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TODAY

Saturday, December 14

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Airbags

Stopping Traffic

I saw that you called when I was away from my phone and I listened to the message while I was on my way home. The phone was up against my ear and I could hear your voice, telling me not to call you back. And then I was stopping traffic at nine o'clock at night, staring at what my headlights initially thought was a large paper bag in the middle of the road, between Third Street and Second Street on Vermont Avenue.

It wasn't a paper bag, it was a body — lying down on one side, feet facing toward me. The soles of tennis shoes glowed in the headlights. Cars behind me immediately began to honk and I saw the body rock to one side and cradle its head in fear. I put on my hazard lights and put the car into park. When I stepped out of my car and held up a hand of apology to the cars lined up behind me, I was suddenly more scared of the other drivers than I was of what I was about to find in the crosswalk. Frustrated drivers began to stream past, barely missing me.

I got to the crosswalk and found a woman in a dirty yellow sweatshirt, shorts and a shock of greasy hair that framed her face like koala fur. She was groggily trying to uncurl from a protective clutch. I knelt down with her and helped her stand. When I looked over, I saw a short skinny guy running out toward us. He took her other arm and we guided her through the street. I don't remember looking at the traffic stopped in front of us. I just worried that some driver not looking up would glide forward and hit all three of us.

Her legs were working but not very well. The other guy and I slowed as we helped her over the curb.

"You come around this side," I said to him. We stepped around a small cement lip and turned her so her feet could straighten out, then gently lowered her. My fellow helper had short hair and was clean-cut. "You call 911?"

"My girlfriend's calling, I think," he said. I followed his gaze through the intersection and saw his car, a grey compact with a short, concerned-looking woman nearby on a cellphone.

"Cool. I gotta move my car, be right back," I said. I looked at my station wagon, now stranded in a sea of angry, honking traffic. It seemed like a very long time before I could sprint to it, jump into the driver's side and lurch forward, over the place the woman had lain just a few minutes before.

My insides felt cold, like uneaten spaghetti in a drain. I could go home right now, I thought. She's with the other guy. Suddenly, I wanted to call you back. I thought, hell, this is as good a time as any to call you. Go home and call. I paused briefly at the light. Then drove into the parking lot at the next intersection and, looking to my left, spun the wheel around, back toward the accident.

After putting the car in another parking lot, I came over to where the woman still sat with the guy ("Jay," he introduced himself to me) and sat down on the edge of concrete beside them. I could see that she was probably homeless, maybe strung out or running dry. Jay was rubbing her back gently and I asked her if she could move her legs.

"Yeah — yeah." Her face was jowls and sunburn, eyes were unfocused. A cigarette lighter that had fallen from her pocket was in her grip now. I was afraid she would scratch her face with it, as she rubbed her head with her fist.

She then took off her shoes and balled her socks down her greasy feet. Every few moments, she would grimace and twist her leg slightly, in order to examine the crisscross of an impact wound, a small blue patch, on the side of her right leg. Jay continued to rub her back and, for want of something to do, I gingerly took her socks and tucked them into her shoes. They were warm and felt like sweat.

"You might lose track of these," I said, putting her shoes close by. Jay's girlfriend arrived, folded her cellphone and leaned over to look at the three of us. "Are they coming?" I asked her.

"Yeah, they'll be here in a minute."

"Cool." I looked up at a sandwich place nearby and saw a cooler inside, stocked with water. "Be right back."

I ran from the three people on the corner into the store. Inside, a customer was slowly arranging a large plastic sack of food as I placed my bottles of water down at the counter. The cashier took my credit card and looked out the window.

"That for that lady that in the crosswalk? She not dead?" he asked.

"She got hit but she seems alright." I shakily signed my name on the receipt and walked out, stopped, went back for my credit card and then left the store.

As I jogged over to her, two more people were there, a woman and a short older man. The woman, Indian and wearing a dress shirt, was running her dark fingers over dirty calves, searching for broken bones. I handed the car-struck woman a water bottle, telling her to drink this. She took the bottle and attempted to open it.

Her hand slipped on the cap and the Indian woman reached to help her unscrew it. The injured woman fell forward sharply and all of us started in surprise. On her second try, she uncapped the water and sipped it, shaking her head even harder. The Indian woman was telling her that it looked good, it was going to be OK. Thanks, said the woman on the sidewalk, half to the air around her. The Indian woman stood up, wished her good luck, and she and her friend departed.

Cars slipped past, some loudly with windows down and radios blaring in the warm night air. I looked over at her bare feet in the yellow light of the traffic light, then asked her if she could wiggle her toes. She took another sip of water and stared at her foot as though it was a hundred miles away from her.

A few moments later, her big toe flipped up and down. Just to be on the safe side, she extended her other foot and wiggled that big toe as well. "Yeah, my feet are fine," she said, almost crossly. I said something about that being a good sign.

I looked at Jay and his girlfriend and wanted to say something to fill up the space waiting there in the Los Angeles night, about the price of bottled water or the crazy drivers. Thankfully, a far-off siren began to whine and we all watched as the mammoth fire truck cut through traffic like a fat kid through an ice cream cake. The cherry lights took over and filled the world with a mixture of panic and relief as a few men stepped off the truck, toward us.

One concerned fireman was snapping latex gloves onto his hands as he loudly asked her name. "Louise." Good, Louise. OK, can you tell me what year it is, Louise? She struggled with this, nodding down at the sidewalk. It seemed as though she was a part of the cement, that it would take many men to break the gravitational pull of the sidewalk where she sat.

"2006?" she said finally, without much confidence. Good, Louise, said the fireman. He nodded at the three of us surrounding Louise and stooped toward her. Jay and I stood and formally introduced ourselves, shaking hands. I asked him if he thought we should make a statement and he shrugged nervously. A bored-looking fireman stood behind the fire truck, rocking back and forth on workboot heels. Jay started to walk toward him. I caught up and stopped alongside.

"Did either of you see anything?" he asked. "Then you don't need to make a statement. No, there's nothing to report. Maybe this happens all the time to her, who knows." He laughed, his crinkled red features continuing to smile as he spoke again. "I'm just here to watch traffic, make sure nobody hits anybody who's trying to help anybody, right?"

Jay and I walked from him, then waved goodbye to each other. He looked as overwhelmed as I felt: worried about a stranger, glad to be released from a situation where there was nothing to do but wait. I watched the couple carefully cross the street and get into the grey car. I jumped the low parking lot wall and walked over to my own. When I left, I turned and drove past the scene. A second vehicle, an ambulance, had pulled up behind the fire truck and a white gurney was being unfolded.

I drove toward my house and I really really wanted to call you back. You'd told me not to. I passed a line of cars outside the sushi restaurant, waiting for valets. I picked up my phone and looked at it, then shoved it into my shirt pocket.

I drove home and put on some music. An unexpected rain fell as I sat, writing down what had happened. I didn't write about you, although I thought about you. I just kept typing until everything was all out, a balloon sputtering or a plastic bag collapsing. Outside, the rain went on for several hours. I lay in bed, thinking that all I really needed to remember were two things: Sean, 2006. Then sleep arrived and took me away without emotion, as though even the name and the year were unnecessary.

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About the Author(s)

Sean U'Ren is a video editor who moved from Chicago to Los Angeles in 2004. In this occasional column, he shares his experiences transitioning from one city to another.

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