We encounter many people in our daily routine, but we never know who will have the biggest impact on our lives.
I pass the same dilapidated kiosk of wares every day. On most days, I actually pass two or three times a day. Initially, I go north, then head south as I return home. I’ve imagined what it would look like if an omnipresent camera has been recording footage all this time. The silent film made from the snippets of me passing plays in fast forward through my mind. It’s as if scenes were strung together and the other roughly 52,520 hours of tape was cut out.
First, my husband and I walk by. We look younger, tanner and thinner. In the next scene, we stroll along with our puppy. Our new neighbors stop to say how cute she is. Later, I walk briskly by, trying to stay in shape as my belly grows in pregnancy. Each day, I pass and it’s noticeably bigger. My stride gets slower, wider and heavier.
The plot of our life plays out in front of this one imaginary camera angle. My husband proudly carries our newborn son against his chest as he tries to soothe him to sleep on a hot summer evening. Next, I jog with a toddler sleeping in the stroller, working to get rid of those last few pounds. The three of us walk together, tiny hands holding our fingers. Then, we run to chase him. We stumble trying to hold onto his handlebars for one more moment before he rides on his own.
The seasons change again and again. Our outfits change. The footage rolls on and I’m getting round again. It’s becoming hard to keep up with this energetic boy. The dog is loyal and she waits for me, he doesn’t. Winter comes again and I can’t zip up my coat.
Finally, there are four of us. Our daughter joins the troupe in the same way her brother did. In our arms, in the stroller and, eventually, on her own two feet. We keep passing along the path in the park - back and forth – going about our lives.
Sometimes I used to stop at the kiosk and chat about the weather as my dog sniffed around. Or I’d kiss my son’s knee after he fell off his new bike. Then, I would engage in a lively conversation that consisted of complaints about some perceived problem in our perfect little town. Trash collectors not passing that day, heroin addicts sleeping on the benches or the general lack of maintenance of our (in reality) beloved park were all part of the script.
My dog is a spotted mutt named Buggy with a brown patch over one eye, just like all of the archetypal dogs of cartoon families. She loves to pee in the gravel. Though it doesn’t stop me from giving her the freedom to relieve herself where she pleases, I’ve noticed this drives the “owner” of the used book kiosk crazy. I put owner is quotation marks, because I’m quite sure he has no official ownership rights to that square of gravel in the city park.
A recovering alcoholic named Antonella just set up a table one day and started putting some used books on display. It grew from there. A canopy was erected at some point. Then, faded boho clothing, crocheted doilies and abstract knickknacks were set out on the table and hung from the canopy structure. She eventually appropriated the shed behind the gravel patch and used it to store her precious goods that nobody ever purchased. Antonella would put them away with care each evening and lock them up before slinging her backpack over her shoulder and walking four miles back to her home. She walked because she had no car. No car, no real job...her only possession was that ratty backpack and a house that she inherited from her estranged father.
And she had this square of gravel in the park, which she had claimed over the years. I think that, because she was friendly and harmless, nobody ever cared to shoo her away. The local police passed by regularly in their patrol car or on horseback and never bothered Antonella or her kiosk. We all knew that she wasn’t supposed to be operating a cash-only business on public property with no permit whatsoever. But it was also clear that this failing business was all she had left.
You’re right, I wrote “he” when I first mentioned the only vendor who has apparently been given permission by omission to set up shop in our park. There’s a man running the kiosk now. I don’t know his name. Though I still pass every day – taking Buggy for a walk, bringing the kids to the playground, on my way to meet a friend for coffee – I haven’t stopped to chat with this guy. He unofficially took over the stall on the one day Antonella didn’t show up to claim it, as she had done every other morning before that.
That was the day on which I found out her name was Antonella. That was the day I found out that she had a sad back story as an alcoholic and an even lonelier existence once she dug into recovery. That was the day our chain-smoking neighbor told us that Antonella had decided not to walk all the way to her kiosk. Instead, she laid down on the railroad tracks and waited for release from this world.
Now, that kiosk is a sad landmark for me. It serves as an allegory to be kind to the people who I encounter as I go about my life. I think about the nameless extras making cameos in my home video sometimes. Though action may unfold in a way that looks like an adaptation of the perfect story, you never know what’s really going on in the background. We don’t get to cast the actors who will play a role in our lives, but we do have a choice of how to interact with them. It’s so clear now that not everyone gets their happy ending.