Be safe. Be smart and safe, I told my kids when they were teenagers, headed out for a night roaming the town in another teenage driver’s car. Be safe, when they were going camping with friends, or touring the country with a band. I still tell them now, all of them adults. Be safe.
Recently, I saw an old friend whose safety I worry about. In his late 70s, he rides a bike, nearly every day, up one of the longest hills on one of the busiest streets in town, to the supermarket. Halfway up, on a dangerous curve, in rush hour traffic, he stops to get his breath. This man survived Nazi Germany as a boy, and thinks little about the risk of a difficult bike ride. When I saw him last week, at church, he smiled at me and said, “Be safe.” When did I become timid and afraid? I used to crave ventures out of the ordinary; now I seem to seek safety amidst the uncertainty that has become the norm, out here in the middle distance. Once, not so long ago but in what seems a different lifetime, I took a trip to the Republic of Georgia to report on the situation of refugees from breakaway republics. Hardly a war zone, and I was anything but an intrepid reporter, but this was a place as foreign to me as the Land of Oz. I didn’t speak the language; I couldn’t even read the alphabet, an ancient curling script that looked like a wallpaper pattern. A Georgian journalist who worked for the BBC set me up with interviews and took me along with her family on a few road trips, breathtaking adventures given the road conditions and the plunging cliffs along crumbling roads traversing the Caucasus mountains. But most days I was on my own, trying to figure out how to catch a bus — a rattling minivan with balding tires — from my apartment to the city center. One Saturday afternoon, I decided to ride a bus to the end of the line, then back into central Tbilisi, just to see a little more of the city. I sat in the far back seat and enjoyed the view of winding hillsides and ancient churches, sturdy fortresses against time. The view widened as the road settled into a straight flat line across rocky plains. Finally, I realized the bus was headed to Rustavi, the next town over, an industrial power center during the Soviet era, its massive factories dilapidated and rusting. A few kerchiefed ladies clutching bags of produce giggled and talked as we approached the devastated city, the perfect set for a post-apocalypse film. They got off at the edge of a field, and I stayed on until the bus driver stopped in front of a rundown tavern on a main highway, looked back at me and gave me the off signal with his thumb. “Tbilisi? Bus to Tbilisi?” I stammered to the amused patrons of this darkened bar. They pointed to the road and gestured me across to the other side. A matted dog lay curled in the dirt next to a pile of cement blocks. I waited as dusk grew chilly and darker until, finally, a cockeyed pair of headlights bounced toward me and stopped.
The bus was jammed with men and women decked out in bright, tight-fitting polyester outfits, party clothes. The weekend drinking had already begun, and I squeezed in next to an acne-scarred boy with pointy knees. Laughter and singing seemed to propel the rattly bus forward to Tbilisi as the bus driver stopped every few miles to pour water into the smoking radiator.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life