Wednesday, February 1, 2017

If We Knew Then

“Given: A myriad of such delicate chimes,/unlikely rhymes and synchronies/To prove: How I am/the world is/Q.E.D. (not alone)”
––From the poem “On Distance (Quondam/Quantum Overdue Notice)"
by Liz Waldner

For a time, I lived on a tree-lined street in Brooklyn during an in between moment of renewal and neglect. Years earlier, a once elegant if not exactly wealthy neighborhood of brownstones had fallen into disrepair. These were then offered to working class black and immigrant families by absentee owners, who subdivided the once grand homes into tinier and tinier apartments in order to collect multiple rents.

That a young white women, such as a myself, had moved in was one signal that change was once again in the air. Married couples had begun buying the brownstones, restoring entire floors of old buildings to their original elegance, taking up residence, and renting out what remained of the small apartments to semi-bohemian people like me. Gentrifier and gentrified thus greeted each on the street with wary smiles. Our roles marked out by differences in our ethnicity.

In late spring the sidewalks were shady, and I liked to leave the apartment to run down Dean Street toward the Gowanus Canal, sometimes crossing the Brooklyn Bridge all the way into Manhattan. It gave me a feeling of immense freedom, as if at any moment I could run to wherever I wanted to be. I ran before work in the mornings, taking quick showers before taking the train to mid-town to a two-person office where I helped produce AIDS prevention videos.

Dean was residential, but a few clever drivers hoped to cut their commutes by skipping Atlantic Avenue and intersecting Flatbush at the far end of our quiet street. In those early morning hours, school children stood on the corner waiting for the crossing guard’s signal, while people with jobs more demanding than mine rushed past on their way to the station on Atlantic.

The drivers tended toward impatience. If a child or office worker impeded their journey in anyway, they wasted no time tapping their horns. My run took me in the opposite direction, so I would often know more about the cause of a delay than cars further back in a line––a child had dropped a book bag a half-block further up the street, say, or a pedestrian had tripped and stumbled from the curb.

My run, I know, was important to me. But I had distance from the commuters because my journey to work wouldn’t begin for another hour or so. My quarry, at the moment, was my own pleasure, not rent money, health insurance, or any of the daily contracts we make in order to survive.

Sometimes, the honking grew so loud it suddenly exposed the anger behind it. Each person in each car was the inviolate leader of his or her own kingdom and anyone or anything in the way could be shunted aside for the right to claim Flatbush a few moments sooner.

That sound, the impatient honking, sometimes became the soundtrack of my morning runs, and it annoyed me. Why could the world not support the ritual that made the rest of my own stressful day bearable?

One morning, running down Dean, I heard the horns and saw for the first time the reason for a particularly long delay. A block or so ahead of me, in front of one pre-gentrification brownstone, a small yellow school bus blocked traffic.  From some distance, I watched as a man in a laborer’s clothes struggled to carry a disabled teenaged girl, a girl I assumed was his daughter, down the brownstone’s stairs.

I recognized this type of bus from my own childhood, and a wave of associations washed over me. I had, perhaps, hoped to escape just this kind of bus in leaving my family behind in California and moving across country to New York City.  

Back in California, my sister Sally rode a bus just like the one before me. My sister went to a school for severely handicapped children just outside of town, and the bus took her back and forth each day. Childhood surgeries to remove the cancerous tumor in Sally’s brain had damaged it too, and she couldn’t walk or speak easily or do most of the things she had mastered as a five-year old before her operation.

As a teenager it was sometimes my responsibility to put Sally on the bus, but our street was suburban wide and no one ever honked as I went about this difficult task.

Sally, however, wasn’t the bus passenger in the worst shape. On it were children who had been born without arms and legs, and some had heads that seemed swollen to twice the size of their torsos. Others had twisted spines, and their bodies spasmed involuntarily, so their heads and waists were anchored to wheelchairs with padded belts, so they wouldn’t hurt themselves.

Some children’s gazes seemed completely beyond their control. Their eyes wandered from me to my sister to the elm tree beyond the door without rhythm or sense. I often thought I heard moans, though I was in such a rush to remove myself from this mind-blowing world, I never took the time to figure out from whom such moans arose.

Some children couldn’t close their lips, so it could have been that I only imagined moaning to account for the gaping mouths. Drool might leak onto a tiny exposed palm, which I gently pushed aside to make room for my sister, who was assigned an aisle seat. By the time I’d locked her belt into place, she looked as frail and as lost as anyone else on the bus, which was almost more than I could bear.

Sally had a pale partially bald head and large glittering brown eyes that held me in her sights as I stepped away. Everyone in our family loved her fiercely, but once Sally was on the bus with the others, it was easy to imagine how outsiders might miss everything about her that was precious, like I surely did with her classmates. A stranger might only see her ghost-like appearance, mistaking her muteness for absence when really she was alive and loving––more than anyone I know really.

Therefore, as I ran down Brooklyn’s Dean Street, I thought it likely I knew more about what might be inside that yellow bus than many of the drivers lined-up impatiently behind it. Dean was only one lane with vehicles parked along either side. This meant it wasn’t possible for the bus to pull closer to the curb and let commuters slide by no matter how big their hurry.

Some found the delay infuriating and their honks could be heard blocks in either direction. This was the sound punctuating the journey of the father, an older man with neatly combed hair, who was a cluster of slow and careful movement carrying his daughter down the stairs.

As he neared the bus, his daughter’s body listed uncomfortably to one side and her glossy black tresses hid one side of her face. As I came closer, however, it was the tenderness between them of which I was most aware.

Where even a few years ago she might have been a little girl and easy to lift, she was now practically a woman. Her body seemed too large and ungainly for such an old man to carry, but he did, and cautiously so as not to drop her or fall as he negotiated the bus’ entrance.

I saw the father remerge from it and hurry back up the stairs for the wheelchair she’d be needing at school. Angry car horns followed him through every stage. It didn’t occur to me then that I could have helped––that it could have been me retrieving the chair and bringing it down to the bus while he locked his daughter in place. Instead, I ran further down the block my own anger mounting at the drivers who honked and honked. How could they be so cruel? Did they not understand what it took for that father to put his daughter on that bus each day?

Years later I realized, the drivers might not have even known the cause of their delay––their vision likely blocked by cars ahead of them. In fact, it was true! The further one got from the father-and-daughter scene the louder the cacophony of horns became. People honked because they were delayed without any idea why. Nevertheless, they were confident an injustice was being perpetrated. Some stupid someone had underestimated the importance of their morning’s journey, and that stupid someone would be made to pay by the blaring of the horns.

I have been impatient in exactly the same way––angry that my movement (economic, emotional, physical, psychological) faced some obstacle I labeled unfair. I complained and loudly too.

I wish I had understood then that the world is made up of incredible things and somewhere a father is carrying a daughter on his back, trying to keep her safe from famine, from war, or merely the angry blare of New York’s commuters. None of these people exist in a world outside my own. It only seemed so. I needn’t become angry. Instead I can offer my help.

Likewise, I wish as a teenager, I could have entered my sister’s school bus with a fearless and open heart. Yes, the children I saw on the bus terrified me. If such thing could happen to a body on Earth than anything could. I ran because I couldn’t make a place for that inside my own psyche. I chose then to focus my energies on things I thought were more important––my own ambition, relocating to a major city, meeting new friends, building a career––the makings of a normal life, of which I now hardly believe there is such thing.

I hope the next time my impatience coalesces into a desire to bang my horn, I instead take pause. One breath on its own may help form connection to something outside the tiny bubble I perceive from, the bubble I label reality, just as the drivers named their own bubble reality too. But reality is bigger than any one of these individual perspectives; it includes each one equally––not one person meant for dismissal or exclusion.


  1. Thank you for this, Kimberly. I'm going to write you privately.


  2. I commented this morning, but it hasn't posted yet. Don't tell me we're already being censured!!!! I'll write you privately.