten had already stopped to help.
They pop into my mind with some regularity, even though not a single one of them knows I exist. The imagery that flashes through my head when I recall them is vivid and possibly distorted because of time. There they are in my mind’s eye—Zelda, Angry Jesus, and the woman in the beat-up white sedan, each at their own intersections, watching the rest of us go by. Each down on their luck in their own special way, but probably sort of in the same way, too. Each getting mocked or ignored by some prick.
Each one of them—a person.
~It Just Gets Stranger