To be somebody

I was standing on the curb, looking right and left, waiting for the cars to go by so that I could cross the street in the crosswalk. I was only six years old, and quite little, so I was afraid to venture across unless the coast was clear on both sides. It was true I had seen people more ample in size and years step out into the striped path and bring traffic to a grumbling halt, almost as if they possessed magical powers. But there was so little of me that I just couldn't count on being taken that seriously.

Finally the traffic cleared to the point where there was only one car coming from my right. It was a very old car, a rusty gray station wagon, with all sorts of household belongings piled in the back. Its tires were bald and so crushed under the weight of their load that they looked almost flat.

The car was chugging up the slight incline so slowly that I could easily have dashed across the street before it reached the crosswalk. But, taking no chances, I waited for it to chug by.

To my amazement, the old car stopped just short of the crosswalk, its brakes squeaking so loudly I almost plugged my ears. A middle-aged man at the wheel, with a face worn and homely as the moon, motioned for me to go ahead and cross, and he smiled encouragement.

This was the first car that had ever stopped to let me cross the street in the crosswalk, and I couldn't move for a few moments. It was crazy, I thought. When I needed cars to stop, so I wouldn't have to wait forever to cross, they zoomed on by. But when all I needed was for one old car to chug by, it stopped.

Finally I headed across, not merely walking but skipping. This was a bit of bravado, but I didn't want the man to think it was my first crossing, solo, while a car waited for me. And besides, I wanted to repay his patience with speediness.

AS I passed in front of his car I turned and gave him a shy smile. His smile in return rooted me on, but there was something in his eyes that confused me. I could have sworn I saw two brightnesses there that looked like tears. How could he be smiling and crying at the same time?

I reached the other side of the street; I at a skip and the car at a chug kept pace with each other for several moments. I was about to break into a run and show the man how I could tear around the corner ahead when he pulled up alongside a mailbox. I went over and tapped on his window. He rolled it down, and I held out my hand to take his letters and mail them for him.

This offer simply sprang out of the goodness of my heart, though it was not without a desire to show the man that I could operate a mailbox as well as use a crosswalk.

"You want to mail my letters for me?" he asked.

I was too shy to speak, but I nodded.

"You are very kind," he said, handing me the letters. "Thank you."

Just for a moment he looked as if he might cry. I was too young then to know that there are people who have taken such a beating in life that when someone is nice to them, good to them, they feel like crying. But instead he held back the brightnesses in his eyes, and smiled at me. "You make me feel very important," he said.

I mailed his letters, and as he drove away we waved good-bye. I was sorry I hadn't told him that that's how he'd made me feel in the crosswalk -- important. As if my life, young as it was, was entitled to the same stopping of traffic as anybody else's. But before his car disappeared I did an absolutely spectacular run round the corner toward home, the run of a somebody, and if he was looking in his rear-view mirror he saw me.

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