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Underfoot, Creative Nonfiction by Kassie Ritman


by Kassie Ritman

The afternoon sun cast its golden glow across our city as we traveled the narrow-laned streets between buildings. We were getting close. Ahead, shining in the same autumn light, I saw our destination—Lucas Oil Stadium. I’d collected both my husband and a close friend from their respective offices along the route towards downtown. I was driving them like one of my children’s carpools. The three of us were headed to the Colts’ stadium to watch a Friday night high school football game. Trying to finish up his workweek, my husband was busy answering emails as I turned into the parking garage. My friend and I had chattered nonstop since she’d gotten into the car. Our erratic conversation consisted of endless topic shifts and unfinished sentences. The babble was a welcome distraction from my downtown-driving phobia. Now here we were, deep in the city’s center where business, government and industry all converge with trendy housing—a far cry from our safe suburban addresses.

At the garage entrance, I quickly lowered the car window and took a time-stamped ticket. The arm lifted as we rolled forward into the semi-dark cave. Wincing, I fought the urge to lower my head each time we passed under a concrete beam. The ceiling seemed to lower as I scanned the packed garage for an open space. Finding a spot, I carefully squeezed my safe grey Volvo into a narrow slot. Hoping to spare the paint job from nicks and dings, we edged out of our doors. Once freed, I hit the key fob twice to be sure I had the car securely locked. Parked and away from traffic, I was starting to calm down a little.

The warm colored sunlight was fading as we began walking the few blocks to the stadium. Worried about purse-snatchers, I carried my small cross-body bag tight to my chest. I felt panic fizz in my throat while I kept a sharp eye on my surroundings. I was sure we would encounter criminals at each narrow alleyway we passed. The dark spaces were perfect alcoves of shelter and seclusion for lurking thieves—a mugger’s happy coincidence made from towering brick buildings erected long ago and too close together. My hand gripped my new cellphone. In the small purse there was room only for what I was willing to risk losing in a grab and run theft: my driver’s license, $5, a credit card and my game ticket. I’d left my flashy designer purse at home. It was a large handsome bag our kids called “Mary Poppins,” because it conveniently allowed me to carry a bit of everything.

Just before the stadium’s entrance stood the final obstacle. We had to follow the crowd into a tunnel beneath the old Union Station train tracks. Even with the daylight visible on both ends and a constant stream of cars and trucks rolling through it, the city lighted the sidewalks around the clock for safety. A remnant of the past, it was a nasty place to walk. Condensation dripped from overhead pipes, making wide wet patches on the pedestrian pathways that flowed down onto the street. The noise of traffic bounced off the original steel girders and pinged shrill sounds against the mixed graffiti and layers of peeling handbills. Indescribable acrid smells wafted up through the sewer grates mixing with hacking puffs from tail pipes and piles of discarded trash. I tried to hold my breath long enough to get through the vile place.

“Almost there,” I muttered aloud, trying to encourage myself. Soon, I would be rewarded with a stadium dog and an icy Diet Coke. I needed to remember my promise to bring home a pink cotton candy for my granddaughter. Trying to breathe through my mouth, and only when absolutely necessary, I said again, “Almost there,” baiting myself to keep up the pace. My mood was lifting.

Suddenly, my husband grabbed my elbow and nudged me away from the dense crowd and closer to the curb edge of the busy street. I looked up at him in confusion, stopping before my eyes could meet his. A teenaged girl lay unconscious on the damp sidewalk. She wore a small book bag and was missing one shoe. Her hands and feet stuck out from under the grubby remnant of a blanket she was wrapped in. I could see enough of her face through her hair to tell she was alive—not grey-blue like a corpse.

Encountering the marginalized citizenry in heaps and barely hidden encampments was now commonplace in our city. It seemed most everyone headed for the game was well practiced in the art of ignoring them. Football fans readjusted their gaze with ease, stepping around her like any other bit of garbage. The girl on the ground laid eerily motionless while dozens of good people swerved effortlessly, changing course enough to avoid the distasteful display of her shameful demise.

Surprising myself, I instinctively grabbed for my purse, Mary Poppins. I wanted to run over to wake the girl and offer her a wet-wipe, some crackers... Maybe I still had that bag of Gummy Bears in the bottom? Damn it—I had my cross-body. Before I could say a word or push my way toward her, I was herded along by my husband, with the crowd and on toward the stadium.

Inside, the game was a thriller, and I commended myself when I remembered to flag down the cotton candy vendor. But I couldn’t quit thinking about the scene outside on the sidewalk. Clearly, the girl had been on the streets for hours, days at the most—certainly not year upon year like the “typical” dangerous vagrants in the alley caves whom I feared. They were different. I thought of them as hobos and transients—men and women portrayed by character actors in old movies. They were not real people; they were hopeless beings, incapable of letting go of a bottle to hold on to a job. They were unwilling or unworthy of living in society, following rules, or having pride. “Those people” chose a life of gutters and crime and their beloved, cheap bottled spirits wrapped in brown bags. I’d never considered them to be any other way. It never occurred to me that they had existed in any other way—that perhaps they had once had a “before.”

Maybe that’s what kept tearing at me about the sidewalk girl. She seemed real. I’d never seen someone so young, so “normal” looking—relatable to my own life—laying motionless on the sidewalk, without being tended to because of some freakish accident or emergency. I had never seen people “sidestep” someone who looked like her. I guess I had never been steered away from a “before” person—avoiding her like rubbish underfoot on an otherwise smooth path.

Encountering the girl was different. I saw her only as a sick pathetic child. I recognized the telltale signs of hard drug use strewn around her: the bits of burned tinfoil and shredded cigarette filters. I didn’t want to accept how her clothing and the remaining shoe spoke of her family’s middle class status. Clearly, yes, she belonged to that unspeakable drug, heroin. But I could also see that she belonged to normal people, too—parents, a mother. She was the daughter of someone too close to being just like me, and that possibility shook me more than anyone lurking in alleyways ever could. 

The sidewalk girl was one of the new breed of addicts, now rampant in our city. Her addiction would not allow her to see herself eating from dumpsters in her old age. It would kill her hard and fast. She would not survive to buy a thousand bottles of cheap wine; she was being devoured by a high so intensely consuming that it was only good for destroying all it touched.

I struggled to set aside the sight I’d seen. I wanted to enjoy the game. Why did I have to see her? A teen from the suburbs living as the lowest form of drug user—the ultimate game-ender—a junky. Strung out, lying in filth, alone and unconscious—vulnerable to anyone or anything that happened by. I wondered how many times she had been raped in trade for a fix? A wave of nausea splashed over me as I imagined a horrific array of things that could happen to her anytime she lay helpless and high.

Knowing she was outside, vulnerable and unnoticed, I felt guilty, because my biggest concern was remembering to wave down a cotton candy vendor from my stadium seat. I knew that somewhere her mother was sick with panic, wondering where her daughter was, and praying that she wasn’t in exactly the situation that I knew she was in right now. She must be terrified—pleading to the walls around her that her daughter would come home soon—tonight? In the morning? And then finally begging God that she would at least come home sometime. In any condition—using or sober…

Any wayjust any way but dead.

By halftime I found myself in line at the concession stand filling my pockets with overpriced candies and bottled water. I wasn’t sure how any of it would help her. I told myself that I would tuck it under her blanket if she were still too drugged to rouse. But what was secretly playing out in my heart was the hope that I could wake her from her stupor, and that she would let me call her mother.

I wouldn’t pass by her a second time, though, that I knew. She was too much like my own child. When the game ended, I rushed my husband and friend toward the exit and back into the tunnel, watching frantically ahead as we moved through the crowd.

I was too late with my help.

She was gone.

Kassie Ritman is a writer and blogger living with her husband and kids in Hoosierland. Although her math skills and attention span are awful, she multitasks well. Kassie freely admits to writing many of her pieces on old receipts while driving on the Interstate because “ it's more fun that way.”