On Race Street downtown some weeks ago, I was standing at an ATM taking $40 out of my checking account. I heard a voice I vaguely recognized.
“Is that you, Larry Gross?” the voice said. I looked to my right and saw a woman walking toward me.
“I saw you walking to the ATM,” she said. “You always have this unique walk. I knew it was you.”
“Hello,” I said, looking at her and kind of remembering her but not quite. Her name wasn’t coming to me.
It was a hot afternoon, mid 90s. The woman was a bit heavy, wearing a white T-shirt with no bra. She had on blue jeans and dirty white scandals. Her short brown hair was dirty as well.
“It’s been a long time,” she said. “We used to work together at that office supply store on Main Street.”
With that said, her name came back to me. She was Allison. This was the Allison I knew back in 1975.
Back then, she was an office assistant at that office supply store. She was probably five years younger than me. She was pretty and striking in an odd kind of way. She looked a lot like Barbara Streisand.
We never got to know each other and we never became friends, but I always respected the work she did. It was simply excellent. She was always professional.
“You’re Allison,” I said.
“Used to be her,” the woman said. “Now I’m sort of a person walking the streets.”
“What does that mean?”
“You just took money out of that machine,” she said. “I can show you a good time with that money.”
Allison smiled. Most of her front teeth were missing.
“What’s going on with you?” I asked.
“I have a drug habit,” she said.
“I smoke crack and need money. Can you help an old friend out?”
I looked at her, confused. This was not the Allison I knew — not the professional businesswoman from 1975.
“Allison, I’d like to talk to you some time,” I said. “Maybe we could get together and have some coffee and...”
“You’ll have to pick me up,” she said. “I lost my driver’s license years ago.”
“Where do you live?”
“Shit, I don’t live anywhere anymore,” she said laughing. “I flop or hang out in Over-the-Rhine with friends most days.”
I reached into my left back pocket, pulled out my wallet and handed her my business card.
“Let’s talk,” I said. “Call me sometime next week. We’ll get together.”
She took the card, looked at it and laughed again.
“I can show you my tits right now,” she said. “No need to make an appointment for that.”
“Why would you say something like that to me?” I asked.
“Still uptight, aren’t you?” she replied. “You haven’t changed a bit.”
Becoming frustrated, I wanted to wrap up the encounter quickly.
“Let’s continue this next week,” I replied. “I have an appointment I need to get to.”
“You and your appointments,” she said, sounding annoyed. “You’ll still the businessman, aren’t you? Life never got a hold of you, did it?
“I don’t know what...”
“Can you give me 20 out of that 40?”
She noticed the money I'd taken out of the ATM.
“Will you buy food with it?” I asked.
“If that makes you feel alright about it, then of course.”
She got the 20 bucks, and I headed toward by bus stop. I had lied about having an appointment. I needed to get away from Allison.
On that bus ride home, thoughts of the Allison I knew in 1975 came into focus along with the current woman I'd just had an exchange with at the ATM. Over the course of 35 years, life does change a person. Its twists and turns don’t always work out for the best — certainly not in Allison’s case.
When it comes to her observations about me, she was wrong about a few things. I’m not the “businessman” she still thinks I am. I’m also not the uptight guy I once was.
Life teaches a person lessons, and in my current life I’ve learned to stop and smell the roses. I also have more compassion for others, but now — weeks after my encounter with Allison — I’m wondering what I’m going to do if she calls.
She hasn’t yet, and I don’t know if she ever will. If she does, I’m telling myself I won’t hang up the phone. I’m telling myself I’ll meet with her and find out what's gone so horribly wrong in her life.
I’m telling myself that I want to help, but the nagging question in my mind is do I really want to? This leads to yet another question: What does this attitude say about my so-called compassionate self?
I think the reality is I’m scared of receiving that phone call from her. The Allison I knew in 1975 is much different than the one that exists now. I’m afraid of opening a door that maybe I shouldn’t. Keeping her in my past and not responding to her feels cold but also feels safe.
When it comes to Allison, my thoughts are confused. My emotions are up in the air. All I can really do now is wait for the phone to ring.
CONTACT LARRY GROSS: firstname.lastname@example.org