By Alison Lapp
Ashley and I would stretch our bodies to their fullest extension, just barely reaching the latch on the red, wooden fence that surrounded her backyard. One of us would pull the latch down into its small niche of worn away wood, created by our repeated tuggings and hold it there for as long our little limbs could stand. During this precarious moment of suspension, the other would hurry to push the gate open before the grasp was lost and the process had to start all over again.
Scratching rough complaints against the ground, the gate worked its way open and we were free to scurry past her grandfather’s scattered tools and greasy car parts out almost to the front of the house. There we found our secret passageway behind the decades old RV and through a wall of bushes that always tore at skin and clothing. Finally the bushes parted, the tunnel ended and we were there: our own magical patch of land perfectly hidden between her house and the neighbor’s. Pebbles, tiny white-gray masterpieces, clinked under our feet as we walked and sat under the birdfeeder that was located exactly in the center of the circle of prickly bushes that contained us. We called it “the fountain,” and with our muddy fingers we loved its concrete cracks and the emerald algae that grew within. We only spoke in whispers when we were in our special place, always perfectly together and perfectly alone.
Enclosed in the fountain’s protective shadow, we would pick the whitest stones we could find that fit right into the palms of our baby hands and hold them there tight. We would close our eyes and clasp our fists, silently wishing to the stones, and then throw the bits of whiteness as far away as possible, letting them carry the wish with them. Ashley always wished for a kitten, one that would just show up at her door one day, so cute and helpless that her parents would have to let her keep it. I told that I wished for kittens too, but I never did. I wished not in sentences, but in colors, in swirling sunset purples and blues. I wished for something for which I didn’t have words as a seven year old girl, but something I knew was wrapped up in the free-floating innocence of the moment and in the fact that I didn’t want the fleeting beauty of it to end when it was time to go in for lunch.
New York, in case anyone has not yet experienced its hectic streets, is insane. It is people and dirt, cell phones and falafel everywhere you look. On my excitingly spontaneous weekend jaunt up to the city, I find myself no longer abiding by my deeply ingrained principle to “look both ways before you cross the street,” and just holding my breath and praying each time my feet depart a street corner. They have this place in the middle of Times Square where you can wait in precisely regulated lines to buy leftover tickets to Broadway shows for discounted prices. This seemed the place to go for poor college students in need of culture, so my friends and I wake up early to beat the line and stand on the gray ground under the gray sky eating canned fruit out of a plastic container lid and waiting for our turn.
We are in a little plaza, with a line on either side and in the middle I see an old, weathered homeless man. Immediately, I look away. That is a behavior I have learned so well it has almost become an instinct. I remember learning it as a child, being told not to stare, being taught that it is better to keep walking, to keep talking and laughing as if human suffering were like graffiti - an eyesore that no one really wants, but that doesn’t cause any harm as long as you don’t pay it too much heed. I am sick of this self-imposed blindness and I want to watch him and his life. If I was going to pose as a writer as soon as I return to school, I figure I had better at least observe and learn about the world while I am away.
I watch as he reaches into a garbage can and starts going through its contents, examining each one. He pulls out a stained newspaper, a McDonalds bag and a half-filled cup of coffee. I decide that I’m done with my fruit and my friend takes it over and offers it to him, but he shakes his head, he doesn’t want it. He moves over to another trashcan and comes up with a crust of bread that had probably once formed part of a deli sandwich. He takes the bread with him to a bench a few yards away. Breaking off a piece and crumbling it between his fingers, he spreads it on the ground before him. He throws a little chunk to a lame pigeon who eats it hungrily and gratefully. Soon, he is surrounded by birds, like a reverend with his winged congregation, which are flapping and eating almost straight from his hands. Watching his smile that wrinkles up around his eyes, I remember what it was like to be filled with the hope to wish impossible things.
© Alison Lapp