Sitting on my stoop, I watch a young woman hurry by.
I call the practice of people-watching “stoop-snooping,” I guess because I’ve done it most while lolling on stoops. My schoolmates recall me watching them from the library stairs, even. (I called that library-stairing.) Watching the world walk by is hands-down one of my favorite activities but since things have opened back up, it’s more charged. I suppose everything has after months of fearing and missing each other in equal parts. Constant life-and-death stakes are not just wearying. They are deteriorating.
Earlier today, my block was abuzz as it has been every day since the café next door re-opened. People drinking espressos, wolfing piadini, cooing over each other’s pets, chattering and clattering over the Italian pop pouring out of the speakers. Now, in what approximates magic hour in these apocalyptic times, the heat is just beginning to abate as the handsome baristas speed off for the night, the last stragglers move into their next NYC dream.
So it’s just the two of us on the street right now–this girl with places to go, and me. She is narrow-framed, long-legged, straight-backed. Wearing no airbuds, wielding no phone. Eyes locked straight ahead, fingers hooked onto the backpack slung over both shoulders, spotless Keds shooting out from neatly creased shorts. She is moving rapidly into her horizon.
She is wearing a mask.
Not for a second does this woman direct her gaze to mine. Twenty-four at most, her affect is in keeping with the black fabric sealing off her features, her youth not a luxury she can indulge.
In contrast I am a study in middle-aged louche. Salt, skin, blood, breath melting back into this hot cement that’s melted so many before. Almost nothing separating my body from everything else. The long prairie skirt I paired with a tank for afternoon readings is all I am wearing now, pulled above my breasts like a tube dress with no underwear, no shoes. Certainly no mask to hide my coffee-stained teeth, half-eaten lipstick. Wrinkles. Piled atop my head is a grey and blond bird’s nest; piled next to me are keys, a dogeared volume of poems, a rapidly melting iced coffee with a beaten-up straw. Glamour off its feed.
I’m not irritated by her inattention so much as by her prudishness. Why a mask in this 90-degree outdoors when almost no one’s around? Not even the most scientifically stringent would argue such caution is necessary.
I sense there are lessons here, so I drop into her and learn that, like many who continue to wear the mask everywhere, she didn’t feel safe even before Covid. Then the virus took things from her she couldn’t spare. People. Resources. Faith. Then she was supposed to trust predatory institutions for an alleged cure?
How little softness she’s known.
I haven’t known much softness either. The fur of my cats, my father’s gaze before puberty, certain friends when I don’t wear out my welcome, lovers for months at a time. The blue haven I’ve carved out of this three-floor walkup.
But my education my color my curves have enabled me to treat the world as my backyard even if I’ve never had one of my own. I’ve never been as mindful as I should’ve been. Never gracious enough about the luxuries I could indulge.
This girl, though. This girl knows to move fast enough not to get waylaid by anybody’s projections.
Definitely not mine.
Her figure just a blur now, I send on a big bolt of baby-kitty love and contrition, then slurp that last bit of coffee. So obnoxious, my slurping. I wave at Dotty, one of the elders of our block. A few weeks ago she resumed her pre-pandemic ritual of carrying hand-printed recipes for me in her purse. Now she pulls down her mask as she hobbles by, her grocery cart her walker. Hearing aid turned down, she shouts—You look comfortable!
Oh, well, with the heat, I say, and she grins as she heads off to make her husband’s supper.
I flash on all the other stoops on which I’ve sat, watching the world hurry by to parties, parents, partners, progeny, professions–horizons. All the neighbors I’ve known just enough to bask in arms’ length, all the strangers I’ve judged for hustling by with their eyes on that sky. Nick to everyone’s Gatsby, not content, not even comfortable. Just open enough to stay shut.
I’ll say here what I keep not saying anywhere.
I need something more than all this human nature I’ve been studying for so many years. I need Mama nature–something wilder, something softer. Unfettered land to foster, if not possess.
It’s time for me to go.
Hide from the neighbors as much as you please
But everything that happens you must tell the bees
Images: Ruby Dee and Ossie D., Do the Right Thing.