My late uncle had a saying that always made me laugh. “I’m going out among ’em,” he would declare, usually as we were piling into the car heading to a sporting event.
That phrase probably had its origin with him as a young man in 1940s Salt Lake City, when the ratio of Mormons to Catholics (he was the latter) was far higher than it is now. In my elementary school years here in the ’50s, we were the only Catholics in our neighborhood.
That “otherness” probably was more applicable for my uncle here in the ’50s when he was looking to find a place to enjoy a cocktail. The sole location to do so would’ve been a private locker club in which one had to have previously brought in a bottle to be locked away and then served only to him and his guests.
Setting drinkers apart was further accomplished when buying that bottle meant having to go to the state liquor store. It wasn’t the simple process that it now is—just taking your choice off the shelf, giving it to the cashier and paying for it. I remember as a kid accompanying my grandfather on Saturday mornings to the Sugar House store, watching as he would peruse the glass display cases with printed sheets of what was available, mark his selection on a 4-by-5-inch card and then hand it to the employee at the counter, who would retrieve it from behind a wall that prevented even a glimpse of the wares in the back.
For me, in modern times, “out among ’em” now has a somewhat different connotation.
I have utilized TRAX for the past four years since resuming my position as line editor with City Weekly. My journey is a round trip from the 900 South station to the Gallivan Plaza stop, which is conveniently situated across from our offices. Usually, there are only a couple of people waiting with me for an inbound morning train, and there really haven’t been the same ones twice.
What is strange is that most often the conversations I can’t help overhearing have involved the speakers—of both sexes—either just having gotten out of jail themselves or noting the status of associates who have either just been arrested or released. Since I’ve never been arrested, and only have known a couple of folks who’ve enjoyed the county’s penal hospitality (and that was decades ago), the talk is foreign to me and a bit unnerving.
Before route changes eliminated the train that traveled east to the library, the Gallivan stop was crowded with folks not having much else to do other than linger there or ride in the free-fare zone. Outside of frequent requests for spare change and a few fights, there usually wasn’t anything more than yelling, so I didn’t worry much about personal safety.
Vandalism is another matter. It really didn’t bother me when I returned to my truck one afternoon and found a wad of minty “ABC” gum jammed into my door lock, along with some trash in the truck bed. When it happened again a few weeks later, I became concerned. Someone was obviously not happy with me.
This doubly bothered me because I had previously spent more than a month of telephone time with the city’s transportation engineer, who is in charge of street lighting, to have a broken streetlight repaired near where I park. I felt like I had been a good citizen, but was now starting to wonder if this was a case of no good deed going unpunished.
Because of a disability that affects my walking, I have another type of “otherness”: My gait is precarious, I use a walking stick and falling is an occasional nemesis. In practically all of the instances when that has occurred on my workday travels, those who were first to offer immediate aid were the very ones I had started to distance myself from. Their genuine concern and compassion really surprised and touched me, whether assisting me up the stairs of the older TRAX cars or lifting me up from a stumble.
Most surprising and welcome was the help I received after getting my wife’s 4WD Subaru high-centered on a pile of snow left by a snowplow. A disheveled fellow came from the TRAX platform to push, despite his bad shoulder. That didn’t work, so, moving on to plan B, I was vigorously shoveling when another fellow demanded money to help, which put me off (I certainly would have offered payment if he had not been so mercenary), and so I continued with my solo chore.
As I was near the point of exhaustion, one of the neighbors appeared and, speaking no English, gestured for me to give him the shovel and get in the car. Twenty minutes later, after his efforts, the car was clear of the snow. He laughed and smiled at me when I twice attempted to reward him for his kindness, instead only wanting to borrow the shovel to dig out his own car. My friend suggested another way of thanking him. When I saw him the next day, I gave him a gift of sheepherder’s bread and a jar of preserves with a note in my inadequate Spanish, which elicited a radiant smile of gratitude.
Tolstoy said it best about when one is tempted to pass judgment: “People have eternally been mistaken and will be mistaken …”