Chapter One: Pay Attention“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” – Humanitarian and former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt
I lied every day I was in elementary school.
“Lisa Sparks?” said the nun.
“Here,” I responded.
Sometimes I even said, “Present.”
When really I was anything but. As soon as I walked into the classroom I wanted to escape. My two favorite words were, “Quiet Reading.” That was my chance to be anywhere other than where I was, surrounded by sexually repressed nuns, the smell of chalk, chalkboards, adolescence, and the incessant striving for one thing, and one thing alone.
A A A A A A A s and more A A A A A aaaa aa a a aaaa aaaaaaahhhhhhh!
Escape, Body and Soul
I hated school. I hated it with the white hot heat of a thousand suns. I hated it more than the rats scratching inside the walls of our kitchen. I hated it more than cockroaches. More than washing the dishes. More than sweeping and cleaning my room. I hated it more than winter and freezing cold and crowded, stinky buses filled with humanity and the common hatred of wherever we were going. It was as if the busses were insulated iron tubes on tires, hurtling us to the places we didn’t want to go, to the people we didn’t want to see, and the work we didn’t want to do. We wished we could stop the bus. Hop off. And go anywhere. Anywhere else but here. But then, getting off the bus was even worse, surrounded by row after row after row after row house.
My only escape, my only hope, my only refuge was books. Books. Books. Books and more books.
Instead of being in a textbook filled classroom with, “Hang up your coats.” “Remain seated.” “Pass your homework to the front of the class.”
I was surrounded by Robin Hood in Sherwood forest. I was there with his band of merry men. Off on adventures, saving lady Guinevere. I was standing next to Tom Sawyer as he tricked his friend into painting the fence by acting as if painting it was the best thing in the entire world. I never actually learned that trick, although I fully enjoyed it when Tom did it. I especially liked how he disguised himself as a girl – yet the old lady saw right through him.
And how he attended his own funeral – something all of us wish we could do. I would imagine it’s the narcissist in us all.
I also loved reading on the bus. I had to. The rocking back and forth. The bone crushing shock as the bus went over the many potholes on the Philadelphia streets. I just had to get out of there. So I went back to my book, to finish hanging out with Tom Sawyer. I would be listening to the stops, or trying to, but then Tom would pine for Polly and I wondered what he would do next. The sway of the bus seemed to rock me into the fantasy world, a calming rhythm making me sleep and slip away from the gray world around me.
I would only faintly hear the bus driver call out the stops. I would only faintly hear the “ding” of the signal saying riders wanted to get off at a certain stop. Tom Sawyer drowned out the voices of the people on the bus. I smelled the paint on the fence instead of sweat, anger, and desperation. I was in a semi-trance. And it didn’t have complete control over me. I chose to stay with Tom and Polly. And then all of the sudden the bus would stop, the brakes would hiss and it wouldn’t start going again as it normally did in its familiar rhythm.
“Get off!” the driver would say. “End of the line.”
I’d look up, and I’d be at the bus depot miles, and miles, and miles — blocks and blocks and blocks away from Sydenham Street. And I knew. I just knew I had to try to hurry home and pay attention on the bus ride back into the familiarity of my neighborhood. Standing at the stop in an unknown place could get me “rolled” by the neighborhood girls. I tried to keep a low profile, trying with everything in me not to open up that book again.
Every day I promised myself it would be different. I’d pay attention this time. No books. Just pay attention. But then I’d look out of the bus window. The rhythm of the starts, stops, opening doors, and dings, and hisses rocked me into that semi-sleep again. No books, but still I escaped. In my mind, I wasn’t looking through a dingy window out onto dingy streets, filled with dingy dreams and dingy people. I was a tree. I was a cloud. I was a bird. I was anything untethered to having to be somewhere it didn’t want to be.
Then I’d hear, “Get off!” “End of the line.”
And I’d repeat the same exercise in danger all over again.
Progress? Not so much
Other days it wasn’t so bad. I’d ask the bus driver to call out my stop. I’d sit near the front of the bus and do my best, grit my teeth, consume the smells and do the thing I hated to do. Be “Present!” Be “Here!” I’d ignore the rhythm and sway and dings and smells. When my stop came up I’d pull the wire, which made a ding, which told the driver I finally figured it out. I knew which stop was mine.
I felt a slight feeling of accomplishment. Then I realized I left the small Fendi pouch my aunt had given me for my birthday to keep all of my things together. Then I was off to home to explain that one to my mom, who would “forget” to tell my dad, who would remind me not to leave my things, who would worry we’d have to get new locks on the front door, who showed mercy on me and didn’t tell my dad.
Then one day. It came. That day when I got too lost. That day everyone had to get off at every stop on the bus route. That day when the sun slipped below the row houses and left the blue haze that was never quite fully “night.”
“End of the line.”
I looked up. Oh no! I looked at my watch. And I knew, I just knew it. The blood seemed to drain from my face. My stomach was jumping all around and then it settled into the cold hard truth. I would get home after my father.
“Come on. Get off. I want to go home, too.”
Well, I didn’t want to go home. But I did. I did.
Night of Reconning
When I got home, I couldn’t hide my absent-mindedness from my father any longer. I think he always suspected because he was my best friend and knew me very well. He could sense me even when we just sat together, not saying anything at all as he watched his beloved nature programs. And all of the sudden he’d tell me, “Lisa, go down and get me a daddy soda.” His term for the Miller he’d enjoy every now and then after work.
My father could get on the bus. He could endure the rhythm and sway and desperation much better than I ever could. And for longer, too. He worked on the absolute edge of Philadelphia, right up to the water at the Navy Shipyard. A man who wanted nothing more than be a game warden, continually outside, continually in nature, continually keeping law and order – the thing he was naturally good at. The thing he also loved.
I was the other thing he loved. He was disappointed in me that evening. He didn’t hit me. My father never hit me. But his voice. He yelled. It was worse than any strap. Worse than any belt. Worse than the worst thing in my small world. And I cried. And he didn’t care. And he warned me to never be late again. And to pay attention. And to have the bus driver call out my stop. And to, Put Down That Book and Pay Attention!
I cried some more. And he still didn’t care. That was a silent dinner. I forced myself to eat dinner, something I rarely did.
The next day I got up. Put my school clothes on. Walked to the stop – crack vials crunching under my feet as soon as I got down the steps from the house – got to the bus stop. Paid attention. Felt the desperation of the people at the bus stop. Smelled the fumes and screeches and hisses as the bus pulled up in front of us all. Climbed the stairs of the bus, put in my token, got my transfer ticket and sat. Swaying. Paying attention. Consuming the world while paying attention. Paying. Paying. Paying. And Paying.
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