Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University's College of General Studies. He has
published essays, stories, and poems in a wide variety of journals, two story collections, "Life in the
Temperate Zone" and "The Decline of Our Neighborhood", a book of essays, "Professors at Play", and the
novel "Zublinka Among Women", winner of the First Prize for Fiction, Indie Book Awards, 2008. Robert's work
can be purchased at Amazon.com
Un Incident Dans La Rue, Vite Mais Lent Aussi
Around noon last Wednesday I was heading back to my office from the district court. Saint George Street was full of traffic, as
usual. I was wearing suspenders and carrying a leather briefcase. I had on my unbuttoned overcoat, also a muffler, though no
hat. I feel it gives me an advantage to show my hair, which is thick and still mostly black, because so many of my colleagues are
going bald. Still, I could have done with a hat. A chilly, powerful wind was blowing through the city; people walking north leaned
forward while those going south were swept down the sidewalk by an invisible hand. Everybody lowered their chins and
fastened their eyes a few feet ahead, intent on not falling. At the corner a man in a quilted jacket was selling roasted chestnuts
from a cart with little windows in it. He danced back and forth in the steam, stamping his feet and rubbing his arms.
Outside the Hochberg Building I caught sight of Dillon, a colleague. I had heard his wife was ill and wanted to ask after her; but
as I was moving north and Dillon south, he flashed by me and my greeting was blown back in my face. At each corner eddies of
wind blew bits of refuse and newsprint in whirls. Particles of grit were driven into my cheeks. It was useless to smooth down
my hair, though I could barely repress the impulse to do so. The saplings planted last year on Callowhill Street were bent
halfway over while the flags on the Bellevidere snapped back and forth. People making their way to lunch swayed like a field of
grain in a cyclone.
As I came around the corner of Filbert Street the scene changed. Half a block ahead traffic was stopped, horns blared into the
wind, and the people on either side had slowed, some moving tentatively toward the curb.
The sort of vehicle you associate with suburbs, a large station wagon, was pulled up in the middle of the street, blocking traffic.
I was able to see right into the windshield and, so far as I could tell, only one person was inside.
It's just those crucial things we aren't sure of believing to which we give our deepest attention. Do my children love me? Does
God exist? Am I a decent human being? If faith keeps us from asking such questions then faith is inhuman. Grammatically
speaking, it seems to me, the only correct attitude toward life is interrogatory.
What was there about a traffic jam on a blustery day that should turn me so philosophical? Was it merely a traffic jam? No.
That's what I have faith in, I suppose, because it's just this imperfect, negative faith that provokes thinking and thinking makes
me feel more alert and so more alive. The routine of daily life is something we really do believe in. We take it for granted. Yet
who grants it but ourselves? Our habits, mores, expectations, upbringings, our media, even the evolutionary wisdom that
prevents us from drawing attention to ourselves â€” all are on the side of order, of being able to predict what's going to happen
next. We relish suspense so long as it is boxed in some play or book. Suspense, in other words, is a strictly aesthetic
pleasure, not a moral one. Morally, suspense always resolves itself into the question of how rapidly predictability can be
Consequently, when a late-model station wagon stops dead in the middle of a busy center-city street at midday, in midweek,
when the engine continues to run so that it's not a mere matter of running out of gas, when a woman of thirty-five or forty, a
matron dressed demurely in a pale blue blouse with brown, shoulder-length hair, sits behind the wheel of this vehicle with the
doors locked and stares straight in front of her, oblivious of the horns behind her and the faces pressing in on either side, the
catcalls and curses, you can't ignore it. Something is happening or is about to happen.
Something is happening that doesn't happen every day. And something must be done about the riddle, the dissonance
resolved into a dominant major or, if needs be, minor. Summon the police, call an ambulance, phone the husband, the principal
of her children's school. Action, notification, publicity. Quick, quick.
I walked up the sidewalk pushing forward against the wind, my hair blown back, grit striking my eyeballs like grapeshot. A small
taut man in need of a shave leapt out of his taxi, beside himself with rage. I could see his mouth moving. He actually tried to
push the station wagon. I saw his tight leather jacket getting tighter, his red face more red.
I continued making my way toward the car. I was now in the middle of the street. Naturally, I didn't think of myself as part of
the crowd closing in on either side. The first siren was sounding faintly behind me. I saw her plainly now, staring straight
ahead, not at me, but at the point in space I occupied, at my x and y coordinates. In every dimension but one her gaze and my
The turbulent wind went on blowing noise, paper, motes. The buildings appeared to sway like old elms. What fascinated me
was the woman's stillness. Here was the dead center of the city in the midst of a whirlwind of horns and shouts, deals and
transactions, lawsuits and mergers. In the middle of the week, the middle of the day, in the middle of a whirlwind, that woman
sat utterly still, fists on the wheel, eyes blank as a check on an exhausted account.
If she has failed, then what caused her failure, this woman somebody else married? Or is she just mad? I had a sudden idea:
maybe this was a performance, not an incident but a happening, a one-woman show of protest, a commentary. A woman alone
in a locked car, bunging everything up, on a busy, blustery day. It made me weigh contrasts: inside/outside, city/suburb,
married/single, loving/indifferent, moving/still. As soon as you call something art it ceases to be entirely senseless. It can, for
instance, become an intelligible declaration about senselessness. But whose? My own? I was thinking of all the things that
placed me outside the station wagon and those that put the woman inside. Where I stood everything was blowing around;
where she was all was calm, or at least unmoving. I think it must be the stillness that attracted and repelled me. Lack of
motion always arrests us, suggesting serenity or death.
I stopped ten feet from the car. Slowly, the woman removed her hands from the steering wheel. The crowd shuddered,
surging in. She pulled her blouse over her head.
I can't help thinking that people who are reduced to stillness or hysteria by their lives, destroyed by living, have the advantage
over me. Why? The most apathetic of audiences are not superior to me in detachment. For years I've felt as though I were
living behind an infinitely long wall. Such a wall would have to be a round one, which is to say a prison yard. A person inside
such a wall might be aware that he is baffled yet never suspect that he is actually trapped. In this wall somewhere is a door, or
just as likely hundreds, thousands of identical doors, which anybody would take for the same door. Whenever I stand before
this door, or one of the thousands like it, I'm suffused with hope. I don't want to be but I am. Hope invades me. It doesn't
matter what happened last time, the time before that; hope still hits the beaches undaunted. So, I run up to the door filled by
this aggressive, alien hope, grab the knob and turn for all I'm worth. The door's locked. There is no lock. I stare
dumbfounded, knowing how useless and painful it is to beat on the door. I wonder if it might be opened from the other side.
That is the secret hope, a hope inside hope, that there's someone on the other side whose case is the same as mine. Perhaps
if we both were miraculously to arrive at the door at the same instant â€” but then I shrug, the way one does at romantic
dreams. The door is both a possibility and a torment; to be tantalized is to be punished.
I drew closer to the station wagon. The woman was thrashing now, making herself naked in the car, tearing off her bra, her
skirt, everything. Then the crowd closed in.