It’s Tuesday and the morning light enters through a crack in the curtains, skating across cool air that fills my room. Ragged curtains hang from nails, dissevering fresh air from an old wet carpet and leftover laundry stench. But it is my home, and during this time I can contemplate the point between child’s play and the grave, drawing a line across my ceiling representing the distance between the seed and the dust. I once heard life summed up as a period: “A necessary mark stating, from whoever the creator might be, that the idea is finished.” Some might draw their line as nature’s unknown horizon. Yet others might symbolize the string as their saving rope. I imagine neither. I simply see it as a black mark scribbled against a white background-man’s attempt to pull meaning from the most meaningless attempt at art.
I look out my window and see the sun rising over the city, spreading its arms across an endless homeland of buildings like rocket launchers and alien people, until finally its rays envelope all that is under it. The city awakens. Rich and poor cars and commuter buses begin to move down streets, stopping and starting again, relieving themselves of exhaust, exhaling into the morning air already filled with horns, sirens, radio and TV waves. Crowds, like foreign cells entering the body, crawl up and down sidewalks. They move below oversized billboards that advertise perfume, supermarkets guaranteeing lowest prices, money institutions promising profitable investments, but none stop to read. The cells move on, intoxicated, but move on.
An hour or so later I step out from my one-bedroom, stained carpet and cracking paint apartment and breathe in, filling my lungs with air that now reeks of industrialism. I pull out a cigarette and begin to smoke. I’ve been trying to stop. I have smoking-hate people who need a cigarette-but I need something to relax me. In about thirty minutes I have an exam which I’ve spent most of my night studying for. I think about putting out my cigarette, but instead I let it hang from my lips, put my hands in my coat pocket and walk towards downtown.
My exam is in philosophy, the ideas of Jean Paul Sartre. But the only thing I have learned from Mr. Sartre is that Mr. Sartre is dead and he died in Paris on Tuesday April 15, 1980.
During the second week of classes I visited my professor.
“I don’t believe in Philosophy. I believe in myself, soul and heart.” I began.
He responded with, “If you don’t believe in Philosophy, then you can’t believe in yourself.”
“Then I guess I don’t believe in myself.” And I laughed. And he laughed too. And not much later I left.
I hate Philosophy.
I join the masses and begin my downtown journey. It is midmorning. People collide and moving automobiles swarm on all sides. The sun, burning through a thick layer of brown haze, warms my face. I’ve wasted too much time indoors lately, which makes me glad I didn’t spend the day in bed.
I stop by Ralph’s Vegetable Stand to buy some breakfast.
“Hey! It’s the professor on his way to learn more books.” Ralph laughs and tosses me a pear. “Did you hear about the professor who died last night?”
Ralph always has a story, usually pointless. “Don’t believe you’ve told me that one.”
“Well, this guy was in the papers and on the TV. Everybody wanted to hear what he had to say. Anyway, he died yesterday in the morning. Everybody agreed he was dead. All the doctors came and stood around, saying, ‘Yep, this guy’s dead all right. Dead as they come.’ But it was later in the day, about evening, when they unzipped his black body bag, that he sat up and said, ‘I can’t believe it.’ And the dead man’s doctor jumped back and agreed, saying, ‘I can’t believe it.’ Then all the doctors came back, looked him over and said, ‘Yep, this guy’s alive, breathing and walking just like any of us. Must’ve made a mistake.’ Then the dead man butts in and says, ‘No! No you didn’t make any mistake. I really did die, but when I realized that I had died, I was standing before a great light and then a voice spoke, ‘I am.’ That is all it said, ‘I am.’ Period. When everyone heard the story, everyone was astonished. Then someone in the back started laughing. And then everyone started laughing. And then everyone left and this morning they locked the dead man up, saying he imagined the whole story just to make people think and worry over nothing.”
And I can’t help it, so I laugh too. Then I toss him money for my breakfast and leave.
I continue walking east. Within a few minutes I am entering the edge of downtown. Here is where the humans and automobiles form a thick murk. Everyone’s heading someplace, as I am, rushing to beat the clock. But there, across the avenue, I spot the girl whom I see each morning whenever I walk this way. She wears a dark skirt and a matching sweater. One arm hangs onto her book bag and the other swings with grace. From under a hat her auburn hair flows out, covering, like a blanket of golden poppy pedals, her neck, shoulders and back. For days I’ve noticed her, each morning walking along the same side at the same time. And each day I’ve wanted just to greet her and smile.
At the street corner I cross to her side. For a few seconds I lose her in the mass, then she reappears, and I am only a dozen or so bodies behind her. I must slide myself between people to overcome our gap. Within a minute, she is only a few people ahead. I go over my line, clear my throat and begin to catch her. Now I stand directly behind her. The breeze throws the apply fragrance of her hair into my face, and I breathe in with pleasure. For a few seconds I wait for the possibility she might turn and greet me. But the seconds pass and she still hasn’t noticed. Suddenly she stops and turns to the left. Because so many people surround us she pauses to find a break in the rush. But I don’t notice until I already knock myself into her, brushing her hand with mine.
“I’m sorry.” I whisper.
But her head never turns and she vanishes through the crowd.
I pull out another cigarette, strike a match and start inhaling.
Smoking depresses me. And I hate it.
I stare down at my watch and realize twenty minutes have passed without begin accounted for. I remember that I have an exam in only a few minutes, and I fear I am going to fail Philosophy and in doing so, according to my professor, fail myself.
I pull myself out of the slipstream and stand under the protection of a café’s awning. Beside me runs an alley. I can’t help watching as an old beggar woman, haggard and wretched instead of beautiful, baptizes her hands in an overflowing dumpster. I’m ready to vomit my breakfast when she discovers a fast-food sack and from it pulls out a small packet of sugar. She opens it, letting pure sugar pour onto her cracked lips and into her blackened mouth. She finishes and throws the empty packet back into the trash. Then, bent over, she shuffles her body out of the dark alley and into the sunlight. She fights her body, turns and begins to move in my direction. Helpless, I watch as she approaches.
Finally she arrives and I have “Help me!” slapping me in the face. But she doesn’t notice my worried look. And as she passes in front of me, she looks up and says, “Good morning.”
And she smiles.
I journey east three more blocks and turn south on 11th avenue. With regret and remorse, I decide Existentialism must wait for another day.
The morning rush is over, and I am glad because I’m not really a people person. People make me feel claustrophobic. They are always around me, into me, touching me, suffocating me. I suppose that is why I have chosen to stay in school. If anything, I’ve learned besides that Mr. Sartre died in Paris on Tuesday April 15, 1980, that knowledge isolates like nothing else.
I remember a few years back when my father bought me dinner a few nights before I left for college. Sitting around a table, eating spaghetti and French bread, my father shared his only bit of wisdom he wasted his whole life learning.
“Use their books as mirrors,” he said. “Discover yourself. But never let your learning shrink life so small that you have to look at it under a microscope. There’s something bigger than us. Find that and believe in it.” Period.
Now, when I look in the mirror, I see a broke college student, dissecting life in the Philosophy department. And I don’t even believe in Philosophy. And, according to my professor, I don’t even believe in myself.
I pass under the rusted park gate teased with graffiti. Some idiot has sprayed the lines: I am the way into eternal sorrow. Abandon all hope ye who enter here. I think back to this morning and Ralph’s dead professor. And I laugh as I remember: “I am. Period.”
I find a pay phone, deposit a quarter and dial a friend.
“Hello, Meg. It’s me.”
“I thought you had an exam this morning?”
“I don’t feel much like the Philosopher. Can you meet for lunch?”
“Is something wrong?”
“No. Just thought I’d share life with a friend today.”
“I’m busy all day. I really am so sorry.”
We talk for awhile more and she promises she’ll call tomorrow. She says she has to go, and I say, “Me too.” We exchange “good-byes” and she hangs up. And then I hang up too.
The park is busy for a weekday. Joggers and walkers glide over cracked walkways. Young and old parents stroll their carriages over lawns, under trees and through meadows. I can’t find any hummingbirds, fields of flowers or blooming buds on the ends of branches. I can’t even find an empty bench.
So I am wandering about, lost as a stray dog searching for a home. The park stretches out to over three hundred acres and I begin to wonder if hiking alone is particularly safe. Not a week goes by when one can’t find a reported incident of somebody in the park being assaulted. The park is filled with cement tunnels, overgrown bushes and dense wooded patches, and sometimes the sun never touches the soil.
I head for higher ground, for sunlight and warmth.
I reach the summit of small hill and walk along it until I see below me a group of teenagers spray painting messages on a concrete wall. I am too far away to see what they are writing and I really don’t care. As I watch, other people pass the group, but no-one stops. Maybe they have permission. Maybe they’re artists providing a community service. Maybe their messages speak of hope and peace. But I doubt it. And I don’t care. And I keep walking.
The sun begins to drain me. So I wander about until I find a patch a weeds, and here I make my afternoon bed and fall asleep.
Under the sun, I awake. I realize it is early afternoon and that I’ve slept more then just the hour I intended.
Somewhere close the laughs of children cry out. I sit up and watch as three kids run up and down my small hill. Apparently, no one knew I was here.
“Come-on, let’s go play on the swings,” their mothers shout out as the kids cry in disappointment. Since I’m wearing loose pants, a green shirt and an army baseball-style cap, the mothers probably don’t picture me, but rather see the criminal in tomorrow’s news. But then the three kids blast off with their mothers trailing behind in the dust.
I clamor down my hill and head back the same way I came. I stop for a minute and stare up. A handful of dark clouds, now inhabiting the sky, begin to threaten my day with rain. But from where I am, I can no longer see the city with its concrete and glass skyscrapers. I can’t hear any cars or smell any pollution. I can’t find any trash piled in a corner. Here is only me, standing under a sky, with my feet in the weeds and my head full of pollen. The three kids run back into my mind, and I realize that maybe their cry was for help. Without all the books and philosophies, maybe the children could see me as I am, a young man wanting to live. Period.
A slight breeze and an aroma of jasmine touch my face as I too begin to run down the hill. And it makes me feel alive.
On my way out of the park I pass under the wall tagged with graffiti. This is the wall that I had watched the teenage artists give birth too earlier in the day. I walk up and run my hand over gold paint. It ends up they have no hope. Maybe they are prophets, maybe even young students of philosophy like myself. Their message sprayed, reads: We are the end of the world. But don’t worry. Drink up. Everything’s just fine.
Inside I laugh.
These days everyone happens to be a philosopher. Even the teenage crack dealer and gang member, who never studied philosophy, has his philosophy: himself. Numero Uno.
And he believes in himself too. Probably calls himself an Existentialist. Probably would get an A from my professor. But he probably doesn’t know that Mr. Sartre died in Paris on Tuesday, April 15, 1980. And he probably doesn’t know that he will die too. Period.
I begin heading north on 11th Avenue. Now I’m hoping we get a good atomic downpour, something to clear out the toxic air. Maybe clean out the cracks, polish up some cars, rinse off a few buildings, and wash the graffiti to some remote sewage and treatment plant.
I reach my street and am turning west when I come across a middle-aged man, sitting on the corner painting. His red beard begs for a shave, and his hair, reaching far below the shoulders, needs a serious trim. Under a white doctor’s style jacket, splattered over with oils, he wears a pair of gray pants. An artist, he has seated himself in a wood folding chair, which faces his canvas and art stand. Behind it all, some vapor rises out of a manhole.
In the midst of people, cars and buses rolling by, he seems the freest, as if nothing distracts. A few stragglers form a small semicircle, watching as the artist rushes his hands across the canvas. And he becomes a creator.
Finally, I see what he is painting. Using rough strokes, he makes a picture of a gray pond with yellow ducks on it, surrounded by deep blue grass. He colors the sky a lush, forest green and adds some silver clouds. And then he puts a few children walking around the lake with their parents. It is beautiful and reminds me of my time at the park.
“Excuse me,” I say. “But why are you here, on this busy street corner in downtown, painting a scene that is nothing like what you’re in?”
He stops his brush and looks up. He is much older that I thought. His beard disguises his wrinkled and blotched skin. “Here I find mood and setting that allows my mind to envision where it would rather be.”
“But wouldn’t you find it more productive to paint, sitting in front of the lake?”
“But I am.”
“You’re on 11th Avenue!”
“You see, I draw the scene from my imagination. Many people, including some modern artists, say, ‘all art has been exhausted.’ But I say, ‘then look around and paint what you don’t see. Paint what you want to see.’ We need to exist outside ourselves. Don’t get trapped in this city.” And he smiles. And I smile too.
Then I say, “Yes, I think I see what you mean.” And then we exchange parting smiles.
Then I peel myself away from the smell of wild grass, the sounds of children playing and ducks floating in the water and I start heading west, heading home.
Moving west I’m only a few blocks from my one bedroom home. A slight sprinkle begins to fall. The afternoon is nearly finished, my day almost complete. Downtown, all its offices, stores and people stand behind me. And I’m almost home.
In front of a secondhand store, a crowd grows beside an ambulance and police car. Lights flashing, rain now falling, it reminds me of Hollywood and the movies. I join the crowd to gape and gawk, anything to catch a free show.
“This ain’t now freak show. I need everybody to move back.” A police officer steps forward, attempting to take control of the curious crowd. “There’s nothing to see. Why don’t you just head on home.”
With only one officer, I figure I won’t find a crime, just some bank agent with high cholesterol and too much weight. Or maybe some stockbroker had a seizure. Maybe a senior citizen slipped and rolled an ankle or maybe a hip. I take his advice and turn to go when I steal a peek at the old beggar lady from this morning. She is lying on the ground under two paramedics. I force myself to the front.
“Excuse me! I know her.” I raise my hand as though I’m in class, needing to be called upon. But this isn’t philosophy.
The officer points at me. “You! You know this lady?”
“Well, not exactly.” I confess. “I think I saw her this morning a couple blocks from here, walking around and digging through trash cans.”
“Know her name?”
“No. I just know what I told you. I saw her searching through a dumpster this morning, looking for something to eat. That’s all.” Again, I feel helpless. “Is there anything I can do to help?”
“No. A few minutes ago one of the shop owners watched as she fell over dead.” He moves away to push a few onlookers back. And I move away. But just before I leave I take one last look at the old beggar lady. She has no smile. And neither do I.
A fat man wearing an apron steps out from the delicatessen hosting the crowd. He must have seen me talking with officer, for he starts up. “Funny, dead she attracts a crowd wanting to help. Dying, I suppose she didn’t look wasted enough for a soul to care.”
“Period,” comes out as the only parting word I can say.
I make it home in the rain. No rain coat. No umbrella. I’m soaked through. I turn in my walkway and hear my name. Meg is sitting under the awning at the entrance. She stands up to meet me.
“Where have you been?”
“Meg, what are you doing here?”
“After you called, I was concerned and I came over to check on you. First I thought you might be sleeping again. But when I knocked and knocked, and waited and waited, I really began to worry. I’ve been here all afternoon.”
“I’m sorry. I had no idea.” I mean it as a sincere apology.
“So! Where have you been?” And she smiles.
“Come on inside. Let’s go and draw a line across my ceiling and I’ll tell you about my day.” And I smile too.