She’d stand on the corner, her dog on a leash, resting at her feet. She’d watch the kids, the cars and the homes for hours, every day. I don’t know how, since we rarely, if ever, talked with her; but we knew, or at least we thought we knew, her name: I’ll call her “Hallie.”
To kids she sure looked old. I remember her chewing like maybe she was missing some teeth. Her dog appeared a bit disheveled, and aged too. But she also showed physical vitality: she walked with a fluidity that always surprised me.
I’d saunter past her on the way to the corner grocery store (next to which she lived in a tiny house, with her husband). Once in a while I’d say hi. She’d either watch me or stare in another direction, but never smiled. We were all a little afraid of her.
She would, at times, leave the corner. More than once my sister, Annie, saw her poised on the sidewalk in front of our house, looking in our front windows. On other occasions she encountered Hallie standing on our front porch, gazing through the screen door. Mom would say, “Don’t worry, it’s only Hallie.”
Hallie showed an interest in Annie. She figured out her name. Annie would pass in front of her on the sidewalk and hear Hallie say, “Annie, Annie.” Annie would turn around, “Hallie, I know it was you.” Hallie would look away, silently. Then she’d start up again, “Annie, Annie,” as soon as my sister commenced her walk.
Most of the time, kids and adults left Hallie alone. But some youngsters teased her. One boy would ride past her on his bike, making fun of her and her dog, calling out some cynical adaptation of a nursery rhyme. She’d respond with silence, sometimes shaking her head.
This was the neighborhood’s way with Hallie: we didn’t challenge her claim to the corner. We tolerated her presence. We kept our distance. She maintained hers. Once in a while, she’d be there at our windows.
“Tolerance” can carry different connotations. One can be tolerant toward the different behavior of another as a gesture of respect or civility. Or, one might more reluctantly tolerate another’s discomforting presence by remaining present, yet apart. I think with Hallie, we practiced each type.
I figured that the ever-present woman on the corner had to be lonely and unhappy. I assumed she had a story that we’d never learn. I also found her presence troubling — a reminder that in this stable neighborhood where kids played happily, there was this sad, silent, seemingly ancient woman and dog, alone, right there in front of us every day. We felt for, and we endured, Hallie.
She never asked for anything, at least not overtly. She never initiated any real conversation. No one ever called the police or social services about her. She didn’t look exactly poor; more sullen and alone. She’d stand there every day with her dog, and then she’d go inside.
As an adult, I’ve asked myself how I would have responded to Hallie had she, or someone like her, shown up with a dog on the corner of our residential block in Oak Park. Homeless and mentally ill folks have a presence in downtown Oak Park. There are the men and women with regular spots at certain intersections, asking for money. But I don’t recall encountering anyone like Hallie.
I’m sure we would have discussed her situation with our kids. With all the social workers and psychologists in town, plus the quality mental health services, there would have been a proactive response to someone like her. The same would likely be true in today’s Berwyn.
My self-interest as a homeowner might have encouraged a pre-emptive response as well. No, my thinking might have gone, we can’t have someone “like her” standing a few strides from our house, day in and day out.
I suspect that back then we let her be, in part because she didn’t look all that different from some of our rougher-edged, immigrant grandmothers. And it was a time when you left people around you free to live their lives, as long as they let you live yours. Calling mental health services wasn’t as natural an act then. We were her neighborhood. She was our neighbor. She chose silence. We gave it.
The scenes with her play in me, unfinished. I am not that kid in Berwyn anymore. I’m one of those people with training in psychology and community development. We’d reach out to her today. I’m inclined to think that by engaging her, nudging her off those patches of grass, referring her to services and staying connected, there would be no solitary neighborhood corner claimed by Hallie today. grew up in Berwyn, raised his family in Oak Park, and currently lives in Chicago.