The Old Man On The Park Bench. North Beach, 1993.

The closest I’ll come to time travel and meeting myself 20 years ago

I recently moved. While unpacking, I found something I’d written twenty years ago. I’d forgotten about the essay, and about the encounter that inspired it; that is, until I reread it; then it all flooded back — like when someone shows you  a photo of yourself taken years ago that you don’t recall being taken.

In this story, I was the girl in the red beret. I don’t know why I wrote it in the voice of the old man, but it’s obvious that even then, twenty years ago, my elderly father’s mortality was very much on my mind. When my brothers and I reunited to be with him for the final month of his life in 2007, I had no intention of writing a play, “It Is What It Is,” inspired by that experience. But that play is also about long buried memories we rediscover when we read something written at a certain time in the past, and about how — even in our most meaningless texts — we are in a way choosing what we document in our lives every day. Which is not entirely unlike me rediscovering this essay now, twenty years after it was written. Here it is:

NORTH BEACH, WEDNESDAY, 1993

This is the only time of the day that this street, this neighborhood, looks the way it used to. Except for the cars passing by… the cars are different. I don’t notice them much. Usually, they’re just in the background.

wsp1950sI remember when I was young and every morning I’d see the old Italian men in the neighborhood sitting here on this same bench I’m sitting on now, talking to each other in Italian. I never paid much attention to them. I mean, I noticed them, as they fed the pigeons. But I guess I thought of them like I thought of the benches, the pigeons, and the statues: all part of the park itself. I thought they’d be there forever and I thought I’d be young forever too.

I never thought I’d be an old man, like a child never thinks he’ll be anything but a child. But these things happen and we don’t even think about it until it’s long since happened. Then we realize the loss of time… at least, I do. Somehow I think that if I’d thought of it then, of growing old, I could have prevented it. Like I could have taken control. Instead, no! Time took control. I stopped paying attention to it and it got the upper hand and it beat me.

I noticed some young men standing on the corner as I walked past them earlier – Christ, they probably thought I hobbled past them. Which, I did. I do. I do hobble now. It felt good so to sit down on this here bench. God, how good it felt to sit. Tired after three blocks, mostly downhill. When I was the young man standing on the corner, I pitied the old men. But I never thought I could turn into one of then, any more than I thought I could turn into a bench or a pigeon or a statue.

Do the young men pity me now? How can they not? They don’t see I’m the same as them. I once was them, as they will one day be me.

I don’t understand it, how I still think exactly the same as I did when I was young – yet to others, I look so different. So old.  They think I was always old, with nothing to do but count the days. At least that’s what I used to think of the old men when I was young. Those old men are all long dead by now.

I like it here in the morning, once I sit down. It’s quiet, just a few people on their way to work. There’ll be a lot of people on their way to work in an hour or so, then it changes. It’ll be rushed. Now, it’s new; it feels new and fresh and very peaceful. And I’m part of it. The sun’s not out yet. I mean it’s risen, but it’s still so hazy and foggy, you can’t even see it. Every day starts out overcast here, and I like that. But usually the sun eventually burns through. Then the people don’t wear their coats and hats. I like seeing people in coats and hats. People used to always wear hats. Now they can’t be bothered, only when it’s cold out. But here in the early morning, they wear them, and the scene looks like it used to look years ago. The brighter the coats and hats, the better!

Like this gal passing by right now. What a cutie! She’s wearing a red beret, like mine (though mine’s gray). She’s wearing a matching red raincoat with little blond curls and big brown eyes peeking out from under the beret. Can’t see much of her body under that coat, but she’s not skinny – and I like that! I always liked women’s bodies to look like women’s bodies. I used to love big tits. Still do. I just haven’t had my hands on some in too long to remember. My wife’s were big. Still are. But they’ve changed. When we were young, they stood up and saluted, like they were as glad to see me as I was to see them. Now they hang low, staring at the ground whenever I’m around. Guess I’m not such a sight anymore, either.

The cutie in the red beret is still standing on the corner, so close I could poke her with my cane. The light turned green and she didn’t cross; she just stood there, staring. At me. I look up and catch her eye and she looks off a little to the left, I think she’s embarrassed. I give the kid a break and stop looking at her. But I can still see her and she’s staring at me again, just standing there looking very sad. I’m kinda enjoying all this attention. No young lady has looked at me in who-knows-how-long. But she’s not looking at me the way I used to be looked at by the ladies, the way I’d give one of my few remaining years to be looked at again: a look of desire, a look with sex written all over it.

Instead, she looks at me sadly. She pities me, as I used to pity the old men. I bet I remind her of a grandfather. A dead grandfather. I don’t want to be her dead grandfather.

She looks down at her feet for a few seconds. It almost seems, for an instant, that she might come over here. But no, this time the light turns green, ad she walks away, waiting for everyone else to step off the curb first. Did you see that, Charlie? She looked over her shoulder at me for a final glance! Ciao, Bella.

I feel like I was mean to her. I could have said Hello. She was thinking, she wanted to say something to me… maybe something she didn’t get to say to her dead grandfather. She was too scared. You know what? I was too scared to say anything, too.

Here comes Pete now. Better move this newspaper so he’ll have room to sit – Christ, he moves slower than I do. I hope I don’t look like that when I walk. You go play with the other pigeons now, Charlie. Go see if you can  get a little action with that cute little white one over there. She’s been watching you this whole time. Don’t blow this opportunity…marios

 


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