Published February 14, 2011
I squeeze in the middle seat next to a short, round guy with doe eyes and a shaved head. He adjusts a little, but he’s still got half my seat.
“I’m sorry,” he says, in the gentlest voice. “I’m getting off at the next stop and I’m really uncomfortable and that’s why I’m still sitting like this all spread out.”
“It’s okay,” I tell him. “I’ve got enough room.” I’ve turned and looked him in the eye. I’m smiling, it’s really all right. For some reason I want him to know that.
He looks at me a minute. “You know, I don’t have a valentine, and that’s okay. At my age, I realize that love is my valentine. Just love. You can share love with your family, your aunt, your brother, your pet, your cousin, you can share it with everybody.”
“You can share my seat,” I tell him.
“See, it’s beautiful right? Happy valentine’s day,” he says, rising toward the door as the train slows its way into the station.
Published June 8, 2010
A fence encompasses a field of gravel and a few insidious weed-tree sprouts. It’s two-thirds of a block, and used to be solid with warehouses. They tore them down and wrapped the lot in its fence and then nothing happened at all.
I’m in front of the fence with my camera, trying to get the light just right, when a man walks up and says, “Can I ask you something?” He’s got a clipboard, I’m wary, but it’s an airy sunny day, the kind of day that makes it hard to say no.
He points to the sprawl of the lot. “What do you see here?”
Now I’m smiling. There’s a joke and he hasn’t gotten it yet. “I see something funny,” I tell him.
He pulls his chin back a little into his neck, waits for further information.
So I point to the small metal sign that someone has pinned to the fence. It says, “KEEP OFF THE GRASS.”
He looks and after a quick beat he’s laughing and laughing, doubled over into one raised knee. It would not be imprecise to say that he sounds like the devil is tickling his ribs.
Published April 5, 2010
“Hey Stranger,” is what my neighbor, the ex-fireman, calls out when I walk by, but it’s been years since we were strangers. I know about the fall that busted his leg, and the pins in his knee that need replacing. I know where he grew up, and that his brother lives across the river. I’ve admired the hot red Lincoln that he stores for the winter and I helped him out of his plain black sedan once, when his knee was in pain. I know he ran track in high school, cross-country. He chides me on warm days when he doesn’t see me in running clothes, and he cautions me to stretch when I arrive home in a sweat.
I told him today that I’m moving. Not far, still in the neighborhood, he said. He shook my hand after all these years and said, “good luck to you.”
“I’ll walk by and see you sometimes,” I told him. It’s something you say to someone you might easily never see again, and I’m not even sure which house is his if I wanted to ring the bell. This is street intimacy, that’s all, I realized, and in a single handshake, I saw the boundaries crystallize. They are tricky, transparent. Like glass, they are solid all the same.
Published April 3, 2010
They’re young and spilling over with winter’s pent up energy, shouting and bouncing and swiping at each other. One’s got his hood up, he looks tough. I’m at the corner with them, waiting to cross the street, giving a wide berth to their erratic motion. The hoodie turns to me and says, “It’s a beautiful day, right?”
“Sure is,” I tell him. His face is narrow, his eyes a little volatile. I shift back a little more.
He points up at the house-high pear tree in full white bloom across the street. “You see how the trees are coming back to life,” he says. “That’s God, baby. Ain’t no Mother Nature, that’s right.”
He punches his friend in the meat of his shoulder and they run into the street, racing to cross in the lull between the cars, long before the red light comes.
Published April 2, 2010
The men on the corners chat me up. Affectionate catcalls, harmless appreciations. But to the boys who move in rangy packs, I’m invisible, or at least, I have always felt that way. Today the sun’s out, and it’s mid-afternoon, no time for kids to be out on the street. Still, there on the corner, is one of Dealer’s boys. He’s fat in a way I suspect he’ll grow into, and a boy who becomes a formidable man is far more enticing than one who turns out just like you expect. I want to tell him that. But he doesn’t even know I’m there.
Then he surprises me. He squints up into the sun and says, “Hey lady. You changed your hair.”
Across the street, an old man sings in Spanish about his aching heart.
Published February 18, 2010
Some days it feels like I’ve been through all the strangers. This is a logical impossibility of staggering proportions, and yet the feeling lingers against all rationality. Today is one of those days, and so I set out hunting. I walk slower. I smile at everyone. Nobody’s biting. Finally, in a patch of sun along the sidewalk, I catch the postman’s eye. He’s the kind who drives around in a truck and leaves a trail of dreaded orange slips behind him, requiring trips to the post office, and who wants that punishment. Despite his devil’s errands, he’s cheerful, and we talk about the snow for a while.
“The worst part,” he says, “is after people clean up.”
“Really?” I’m not following his logic.
He winks, and points at the little mountain of packed ice that makes a border between the clean sidewalk and the cleared street. “It’s one of those things, a paradox, right? Everyone thinks they’re doing good, but they’re just leaving these glaciers in my way.”
Then he picks his way over the mound of dirty snow as gracefully as a dancer, boards the truck, and drives away.
Published January 21, 2010
I come here a few mornings a week. The clerk knows my face. Today I’m waiting for a bagel to be trussed, and my phone rings. I have a brief, breathless logistical conversation and then hang up. The clerk looks up and asks me how I’m doing today.
I decide to be honest, he’s just witnessed the flurry on the phone. “I’m a little frazzled,” I tell him. “How are you?”
“I’m fine, thanks,” he says, and looks out the window.
I wait until his attention strays back to me. “Would you have told me if you weren’t?”
He’s confused. “I’m fine,” he says again, smiling.
“I know, but if you weren’t fine, would you have told me that?”
He laughs at me, it’s a laugh I’ve seen before, the one he reserves for the florid and broken section-8 housing residents from around the corner who count out their pennies for coffee. “Of course not,” he says, still smiling, “I wouldn’t tell you that.”