She was irritated by something I’d said (or left unsaid) and demanded to know why I was being so difficult, so…different, so damned unknowable.
“Probably,” I replied, “because I was born young, and haven’t aged much since.”
She laughed, and said “What the hell does that mean? You see…that’s exactly what I’m talking about. You never give a direct, intelligible answer to anything.”
Of course she was right about my tendency to be obtuse and, by implication, indirect. But wrong about an implied evasiveness. I was born without guile, as are we all. And, in that regard, haven’t aged much since. Perhaps because a little old man “immunized” me one day when I was very young.
I was four going on five. Just up from a nap, my mother put me in a harness and tied me with a rope to one of the columns on our front porch. She did that because I’d lately begun independently exploring the world beyond our yard (i.e., the alley and backyards of our neighbors). But it wasn’t long before I’d untied the rope, slipped the harness, and was on my way down the sidewalk heading toward the mysterious, unexplored world of “the next block.”
I hadn’t gone far before I began to experience a kind of surreal quality about what I was seeing. On the surface everything–the houses, yards, trees, sidewalk and picket fences–was familiar and ordinary. But for some reason on this day I began to look at individual items more intently and started to notice a cascade of underlying anomalies.
First it was the sidewalk. Overall it was straight and level as far as the eye could see. But for some odd reason it was seriously cracked and buckled every few feet. I wondered why…then realized that beside each buckle there was a large tree. Ah ha…tree grows large, roots grow large…sidewalk tries to hold its ground, but is eventually pushed up and aside by the natural dynamic of growth.
Then it was the picket fences. They enclosed almost all the yards at that time. While the intention, like that of the sidewalk, was self-evident, that “intentionality” was also clearly in conflict with the real world. The fences all leaned, they sagged, the gates never closed right, and the posts were rotting at the base, as were the pickets anywhere they touched the ground. Also, the sidewalk, adjacent grass, flowers, shrubbery, etc., were always awash in flakes of peeling paint.
By then it seemed that everywhere I looked all I could see were examples of adult ideals in conflict with the “real” world. I didn’t think to question the motives behind the ideals…I intuitively understood, for example, that concrete sidewalks were preferable to muddy paths. But it was hard not to begin forming a dim opinion regarding the thought behind their pursuit. It was then that the concept of “childish” first stuck its nose under my tent.
Still, it wasn’t until I’d reached the corner that an event occurred which would serve as a catalyst for these increasingly troublesome observations. About a block away a car was coming toward me. Nothing peculiar about that, and I had plenty of time to cross the street and go on. But for some reason I couldn’t take my eye off that car. Slowly it occurred to me that I couldn’t see anyone driving it. The car was rolling up the street, swaying from side to side, making a thump-ditty-thump sound as the tires ran over each uniformly spaced crack in the concrete, but behind the windshield I could see no sign of life.
As it drew closer I also noticed a few other (more minor) distinctions: It was new, shiny black, was unusually large and bulbous, and the tires had a very wide white stripe around them. But most distinctive was that is was a Cadillac…which, at the time, was considered an extravagant symbol of wealth. In any case, it was hardly the kind of car seen in a neighborhood of foot-bound university students and bus-riding professors.
It wasn’t until the car entered the intersection that I was able to see the dim outline of a driver. Through the side windows as it rolled past I could make out a bald, tiny, frail old man clutching the large, ivory-colored steering wheel in an attempt to pull himself up and forward as far as he could…but still barely able to see over it.
What struck me most was what I saw in his eyes as he caught sight of me standing there on the curb. It was an almost even blend of determination and desperation. In that look I saw personified what I’d just been thinking in the abstract. In an eye blink I knew that it was he who was the child, not I. There he was, clinging to the wheel of an almost unmanageable illusion, manifested by this absurd behemoth of a toy…the purpose of which seemed less to transport his fragile little body from place to place than to project an image that would command attention.In that regard, and in that moment, he was quite successful. For he left behind an indelible impression on this little boy, standing there on the curb at 13th & Patterson, watching his childish innocence vaporize down the street in a quiet whoosh of oily blue smoke.
I stood there for a moment, shoulders sagging with the thought that, like it or not, I was destined to be an outsider…was never going to be a leader or follower, only an observer…and only myself. If I’d had the words, I might have said that in that moment I’d become old. But at that time my eyes were new and vision clear. At least in that regard, I haven’t aged much since.