Glen was just packing his saxophone into its case in the entrance hall of the Salvation Army shelter when Helen came shuffling along. He looked up and noticed she was dressed to go out. She was pulling the heavy wagon she had fashioned out of an old suitcase handle, a milk crate and some wheels. It made a soft scraping noise on the scuffed linoleum flooring. His eyes quickly took in her appearance and his brow furrowed in concern. She wasn’t dressed very warmly.
“Helen,” he began gently, “Helen, are you going out in that? You know, it’s very cold today.”
Helen looked up absently at him, pulled a scarf down over her hair and knotted it below her chin. “I’ve called a taxi,” she said, as an explanation.
A horn honked outside. Glen turned and looked through the window. “I think your taxi’s here. Do you want some help?”
But Helen was already shuffling off toward the door, lost in her own world.
Glen finished getting his things together and buttoned up his coat. It was cold, but he was looking forward to going out in the snow. He had some tunes in his head that he wanted to play and he knew he would warm up once he started, once he was out among the people on the streets. He pulled on his gloves and, grasping his saxophone case and taking hold of the collection pot and stand, he followed Helen out into the cold, grey day.
It is a cold, cold day. And grey. The clouds are a thick and seamless, unmoving mass overhead. I think it must be too cold to snow, and yet it is snowing. Flakes of white twirl and dance through the air.
Depending on the scene, the moment, the people in it, the same snow on the same cold, grey day can be beautiful or forbidding, it can sparkle or prick at the faces of passersby.
It is early afternoon and I am walking through the crowded exit of a hospital. Outside, just before the entrance, there is a crush of cars and people, coming and going. I am tired and on my way somewhere but the plaintive voice of a small, older woman getting out of a taxi distracts me.
At first, I think she is elderly. She wears a patterned scarf over her head and tied at her chin so that I can’t see her hair. I imagine it is grey, perhaps long. The scarf doesn’t seem warm enough and neither do her other clothes; the cowl neck of a forest green sweater protrudes from the top of her thin overcoat’s collar and her hands are bare and must be frozen in this weather.
She is asking for help, she complains to anyone who might be listening that the cabbie is just in a hurry, that he is not helping her. I offer her my hand as she shuffles her feet, trying unsuccessfully to move up the sloped side of the sidewalk from the curb toward the doors of the hospital. I see then that she is not so old, though her face is lined with hunger and strain and I can only imagine what else. Her lips are cracked and white.
Even with my help, she has trouble moving her feet. She ruefully mumbles that she should have brought something better to lean on, and I glance at the handle that extends from her hand, down to where it is duct-taped to a blue plastic milk crate on makeshift wheels. The contraption is heavy. It is covered with foil so that I can’t see what is inside it, but I imagine it is her belongings. All the things she owns. I try to help her pull the crate behind her but she is right, it is heavy, and not useful for leaning on. She won’t let me pull it up ahead for her.
I have to leave, people are waiting for me and I can see that she is looking for company, or for something else, something I can’t give her. I leave her when she has finally reached the top of the sidewalk. She is still having trouble making her legs move. I take one last glance at her as she struggles along toward the doorway of the hospital. The snow around her is cold and grey, the air biting.
Walking later near my home, the flakes seem to float and flutter, like soft sparkles drifting on the wind. Though the day is still just as cold and just as grey, there is a loveliness to them. A peacefulness. I pause for a moment and follow their paths as they dance through the air, enjoying the purity of the whiteness in front of the warm red of the surrounding brick houses. I think about how different the same snow can be depending on the circumstances.
In the evening, I walk down a busy street, past shop fronts, past people squeezing in a few more minutes of shopping. It is colder, bitterly so, and the snow has stopped falling, though it billows around in the wind.
The sound of a saxophone being played on a street corner draws my attention. The notes float out along the street on the backs of the twirling snowflakes. A young man, brightly dressed in a motley collection of reds, stands next to a Salvation Army collection pot, his shiny chrome instrument flashing in the dim, early evening light. Astonishingly, effortlessly, he coaxes a happy melody out of the cold saxophone though he wears only thin, fingerless gloves.
I stop and watch, thinking that you almost never see the Salvation Army out on street corners anymore. And yet here he is, on one of the coldest days of the year. There is a warmth and a joy that radiate from within him out into the cold. His music calls to people and they draw near and smile, through faces frozen stiff, they chat to him and to each other, and some even dance a little.
I recall the woman I saw earlier in the day, at the hospital, and I think about all the people that are helped by those like the man before me, gathering money and reaching out. Perhaps the two of them have met. Perhaps they have passed on the street or in warmer corridors.
As the snow and wind and cold pick up again, I look around and think about how we are all connected. We all breathe the same air, are touched by the same snow, shiver in the same cold. But it is so different, it looks and feels different, from beautiful and sparkling to forbidding and painful, depending on where you are standing.
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