Among my most potent of faults (interrupting others, dropping things, forgetting peoples' names at crucial moments and a complete inability to walk in a straight line) lies one that may one day either save my life or kill me: I can be completely and totally unaware at times.
It's no secret that I sometimes live in my head. I zone out of this world completely, and I'm sure the look on my face makes it appear as though I'm doing complex mental algorithms. This especially happens when I am out walking or running, hence the tendency to trip over things. I have walked right past good friends without saying hello, I have been completely oblivious of oncoming traffic (not a Smart Survival Move in the city of Baltimore) and I have, on now two separate occasions, failed to notice something spectacular until it was damn near upon me.
Most recently, I was walking to work when I happened to notice (because this time I wasn't COMPLETELY unaware) a helicopter circling. Quite low. Right over my head, in fact. I started trying to see the markings on it, to discern if it was news or emergency or some politico out for a joy ride. So intent was I to investigate the nature of the low-flying aircraft (which, by the way, is certainly not an anomaly in Baltimore) that I failed to notice the police cars screaming past me or the throngs of people running down the sidewalk or the store owners throwing open their doors to try and see the commotion.
It was only once I got to work, amidst a bubble of frenzied activity, that I was told there had been; occurring right in front of me, right down Charles Street; a high-speed car chase that ended in an accident and a police chase on foot. I'd been so focused on the helicopter, I had failed to notice the rest of the activity.
Which reminded me of another such incident.
I was in Rome, I was twenty years old, and I was studying abroad in Europe for a spell during the summer between sophomore and junior years of college. It was late at night; a tropically warm evening with tourists fanning out amongst the cobblestones; and I was following a group of fellow Americans back to the hostel after a very long day of sight-seeing and history lessons for which I was supposedly earning college credit. I can't recall exactly what happened, but memory tells me I was rummaging through my bag looking for my camera or some Euros or maybe looking through the souvenirs I'd bought that day, but whatever I was doing, I was Preoccupied.
(I was also, during much of that trip, Preoccupied with two other things: another American student on whom I had a crush, and the constant and fearful worry that gypsies were always about to rob me, as I had been warned by a cautioning professor. These two activities; trailing my object of affection and clutching my bag; took up a large portion of my time in Rome. I regret neither: he was cute, and I was not once accosted by gypsies.)
It's entirely possible I was engaged in one of these activities but, regardless, I found myself suddenly in the midst of a throng of people and separated from my group. I felt myself being pushed to the outside of the sidewalk and closer to the dangerous cobble-stone highway down which raced the tiniest of cars and razor-sharp motorcycles. I tried to push back, but was met with wave after wave of excited humans, pushing closer and closer to the street. I checked back into reality immediately and suddenly noted that these weren't tourists flocking about me. They were nuns and priests of every order and hierarchy (or however nuns and priests organize themselves) and they had their hands raised high.
I was pushed all the way to the curb and stepped one foot out onto the street to regain balance when a storm cloud of Italian police erupted, gesturing the crowds back. I was right there as the limousine drove by slowly, the screams of the crowd now a deafening din, the back window lowered and the wizened old man sitting inside raising one hand feebly out the window.
As soon as I got over the immediate shock and could negotiate the crowd, I ran back to the hostel as fast as I could, and I called my father who, back home in America, would have been in his office, late in the day.
"Dad! Dad!" I said, unable to catch my breath. (Which, I'm sure in retrospect was slightly unnerving for my father, receiving an excited phone call from his daughter thousands of miles away in Italy.)
"I JUST SAW THE FREAKING POPE!!!!"