When is Now, Part I

I am sitting at a black granite topped table in a famous Berkeley coffee shop at the corner of Walnut and Vine. It’s an indoor-outdoor scene here, where the walls are mostly windows and the door is propped wide open. The doorway frames a view of a lush and prideful horse chestnut tree that magnanimously shades the far side of the street. Out on the sidewalk, a man has parked his motorized wheelchair and is holding a bright red plastic cup in his lap. Heavy lidded, he speaks to no one. Eventually, someone drops a couple of bills into the cup. The man with the wheelchair tucks the money inside his jacket. A minute later, without any change in facial expression, he puts the wheelchair into gear (or so it seems) and then drives off at full speed.

peets for upload At the table next to me sits a woman with a slender, rounded back. She might have stood five feet tall when her back was straight. The strap of her cloth bag has frayed a hole in her red and yellow wool blazer, but I wouldn’t have spotted if I weren’t looking so hard at what’s going on around me. She’s rested her turquoise string bag on the little canvas folding stool that she carries around town. Someone waves at her, a tall, very pregnant woman in a clingy and very stripy dress.

I caught her once, on an AC Transit bus that lurched forward, hurling her toward the back of the bus. I stretched out an arm. Stopping her fall was uncannily easy, like catching a grocery bag full of paper towels. I don’t imagine she’d appreciate my saying so. She shook me off quickly after she got her balance back, and has never given so much as a blink of acknowledgment since.

Once, over the long, boring summer when I was 15, I lay on my bed with the window thrown wide open, just like the door here at Peet’s: no storm barrier, no screen. I was wearing a button-down blouse that had once belonged to my mom. Lime green, with a distressed texture, this blouse buttoned low. It made me look dramatic, mysterious, adult, even sexy. An anomaly—most greens make me look like a ghoul. I had wrestled my impossible thick hair into braids. I had my bed arranged diagonally in one corner, and I lay there imagining that I and my open window, the warm breeze and the underlying rumble of cicadas, were part of some ancient story—or that we would be ancient some day. In some future, people would sit around and imagine these days, the way I liked to imagine life in ancient Greece or Rome.

And I was right—that stuff feels ancient now. Those days before cable and internet and reflexive overscheduling, when it was possible for a young person to have absolutely nothing. Nothing but daydream and breath. This afternoon at Peet’s has that feeling for me too: a moment in history, as mundane as cash registers and coffee cups, and yet resplendent as plastic-sealed packets of madeleines, iPads propped up against plastic water bottles, as straw fedoras and red high tops and bicycles locked to Japanese maples.

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