Eleven degrees. Those were the last two words I heard from the radio as I stepped out the door. I was waiting for the tea kettle to boil and slipped out for a preview of the frosty pre-dawn weather. It was cold and still. When I heard the kettle begin to whistle, I turned back to the door and twisted at the handle. It was locked. I had no keys, no phone, and had locked myself out in 11-degree weather. Just my luck.
My panic began to turn to angst as I started considering my options. It would be a while before anyone would arrive at the property manager’s office on Gay Street. I could wait it out in the car, but I’d need my keys for that. I could call the friend who had my spare key, but I’d need my phone for that. I started picturing those frozen prehistoric people they find encased in ice and wondered what would become of me. Some future archaeologists would conclude that the common dress for a 21st century Knoxville urbanite consisted of flannel pajama pants, house shoes, and a bulky topcoat. They would ponder the absence of the mobile phone and keys most commonly found on such frozen men of the era.
Then my head started to clear. I walked down a few doors and knocked on my neighbor Steve’s door—hard. Once he understood my predicament, he was quite amused. (My own sense of humor was lying somewhere in the vicinity of my phone and keys.) He made a couple of calls, and before long a maintenance worker, not nearly as amused, showed up, sorted through the giant key ring on his belt, and let me back into my apartment. I removed the screeching, mocking tea kettle from the stove and went about getting ready for work.
The frozen panic of the morning melted into the routine of the day, and by the afternoon I was starting to feel more than a little foolish about my earlier misfortune. The bitter cold persisted, but I had my keys, my phone, and, in time, a bar stool from which to bore friends with the tale. The brewpub can be a snug and welcoming harbor on a cold winter day. Regulars were situated about the place in tight knots alongside less familiar faces who had ventured downtown on a wintry evening for some warm conversation and cold beer. Near the front door, I noticed a couple of patrons who didn’t quite blend in. Two women, one middle-aged, the other older with white hair, busily huddled around a small handcart, paisley scarves wrapped tightly around their heads. They were going through various bags and packages, pulling out wadded up garments. Some they straightened out and put on. Others they folded and tucked back into the plastic and canvas bags that overfilled the cart.
The smell of popcorn popping filled the air as a friend of mine returned from the restroom to rejoin the table. She nodded toward the women and said that the younger one had been brushing her teeth at the bathroom sink while my friend washed her hands. The older one, her scarf now draped around her shoulders, was scooping popcorn into a bag. She filled it, folded over the top, stuffed it in her handbag, and began filling another. She repeated this until the batch was gone, filling and rolling up bag after bag.
Later in the evening, as the biting wind whipped around the concrete corners outside, while most in the pub were nursing their beers, the older woman and her companion continued picking through the bags packed onto the cart. I watched as one pulled two small handkerchiefs from one of the parcels, folded them, and tucked them inside her boots. There were whispers that the two were of Ukrainian decent and were heading to one of the homeless shelters for the evening. A few people watched disapprovingly as the women tied scarves around their waists and sleeves. As they left, the older woman stopped by the popcorn machine again and scooped its contents directly into her handbag. They carefully secured cords around the handcart and vanished quietly out onto the frozen sidewalk along Gay Street.
Later as I walked home, the icy gusts blew up the tails of my topcoat and made my scarf flutter while Christmas lights glowed overhead. I thought about the women and hoped they found a shelter in this city that some feel is too accommodating to the homeless. Thinking about them that night, I was glad we have those shelters. That morning I had been trapped outside with no place to hide from the cold, and cursing my luck. That night I gripped the keys in my pocket and considered just how lucky I am.