As a child collects sea-smoothed pieces of glass on the beach, I collect vignettes: scenes; fragments of conversation, some that I've been part of, others, overheard. In any case, they are found, not made. They serve a purpose similar to that of clues to the detective; of the shreds and shards to the archaeologist who from them reconstructs a civilization. They are windows onto other people's lives.
Below are scenes from a park bench where I sat every day for two years while my son played. I believe that everything that happens has a purpose, either practical or artistic. Although our park time had an obvious purpose for my son it also served a purpose for me. Or maybe I was the one serving a purpose. For things happened which I felt should be preserved so I preserved them.
June 14 "There he goes," said Gretchen. "That's The Man Who Can't Get Started." We were in the playground, looking out at the street. One or two people were walking home.
The man Gretchen was talking about was trying to step onto the curb. Eventually he succeeded and started to shuffle up the street.
"Watch - he's going to turn around and go back." As though in an instructional film which Gretchen was narrating he did as she described, returning to the curb. Once more he attempted to mount it several times before succeeding. This time he made it further up the street. But he returned to the curb yet a third time.
"I thought he had a neurological disorder but Emily says no, he's obsessive-compulsive."
He was like the frog in the math problem who jumps up two feet but each time, falls back one. I assumed that once the man-who-couldn't-get-started arrived home, he didn't go back to the curb.
"I thought he must be on disability but Emily says he works full time."
"What does he do?"
Gretchen looked at me with wonder at the irony of life.
"He works for the I.R.S."
Julie. The day after Christmas, her mother-in-law drew her into a corner. "Did I do something to offend you?" she began. "Because if so, you must tell me," etc...etc.
Julie didn't know what she was talking about. When her mother-in-law left she said during the final embrace, "I hope we're friends again." Now Julie is afraid to call her which will compound the original misunderstanding.
June 20 I have a pen. That sounds banal, a sentence from Chapter One of a foreign language text; but it is a fact not to be taken for granted. For, five minutes ago, I had no pen. And, being in the park and unable to ask anyone to watch Alex while I ran to the newsstand, I had to find another solution. I got up to ask for a pen from a row of women on the bench opposite. But on the way I saw a girl sitting with her mother. Between them on the bench lay a pen. The girl, a seven-year-old Barbie, would willingly lend it to me but I wanted to keep it. I offered her three dollars.
"She really wants that pen!" exclaimed her mother. Done.
I write on the park bench. People know when I am in my "office." From across the playground they see the pad on my knees and pen in my hand and they don't come over, especially if the pen is moving.
June 22 A woman just asked me nervously, "Are you allowed to smoke in the park?" Sheseemed afraid I'd tell her Sorry, she'd have to step off the planet.
June 23 Tricia's husband, Frank, is an airplane mechanic. He hasn't worked in a year because of a back injury. Tricia has told me of one plane her husband can't get up.
Disability has run out and Tricia has gone back to work. Frank stays home and plays Nintendo with their son. Last week Frank took an aptitude test with the State Department of Labor. He was found to have an aptitude for being a beekeeper, a bookkeeper, a housekeeper and President. He hasn't yet made up his mind which one he will pursue.
July 2 The park is in tones of swamp and hippo. The bench is slick with rain. My friend is planning a meal. For her, meals are a celebration and she plans them with as much care. As a fifties mother combed cookbooks for stews my friend, a nineties mother, hunts for recipes that feature tofu, miso and ginger. My friend is fulfilled in her three children and would have four more.
"They mark time for us," she says.
July 6 For several days a squirrel has been casing the house. This morning he squeezed through the window into the kitchen. I didn't think he'd have the nerve. I thought he understood about animal/human boundaries. But as I was opening the refrigerator I heard a crackle. I looked up to see a bushy tail curled above the box of Golden Crisp. I screamed. He took the hint.
July 8 This afternoon my bench mate was a woman with tangerine lipstick and a dress the color of a ripe mango. Her black hair was oiled, an effective advertisement for the hair salon she ran whose card she gave me. I commented on the agility on the monkey bars of her nine-year-old son.
"They said I was going to lose him," she said. "He was 1lb 13oz at Queens General. He had tubes going in him, open heart surgery. I wasn't allowed to hold him so I just stayed there by the incubator praying and singing to him. I already lost one baby so I wasn't going to lose him. They sent a psychologist over 'cause they didn't understand why I wasn't scared the way they were. The psychologist said, 'Do you understand the severity of your son's condition?' I said yes but he's going to make it. The third week he got a tumor in his testicle. I said, what is THAT? We were in there altogether four months but now he's fine."
"Does he have to restrict his activity?"
"No, he can do anything he wants." She said she'd been sent to talk to me by God. I didn't start going to church as a result of the conversation but I haven't forgotten it either.
July 9 Overheard: "My boyfriend came over and made French toast. Then he put butter and syrup on it as though it was pancakes. Then he spat on it. Then he ate it. I said, "Wha'd you do that for, you project-grown mother-fucker?"
July 10 Yesterday a middle-aged woman came to the park pushing an old woman in a wheel-chair. My eyes met those of the old woman. Her eyes lit up and she slowly lifted her hand.
"Does she want to shake hands?" I asked the middle-aged woman, who must have been the older one's nurse or daughter.
"She doesn't speak," she replied with a Russian accent. "But she likes to hold hands."
I shook the old woman's hand and let it go. A moment later she lifted her hand again with the same expression of pleasure. We shook hands again. A few moments later we started to play the scene a third time. Was she remembering her previous pleasure at shaking hands? Or forgetting every ten seconds? Her nurse/daughter covered the hand with the old woman's shawl. The hand fought with the shawl in slow motion. A moment later it won, emerging from the shawl and rising again. The nurse/daughter covered it more securely. The old woman cried. She didn't try to speak but we had some heavy eye contact, like characters in a silent movie.
July 23 Inevitably, relationships spark up in the park. The participants get self-conscious about double entendres: ("Do you come on weekends? Here, I mean, to the park?")
I've never known one of these relationships to go past the flirtation stage but it does make the daily jaunt, which can be eight hours long, more titillating. ("Will he be there?" Or, when a child the right size comes running down the street, "Is that Peter [his son]?") Most of my friendships for the last twelve years have arisen out of Alex's and some of them have stuck even after the children grew apart. It was in the park that I met Brian, a retired English professor of sixty on his second family. For a long time we'd seen each other but until our children played baseball together we didn't speak. When we did, it was for two hours.
He told me that when he first saw me he thought I was an Au Pair. (He meant this as a compliment.) Later he elaborated on his fantasy. I was from France and lonely because I didn't speak English well. When he saw me writing he imagined I was writing to my boyfriend.
As the summer wore on he told me about his marriage which stayed together mostly for Peter. My antennae went up. I said nothing. I suppose he thought I hadn't gotten the point because the next time I saw him he told me again. This time I was ready.
"These two electrons," I said, - I indicated our children who were, appropriately, running around randomly - " bind us together but they're also the force that keeps us apart." He acknowledged this and anyway, by Fall there were other forces keeping us apart.
August 8 Overheard in front of an office building on the way to the park:
"The pudgy one... " (in an exasperated whine) "Noooo,... not him!.. The fat bastard on the fourth floor."
September 30 This afternoon the wind was challenging but the day, beautiful so we set out for the park. Others stayed in, however, and Alex was so disheartened at the sight of the empty playground that I offered him a palm-reading at the gypsy's.
A man let us in and disappeared behind the curtain. A moment later the gypsy came out, speaking Arabic. She looked authentic; her body seemed to be made of balloons.
She told us it was against the law to read the palm of anyone under sixteen; eighteen if it was a phone consultation. I asked Alex if he would like my palm to be read instead. He agreed.
The gypsy studied my hand briefly. Then, looking into my eyes she told my fortune as though reading from a teleprompter.
"I see a long life between eighty-eight and ninety-two years. Are you working or looking?"
(Aren't you supposed to know?) "Looking."
"I see paper and pencils."
I was impressed but what else could
she say? - Gun and police car? Can of exterminating fluid? "A successful
career with much happiness."
"She already has happiness," Alex offered. "She has me."
"You have been disappointed in love but I see a change in the next three years. Maybe not marriage but commitment. One of your friends is two-faced and by the end of May you will know who it is."
I smiled throughout her monologue, more from amusement than happiness. I think, though, if she had said she saw an early death, I would have been disturbed. Do they ever say that?
We reported her predictions to Nick who was saddened about my disappointment in love and pending "commitment." To reassure him would only have been to dwell on it and drive the stake further in. I fluttered on to something else. I wish I'd remembered in time how cheered he had become at a Chinese fortune cookie that promised an imminent change in career at a time when he was contemplating one, with gold to follow.
Addendum: Several Mays have come and gone without any sign of the two-faced friend. In May of this year my husband announced he wanted a divorce in order to marry a woman I considered a friend. But I do not think her two-faced. Both she and my husband told their spouses immediately of their new-found "love," and the commitment was supposed to be mine, not his.
November 13 The mouse scurried against the wall. He looked meek, apologetic, though not so quiet as the simile would have it. Personally, I liked him but for my prejudice against his species.
Second Mouse: scurries, which arouses my fury. No "Cowerin', timorin' beasty" stuff but motherfucker and similar rhetoric.
April 22 Red kite, dipping and sailing, yellow balloon vanishing, blue sky. White ball joins them for a moment making an illustration for a children's primer.
Alex, Robb and Eduardo are playing basketball and using two garbage cans for baskets.
July 23 Yesterday afternoon someone came out of the men's room shouting, "There's a gun in there!" It took a few seconds for everyone to clear out of the park. Everyone, that is, except for Pavel and his grandmother. Pavel stayed arguing with his grandmother that they should leave, too. The problem was not linguistic although Pavel's grandmother doesn't speak English. Pavel was explaining the situation to her in Polish. But Pavel's grandmother escaped the Nazis twice and a gun doesn't faze her.
July 29 "Do you know Tamara Lisko?" Brian asked. No, I said. "You met her once at a roller-blading party." I remembered - a genial woman with whom I'd immediately felt comfortable. "She says you're obsessed with me."
My mind bounced around like a squash ball. For the rest of the day I tried to remember our conversation to figure out how she'd come to this conclusion. We had talked for a few minutes about Brian because he was the only person we both knew, besides the hosts of the party and to talk about them would have been rude. Then I remembered: We had discussed Brian's memoir which had moved me, though not her when she had read an earlier version. She must have been left even colder than she let on because she seems to have thought that anyone who had been moved by it had lost objectivity.
July 30 Already the trees are grey-brown with the defeated look of New York parks in July. People sag on the benches. Those on foot drag.
Wendy's mother is nervous. Wendy's father is about to take Wendy for a week. Last year Wendy's father was released from prison after serving eight years for aggravated assault. He had also threatened Wendy's mother; he said later, to show her what it felt like. The custody arrangements are harsh on Wendy's father. He is allowed to see Wendy for only one week a year. It is that week which is approaching. Last year when Wendy's father took Wendy for the week Wendy's mother received a postcard from France. She thinks that was a warning.
August 2 Donna She moves as though trying out a thoughtful style. Whenever I look at her I find she is already looking at me. She is the pariah of the playground; I wasn't surprised when she told me that in high school she'd been the nerd. A babysitter once observed to me, "That woman is so nosy." We treat her as some societies treat the police: We are always wondering, "What do you want to know for?" For she does want to know things; our incomes, rent, weight. As soon as we tell her she jumps in with advice: We should own, not rent; go for a higher academic degree, join her health club. It is as though we've unwittingly handed her weapons which she is now using against us.
Last time I came to the park Judith said, "Donna was looking for you."
"Why?" I said.
"She's working on a project that involves giving people IQ tests. She wants to do pairs of parents and children." I thought, She has become a parody of herself.
When I ask myself what is so irritating about her, my self answers: She assumes intimacy; if she sees you in a coffee shop, she sits down at your table. This is behavior I welcome in my friends, of course...
I think it is jealousy; of her husband and two healthy children who seem well-adjusted; her able and willing mother. But also the answer comes back that she reminds me of old and sometimes not so old parts of myself. All that energy going to proving herself. Also, she gossips; I look down on her gossip although with Judith or Louise, I relish it.
August 8 Since Chris burned down their apartment they have been living at the Calhoun, a welfare hotel. Chris had knocked over a candle in his room and the apartment was uninsured. It is probably not that simple as Chris is always in trouble. The hotel's other inhabitants are drug addicts who urinate in the street. Both Chris and his brother Huey are in Special Ed. although "their gross motor are fine." My conversation with their mother was interrupted by Alex who protested that Huey had hit him in the chest. I chased Huey to make him apologize. He refused.
"Apologize or I'll leave you with your father," contributed his mother.
"That's an interesting threat," I observed.
"It's a good threat. His father hit him in the face with a belt once. I have an order of protection saying he can't touch them."
Huey apologized. I sat down.
"How long is it good for?"
"A month, til they find him guilty." She smiled. She has a disarming smile that punctuates her sentences regardless of how gruesome they may be.
"Were they hurt in the fire?"
"Chris was in the hospital for four hours. I was in for twenty-three. A security guard shimmied down a rope to the terrace, picked him up and swung to another terrace across from ours. Chris was ready to jump, he was so scared."
"What floor was the apartment?"
"Eight. I did all the things Frank Fields says to do on T.V. I felt the doorknob to see if it was cool. Then I went down the stairs. I was given VIP treatment at the hospital. My mother's a clinician. That's above the head nurses. My sister's a nurse and my brother-in-law's a technician. We're getting our equity in the apartment back. If we went back, they'd evict us. The lawyer thinks I'm an idiot. He doesn't realize he's dealing with a college graduate."
"What did you major in?"
"Communication, T.V. production, audio, sound effects."
"Did you work in your field?"
"I was a disc jockey for a year in Newton, New Jersey." She put on her disc jockey voice: "WKRO, 85.8 on your A.M. dial."
September 5 I was walking home with two half gallons of milk when a man came down the street calling through a foghorn, "Geraldine Ferraro! Vote for Geraldine Ferraro! See Geraldine Ferraro on X Street in two minutes." I hung around.
The candidate appeared, androgynous, with a clean smile which she aimed in all directions. She was surrounded by tall men one of whom was her spokesman. "Shake her hand," he told pedestrians, as though they were trained dogs. Like trained dogs they obeyed, having their pictures taken in the act. I was surprised how many people were walking around on a Saturday morning with cameras.
Ever ready to grab a once in a lifetime opportunity when I saw one, I joined the Ferraro entourage. First she went into the 99 Cent store; then Waldenbooks. There weren't many people there but maybe people who buy books are more influential. Then the sidewalk cafe and Keyfood. She ended up in the playground.
"Attention, all toddlers!" called her spokesman. "Vote for Geraldine Ferraro on Tuesday."
She never stopped smiling. I wondered if she fooled anyone; if people vote on the basis of a smile or a handshake. If so, smiles and handshakes should be inadmissible in campaigns as unduly prejudicial. I also wondered why none of the tall men or perhaps short women around her had dark glasses. I voiced this thought aloud. A man who was taping the campaign with a VCR said, "You're several decades behind the times."
What do they use now, dark contact lenses?
September 11 Gail has the spacey look of an ex- or possibly still active pot-head. If her expression weren't so vacant she would be beautiful. She doesn't get enthusiastic about things. She shrugs a lot. But she has always been the family breadwinner. She put herself through court-reporting school and makes more than some lawyers I know.
Her mother died when she was six. Just as when one goes to a new city and looks for the old section that contains the essence of the place - a miller's wheel or an ornament above a doorway - so the essence of Gail seems to me to have derived from her mother's death. For the next twelve years her father told her she was stupid. She has come to believe it, I think, and is acting the part; or maybe her vacant air, and apparent apathy to everything is left over from her junkey period. Or perhaps her father was right although if that is true, she will be the only stupid person I have ever met.
She reminds me of Caroline, a girl in junior high school who couldn't do math. When Miss Ridgefield called on her, Caroline would wag her index finger up and down as though there was a puppet on it and it was the puppet who was speaking. Then she would drawl in a North country accent, "Ah doon't knoo." Miss Ridgefield would tear at her clown locks that didn't go with her neurotic personality.
In high school Gail began seeing a therapist whom she still sees and who has never charged her. The therapist is trying to replace the mother, I think. Gail married a man who smoked even more pot than she did. She finished court-reporting school which her husband never did and became the family breadwinner. Her husband temped.
Now she has separated from her husband, she tells me. I'm shocked, having known nothing about any trouble between them. How are the kids taking it? I ask. She shrugs. "They haven't noticed."
The next time I see her, she tells me she has found a boyfriend. He also calls her stupid. So she has started to read the newspaper. For a while it is Born Yesterday. She gets angry at what she reads. Then the anger turns on her boyfriend; they break up and the newspaper goes unread once more. The vacant stare comes over her again like a cloud-cover.
September 24 Martha, daughter in an Italian family. As an adult she suspected her father of being in the mob although her childhood had none of the flashiness one would associate with that background. She was not allowed out by herself until she was twelve. Then she was allowed to go alone only to church. Her father told her to sit next to a woman, preferably a nun.
"What a dirty mind he has," she thought then, an interpretation that may tell much either about her father or about her.
October 3 We're at the Youth Olympics; Alex, manic with excitement.
"I can't climb with this on." Whips off jacket. "Let's see, I'll turn my hat backwards." He runs off to scale a thirty foot wall. I find a table in the shade where the Honduran woman next to me is studying a paper in English called Existential Psychology.
Alex, who never met a dog he didn't like (although he was subdued for a few days after Hubert bit him) is petting a panting golden retriever whose owner is explaining to somebody that dogs sweat through their tongues. This golden retriever is a "therapy dog." She goes to nursing homes where she is a soothing presence to bedridden patients and stroke victims. People in these circumstances often don't want other people to see them. But according to this woman, it's been shown that petting dogs can lower blood pressure and alleviate depression. The patients are receptive because they don't feel the dogs are judging them.
The woman is upbeat about these findings. I am depressed: That we trust each other so little; and rightly so. When I've imagined being in the hospital there's no one I'd want to see except Alex who is a child and therefore not sizing me up. Everyone else would be making the pilgrimmage out of guilt.
date? The eclipse approaches steadily, stealing light and turning it a mean, steely sheen, the pre-storm light I imagine preceeds nuclear disaster. The sky seems lower and hard. Since we have been warned not to look, it lures us like Euridice. Afterwards one of the fathers says that the sunlight on the leaves was eclipsed by halfmoon shadows.
March 16 Spring is here. The thaw is on. Everyone's coming out and catching up on the past five months. Ran into Tricia who reported, among other things, "... And I had sex!"
"With whom?" I asked. Last I heard Tricia hadn't had sex in two years.
"Hector, the guy, remember? I met at the Laundromat? You know, the funny thing was, I never thought I'd be able to lie. I thought Frank would be able to read it on my face, I'd go all red... Honey, it was so easy. And so nice... Afterwards, I was singing. I did my tarot cards to see if it'd happen again and they said something good was going to happen."
A week ago I might have thought the tarot cards a red flag of flakiness. But since the gypsy brought me close to tears, I suspend judgment.
June 8 Alex is playing with Gordon, the sex deviant. Gordon talks about sex as he knows it which is to say, nakedness. His mother looks as pretty as a Russian doll and as vacant.
June 13 Tricia and Frank are having marital problems. They race around collecting damaging evidence from each other's desks and drawers - she's seeing a therapist; he's seeing another woman.
June 29 April has brought her cat to the park. We all gather to marvel.
Me: "I didn't know you had a cat."
April: "Yeah, that my cat, Greedy. She pregnant again!"