Railing for a Cause

Have you ever stopped to consider just how dangerous stairs can be? If you haven’t, you’ve surely had the good fortune not to have witnessed or taken part in any number of horrifying incidents involving stairs. I truly hope that’s been the case for you. For me, this has not been the case.

I suppose it all started in my formative years. I was walking down the ancient basement steps of my grandparent’s house when, five steps behind me, my somewhat frail grandmother missed a step and came tumbling toward me. I was on a landing turn, halfway down, and in a flash my dear grandmother crashed near me, teetering toward the basement below. She was OK thankfully, albeit extremely winded. But, the experience scarred me and I remain haunted by the incident to this day. It also didn’t help that their basement resembled the one in Psycho.

Years later in my first house, my grandfather was walking down my finished basement stairs – well, I say “finished” although they were absent a handrail. He steadied himself on the walls to each side only to slice his thinly skinned hands open. I suppose some prior owner decided a sculpted plaster wall design (free of the eyesore a handrail might create) would look groovy there. The next day, I contracted to have a railing put in.

In that same house, a roommate once left a blue plastic folder on my blue carpeted stairs and as I descended, talking on the phone, I went flying. I was near the bottom of the stairs when I slipped but the fall was spectacular enough to knock the batteries out of my phone. As the line went dead, the person I was speaking with surely thought I had died too.

Given these traumas, I often lecture my mother for piling things at the bottom of her staircase – items that “should be taken up” to the second floor by whomever goes up next. I’ve tried to highlight the danger of that practice by conjuring an image of someone coming down carrying her infant grandchild in a blatant attempt to terrify her. I’m not convinced it’s been effective as of late given that her grandkids live a five hour plane ride away and they’re not infants anymore.

My former job regularly involved escorting folks around a nearly 200-year-old college campus. Given that, it was essential that I remain alert. One oft-visited building’s side stairs were notoriously dangerous in the winter – so much so that I would avoid that route at all cost. I’ve developed a bit of a spidey-sense for this kind of thing. Still, I witnessed one able-bodied alumna crash down the last third in high heels. Again, terrifying (and this was prior to cocktail hour because I know you’re wondering). Note to my successor with no further details: also avoid hosting events in construction zones.

A separate celebratory weekend brought a large number of revelers to a late night reception at the campus women’s center. I arrived early to discover that the sole light on the rickety porch was out. Not surprisingly, it was a special low-energy bulb that is not easily replaced on a weekend. So, I dutifully spent the evening there using my iPhone as a flashlight. It was the perfect storm – unfamiliar and uneven steps, the dark of a rural nighttime, drinking – but we sailed through on that one because let’s face it – women are smarter than men. Phew. 

Which brings me to my current home and my front porch steps. One thing I’ve learned about buying a “spec” house is that the contractor is going to look for places to cut costs. I was able to remedy this in many ways by involving myself in the process well prior to their finishing the build. However, one item which was never installed was a railing on my front steps.

And here’s the thing. For years, I was fully aware that I did not have a railing there. I was fully aware that I did not have an awning there. And I was equally aware that this space would experience Ohio winters. I also knew that the party I’m most known for involves nighttime, masks and spooky lighting. And yet – despite everything I have shared about my experience – I had not installed a railing there.

So when my husband, Marc casually mentions one day that we had been designated the rain site for a 90-year old woman’s birthday party, I really failed to do the math. Yes, it rained. But I was thrilled to act as the rain site because I adore this woman, named Carolyn. However, I should have known that the projections of low attendance were radically off given her local popularity. And as the throngs – throngs! – of 70, 80 and 90-year-olds began to arrive, I thought to myself HOW IN THE WORLD HAVE YOU NOT INSTALLED A RAILING ON YOUR FRONT PORCH?!

I spent a not insignificant amount of time there that evening with an umbrella, a steady hand to offer, and the creeping realization that this was all my fault. The exclamation point was when a man in a wheelchair arrived. God, I suck. But, we got through it and I’m happy to report that we now have sturdy iron railings on both sides of my front stoop. 

To this day it registers with me every time a person uses that railing: a recently hospitalized coworker, a friend with knee issues, a new retired neighbor unexpectedly coming by to introduce himself. I’m mentally tracking the value I’ve gotten out of those railings. Not monetary value, mind you, but safety and peace of mind.

Back to the women’s center event for a moment: I don’t blame the student managers – you know, who get paid to look after the building – for not having taken care of the porch light (which they admitted had been out for weeks). They’re young, extremely familiar with the house they live in, and generally have the night vision of a college-aged student. It wasn’t an issue which was obvious to them.

I’ve certainly been guilty of this as well (please refer to: everything above). But, I’m left wondering… what else should I be attending to – in order to make the world a bit easier for those around me? Surely, it’s going to be the things that aren’t immediately obvious, that don’t track to my age, ability and point of view.

I’m still contemplating what those items might be, what my ability is to do something about it, and what my obligation needs to be to do so. Perhaps I’ll start by writing a blog post. 

In the meantime, if Carolyn’s next birthday party coincides with inclement weather, I’ll be ready.

1 thought on “Railing for a Cause

  1. Sally Marlowe

    Loved it, Scott! And trust me every time I see a handrail, I’ll think of your friend, Carolyn….oh no I mean you!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *