On my frequent walks around my neighborhood park in recent years, I gradually became acquainted with some of the people who slept there. Over time we’d repeated certain rituals, waving and calling out to each other at different points of my route. But there was only one whose name I ever learned. This was Pat, a youngish man with sun-darkened skin and sun-bleached hair. I often wondered where his mother was, and if she knew where he was sleeping. He had an unusual intensity; he was at the center of a group that often sat laughing or debating together around one of the benches.
There was another man, older, more of a loner. He wore a colorful knitted cap, and had a beautiful, lined face and full gray beard. His belongings were meticulously folded and packed in a shopping cart which was always covered with a neat cloth. At first, I was startled to see a stuffed animal on top of the cloth, its four paws carefully pointing to the four corners of the cart. The spare precision of everything about this man reminded me of a monk; I thought of him as a bodhisattva in disguise. One morning I came upon him in one of the more remote parts of the park. He’d spread his sleeping bag out smoothly, and he was about to get inside. He was wearing his knitted cap. I approached him from behind, and hoped he didn’t see me seeing him. Going to bed is not supposed to happen in broad daylight in front of strangers.
In my bathroom mirror I study my face. I’ve been trying to really see it, to note the changes. I’m aging, an elder, a senior citizen. One becomes a senior at sixty these days, with regular discounts at theaters and food stores. In the beginning, such discounts felt shocking and unacceptable. Lately I’ve been experimenting with accepting these gifts with grace and good humor.
Sometimes my face in the mirror is also shocking and unacceptable. Where did I go — the younger “I” with whom I still identify? When did this happen ? Was I simply not looking? Were these brown spots on my left cheek as noticeable last week? What is this lumpiness around my chin? And what of the sagging under my chin, with its archetypal witchiness? Can this be me? The lines and sags around my mouth, the ladder lines above my upper lip — they’re deeper and darker than before, aren’t they? My whole face has lost its clarity, its coherence. But how? And when? And who sees what?
Last week when I arrived at the park, I was shocked to find the benches gone. Normally there would be two or three men huddled on each bench, soaking up the thin, early-morning sun after a cold night on the ground. Now there was no one. People living in the houses nearby must have been determined to see the men go, even if it meant destroying their own park benches.
As far as I could tell, the bench-people never stayed past mid-morning. It’s true I saw bottles in brown paper bags, and I can sympathize with neighborhood families who worried about drugs. There’s a fenced playground for toddlers, swings and a slide for older kids, and a large fenced-in area where dogs run freely while their owners socialize. The surrounding neighborhood is classical, old-Berkeley flatlands — populated, one would imagine, with old-Berkeley radicals, decent-hearted academics, and working-class families with progressive values. But when I saw the destruction of the benches, the first image that came to mind was a posse of angry men armed with crowbars and wrenches, attacking and tearing at the heavy slats of the bench seats, and vindictively carrying off their booty. In the morning only the wooden backs and curved metal frames, looking spiked and forbidding, remained. Perhaps the action felt daring and righteous to the perpetrators, protective of innocent women and children. But the park has been defaced; it looks abandoned now in the mornings.
My son will soon be twenty-six. I don’t know what I look like to him. He looks sturdy and strong, with muscles in his arms and a handsome face. But there’s more to the story. He’s ambivalent about most things much of the time. He can be cranky, touchy, eccentric. He can also be affectionate, perceptive, and very funny. Feelings between us often blaze into anger. I think I still look larger than life to him, a mythic figure pulsing with danger. This dynamic between us is bigger than we are, though it partakes of real things felt and spoken. Much of it I’ll never really grasp. He’s still fending off parts of me that I don’t understand or see only in dreams. But he saw them, heard them, in broad daylight, when he was a fraction of my size. Did he see a creature with fire spewing from her mouth, her lips stretched tight over sharpened teeth, her screech filling the world? Did he see a giant slug, sticky with slime, blind and heedless, moving inexorably closer — or away? Did he see a porcelain woman ten feet tall, with frozen eyes, a tongue of steel, and malevolence in the shadows behind her?
My father is eighty-nine. Some days he believes he’s dying. His body torments him; it’s hard for him to walk or rise from a chair. He walks very slowly, and sometimes with a cane. He has trouble breathing. He can eat only at certain times, and he must not get up too soon after meals. All this was bearable to him, but now he’s losing bladder control. “It can’t be happening,” he says, “not to me.” He is fiercely ashamed. On bad days he wants not to be here.
To my father, I look young, intact. Perhaps my casual arrivals and departures goad him. Does he brood after I leave? He broods a lot. He has bitter, unchecked outbursts when things go wrong. My mother worries that the neighbors hear everything and believe she lives with a madman. I wish their going could be more gentle.
And the men in the park? They seemed to relish the gray-haired lady who bounced past most mornings. They addressed me as “sugar” and “sweetheart”; once one with a scraggly beard asked me to adopt him one day, while the others looked on, laughing.
On bad days I suspected their laughter was suggestive, mocking. On bad days I went elsewhere. Who needs a hooting gallery? On good days it felt as if we were neighbors, moving together like fish in the sea. We were all going nowhere together, riding waves which seemed to have direction — but who really knows? On good days I feel myself pulled by the tides, by the moon, by nature herself. There are changes of color, and texture; the same wind blows through all of us, all of us growing faded and spotted and frayed over time, over cycles of seasons, of sun and rain and wind and drought, sweet years, bitter years. We are soothed, we are buffeted, our hair grows, it falls, we bend, grow brittle; we dry, we break. On good days it all seems like nothing — nothing happening at all.