Grace on a Tram

I caught the tram this morning. Truly caught it. Chased it like a mad thing, dodged traffic banked up behind it, weaved, sprinted, kept balance. Climbed aboard, collected my breath, took a seat and took in my surroundings. And pleasant surroundings they were, for seated opposite me was a colourful and pleasing sight: a young woman, slim, with wavy lime-and-blond coloured hair, who sat and ate a banana.


Her lime-blond hair matched her bright lime socks. At her hip hung a patchwork cloth bag, alive with colour. Her black patent leather ankle boots gleamed. Just above the orifice into which banana descended and disappeared steadily before my fascinated gaze, a small nose ring looped between her nostrils. The young woman was thin but not starved. She worked steadily at her banana until she came to the moment of social truth (for some, the moment of crisis), the end of the banana, the moment when the skin demands of the eater a decision.

I watched. Would she ditch with a deft flick the peel beneath her seat? Might she instead reach into her bright bag of cloth for a plastic bag? The young woman (I decided she was nineteen years of age) did neither. She simply sat, and the peel sat on her lap, dying.

The dying of a banana peel is swift in onset. The peel, once devoid of the flesh that shaped it and gave it purpose, quickly shrinks and darkens, losing all meaning. Its yellow bloom gone, it darkens, collapses and becomes an elegy for its own shabbiness.

So the three of us sat there for a while, the lady, the banana peel and the watcher. Throughout, the winter sun shone bright through the window of the tram, transfiguring all. My eyes watered for brilliance, and my bones thawed.

After a time a man entered. Tall, wide and round, the man moved slowly into our space in the back section of the tram. His shabby clothes were black, his curls were black and his skin was black. He lowered above us for a time, directing his gaze where no eyebeams might intersect. His fleshy lips moved soundlessly. His hairy right hand clutched a sheaf of papers upon which columns of figures descended in lines from the top of each page to the bottom. The pages had the grey, slightly smudged look of photocopies. I peered at the pages, curiously. The man held them as a child might clutch a Teddy Bear, a talisman held close, disregarded, but not to be surrendered readily.

The man finished looking at nothing and lowered his fleshy self onto a seat between and opposite the lime- banana woman and me. We three found ourselves at the points of an equilateral triangle. The man, oblivious, muttering like the scriptural Hannah, was not a prepossessing person. His bulk projected itself towards the woman, towards – who knows? – possibly into her space.

I guessed she might feel intimidated. I half expected her to rise and remove herself. I watched tensely. The man’s free hand rose, coming to rest close to his ear. He spoke. His speech was not directed, the speech, I surmised, of telephony. I looked up and between his splayed fingers no telephone was seen. The tram lurched, the man lurched in his seat, his clothing shifted above his large belly. His naked flesh, baby-like, helpless, pleaded his innocence.

Now the young woman moved. She leaned forward and sideward, her angular face closing on the man’s. She said something I did not catch. The man did not catch it either. The woman’s lips moved again and I was able to read them.  I saw the words, Can I help you?  The man saw, or heard, too.  After some time he spoke, now facing the young woman, his back to me. I had no clue what he said or asked. But the woman was nodding, Yes, yes, all the way to the city.  You’re on the right tram. Her face, still close, relaxed and opened widely into a smile. The girl nodded again, her smile shone upon the man. Eyes locked, the two sat for a time without moving.

At length the man sat back in his seat and relaxed, unfolding himself, pouring himself liberally into the space left around him by peak hour riders keeping a fastidious distance.

The sun lit the man’s tight black coronet of curls. Those curls crouched as a perimeter around his bald patch that I could now see gleamed in the morning light.  The tram rode on a short space, then stopped. The young woman rose and walked towards the exit. I did not want her to leave, not yet, not before I could thank her, bless her.

The tram stopped, the woman descended and I watched as her slim form weaved a colourful path through the city crowds.

Bostonians reach out and turn their goodness on me

The Boston Marathon is the oldest and most celebrated of the mass marathons. You need to qualify. Twice I qualified and ran. In 2005 I ran again, this time as fundraising runner.

Today’s Boston was to be my fourth. I was running as a fundraiser for the Michael Lisnow Respite Centre. This morning I visited their HQ in Hopkinton, near the starting line. I met people who face their colossally difficult lives with genuine joy. I met the fundraisers who punctuate their serious marathon training by devoting themselves for months to help fund this small enterprise.

Why am I going on at this length about these small matters in the face of the bombings?

You need to be in Boston on Patriots’ Day to appreciate the celebration that is the marathon. A city of less than one million comes to a stop; people take their chairs, their picnic rugs, the treats they will give to the runners; they line the 42.4 kilometres and stay all day, cheering on every runner; they hold banners – everything from “You are all Kenyans” to “Kiss me, I’m flexible”.
Picture Melbourne on Cup Day or Grand Final day without the booze. Boston is high on its marathon and the runners. Patriots Day is the time to enjoy the embrace of the city’s people.

If you have the good fortune to be a charity runner, you run at the tail of the field, feeling that embrace, the surges of love for the people – usually young – who are supporting local causes. One young woman survived melanoma; another is in remission from her leukaemia. I have close relatives saved from those diseases. So, apparently, do hundreds in the crowd who roar their gratitude.

Someone else came to the marathon today with a different purpose than to celebrate. Someone whose malignity exceeds his knowledge: his bombs exploded near the finish around the four-hour mark; in an elite marathon like this, the ‘bulge’ – the greatest concentration of finishers – occurs 30 to 60 minutes earlier. The terrible toll might have been much heavier.

I plodded to the 35-kilometre mark, when a spectator offered me a slice of orange. His kindly young face looked troubled. “There have been explosions near the finish line. The marathon has been temporarily suspended.”

Naively I ran on.

A kilometre further on, I was one of very few still running. Police and runners were mingling on the course, faces dark. Hands held mobiles, sending text messages; local phone coverage was out. Some wept wrenchingly, their features distorted in grief or shock or anxiety for others ahead on the course. Many had relatives waiting near the Line.

The crowds fell quiet. Overhead, helicopters gathered and clattered. Police vehicles racing everywhere, ambulances, sirens shrieking, tore between barriers as the crowds melted out of their path. Not for the first time, the matter of placing one foot in front of another felt slight. Here was immediate danger and evident bloodshed.

Police turned back those of us who were running into danger. I needed to contact family. Strangers handed me their phones. I asked a teenager for directions to a local landmark, where my relatives would be; the teen insisted on escorting me.
As I waited, strangers stopped to offer help. One bloke wanted to give me his jacket so I wouldn’t get cold. Passers by touched me, or took my hand to shake. One gazed at me, shaking his head. “I am sorry,” he said.

Boston silenced, in shock, in grief. Its citizens reaching out to each other in spontaneous solidarity. More than that, people felt implicated in a wrong, embarrassed: their guests had been hurt, frightened, frustrated. They turn their goodness upon me and I feel like crying.

A terrible beauty born.

Reproduced from The Age 17 April 2013.

The Age Boston piece

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