01 June 2007

Reptile Mom

I walk. It’s a habit forced upon those who live in large cities. That’s not true now, meaning my home is no longer a big city. But I still walk. Except when the weather is miserable – hot, wet, frozen – I walk to work and to the gym.

Back in the big city I also walked to the store, take out places, the news stand, just about everywhere. In this smaller city, more affected by automobiles, I can walk to the store but the store is crummy. It is more like a 7-11 than a grocery. The floors are kind of sticky and the most popular goods are lottery tickets, cigarettes and cheap booze. There is also a Chinese place, and a pizza parlor, but neither are, frankly, worth it.

Still, I walk. First from habit. Second because it is healthy. And now, in the land of $3.50 a gallon gas, to save money.

There is a fourth reason. You see people.

When you drive, you are surrounded by people, but they are inside their cars. Tearing along the highway you glance over when someone passes by, but if they look back you feel odd. Or, waiting beside someone at a stop light, you look over and there someone is talking on the phone or drinking coffee or picking at their nose. Again, if they see you looking you feel embarrassed. Sometimes, at stop signs they try to be nice and waive the right of way. “Go on,” they say with their waving hands. But the reflection makes it hard to be sure so you hesitate. They wave again, and just as you are about to go, someone comes from the other side and you end up waiting anyway. Most of the time, though, you avoid people while driving. The car is like a moving house. What’s inside is private.

Not so when walking. Even in crowds you know there are people there. You actually touch them on a crowded street. You also smell them – perfume, tobacco, onions, sweat, alcohol. Their humanity is right in your face. And they talk, nowadays on cell phones, but folks hold loud conversations on the street sometimes. Panhandlers approach you. Odd folks carry on with the deity or an invisible partner.

In my smaller city, there are way fewer people on the street. Mostly it is a place for the young, the dark, the poor, and the weird. Everyone else has a car. You do see people as they exit their cars and cross parking lots or go into businesses like the former gas station that is now a design office of some kind. And now there are the smokers, workers who now have to go outside, where they huddle like conspirators selling drugs or lean against the walls like weary whores.

Because there are so few people on the street, you notice them more – and they notice you, too. We greet one another, though strangers, and I am sure each measures the other a little, making note of clothes and faces and mannerisms. And we move on. We are strangers after all. But unlike the faces behind wheels, these people leave a mark on the mind. Or they can.

Reptile Mom was the woman shepherding two children that I passed on the way home recently. The kids were barely more than toddlers, a tow headed boy and girl. Mom was holding her substantial over the shoulder strapped purse by her left hand, a cigarette dangling lazily from the same fingers. She was using her right hand to gesture and underline her orders for the children to stay close.

I heard her voice, the thickened tenor of a woman who had smoked hard for a long time, though she was clearly younger than me. It rang of that tone I have heard from women who have been toughened by life, and who smooth the rough edges with lots of menthol and Miller Lite.

Her honey brown hair was pulled back into a pony tail, tightening the face and its leathered features so that her profile struck me as like a lizard. Hence the title, Reptile Mom.

She was not unattractive, mind you, but had a hard, brown, worn quality to her skin that made her older than she was. Her face also gave off the closed and cautious look of someone who had every reason not to trust anyone. She looked suspicious, even of her children.

I passed by as she was urging them to behave. The little boy waddled quickly away as if it were a game, his face with the triumphant smile of mischief accomplished as he turned and ran straight into my shin.

Not at all hurt but only startled, he looked up, his face still wreathed in glee. “Hold on there champ,” I said, pressing my left hand down like a cop holding traffic. I did not even break stride. He looked for his mom, hearing her voice, turned toward it, and I kept walking.

Not much of an encounter, but compared to the utter isolation of the automobile, virtually intimate. I smelled her smoke, heard her voice, saw the face move, the hair swish. The children bounced, the boy with the wide hips and bowlegged gait revealing a diaper beneath. He saw me, registered my being.

As I walked away I thought of her, her life, which I will never know. The appearances I noted, the things they brought to mind – that she was single, poor, ill educated, unemployed, under educated – might be utterly wrong. But a lifetime told me they were probably right.

How many such mothers had I met over the years, for whom a cigarette and a beer were essential medications? I felt her hair trigger temper, and saw the long arc of fear and abuse that she learned from her mom – I could see the upraised back of her own mother’s hand and the little girl she used to be cringing. I could see the desperate escape from the grinding contempt of her childhood, one without expectations except that one should misbehave. I could see the young man who seemed like a savior then, with his car and smile and lithe limbs that sang with muscle and excitement. And how in her attempt to break away actually assured its continuance.

Yes, there was a reptile reality in her, in which instinct and fear pulled her skin tight along the bones. Coiled, cautious, weary, wary, I read her life in her face. One very different from the child who laughed. But as I kept walking, I knew his face would someday be like hers. And there was nothing anyone could do to change that.

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