We’d go to the park for a little while, and try back later.
It was a simple, logical statement. The folks we were meeting weren’t home yet, and the park is just at the end of the block. But it wasn’t any park, it was that one. The sunny spring day seemed to suddenly turned grey and cold. My feet grew heavy and the terror began to rise. My movements slowed to a near halt.
No, I can’t go there. I can’t, I thought. Why would he think we could go there? But I couldn’t say anything. I couldn’t think clearly. All I could do before being overcome with the fear, anger and despair was to instinctively reach out and take hold of my son’s hand. He would remain the hold to today, as I fell back into then.
We crossed the street and entered the park. My blinders were on so I could only see what used to be in front of me. I turned inward, not glancing around, assuming the walk and pace of someone of no consequence; only a shadow. We walked with a purpose, as if we had a destination. Our only destination was time.
An odd sound startled me. It was the yip yip of a small dog. There were never any small dogs in the park I knew. There it was again, yip yip. I looked around and suddenly started to see what I hadn’t seen before. There was a dog park in the middle, with a clean, monitored section for small dogs and another for larger ones. There were people, families standing around. It was clean. Definitely not the park I knew.
I had never seen the park this side of sunrise, but even so, this clean, orderly, pristine park is not the one I knew. This park had a new playground. There were real families here, playing catch, talking, running and exercising. Someone walked by to put something in the garbage cans. Life had definitely changed since I’d been there last. Not only for the park.
The sense of quiet, albeit tentative relaxation took over as we went on to have a nice time playing with our son there that lovely spring day. I kept looking around in amazement at how time had changed this park, and how it had been reclaimed by the people who lived on the other side of hell. The park, nestled between the juncture of the East Village, Alphabet City and the Bowery was no longer a dead end, it was now a family oasis, where people willingly came and went, and enjoyed the day.
I soon let myself wonder. It would surely be nice to think that there were no more shadows, that the ghosts of the park, those living under the radar, had changed as well. But that would be unrealistic. There will always be people living that way, there will always be shadows. And while the park was cleaned up, with more than just paint, I couldn’t help but wonder. What happened to the former inhabitants? Where had they all gone? Where do they go now? Where are the shadows?
There were fleeting glimpses.
There was a small man sitting on a bench over under the tree, blending in to his surroundings, looking at nothing. I caught his eye once, and he looked away quickly, surprised he had been noticed. He hung his head low, darting glances to other corners. A few more shadows were there, but they were different. They almost hid, shrinking into the background, a sense of shame that had never been part of the shadows before. A worker would come and sit on one of the benches, the queue for the shadows to move along. They were no longer allowed, and they quietly moved on when they were seen.
As we walked out of the park I looked back again and smiled. That was then, this is now. Life had changed for all of us.
We were only a few steps away from seeing how true that was. The shadows were all around us, just as they always had been, we just didn’t see them any more. They continued to exist, just under the radar.
We crossed the street and walked back up St. Marks Place to our destination. This time they were there, and we were welcomed in. The man, for he had grown into an adult since we had last seen him, proudly showed us into his home. We looked and tried not to show any judgment, for he was happy and welcoming. As we adjusted to the dark of the underground apartment and tried not to react to the stench, we stepped cautiously inside. The apartment was small, even smaller for the three people who shared the space. The sleeping alcoves were large enough to wedge in a double mattress in each, mattresses they proudly told us came with the apartment. They took us to the kitchenette where the table sat two; the third chair was otherwise occupied, holding up the counter. The bathroom, he showed us, had vintage fixtures, under the layer of filth and rust.
They were very hospitable and friendly, and genuinely happy to see us, as we were them. He had been missing to his family for over a decade, and the chance to reconnect and reach out was a huge step. As his girlfriend offered us drinks, she opened the fridge, gently to keep the door even, showing a fridge with 2 cartons of orange juice, 1 half bottle of soda, and the rest was liquor and beer. That did not come as a surprise; you could tell the minute you walked in by the stench, that alcohol was a major part of their lives. They were the shadows.
To keep from being rude, but as a matter of survival, I stood up and went to the back door to open it, saying I was going to have a cigarette. She jumped up quickly to get an ashtray and said I could smoke inside, but I said oh, with all the people in here, you probably don’t want this much smoke inside. She propped the door open to let in some different air. The conversation was light, and she proudly showed off all their finds — the dishes that someone a block away had thrown out when moving, the “new” socks they found still in their packages, and more. She glowed in the resourcefulness of her scavenging, and you could see where people would give her things. She was very sweet and friendly.
Living under the radar is freeing, they said. By not officially existing you have only yourselves to be accountable for and to. Only you can determine your happiness, and you’re not chained to the system. Neither one of us said anything to try to change their mind, we just listened. We chose not to tell them of the pain they caused their families, or point out how his memories were not real. They seemed happy, and every body determines happiness differently.
It’s not difficult to see how life can become like theirs, and how it’s human nature to rationalize your current existence. Scraping by to keep those 4 walls around you, and living for the day, just to make it through the day, that was their life, and to them it made sense and was fulfilling. This was, after all, only the first visit. It was so long overdue, and hopefully would be the first of many.
We all went back to the park together, splitting up and talking together. She had dreams and ambitions, but was not feeling well lately. She talked of her former life and how much she had been through and survived and how well she was doing. She spoke of her mother out west, who had tried to help, but now just forwards her money from her trust fund monthly. They talk every day and they’re very close, she said.
He talked of his successful contracting work. It’s hard work, even harder to get them to pay, especially since they know he can’t go after them because he’s off the books. But at least he doesn’t have to deal with taxes or unions. He works a lot, he told us, and they met through their circle of friends and had been friends, then one night, they realized they were more than friends. They announced their engagement and how they were desperately trying to start a family together. A glimmer of concerned reaction was quickly stifled in both of us. Their health was clearly not appropriate to support a family. They were both so very very thin. His skin was grey and his face was sunk in; even the beard couldn’t hide the frailness in him. She wore so much make up, but there was a yellow tinge to her eyes. We congratulated them cheerily, and moved on to the next subject quickly. We had a lovely day, and made plans for the next one.
After we left we walked to a restaurant four blocks away. This was beyond their world. We couldn’t go straight home, we had to allow that life to seep off of us a bit before heading back. We listened to conversations going on around us, still a bit stunned by all the revelations of the day. People around us were happy, talking about their lives and experiences. None of these experiences could be part of the people we had just left. Living in the heart of the universe, of all activity, but without a lifeline. No newspapers, no TV or computers. Their friends a circle of bar mates and their information came from closed caption snippets on bar televisions or work radios. Their food came from leftovers from the restaurants she worked in from time to time or from tenants in the buildings where he worked. They lived for the moment, because there was always a good chance there would not be another.
The four walls they had were their home, but there were many other walls they had built around them. Their very freedom of living under the radar kept them in their 4-5 block radius of the East Village. Everything was there for them, that was their world. They could not travel much, since any travel that required ID was out of their reach. They had none. They were the shadows, the ghosts of the city, they had just been moved out of the park and into the dank basements of buildings, crammed into tiny apartments they managed to make into homes of their own, for the moment.
Compared to her, he looked healthy. Compared to him, she looked whole.
–written by Laurissa Doonan, 1/18/09