Home > About > Bill Peak's Library Column > An Encounter at the Talbot County Free Library
Thirty-some-odd years ago, my wife and I were still living in Northern Virginia, still stuck in the daily, Capitol Beltway rat race. I had the car, Melissa rode the subway, and every evening, after work, I would drive to the Braddock Road station on Metro's Yellow and Blue Lines, park, and wait for her to arrive. The trains come in above ground at Braddock Road, roaring in atop a concrete viaduct that towers over the parking lot. At that time of day, rush hour, a train pulls in every five minutes or so with a dusty blast of wind, followed by the sound of metal-on-metal brakes. A pause, you hear the doors slide open as a release of air and sudden voices up on the tracks, another pause, a garbled warning that the doors are about to close, the doors close, the train lurches forward, yet a third, slightly longer pause, and then, at ground-level, commuters begin to scurry out of the station, their faces tired, wan, eyes searching for rides.
One evening (it must have been summer, as I remember it was still light), I noticed a particularly striking young woman emerge from the station along with the rest of the crowd. With little else to do and enjoying her beauty, I watched as she made her way across to a car that sat with its engine running near where I was parked. She didn't get in. Instead, she leaned in at the passenger's side window and began to talk to the young man sitting behind the wheel. A moment or two's exchange, and then the driver shook his head and slapped the steering wheel. The woman pulled back from the window, her hands still resting on its edge. Another, even more violent shake of his head, and then the driver gunned his engine and roared out of the parking lot. The girl stood where she was, abruptly alone, her hands still raised to a window that was no longer there, indifferent commuters beginning to pour past her. Slowly, she turned back toward the station, came up against yet more commuters making their way into the parking lot, veered away from them absently, veered off to the right, and was finally brought up short against the gray mass of the viaduct. She leaned into the thing's flat, empty face, and then her shoulders began to go up and down spasmodically as if something were breaking inside her.
Even after all these years, the image of that girl crying by herself at the Braddock Road station haunts me. My heart goes out to her. I wish there was something I could have done for her, some way one of us in that crowd of commuters could have comforted her. But I doubt there was. This was Washington, the early 1990s; people were leery of strangers, leery of getting involved.
Not too long ago, a woman I'd never seen before came up to me at the library's Information Desk and asked if I could tell her where she might find the words and music for “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” I looked up the subject in our online catalogue, found a book that promised to have the information she was looking for, and then led the woman back into the stacks to show her its location. We found the book and, sure enough, the index listed “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” As the lady thumbed through to the page indicated, I told her the hymn had always been one of my favorites. She looked up at me and said, “It was one of my mother's favorites too.” Then, her eyes filling with tears, she added, “I need it for her funeral.”
Of course I wanted to hug her. Perhaps I should have hugged her. But I didn't. We live in a strange world, a world peopled—here and there—with the walking wounded. Who knows how the touch of a complete stranger might have affected this woman? Certainly not I. So I did what I hope was the next best thing. Trying to communicate as best I could with my face and eyes how much I cared, I said, “You know, we're all in this together. We're all humans together on this one little planet. If there's anything I or the library can do to help, all you need do is ask.”
It wasn't much, of course, indeed it was little better than conventional, but, under the circumstances, it was the best I had to offer. And the woman was gracious enough to shake her head, wipe her eyes and, smiling, tell me it was all right. That she was all right, appreciated my sympathy.
I've never seen that woman in our library again, but her image doesn't haunt me as that young girl's does. Instead, when I think of her, I find myself feeling hopeful—hopeful that the small comfort I was able to offer her said something not just about me and our library but about our community at large, that we live in a place like Talbot County where such comfort, however modest, can be offered and received without fear of offense. Ours is a very special place, a good and fortunate place. Thank you for sharing it with me.
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