Heat hits, and then a welcome breeze blows through the corridors of buildings and rustles the trees, and sun and shadows dapple the brick walk. Do you want a bench in the sun or in the shade?
The benches on Washington are reserved for the homeless and the stoners who might be homeless or might just like being barefoot and unwashed, but it’s hard to differentiate, all of them unkempt and black-toothed and probably older than they look. Some hold cardboard signs, some just sit back and smoke or sleep or chat.
I see John, a man in a baseball cap with no home, unless the Foxhead Tavern counts. I ask him what he’s up to today and he smiles and says “not fuck all.” He doesn’t hold up signs asking for money, just walks around or sits on benches and watches things, which is what I’m doing.
In the ped mall crossroads, water shoots up in arcs, and swimsuited toddlers race through the water, screaming and laughing. The fountain, the playground with the springy synthetic turf, the public library, all of it is right there. The center of the world. Paradise for summer children.
A homeless man has set up a gigantic black air mattress right on the brick walkway, off to the side.
A grunge teen couple sits by the hostas and watches a lone pigeon, fat from lack of competition.
But seriously, why is he setting up a king-sized air mattress in the ped mall?
Tattoos and long unkempt hair increase exponentially as you near the Tobacco Bowl. Everyone’s tattoo has a story and even if that’s the tenth woman I’ve seen with a large, sprawling tree on her back, she has ten different reasons for getting it that are hers and hers alone. Teens wear hoodies despite the heat, carry skateboards and travel in packs. Their conversations are the most important in the world and they want everyone to hear them.
Bongos beat, teens loiter. The high-rise construction is progressing, but today is Sunday so the machines sit idle.
I get excited when I see a table labeled “Free Literature” until I see they’re all Jesus books. I smile anyway and when they offer I say I have too many books in my backpack already, which is true. I decline a flyer, even though the man is stretching out with all of his arm length to give one to me.
There are two public pianos in the ped mall, and sometimes I stop to plink out “Coin-Operated Boy” or some little riff, but usually I watch the kids, feet dangling off the wooden bench, hesitantly poking keys with encouragement from their parents. There are so many keys and some echo a long time, some don’t work at all, and the keys are as uneven as that man’s teeth, the one with the white hair down to his mid-back who has tattoos so faded I can’t even make out what they’re supposed to be.
As I walk toward Dubuque St. I start to see more and more “Help From Above” pamphlets fluttering along the brick sidewalk.
Man and woman cross arms over each other and man kisses her shoulder very softly in the shade.
My copy of Lonesome Dove is falling apart and my backpack gets heavier and I have no idea whether I’m admired or sneered at or unnoticed, but I wonder these things today because I am alone and watching everyone else. If I was with a friend I would be too distracted to care.
But then I wouldn’t get to be the observer, and sometimes that is not such a lonely role to be in.