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What Lurks In Shadows
A persistent wind was piercing through my coat, and the sky was twisting into a gloomy overcast as clouds accumulated and prepared for darkness. I was walking over the Burnside Bridge, and to my right was the Willamette River. I remember noticing the swirling currents, innumerable and impossibly independent from one another, as if there were countless sections of the river flowing different ways. Ahead of me I could see the sign for the Portland Rescue Mission and past the building and to the right I saw brilliant pink cherry blossoms that spanned the edge of the waterfront. The Portland Oregon sign, adorned with a jumping deer, dazzled in glittering scintillation, sparkling in beautiful green and yellow irony, next to homeless men and women; some lying asleep on the sidewalk, others milling about with eyes cast downward. As I walked by I could see some people were ashamed, but many seemed past others opinions, and only worried about sleeping inside for the night.
The previous week I had been walking down the same trail to the bus stop, only I was carrying a half eaten sandwich. I was done and planned to throw it in the next garbage can I saw, but a man approached me and asked me if he could have it. I gave it to him without hesitation, gave a wordless nod in response to his thanks, and continued on my way. I did not feel holy for giving the man a sandwich; I felt no spiritual or emotional uplift. To me it felt no more out of place as shaking a relative’s hand at a holiday that in some way is related to you, but you don’t know how and don’t care to find out. He asked, and as if by internal reflex I gave it to him wordlessly.
But this week I had no food, so I silently walked by averting eye contact. At the time I had somehow justified in my mind that the aversion of eye contact would somehow be polite, but now I realize that I too felt ashamed. I was ashamed because I assumed I was more fortunate then them. I made no effort to help, only to avert my eyes so I could feel a little less ashamed of my own fortune.
I walked to the bus shelter and sat alone on a metal bench. I gazed ahead, looking at nothing yet in an unfocused way looking at everything. I had my IPod and earphones in my backpack, but I did not put them in, I rarely put them in while in public. When they were in I felt oddly disconnected from the world around me, and I always felt as if I was missing something when they were in my ears. An intangible nag always lingered around me when they were in, so eventually I always pulled them off anyway.
Still in an aimless gaze I did not notice the man walking in my general direction, but I did notice the man as he came a little closer. I gave a sharp formal nod, that in my mind symbolized polite recognition. He nodded back and I saw something flash in his eyes, an idea that popped into his head. He stutter stepped faintly as he stopped short and sat down on the seat next to mine. I didn’t think anything of it until he turned to talk to me.
“Hey man do think you could help me out?” He said it suave and passive enough for the question to seem like it was a nonchalant breeze.
I heard him say something as if to himself, but just loud enough for me to conveniently hear.
“Oh shoot you’re just a kid.” I didn’t say anything and he followed his sentence up quickly. “Man if you could help me you’d have more balls then any of these other kids or adults out here.”
For some reason my mind quickly conjured up fantasies of him wanting me to carry drugs to another person for him. His insistence on me being brave and courageous for doing something for a stranger brought a strange part of my mind to this assumption for a reason I don’t understand.
I answered more weakly and timidly then I intended.
He brought forth a piece a paper.
“You see my car got towed and I need twelve bucks- ”
Before he had finished his sentence I was already fishing through my backpack. I wasn’t disappointed by any means that it was only money he wanted, only surprised. I wondered how giving him money would in any way be brave.
“Hey wait a minute I ain’t no bum see.” He pointed down to his shoes. “I’m wearing brand new Nikes, you feel me?”
I held up a dime. “This is all I got.”
“Oh I see,” he leaned towards me and peered into my backpack. “Hey, what about that wallet in there?”
I was taken slightly off guard that he would look into my backpack, and I was lost for words.
“I.. uh, no.”
He looked at me, and I felt his voice become a little more aggressive.
“You’re telling me you don’t have any money in that wallet.”
I shook my head, feeling very uncomfortable and very small in my chair. I looked around and there was no one else nearby.
He cocked his head and looked at me as if I was joking.
I had decided I was going to take the next bus that came by and work my way home on random knowledge of downtown streets. Feeling I needed to show him proof to get him away, and thinking he would leave me alone if he saw the absence of money for himself, I pulled out my wallet, and opened it for him to see.
His eyes got wide and he shook his head as if he was both angry and ashamed at me.
“Man I see a twenty right there.”
My immediate reaction was shock, and as I brought my wallet to my own eyes I felt embarrassed and guilty. I had forgotten about the twenty dollar bill my cousin had given to me.
He was shaking his head again in bitter disappointment.
“Man you didn’t have to give me the money but I don’t appreciate being lied to, you feel me?”
I too was shaking my head.
“I can’t give you that.”
“Why not? I can give you your change man. Come on help a brother out.”
I couldn’t express it to a stranger the meaning behind the money, that it was more than just twenty dollars. My cousin had given it to me the previous weekend, a cousin I rarely ever got to see. I had never planned on spending the money in the first place. My cousin was, and still is training in the Navy to be a future part of a bomb squad, and will soon be deployed to Afghanistan. I had wordless doubts lurking in worried parts of mind about the number of times I would see him again, and the money he had given me was an object of remembrance in any sense of his life or death. It was sitting idly in the wallet waiting to be put in a more permanent place.
I was exasperated at his persistence and was again lost for words. Had it been food, or any other bill of money he had been asking for, I would have given it to him at this point. But I just sat in my chair, wallet in hand, feeling the pressure of the hot seat.
“I…no, I’m sorry I just can’t.”
“It’s only twelve dollars son and I can give you your change. I’m an honest man.” He put his hands up in a defensive gesture, as if by me refusing to give him the money I thought he was a dishonest person.
“I…” I was completely lost for words and could only sigh what I wanted to say.
Perhaps at this point he knew that it was at a lost cause to gain the money in a civilized manner, and there was no way I would ever give him the twenty dollar bill. In one sweeping motion he snatched my wallet, lifted himself out of the chair and ran away. I heard his shouts in broken words such as “Lie,” and “Money,” but almost his entire sentence was lost around the corner of a building where he disappeared. Perhaps in his mind my unintentional lie justified his theft of my wallet.
And I just sat. I didn’t chase after him; I didn’t yell for help our shout robbery. I was in a disoriented state of loss and confusion.
It was now that people chose to come out of there hiding places and begin walking down streets and milling about the bus stop; swirling currents of people with their own goals, all going different directions and independent of one another. They neither spoke to one another, nor associated with each other in any other way besides unintentional eye contact, to which was quickly averted. Their hands were clean of anything that escaped their knowing in the past moments prior to their showing up, and they held no responsibility to anything that had happened to a boy, lost and confused underneath of a bus shelter; nor did they care to ask; nor did I want them to.
It was now that the bus driver decided to pull up to the shelter, appearing noisily and ignorant, clean of any happenings of the past moments prior to its arrival. It welcomed a boy battling mixed emotions. The bus driver gave a cheesy smile to the innocent young boy as he was welcomed into the jaws of the vehicle.
Many people on the bus wore headphones, lost in their own worlds of music and shut off from everything else going on around them; stuck in their little world of intentionally small awareness.
The bus drove over the bridge again, and I peered out the window down into the river, again noticing its swirling currents and independent flowing. I wondered if people were like the currents of the Willamette River; all independent from one another, all unknowing of other peoples values and lives, and all ignorant in the sense that they never bothered to ask.
Just this previous week my Dad told me that his van had been robbed. I had been given rides in the very seat where a man had sat and rummaged through compartments that I too have rummaged through, touched tools that I too had handled, and I could almost feel a heavy strange presence, and I felt oddly violated.
I felt a strange heaviness about the entire atmosphere as I sat in the van the next morning, as if the man was hiding somewhere within, watching me. Even in my bedroom, where there is a large window looking out across the front yard and to the street where my dad’s van is still parked; I felt the same presence, although lighter than in the van. I felt that someone was looking at me when my back was turned. I imagined in my mind a man lurking on the sidewalk while I was sleeping, looking through my window, watching me sleep and then opening the van door to sit on the passenger seat. I saw the man stealing the tools out of the van, and shamelessly packing them into his own car before driving off.
The tools themselves were not only material, they were much more than the thief could ever comprehend without explanation. Some tools that were stolen held sentimental value. Some tools had been passed down to my father by his own father, who is now passed away. I knew the paternal history behind certain tools, but after they were stolen my Dad never spoke of the meaning that they held, and I never asked him again. I imagined my Dad had once shared experiences with his own father through the tools, as his father was a carpenter and my Father is also a carpenter.
I wonder if some day I will lose something symbolic to that of a past loved one, by the hands of someone who could never understand the true meaning behind the object, and saw, in this case a tool, as something only material, something that could be sold for a few dollars.
I wonder how many times objects of much more then just material value have been stolen.
And I also wonder how many secondhand “tools” people have held that had been stolen from somebody, and held sentimental meaning to the original owner, that is now unknowingly held in the current owner’s hands.
The sun was unrelenting and the heat almost unbearable. Little heat induced waves simmered on the top of blacktop in the distance as my cousin and I walked home from a game of football at the park. We heard shouts behind us, and turned to see the three teenagers we had played against shouting for us to slow down. Knowing we were only two blocks away from my cousin’s house, we stopped and let them catch up.
Two of the boys ran to meet us at the curb, while the other strolled nonchalantly behind. One of the boys stood in front of us exasperated, anger apparent in his expression. The anger showed through his words, as he pointed at my cousin.
“You called me a dirty Mexican, I heard you.”
My cousin and the boy began exchanging heated words, the summer sun bringing their words to shouts. I stood uncomfortable and alone to the side, caught in the middle of angry words filled with unjust hatred.
The boy who lagged behind now walked smoothly up to the confrontation. He seemed to be a figure of adoration, as both boys took a step back in customary respect of his presence, although the flow of words continued. The “leader” seemingly lost interest and sat down on the sidewalk. He picked up a cigarette bud off the ground and lit it. He took two puffs off of the end and leaned back satisfied.
The Mexican boy was looking for a fight, I could tell by the way he was pushing my cousin slightly with his shoulder, trying to aggravate him; not wanting to throw the first punch but still wanting to participate.
The “leader” stood up as their pushes increased in intensity, once again gaining interest. He walked towards me, came close and looked me up and down, sizing me up as if trying to determine if I was worth it to fight. In the end he took a big drag off of the bud, blew it in my face and turned away from me; it seemed that I was not deemed worthy.
I made no attempt to break up the shouts and pushes shared between my cousin and the boy because I knew they would be in vain. Neither would listen and I would be once again pushed to the side to be forgotten for the moment.
Down the street came another two teenagers on bikes, and they coasted towards us and pulled to the sidewalk next to us.
“What’s going on?” One of them shouted.
“He called me a dirty Mexican!” The boy said angrily.
“Well have you kicked his a*s yet?”
As if the boy’s words were a signal, the atmosphere seemed to freeze and become heavy for a second. My cousin and I looked at each other for only a moment, and we both ran towards the house.
I could shouts of pursuits behind us, and looked back to see two boys chasing after us, while the two older boys on the bikes and the “leader” stayed behind. My cousin was charging ahead of me, and I could feel and see myself slowing falling behind. I did not dare look back to see how close or how far the other boys were to me; their footsteps reminded me that they were still there.
As I was turning the corner I felt my body twist upward and lose balance, and then I was thrown to the ground. The house, safety which I could see and was within my grasp a block away, was ripped away from me as I fell heavily and skidded on the ground. I felt a sharp pain in my side as I was kicked, and I felt a shocking paralyzing sensation run through my entire body, leaving me breathless and lightheaded as I was stomped on my back, and I now know it was my kidney.
The boys were feeling merciful, and left me disoriented and half paralyzed on the sidewalk without really laying into me. I heard their pounding footsteps as they ran away, and soon I heard nothing but the heaviness of silence and my own throbbing pain. I felt abandoned and swindled. I had not been a part of the problem, and it was my cousin’s words that had caused my beating.
As I walked in the house my cousin could not look at me in the eyes, and I knew he felt ashamed for what he had done.
I sat on his couch nursing sore ribs and a confused mind, and I wondered how many people go through similar beatings because of the words of others; because of the silence of others; because of the actions of others; and because of the inaction of others.