How It Wasn’t (Start)


I walked up Spruce Street that Saturday, inadvertently stressing my lower back and wondering about the fault. It runs beneath Spruce or Euclid or the Arlington in my part of Berkeley, and I figured I was pacing along on top of it, near the end of an arbitrary millennium.

It would have been too weird if the earth had chosen one of those moments to quake. If a week before the big party the plates of Hayward ground against one another, epicentered.

It would have been so weird it was corny.

It didn’t happen. There was no quake, big or little, while I took my long Christmas walk. There were strange windstorms in Paris the following week, but no cataclysm or apocalypse as the cultural world rotated into its two thousands. Not even an Internet implosion.

Those non-events wouldn’t occur after the news of show cancellations and empty airline flights, when it began to be clear that most people simply didn’t want the pressure of trying to have a party-of-the-millennium, and therefore opted to just stay home. All the Y2K attention diluted the festivity and created a tsunami of anticlimax.

No, those wouldn’t not happen till the following week. On Christmas day I took a long hilly walk. I tried to forget all my tasks. I strode with my customary ground-eating gait, and the force from my heels’ impact on the sidewalk sailed up my skeleton and dislodged my lower back a little. As I wondered what it would be like to have the street wrench and yawn, the disks in my own spine grated against surrounding tissue, slipped to ease intolerable pressure, commenced an inflammation that would soon more than irk. And while that spinal event occurred there was an insistence coiling around my heart as well. I was alone and walking to try to hear myself, sensing nothing yet, but within my moods were eddying into a cyclone. There was a lot going on in me that day.

I tripped on uneven pavement. Berkeley is old enough to have charming small-block sidewalks, gardened enough to have mature tree roots that dislodge those small blocks, seismic enough to shift the sidewalk blocks like miniature tectonic plates. There are many cracks and misalignments. Usually the pedestrian just stumbles (gracelessly) and recovers to walk on (embarrassed), turning back with an accusing glare at the sidewalk. But sometimes the stumbler falls. I tripped on Christmas day when I bumped the toes of my right foot against the edge of an uptilted sidewalk block. I tried to catch myself, running forward to get my feet under my shoulders, jarring my 50 year-old self with each thudding step. I went down with dread. What flashed before my eyes as the ground rushed to meet me was the certainty that I was about to get injured.

“Oh shit,” were the thoughts that can be articulated. “This is going to hurt. This is going to shake up my insides. I won’t even know the full extent of the damage for days. Oh shit.”

I fell forward and took the impact on my left knee and the heels of both palms. I ripped my jeans and the skin on my hands, and I wrenched my left elbow. The next morning I would discover I had badly jarred my spine.

Instead of standing immediately and walking on, I rolled from my fall to sit on the sidewalk, knees up, examining damage. The tear in my pants. Blood beginning to seep along the whorls of exposed dermis. Flecks of sycamore twigs on flayed palms. Deep quivering.

“Are you okay?” The question came from above. I looked up and wondered how I had missed seeing this pedestrian: a bit above medium height, dark-haired, not inconspicuous.

“Sure,” I said, embarrassed, trying to get up before I was ready. Wishing I could just be alone, to nurse my knee with it raised to my face, to press my tender palms against my thighs.

“Let me help you,” and there was a hand extended, so I took it and rose a little shakily to my feet. “Thanks.”

“Really: are you okay? Would you like to sit for a minute? I live right here,” with a gesture down the slope from the sidewalk, toward the view.

“No. No,” I said and said again. “I’ll be all right. Really. I’m fine. Thanks for the assist,” and I looked into blue eyes below dark hair. “I tripped on the bad old sidewalk,” I explained, trying to laugh it off. “I feel incredibly clumsy.”

“Oh, we’ve all done it.” Reassuring smile. “I love it when the person doesn’t actually fall, when they just stumble and do that running forward deal, you know? And then they always look back as if blaming the sidewalk…”

I smiled. “Yeah. Look: maybe I will take you up on that seat. I’m a little shook up.”

“Good. Come in. My name’s Chris,” holding out that hand again, leading me down the brick walkway to the windowed front door, into a small living room and an upholstered armchair. There was a large window at the back of the room, looking out over the clear cold afternoon.

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