I left through the front door.
Outside, the sun shone off the yellow bricks, blazing. It was cold with very little breeze.
I turned right out of the apartment gates, my prison for the past forty-eight hours. I decided that I must go somewhere, and not just anywhere, but somewhere. I chose to walk past my father's childhood home, just a few blocks away in a row of three-flats on Winnemac Ave. Perhaps some friendly ghosts would send me a story idea -- or at least leap through a wall for my amusement.
Across the street, a man in a funny ear flap hat carried a manila envelope to the mailbox on the corner.
I took out my notebook and pen and wrote “goofy flap hat why” and then “conceal hairpiece.”
Behind him, a middle-aged woman with a mink collar and red dyed hair grinned at me, although maybe that was her permanent expression from Mother's Little Purple Helpers.
I waited until she passed and wrote, “Dye red smile n/r.” The “n/r” stood for “no reason.” I worried that people thought me a building inspector. Everyone hates the building inspector, known to landlords as the “paperwork fairy” and to tenants as the “porch-collapse fairy.”
I reached my destination, and no transparent great-grandparents appeared. In the first floor window a yellowed tin sign warned “Beware of Rottweiler.” I stopped and approached the wooden gate to the backyard. I couldn't resist a free mauling, so I eased open the gate, but no snarling, muscled beast rushed me. Figures.
Before someone called the cops, I continued to the park where some three years ago, I decided to become a writer.
On that day the boss instructed me, a prestigious graduate, to check twenty of his buildings to make sure the trash was in the dumpsters. If the trash was strewn about the alley, the rat-torn bags spewing empty ice-cream pints, Kleenex, and boyfriend-secret-lover panties, then I was to place it into the already full dumpster and then jump on top to pack it down. Instead, I went for a walk in the golden autumn morning and thought how great it would be to sleep in on Mondays and tell stories.
But today no story idea would come, just diseased character sketches.
A white man with an afro crossed my path, a black backpack slung over one shoulder. “How would I describe him?” I asked myself.
“Totally unremarkable,” I replied.
“What's he got in the bag?” I asked myself.
“Clean white briefs courtesy of Mother.”
“Avg. afro clean briefs,” I wrote.
The man got into a silver Honda Civic. When introduced on Wheel of Fortune, he might say, “I'm a regular guy, but, boy, do I have clean underwear!” He would say, “shucks” when the Wheel bankrupted him, for he had planned to buy a lifetime supply of briefs or a Vietnamese wife.
I crossed California Ave. and turned left on Carmen Ave., and in my mind I was on a train next to Carmen staring into the Spanish countryside. I started to write something about bull's blood warm on the ground and cold sangria in the afternoon, but the pen didn't write, the lousy uncapped, nostalgia-hating Bic. I looked at the parking garage across the street, and it didn't remind me of Spain at all.
Inside the park, I felt a pull to the closed park district building and the pool. I like the trees, but the real beauty is in the chain link fences, the filthy stairwells down to the bathrooms, and the empty benches peeling and rotting the winter away.
A chilly breeze blew, and I was alone. I feared that a homeless man, stinking of brandy and feces, would pop out of a stairwell and drag me down into it, my head forced into his rough woolen shirt.
“Don't be stupid,” I told myself. “If you were a homeless, why would you choose a filthy stairwell over a clean sunny bench. They're people, not giant carnivorous raccoons.”
I peered though the chain links at the empty pool, white with black lane lines that disappeared into the deep end. A true artist would return at night, scale the fence, and dance in the pool to the distant wail of ambulance sirens, chanting “Shit, fuck, shit, fuck.”
Two ladies approached. I could hear them saying in Korean, “Look at that fool. He stare into empty pool.” I left the park and decided to wander back through the Swedish Covenant Hospital grounds.
“Why do that?” a voice asked. “All you're going to see are the sick and lame, and then you're going to have some revelation about healthy lifestyle habits, and then you're going to have to eat spinach and go to a gym and undress in front of hairy-assed men who call each other 'Chief.' and 'Pal'”
“No,” I replied. “Your head is in the wrong place. I will see a loving granddaughter, giving hope to her Nana, mostly in the form of spooning green Jello into her mouth. It will be inspiration to better my own relationships now so someone will feed me later.”
But I saw no one.
In the courtyard, I heard a rustle and spotted a squirrel under an evergreen bush. The squirrel carried a half-eaten apple, evidently keeping away from doctors. I grinned an idiot's grin until I spotted a maintenance worker picking up things around the dumpster with one hand, the other clutching the cross around her neck.
Back across California, I passed the Greek church. The sun glinted off the golden tiles tiny in a turquoise tile sea.
I would make a good photographer, I thought. What? Blasphemy! A picture will never be worth a thousand words to me, or five-hundred, or a hundred, maybe fifty.
Some steps later, I looked up at the wonderful winter blue, and down at the intricate sidewalk cracks, and over at the red brick and green grass and white latticework, and I realized that I must believe in God. “But that's ridiculous,” I thought.
And then a voice: “No, it's not. It's ridiculous to believe that God is someone you can shake hands with, or go bowling with, or slap on the ass.”
The voice was patient: “God is someone you can become -- through the virtue of humility. Of course, the moment you Become, you are so humble that Becoming is the most ridiculous notion in the world. God's crafty like that.”
Turning right down Lincoln Ave., I decided that God would say hello to everyone He passed on the street. As I have to take baby-steps with my pudgy, undeveloped soul, I decided to say hello to one person. I resolved not to go home until I did.
But I had a dry mouth and chapped lips, and I knew that the “hello” would come out weird. My voice would crack, and someone would laugh at me. If I tried to say “hello” with just the mouth and upper throat, it would come out all pervert and pedophile, and someone would push me down and kick me in the ribs, over and over.
“Hello, hello,” I practiced. Weird.
I approached a very short Korean man with a down-turned mouth and tiny black eyes. “Say hello,” I urged myself.
I walked by, wordless.
A woman whose white fur coat brought out her deep brown skin stood at the edge of the sidewalk looking for someone to pick her up; for a ride I mean; that is, she needed to go somewhere. I felt uncomfortable with that whole line of thought and did not say hello.
I passed the Ace Hardware and entered the McDonald's parking lot. My stomach growled “come hither” to the dead greasy smell.
An old lady with bright red lipstick came out and stared at the newspaper boxes. Should I say hello to her? She looked sour. Maybe she felt sour because no one would say hello to her, but more likely because she just demolished a Double Quarter Pounder with cheese.
I failed again. The sour old woman looked too sour to greet. Maybe if she didn't wear bright lipstick, her mouth would look less like it just sucked a lemon dry.
“Hey,” a voice said, “Keep your head in the right place and the 'hello' will follow.”
I turned right onto my street. I had only two blocks to complete my mission, and my nose was running. A UPS truck idled down the block. Up surged my hope. It's always appropriate to say hello to the UPS man. He brings packages, and everybody appreciates a package, unless it's a bomb, and you live.
The UPS man was nowhere to be seen, but a tall, pretty Indian woman dressed all in black with brilliant shiny hair walked down the other side of the street. “Should I yell 'hello' and wave my both my hands in the air?” I asked myself.
“Should you what? No. Relax. Keep your head in the right place and the 'hello' will follow.”
The UPS man emerged from the truck with a king-sized package. Once in the doorway, he balanced it against the door frame as he rang the bell. He waited with his brown back to the street. He rang the bell again. I slowed, but he was intent on delivering the package, and I couldn't say hello to his back.
Only one block remained to say hello and avoid God's disappointment.
An old man in a Cubs cap and a thick tan coat shuffled a half-block past my apartment building. Unless he turned, I could intercept him without having to go out of my way. “So what,” I asked myself, “if I went out of my way to say hello to him? That's nicer and --”
Gears in my head enmeshed. My body relaxed.
The old man did not turn.
I passed the entrance to my apartment gates. “Hello,” I said, loud and clear, and it sounded wonderful.
The old man's eyes brightened as he smiled. “Hello,” he said, “How are you?”
“Good,” I squeaked, smiling and staring at the ground. That sounded weird.
I returned through the back door.
Labels: hardware store, ritual humility