January had washed the colors from the trees growing along Lemp avenue and Cherokee street. Banks of graphite-colored clouds obscured the sun, reducing the palette of the cityscape to almost monochromatic hues, and produced a misty precipitation that was not quite fog, not quite rain.
I drove past her on my morning commute. A few blocks from the more traveled roads, this part of the city is a mix of small shops (some in business, many shuttered), residences, taverns and abandoned warehouses. At this hour, nothing was open. She stood alone.
Exceptional only in her ordinariness; neither old or young, fat or skinny, pretty or ugly. She could have disappeared into any crowd, in any city, her plainness granting her the gift of anonymity.
She held the handle of a two-wheeled cart, strapped to it, a neatly packed duffel bag. Next to her on the bench was another fabric bag, smaller in size and rectangular in shape. A navy hoodie, layered over a plain grey sweatshirt was her only defense against the mist and the early winter temperatures. Long dark bangs were pulled to one side, plastered to her forehead by the dampness.
She was unusual in one respect, she was not looking down at a smart phone while she waited. Head erect, she stared straight ahead, not looking to make eye contact with anyone, her expression equal parts defiance and resignation.
What was her story? Was she running from someone or running to someone? Did this city bus trip signal the start of a much longer journey? What life’s chapters were opening or closing?
I will never know her name or her story, it was the briefest of passings, but as I left her disappearing in the rear-view mirror, a simple three-word phrase came to mind.
On May 6, 1937, announcer, Herbert Morison and his engineer, Charlie Nelson, had been assigned by a Chicago radio station to cover the arrival of the Hindenburg in New Jersey. As the Hindenburg caught fire and crashed in front of him, Herbert did his best to control his emotions and describe the scene. This was part of his dialogue, “It’s burst into flames! Get this, Charlie; get this, Charlie! It’s fire… and it’s crashing! It’s crashing terrible! Oh, my! Get out of the way, please! It’s burning and bursting into flames and the… and it’s falling on the mooring mast.” And then a few moments later he said these three words that went down in history. “Oh the humanity.”
I’ve always wondered why Mr. Morison choose those particular words. Other choices come to my mind, but then I’ve never experienced dozens of people dying in front of me. Clearly he did not plan that phrase, it burst out of him propelled by the raw emotion of the moment.
There were no live broadcasts at that time. Charlie recorded Herbert’s coverage of the event on a 16 inch lacquer disk, which was flown back to Chicago that night to be broadcast. The next day, portions were rebroadcast by NBC. It was the first time that recordings of a news event were ever broadcast, and also the first coast-to-coast radio broadcast. Morrison’s quick professional response and accurate description combined with his own emotional reaction have made the recordings a classic of audio history.
Over time that expression has become a cliché, a meme, and I’m sure many of the people using it today could not tell you of it origin.
This morning as I passed the lady in the mist, “Oh the humanity,” came to mind. It was not born of condescension or pity, just a recognition of two of God’s children, on different paths, but passing within a few feet of each other.
Before I reached the next intersection, my thoughts expanded, there were hundreds of us within a few square blocks, hundreds of thousands in this city and countless millions across the planet. What a species, … on a daily basis we float between Jeffery Dahmer and Mother Theresa, “Oh the humanity.”
By the time I reached the office, I felt very small and insignificant. I am just one little guy in God’s great big world. Each day I have to throw myself into the grace and arms of a loving God. The scope and vastness of humanity is beyond my comprehension … but I do wish I had offered a cup of coffee or hot chocolate to the lady in the mist.