I live in Portland, OR, having moved here when I was nine. Prior to that, my family and I lived in Walla Walla, WA (“They liked the name so much they used it twice!” as the unofficial motto went) — a town famous for its onions, and for inspiring this little ditty. (Forgive me if this stays in your head.)
Oh, and I can’t forget that Bugs Bunny used “Walla Walla, Washington!” as a magic phrase to ward off a vampire trying to devour him. In Harry Potter-ese, that would be Walla Walla Washingtonium!
Or something to that effect.
When I was about six or seven, we drove to Portland to go shopping, and we went to what was then the downtown Meier and Frank, now Macy’s. I believe it was the visit where we bought our stoneware plates that my father still uses (my parents divorced when I was fifteen), and that floor is way up towards the top.
We began to leave, and I remember riding down the escalator with my parents behind me. As we reached the bottom, one of them said to take the next one. And then, again, the next one. I guess that somehow started a looping program in my head because I got onto the next down escalator, then the next one — and then, finally, another one. That was when I heard my parents chorus, “Heather — what are you doing?!” (Come to think of it, that was a common question I heard, in various levels of emotion and frustration. For a more extreme version, there’s this post.)
I turned around, and to my dismay, my parents were not only not behind me, they were disappearing — hidden by the escalator rising above. They hadn’t gotten on behind me as they had every time before (kind of a metaphorical representation of growing up, now that I think about it). I realized then, that was the ground floor above me.
I tried running up the escalator, but my little legs weren’t long or fast enough to make up for the speed. And, so, not knowing what else to do, I got off that escalator, and, instead of waiting — I got onto the next down one. And the next one. And the next. I kind of lost count as to how many after that. The last one was rickety and looked very old — and I wound up in the basement. I don’t recall exactly being scared or panicky — but neither was I a cucumber. I do remember thinking that if I got all the way to the bottom, I’d be able to find a way back up (no…I didn’t know about finding the up escalator on the other side at that time; Walla Walla was a small town).
The basement was close, dusty and lit by an even dustier butter yellow light that didn’t exactly shine; instead it sort of draped itself over everything like a thin film of old plastic. It wasn’t scary…rather it had an appeal of exploration to it. It whispered of forgotten treasures and boxes, old clothes and nifty things long fallen out of the store’s memory. Like an attic on the bottom.
But I also didn’t know what to do. Even with the niftiness beckoning from the corners, that was when I started to panic. Where were my parents? Why hadn’t they followed me down? Why had they let me go? Why didn’t they rescue me? What if nobody came down? What would I do for food and water? I knew someone would come down…eventually. Likely a janitor. I recalled a tidbit of advice my mother had given me at some point, and that was, “If you’re lost, stay put. It makes it easier for people to find you.” That was what I chose to do, but I remember time feeling like time had slowed way, way down at that point. The only thing that moved was the escalator behind me, the tottery old steps sinking into the hole in the floor, an ode to perpetual motion.
Just at that moment, though, I heard someone behind me say, in a dry, old, female voice that seemed to have been born from the dust around me, “Sweetie, I don’t think you’re supposed to be down here.”
I turned around and saw the most classic-looking old lady. Plump; sensible gray dress with a floral pattern; sensible baggy-saggy nylons; sensible blue, thick-soled, tie-up shoes; sensible baggy-saggy gray sweater, sensible purse looped onto her arm. Sitting atop her sensibly-permed white hair was a gray straw hat that looked somewhat depressed — as if somewhere in its life, someone had sat on it. A few times. There were some silk flowers (pansies, I think, and purple) clinging to the band. And glasses, of course. She had followed me down the escalator, I guess sensing I was lost.
“I don’t know where to go,” I said, pushing back the tears. I didn’t want to look like a baby, of course. Behind us the escalator wheezed and squeak-thumped in a rhythm that sounded like the motor was just as old and tired as a 1922 tractor.
“Well, come on,” the old lady said. “There’s always a way back up. Look — see? There’s the escalator back up.”
Over in a corner, hidden behind boxes, sneaking upwards was another rickety old escalator. It was narrow and dim, but we got on it, the lady holding my hand. Hers felt warm and rough and kind. We went up one more floor, and another — and another (I lost count), and there my parents were — relieved to see me.
I ran to them; they thanked the old woman, and I was scolded again for not getting off. “But you didn’t say not to go down another one!” I said (I still use that same argument). “Why didn’t you come down after me? Why did you just stand there?” I asked (I still wonder about that, and it’s been 34 years….)
I don’t recall their answer to that, but the next question from my mother was, “Why didn’t you just use the up escalator?”
“I didn’t know where it was!” I replied. And I didn’t. They weren’t side-by-side, as were the ones with which I was familiar (and just how many escalators there were in tiny college-bound Walla Walla, I don’t know).
My mother stared at me — and I thought I was about to get yelled at again (well, there wasn’t yelling, exactly), and then took me by the hand and said, “If there isn’t one next to the one going down or up, walk around to the other side and you’ll find the one going in the opposite direction. See?”
And there it was — shining and looking brand spanking-new compared to the semi-intoxicated and scuffed one in the basement — the escalator moving upwards, a beacon of assistance.
That moment is indelibly etched on my brain. I hear my mother saying those words whenever I’m in a department store looking for an escalator, and they were ones I repeated to my brother at some point (he’s eight years younger than I am), and to a little girl for whom I was a nanny for a little over a year.
So there’s always a way back up. From any situation, any basement — metaphorical or otherwise. You just have to open up a new level of perseverance and keep going.
Things might seem bleak and walled-up and maybe there’s just a rickety old escalator behind you, coughing and sounding like it had asthma, but there’s always a way back up. It might be hidden in a dim corner behind wooden crates and an old, chipped, brick wall — even down a corridor or two. Or maybe some patience is needed so that sunlight can seep its way through a window you hadn’t noticed because of how dark it is. But there’s always some way up. Keep looking. Pour on the perseverance. Even if you don’t have a fairy godmother appearing like magic and in the form of an old woman in sensible everything…I promise you. It’s there.
Questions? Comments? Quips or quotes? Have your own moment where you felt like you’d hit the basement with no way back up and found one? I’d love to hear about it! Email me at heather (at) smallchangelife (dot) org or drop by my Facebook page and leave me a message, or tweet me — @SmChangeLife.