In May of 1992 I was a journalist working at The Denver Post. For a period of time I lived in a loft in a building located at the far end of what is called The 16th St. Mall. The mall is actually not a structure, but rather a car-free corridor that runs NW to SE, the full length of downtown Denver, with The Denver Post at the SE end. For about 16 blocks this pedestrian transit zone is lined with office buildings and storefronts that provide dining and shopping galore, with the requisite angry proselytizers shouting end of days prophesy on competing street corners with carefree Hari Krishna chanters. I think they were carefree. They tended to show up only in warm weather. Quite a few not-so-carefree homeless people make The 16th St. Mall their regular hangout.
What’s great about the mall are the free shuttles that stop at each of the intersections, picking up or dropping off passengers, many being commuters. Like I was the morning I had a life-altering encounter with a troll.
That morning I had gotten on the shuttle really early, at the very start of its run, with only a few other commuters. I chose to stand at the front of the shuttle so I could place my purse on the convenient waist-high platform where the engine was, which is also what separates all the passengers from the driver. The platform had a railing so I could hold steady, leaning against it. This was my preferred spot on the shuttle whenever I could get it. There I could avoid the mash of bodies that would inevitably develop along the route, because the front area only had room for about four wide. The bonus was this location provided a quick exit.
I had the entire front to myself for one whole block. Then at the next light a tall, drop dead gorgeous businessman – right out of central casting — got on, and took two short steps so that he was standing right beside me. Without giving him eye contact I moved my purse just slightly, to appear as though I were creating even more of a personal space zone, though there was plenty of room for him and his briefcase. The shuttle doors closed and we proceeded to the next light at which point the troll got on.
Over the years I had regularly spotted her on the mall, one of those wandering homeless people of indeterminate age, I mentioned earlier. She was well under five feet with a shrunken affect. In that way she reminded me of one of Snow White’s dwarves, compact and plump, dirty from the coal mine or wherever those dwarves did their hi ho labor. Even in the summer the Troll Lady — that’s the nickname I had come up with — wore a dark wool cap and sometimes a scarf too. They covered most of her unwashed and matted hair.
Often when I was walking The 16th St. Mall at my lunch hour or coffee break, I would see the Troll Lady mumbling to her imaginary friends as she went from one block to the next, clutching her odd assortment of tattered bags in that scared, protective way belying the fact that those sacks really couldn’t contain valuables in any sense of the way you or I would use that word. I never saw her begging but sometimes I would see her wedged into a building crack or leaning lopsidedly, possibly dozing, maybe passed out. I just never knew because I never really looked at her that closely. Whenever I came upon her I would pretty much reflexively look away. I know this sounds really harsh, but at the time I really thought she was the ugliest woman I’d ever seen. It felt harsh to look at her, so I just didn’t. I just couldn’t. Until that morning when she got on the shuttle at the intersection one block past where the drop dead gorgeous businessman had gotten on.
She toddled about five or six steps and then stopped. Right next to me, standing to my left. I was then smack in the middle of the beauty and the beast, though it was reverse gender. The contrast was that extreme, and so was the odor. And that’s when I looked down and turned my head toward her for the first time, instead of away. My brain was trying to process what I smelled. The first thing I saw were her filthy clothes. She had on various kinds of fabrics and textures and prints of differing lengths and sizes, and this was years before the fashionistas had created that chic hip layered look.
I tried to take it all in with a sweeping glance but it was way too much. The smell I mean. I turned my face away, all the way to the right to avoid it. I saw Mr. Handsome looking straight at me with a warm smile as he silently acknowledged the stench. I crinkled my nose and closed my eyes in response, clearly conveying the absurdity of the situation we were in, and then turned back around. I looked at her. She was in her own world. As she stared straight ahead I was able to get a good look at the right side of her face. Dark dots of clogged pores peppered her cheek, all the way to her temple. Some were in clusters as though a bb gun had shot chia seeds at her. It was easy to imagine how years of living on the street or sleeping under a viaduct could embed the city grime into the deep cracks of her pale, leathery skin.
Having seen enough I then turned my back to her. This time when I made eye contact with Mr. Handsome I uncrinkled my nose and smiled warmly at him.
I don’t know what Mr. Handsome was thinking just then but I had been either holding my breath or been taking those really teeny, shallow inhales for as long as I could stand. After two blocks I just had to bail. I knew there was no way I would be able to stay in place for the duration of 12 blocks to get to my office. So as the shuttle made its way to the next intersection I picked up my purse, pivoted toward the door and got off as soon as it came to a stop.
I walked the few steps to the curb and waited for the light to change. Mr. Handsome was immediately beside me, standing again to my right just like he did on the shuttle. The light quickly changed and we both began walking across the street. I can’t recall who started talking first but one of us acknowledged to the other the smell. I remember telling him this wasn’t my usual stop but the smell was so unbearable I had to get away from it. He also mentioned it wasn’t his usual stop and said he got off for that reason. As we continued walking in the same direction a natural, organic conversation developed, as natural as one can have with a drop dead gorgeous man talking about a troll’s body odor.
After several more blocks we arrived at his office building in the financial district. Just as I was about to walk away he said he was meeting another friend after work for dinner. Would I like to join him beforehand for a drink? He added that he thought his friend would enjoy meeting me, so after inquiring about the time and place, and because I had that hunch he was unattached, I told him I would. I walked away thinking how funny it was that the Troll Lady was playing a magical part in my life, in a way acting like a matchmaker, at the vey least being instrumental in helping set up a first date. But that wasn’t the only astonishing thought that came to me about the Troll Lady.
There was the epiphany gift that came a bit later. Maybe it was because she helped set in motion the encounter with a total stranger, a generous and kind man who soon came to play an unexpected and important role in my life, that my heart and mind was able to open up to receive the wisdom. I don’t really know for sure. What I am certain of is what happened one afternoon I was on the shuttle and had randomly looked out at the street. I spotted the Troll Lady standing alone, just doing her usual Troll Lady thing like I had seen her doing countless times before and after Mr. Handsome stepped into my world. But this time as the shuttle went by my gaze stayed on her. Instead of being repulsed by her looks or grossed out remembering that g-d awful stench, I was able to see with special clarity — as if there were a spotlight on her. I could feel my heart open, my face soften. For the very first time I saw her in a totally different way; I was able to see how perfectly beautiful she was.
If I wanted to believe, and I do, that there was a thinking, rational reincarnated soul buried deep within those layers of worn out rags, one with agency and intention, well then she had elevated her craft of being The 16th St. Troll to a sublime art form. I could see how complete and beautifully designed her beingness was, all the way down to the details of her unique stench. I could see she had perfected, had become, the embodiment of the highest creative expression of a homeless person and there was an important job for her in this world that only she could do — one that was just as valuable to me as the beauty of a Mr. Handsome.
Giselle M. Massi © January 10, 2014