Little Details (Sept. 18, 2008)

Challenging invisibility

Sept. 18, 2008
By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

I pulled into the Hannaford parking lot behind a late-model car sporting a recently issued license plate. An older man was crossing the lot, walking gingerly over puddles left by a recent storm. I noticed his clean white sneakers.

I was sure the car in front of me would let this pedestrian pass. To my surprise, he turned quickly, right in front of the older gentleman. The driver passed a space, decided to back up and threw his car in reverse, coming dangerously close to the man he just cut off. I saw the older man stumble backward, jolted by the threat of the unwieldy car.

Witnessing this callousness, intentional or not, made me angry. I wanted to give the driver the benefit of the doubt. I’ve certainly made stupid moves when preoccupied behind the wheel. Maybe he was retrieving an emergency prescription for a sick child at home. Maybe he just worked a double shift and was desperately hungry or thirsty, in need of sustenance.

Not knowing if there was an excuse, I was offended by what I witnessed. I was saddened by the seeming callousness toward another human being. Reckless driving compromised the elderly man’s safety. Being late or tired or hungry or even stressed is not an excuse for vehicular aggression.

Exiting my car, I walked over to the older man and told him I saw what happened. He admitted he was a little shaken by the near miss. It was important to bear witness even if I couldn’t fix what happened. I saw in this frightened man someone’s husband, father or grandfather.

What of the man who drove so aggressively? I walked in the store and spotted him casually perusing the video section. I guess it wasn’t an emergency after all.

My friend Mary stands about 5-foot-2. Her hair is a smooth white-gray that she sweeps up into a bun. She’s a retired social worker who worked with at-risk youths in southern California, helping many turn their lives around. At 67, Mary’s knees show the wear of arthritis and too many long nights searching for kids on the run.

What Mary lacks in stature she exceeds in character. She is a prolific knitter, creating sweaters, blankets and slippers with needles dancing in her hands. She’s a voracious reader with vast knowledge of the political events of the day. She pays attention to and interacts with the world around her. She’s very social, forming friendships defined by compatibility, not age.

Walking through Boston with Mary recently, a group of teenage boys brushed passed us, banging into Mary, who steadied herself with her cane. These young people were too busy to stop to acknowledge the collision or even to murmur a quick, “pardon me.”

I looked at Mary and said I was sorry about what happened.

“It’s normal,” she said. “I’ve become more invisible as I’ve aged.”

Is it the altered pigment of an older person’s hair that emboldens some to see them as invisible? Is it that their slower steps, or driving, or emptying of their grocery carts are just too much for the speed set for whom busyness somehow implies heightened importance? Maybe we have something to learn from our sometimes slower-paced neighbors. Being “busy” isn’t all it’s hyped up to be.

I’ve pondered Mary’s words as my own gray hairs emerge and my skin takes on the tattoos of age. Will I too become invisible as my pace slows and my hair loses its youthful shade? I certainly hope not. I’ll try to gray gracefully while wearing LOUD — but stylish — earrings.

Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston. Reader comments are welcome at or