The amount of lights on the street was okay—that never was a problem. You get hurt whether it’s light or dark, so it doesn’t matter.
The corner filling station—maybe better to call it a gas station—isn’t anywhere near what it used to be. In the old days, you got gas and were able to pick up some cigarettes. Now, the cigarettes no longer come in packs and the chips and cookies and other stuff of low nutritional value dominate the lives of these food desert souls.
“Loose squares,” said the manor kid, not sure what to call him. For years now, I’ve wanted to ask him or any of them what the price of a loose square was, but I didn’t want any of them to think that I was interested in anything they were doing—or even worst, that I was some kind of social scientist. They didn’t like social scientists around here.
The kid next door—a good kid who’s in the second year of college—a North Side Catholic school I believe—was hustling to the safer bus corner. The ones closest to the safer bus corners—north and south of the safer bus corner, was where you could get killed, so he avoided those corners as soon as he started high school.
Good kid—stayed out of trouble by going underground. Underground meant few friends, particularly in his own community. He had to sort of hop over a few other communities to get to his high school. And he always made it. Four years of hop-scotching thirty or forty blocks and getting a diploma that most of his cohorts couldn’t, and wouldn’t, even dream about.
You didn’t see the good kid standing near a filling station anymore. Come to think of it, you never saw the good kid standing anywhere near a filling station. What was once his refuge, his safety zone, had been co-opted. So, most street corners had long ago been crossed off his list. Street Corner Number 1 was crossed out. So was Street Corner Number 2. He was now on Street Corner Number 3 and that environment was beginning to be a little shaky.
My grandfather once repeated a parable about the importance of a man’s refuge, but I have long since forgotten it except that he said that a refuge was always fleeting. He didn’t use the word fleeting, but that’s what he meant.
“Loose squares,” said another one. This one was no kid. In his late thirties and hadn’t seen a doctor or a dentist since he was five. I won’t go into any psychological description because that would be insensitive and everyone would stop listening to me.
I shook my head with a smile and walked past the one in need of health care. I didn’t want to offend him or anyone else trying to make a living. He moved on to the next potential customer headed his way.
I went home, listened to public radio, ate a tuna salad, and went to bed.
There were gunshots that night between 1am and 3am—heard them, usually looked at the clock, but instead turned over and fell back into a deep sleep until the prostate told me I had to get up. Found out this morning that there was a shooting and a killing—two brothers in their teens worth something to someone.
When the sun broke, I walked up to the corner to get a bunch of those free newspapers that don’t have anything in them—they’re down to about eight pages and it’s mainly stuff that was on a computer screen two days ago.
Got a bunch of papers because I use it mostly to wrap up the uneaten food that I throw out into the garbage. Grabbed about twenty of them.
Bumblebee Head approached me as I was pivoting back to the path back home.
“Two punks,” said Bumblebee Head, as he pointed across the street at the filling station. It was at this point where I noticed all the yellow police tape stretching all along and across the station. Why I hadn’t notice the half-dozen police cars, news vans and amateur photographers—I couldn’t tell you. Maybe it had something to do with the relative calm at the scene.
“Two punks,” Bumblebee Head repeated. Never knew why they called him Bumblebee Head—he had the clearest skin I’ve ever seen.
“Somebody loved them,” I said.
Bumblebee Head laughed. “Make sure you say that to the reporter across the street over there.”
He pointed to a sharp-dressed woman in her twenties with perfect makeup and even more perfect hair. She gave me a quick glance and turned instead to a woman holding at least three babies in her arms.
“They didn’t used to shoot much when it rained, snowed or even when it was cold out,” Bumblebee Head said. “Now it’s all night, any night.”
“Winter, summer, or fall,” said a butting-in woman, twice as old as me and even more older than Bumblebee Head. She had that look of nonstop complaining that was easy to recognize. I left her in mid-complaining sentence and went to grab some more free newspapers. The woman followed me.
“They shoot in the morning now too,” said the butting-in woman.
I wasn’t into it. I knew if you parsed what she was saying in the right way, she would be one hundred percent correct. But I wasn’t parsing well at this point. They truly never did used to shoot in the morning—the first shots used to be well past 9pm, but I couldn’t convey that assessment to the woman as she was up in my face—again.
“They used to wait until late to start shooting,” she said. “But they shoot anytime now, which includes morning, afternoon, evening, and night.”
I thought “morning, noon, and night” would have been more poetic, but she walked back across the street before I could give her a piece of my mind.
It didn’t stop Bumblebee, however. “At least they don’t do any stabbing anymore,” he said, almost out of breath. “Stabbing has gone way down.” He handed me one of those sausage and eggs on a huge biscuit sandwich. He had one too.
I bit and chewed an undercooked sausage and an overcooked egg. The biscuit was just awful.
“More of the community on the decline talk?” Bumblebee Head asked, nodding toward the old woman. “That old woman was here at the beginning. Saw the neighborhood change three or four separate times, if not more.”
“I was here at the beginning too,” I said. “I got hit in the mouth by this thug back then. We weren’t calling them thugs back then. Got hit in the mouth because I refused to hand over a quarter that was going to let us get that toy soldier set that Jonathan Tyson and I had been looking at over at the Woolworth for months.”
“Did he hit Jonathan Tyson in the mouth too?” asked Bumblebee Head.
“Jonathan Tyson had already handed over his seventy-five cents, so he was spared.”
“Left quite a lasting impression,” Bumblebee Head volunteered.
“It was twenty, thirty, maybe forty toy soldiers—made out of plastic,” I said. “Cost about a dollar then.”
“They had a hobby shop in this neighborhood?” Bumblebee Head asked.
“Yeah, lasted well into the changeover,” I said. “That hobby shop lasted, I believe, into the seventies.”
“White flight?” asked Bumblebee Head.
“Yeah, but they weren’t calling it that back then,” I said. “Plus, white flight occurred years earlier than the confrontation with the thug.”
“Do you think part of the problem is what they call things?” asked Bumblebee Head. “Too many ways to describe too many things.”
I didn’t have a qualified answer.
Bumblebee Head and I finished the rest of our sandwiches in silence. I kept looking down the street—specifically, a couple of blocks south where the hobby store once stood, though you wouldn’t have been able to see it from our vantage point—it was tucked in deep in a little shopping area off the main street.
“Did they play their music loud back then?” Bumblebee Head asked. “I mean with their cars?”
“Didn’t have FM back then in the car and they didn’t have the speakers these . . . people have now,” I said. “Blasting wasn’t a word back then, unless you were talking about dynamite or something.”
A loud ambulance blew past us, then a fire truck, then two squad cars—all heading in the direction of where that boy slugged me in the mouth fifty-five years ago. Maybe longer than fifty-five years.
“Do you think he’s dead?” Bumblebee Head asked.
“Think who’s dead?” I asked.
“The boy who hit you in the mouth?” Bumblebee Head asked.
I shrugged. “I don’t know, but I would have still had those toy soldiers either way.”
“Twenty-five, seventy-five?” asked Bumblebee Head.
“Twenty-five, seventy-five what?”
“What percent of the toy soldiers were you going to keep if you all had bought them toy soldiers?
“Twenty-five percent of them,” I said. “I was fair back then.”
Bumblebee Head finally swallowed the last of his sandwich that had been rotating in his mouth for the longest. “You still remember that hit in the mouth . . . like it was yesterday?”
I nodded. “Bad things stay with you. It’s the good things that you forget.”
“Why didn’t you get the toy soldiers later?” asked Bumblebee Head.
“First of all, seventy-five cents was hard to come by back then. And even if we had the money, we had lost the drive. I had a piece of my childhood robbed that day.”
I suddenly see the good kid running toward the on-coming bus. He timed it perfectly. He always timed the bus perfectly. He had no choice. The good kid hopped on the bus and the bus took off. Safe for another day–or at least until school was out and he headed back home.
“What’s safer, the street corners this time of day or later, when it gets dark?” Bumblebee Head asked.
“I don’t see the difference anymore.”
It suddenly flashed in my mind. The difference between what was reality and how reality was perceived fifty-five years ago. A time when getting shot on the corner was in no one’s thoughts; but back then, getting nuked ran the gambit of all kinds of thoughts.
I don’t remember the nuclear war drills in schools as they were portrayed in civil defense films on television. No one hid under their desk in my school. We all just quietly went out in the hallway and leaned up against the walls. Somehow, we were supposed to believe that we would survive a nuclear bomb if all we did was lean against the walls in a hallway of the thirty-year-old school, named after an Irish politician with an all people-of-color student body.
“How long ago has it been since you lost your boy?” Bumblebee Head asked. “Been a long while. A very long while,” I said. “I really miss him.”
“I miss him too,” Bumblebee Head said. “He was a good kid.”
More sirens coming from both North and South and I was getting that bad headache again.
“There’s always someone telling you what you can’t do,” Bumblebee Head said. “It’s a disease or affliction or something.”
“Yeah,” I responded.
I woke up the following morning thinking about those toy soldiers. Had the regular coffee and granola and then went out to get some more free newspapers. On my way through the alley, I saw my first rat in years darting from residential to commercial property in the blink of an eye.
The new crowd of people who had arrived at the tur n of the century were not like those who had moved out before the turn of the century. Garbage and where it lay had become less a thinking man’s game and more of a succumbing to laziness theme. The next-door neighbors had it particularly bad.
Their garbage cans were filled up in strict relationship to their closeness to the gate. The garbage can closest to the gate had waste tossed all on top of it—piled two or three feet high, much of which tumbled to the ground until Streets and Sanitation came by and picked it all up each week. The second or next can closest to the gate didn’t have a lid and it was piled up over its capacity—with raw food and plastic bottles falling to the ground. Garbage cans furthest from the gate were always empty. Always.
Rats aside, I got to the corner and collected more eight-page newspapers. No Bumblebee Head this time, but there was the good kid, checking his watch, holding his book bag tightly, wearing those nerdy glasses and heading to catch that bus.
The bus was crowded and I felt for him, though I knew he didn’t have any real problems dealing with it. I tried hard to catch a smile, but I lost him as he maneuvered his way toward the back of the bus.
Grabbed a chocolate donut from the only donut shop around here—only one owned and operated by the community, that is.
I started trying to remember when, where and how I got stuck in all of this, and trying to remember if I had a chance to get out and didn’t take advantage of it.
I tried to conceal this one tear escaping from my right eye. Couldn’t.
It’s been a long time, but it still hurts. I’ve tried a bunch of ways to conceal it, but the notion that time heals all wounds is only for the rich in spirit. My spirit vanished on the streets fifteen years ago. Empty then; empty now.
Suddenly, Bumblebee Head appeared and handed me a biscuit with the sausage and egg. I ate it like the good soldier that I was. I walked over to the free paper box and it was gone. Uprooted or displaced or both.
“They’re streaming everything now,” said Bumblebee Head. “They’re taking it all from us, but I guess that was the plan all along.”
As far as I was concerned, there was never any plan, no great design, it’s all random.
“You don’t think there ever was a plan, do you?” asked Bumblebee Head.
“Survival to the fittest,” I said.
“That isn’t a plan,” Bumblebee Head said. “That’s a philosophy.”
I looked at my watch, then at the street corner where the bus stopped for the good kid. The good kid was late.
“Humiliation is the worst part of human nature,” said Bumblebee Head. “Explain that,” I asked.
“I can’t. I can only point it out when I see it,” he said.
I had heard a response similar to this long ago, said around the time of the civil defense nuclear war school drills, but it was in a different context, but I either chose not to remember it or I couldn’t.
The old, complaining woman appears like magic. I’ve never studied it, but there has to be something written, in detail, about those that appear in our lives almost out of habit. And each of them contributes nothing to the quality of life, nothing worth valuing anyway.
“How long has it been since they murdered your boy,” she asked.
It didn’t sear through me as it used to sear through me—I’ve heard it from way too many times, but still—a woman like this should never have children.
Bumblebee Head put an arm around and we quietly started toward the donut shop.
“Loose squares for a dollar,” said a new merchant, older and with a hold lot more teeth in his mouth than normal.
I had never heard a price quoted in public. Thought it was against code.
The new merchant looked at me. “Time are a changin’,” he said. It was aimed directly at me.
“He’s talking directly at you,” said the old, complaining woman, who again, somehow magically appeared. I decided, right then and there, that the best way to get rid of her was to embrace her.
“You’re right,” I said. She stayed put. “In fact, I knew he was talking to me all along.”
That didn’t seem to provide the proper salve for the old woman, because she drew closer to me.
“I don’t know if you’re trying to be funny, but I pity you,” she said, and finally drifted away.
“Was about all you could expect from her,” said Bumblebee Head, in between bites of another sausage and egg biscuit.
I can’t remember the screech of the tires, but the impact of human body against one of those muscle cars seared into every part of me this time.
“You can’t always get what you want, but . . . ” said the new merchant, as I rolled out an old dollar bill and finally contributed to the new economy.
I didn’t want to look back at the scene of the collision, too afraid at what I might put together.
Bumblebee Head tossed an empty wrapper in the waiting garbage can.
“Nothing to look at here,” Bumblebee Head said. “I know you can put it together though. All together in your head.”
He didn’t know what he was talking about, but I still got the courage to look back at the scene. Nothing now more than tire marks stretching a hundred feet and an ambulance that was pulling off and down the street in the direction where that street thug assaulted me fifty-five years ago.
“Where did that old, complaining woman go?” asked the new merchant, as he dropped, accidently, a pile of cigarettes on the ground.
“She’ll be back tomorrow,” said Bumblebee Head. He turned to me. “Don’t you think?”
“We’ll figure it out tomorrow,” I said.
I walked back toward where the free newspaper box used to be. It still wasn’t there, so I thought that meant progress. I walked back through the alley, this time not a single rat. Walked by the neighbor’s four garbage cans, the two closest to the gate overflowing; the last two, as empty as a hole in the head.
I knew I was home.