The Good of People

Midnight passed.

I found myself beneath the city, riding home on the subway with the homeless, the aimless, the guilty, the silent. Beyond the windows rushed darkness. Cold light filled the car. Eyes avoided eyes.

Secretly, without betraying my curiosity, I studied the late night passengers who rode with me.

Several feet away in a wheelchair sat an extremely old man. He wore a tattered bathrobe. His head had fallen to his chest. He was tipping forward. I thought he might spill onto the floor at any moment.

Across from the old man, two riders sat with lowered eyes.

One had long peroxide hair, blue fingernails, hollow eyes and gaunt cheeks–a prostitute. She appeared to be twenty going on fifty. Hands trembling. A meth addict.

The other was a man whose hardened face and shaved head were covered with crude tattoos. Etched in prison, I surmised.

I was careful that neither noticed me.

The prostitute wore a tiny skirt and heavy winter jacket. Both of her legs were scarred. I wondered how she received those scars and how she might have smiled when she began down her path. Through what turns had she come to be seated there? Did she ever think about her future?

The man with the tattoos wore an angry expression that seemed permanent. I tried to imagine the crimes he might have committed. His mask of tattoos contained a clown, a skull and a gun, and painful words that would never be erased.

I lifted my gaze a fraction to observe others who rode after midnight. I found more of the same: eyes aimed nowhere.

Where were these people going? To what end did their lives lead?

As I looked on critically, I realized these late night riders of the subway were no different than anyone else. Moving through time hoping to find a place where they might be whole.

These lives had been reduced to futile existence. Drifting through a black tunnel unseen. Riding forward, station after station after station after station, never arriving.

How many in this world ride with no destination? I wondered.

What is the good of people?

The old man drooping in the wheelchair suddenly toppled onto the floor.

Two passengers jumped up.

The young prostitute leaned over and reached toward the old man with her trembling hand.

“Are you okay, bro?” asked the man with the tattoos, as he helped the old man back up into the wheelchair.

I did nothing.

The Recovered Artifact

Do you remember those storms we had fifteen or twenty years ago? When dozens of houses were destroyed by mudslides? And the highway south of town was closed for a week?

I still remember how, exhausted from shoveling the mud on our driveway, I collapsed and sat on a slimy spot of curb gazing down the street. Several houses near the dead end were buried.

After a weeks of pouring rain the mud flows had become unstoppable. It seemed the hills around our neighborhood had been whipped by a gigantic blender and the earth reduced to brown rivers. I realize people overuse the word surreal, but the world I saw was surreal. The familiar street had been smothered by a relentless plain of mud. Ruthless mud that was primordial. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.

As my tired eyes searched for the vanished street, or anything that might be recognizable, I wondered if our neighborhood could ever return to normal. That’s when I noticed a small object lying on the mud several feet from where I sat. I got up. I trudged over to pick the thing up.

It was a cast iron horse, about two inches in length.

Imagine my surprise.

I stared into my hand at the unexpected thing.

Buried in the hills of our neighborhood are centuries of history. From time to time bits of that history surface: an arrowhead, a shard of broken pottery, a disintegrating coin.

I wondered if this was an artifact from an age long past unburied by the rains and revealed again to living eyes. I turned the tiny cast iron horse over in my hand, removing the mud, and examined it closely. It was a very simple thing. Neither the head nor mane showed much detail. The legs were galloping. It had probably been a plaything of a child.

The more I stared at this mysterious artifact, and the more I wondered where it might have originated, the more primitive it appeared.

Archaeology has always fascinated me. To such an extent that I’ve taken several college courses.

I’ve seen galloping horses on the coins of Carthage and Ancient Corinth. I’ve seen the Bronze Running Horse from a 2nd century tomb in China. I have marveled at those friezes of Greek horses charging into battle with arching heads and curling manes, or taking flight on Pegasus wings. To my mind, this small horse appeared even more ancient. It seemed to have flown from a stone age cave painting directly into my hand.

The simple shape of the cast iron horse was timeless. The bounding figure possessed a carefree quality that spoke of unbreakable freedom. In that small thing I saw a symbol of life’s adamant tenacity. It was a thing that devouring forces could not destroy.

As I stood in the mud admiring a mysterious artifact that had emerged from the Earth, I became aware someone was standing near me.

“You found my horsey!” a child suddenly cried, hurrying forward, hands outstretched.

Aviary Observations

The captive birds in the walk-through aviary had nowhere to go, so they perched on branches and observed the humans.

“These creatures are very selfish,” commented the purple honeycreeper. “Watch them as they crowd outside our enclosure. Every human is anxious to get in here first, but they don’t want to appear like ordinary animals. They measure distances from the corners of their eyes, then shift and shuffle and angle. For an intelligent species they are very squirrelly.”

“But why are all these humans in such a big hurry to get in here?” asked the blue-necked tanager.

“Because they want to exult in the little things they have caged. Then they want to feel relief when they step out of the cage.”

“If they want to feel relief, why do they hesitate to leave?”

“Because it turns out we are beautiful.”

“But if they prefer to be free, why won’t they let us be free?”

“Because our beauty would escape them.”

Vacuuming the Dust

When I was a young child, my parents were so horrified by the problematic behavior of my grandmother that I was seldom taken to visit her. The ancient woman lived alone in a cramped, unspeakably dirty mobile home, from which she was eventually removed. My parents saw to it that her life ended in a nice nursing facility.

I still remember words from that final visit.

As we drove several hundred miles down the interstate in my father’s Cadillac, my mother had cautioned: “Your Grandma is getting on in years and will probably act very strange. If she says something that makes no sense, just smile and be thankful that she’s still with us. We’ve tried our best to help your Grandma but she refuses to help herself. When people get very old, they sometimes get that way.”

My mother had been so appalled by the advanced disintegration of Grandma’s home that she was determined to clean everything. The objects that it contained were in complete disarray. A deep layer of dust covered nearly every surface, from the decades old carpet to the threadbare sofa to even the cracked countertops in the kitchen. It seemed Grandma ate very little.

Covering her nose as she strode through the dusty house, my mother found the corner closet where a vacuum cleaner had been abandoned.

With watery eyes Grandma silently watched my mother’s actions. The old woman sat in a folding chair that she used in the front room. The chair faced a dirty window that overlooked a narrow bed of almost dead roses.

When the old woman noticed the vacuum cleaner, she cried out feebly: “No!”

“Why not?” asked my mother. “Don’t you think it would be much nicer if your home was clean?”

“Don’t do it! Don’t!” Grandma cried, moving ineffectually in her chair, as if she were desperate to leap from it.

“Now Mom, what’s the matter with you? You used to keep a very clean house. Remember when sister and I would tramp dirt in from the Miller’s pond? You’d make us take off our shoes and mop up all the mud we tracked in.”

“It’s your father! Don’t touch him!”

“My father? What on Earth are you talking about? We were all at his funeral last year. You remember that.”

“Don’t do it!”

“But I’m just going to run the vacuum for a minute. It’s nothing but dust, Mom, you know that.”

“Dust is everything!” Grandma protested strangely.

“Okay, now you’re being unreasonable. It’s nothing but a layer of dust and it isn’t healthy for you to live in it. I’m going to clean your house and it’s going to be so much better that you’ll thank me when I’m done.”

“No I won’t!” the disconsolate voice cried. “The dust is your father. It’s your grandmother and grandfather. It’s the dead coming back. It’s everything. It’s dead leaves and dying roses.”

My mother shook her head hopelessly, laughed out loud.

“Dust is everything,” the old woman cried. “It’s your father and his dreams. It’s years gone by. How they are remembered. It’s you and your sister. It’s everything we did. It’s the mountains where we camped and the stars we looked at.”

My mother rolled her eyes and switched on the vacuum.

The Flight of an Eagle

“Isn’t it amazing!” enthused Alec, looking at his phone. “Some guy takes pictures of plastic action figures sitting on cats, and he has over four million followers.”

Daryl had put down his own phone. He sat across the coffee shop table, gazing out the window at cars jamming the boulevard. He heard, but said nothing.

“Technology has made it incredibly easy for anyone to become rich and famous, ” remarked Alec. “All it takes is something brilliantly stupid.”

Daryl sought a reply in his mind, kept his mouth shut.

Alec continued to scroll on his phone. He suddenly laughed. “You should check out this video. Here’s a guy who stands on his head while reciting Shakespeare. Over nine million views.” He held up his phone for Daryl to see.

Daryl observed the upside down person for a few moments, offered a smile, turned his head again to gaze silently out the window.

On the sidewalk across the busy boulevard an elderly man was resting on the seat of his walker. He was holding a small bag of what must have been stale bread. He was feeding pigeons that had gathered around him.

Pigeons continued to fly down from streetlamps and rooftops. The man tossed crumbs.

As Daryl watched the flocking scavengers, an unbidden memory flickered into his mind. It was a memory that formed when he was a boy. A golden eagle from a place far away used to visit the pine tree outside his bedroom window.

For some reason the golden eagle chose to perch in that tree. In the early morning, lying flat on his bed, Daryl would quietly stare up through his window to watch. He would marvel at the mysterious visitor, wondering why it lingered outside his window. The eagle’s sharp eyes seemed to flash with secret knowledge as it turned its head looking right and left.

Thinking about his own very ordinary life, Daryl would wonder what it might be like to possess golden wings: to stretch those wings powerfully, leap skyward and rise.

From that tree Daryl would rise above his bedroom window into a welcoming sky. As he soared and turned he’d feel the air sweeping his body, the unclouded sun beaming warmly on his face. He’d climb higher, higher, circling higher, even higher.

With keen eyes he’d look down.

The familiar houses in a row. The tiny people, like insects. The pine trees and the nearby lakes and a silver river in a wilderness. The magnificent sweep of the luminous Earth, with all of its unfathomable vastness laid bare. Prairies and canyons and patterned deserts. Mountain ranges like wrinkles. Deep blue seas sprinkled with fragments of green. The horizon’s never changing, ever summoning curve. The magnified beauty that is revealed from high places.

As he circled on golden wings Daryl would understand the freedom of the sky, where there is nothing in life that is tiresome or meaningless or paltry. The world’s cares would shrink down to nothing. He would be alive. He would perceive the immense majesty of the world.

“I can’t figure it out, ” said Alec. “Here’s a guy who puts his pet mouse in costumes. He dressed up his mouse with a party hat on its head. You can make a small fortune if your videos go viral. Can you believe it?”

“Yeah, I suppose, ” replied Daryl.

Litter

There is no street parking near my apartment building. I have to park several blocks away.

One day I was walking out to my car when my eyes chanced upon a piece of litter.

Nothing angers me quite like litter. People who blithely toss trash into their neighborhood are so careless and selfish. I’m tired of picking it up.

The discarded thing lay on the sidewalk. It was a tiny notebook–one of those cheap notebooks people jot quick notes in.

I stooped to pick it up.

I had resumed walking, and was searching for a trashcan, when all at once it occurred to me that somebody might have accidentally dropped this tiny notebook.

I turned it over to examine the front and back cover. No name. I opened to the first page. A couple of sentences had been carefully written in pencil.

I love my uncle Ernie. I love how he makes me laugh and how he makes pancakes for me and my sister.

All of the pages that followed were blank.

Oh wow, I thought, this isn’t quite what I expected. Evidently a young person had begun to write some happy thoughts. Perhaps it was an essay for school. Or the beginning of a journal. The tiny notebook had probably fallen out of a pocket. A worried somebody would probably be looking for it.

My course of action was obvious. I turned around and retraced my steps. I sought the exact spot where I had found the dropped notebook. I carefully set what I had first thought was litter back on the sidewalk, so that it could await its destiny.

What else could I do?

As I finally approached my car, I came upon an unusual amount of trash by the sidewalk. A small heap of garbage had gathered between some dying bushes. I fought off my anger. Why can’t people control themselves?

There was spoiled food, discarded cardboard boxes, bottles and cans. The smell was unbearable.

Then I noticed a sleeping bag behind the pile. And someone inside it. A young man with leaves in his hair was bundled up, his face hidden.

A Monument to Remember

I’m not exactly sure why I spent Sunday mornings sitting on a cold bench near that monument. It seemed a suitable place to read a book. I suppose my attraction to the place had something to do with words engraved in marble. A feeling of permanence.

Those mornings I wasn’t the only one drawn to the park. Rested and ready, fresh out of nearby hotels, tourists hurried past beds of flowers in order to conquer the city.

The shining monument, in the shape of an erect, pointed obelisk, was so conspicuous that eager eyes couldn’t possibly miss it.

Legs inevitably turned. Feet halted by the solemn black plaque at the obelisk’s base. Selfie sticks rose. Satisfied poses were effected.

If I really wanted to hurt myself, I lowered my book and opened my mouth to play a simple game. “Do you know why that monument is there?” I asked.

Most couldn’t say.