I can feel it in wisps, in the breaks of the breeze, on my collar and shoulders when I walk into the sunlight beating down on the areas that were formerly streets before the Fresno Mall was born. But for now, as I start my mall walking routine, the breeze is a blessing unlike any I ever got at St. Alphonsus when I was 10 years old.
This blessing requires, however, no roll call of my sins, no period of penance and guilt and, best of all, no going to the priest, a panda-looking guy, so he could stick a cardboard-tasting wafer on my tongue (which I thought had to make me look like a lizard zapping bugs) and whispering strange stuff in Latin.
This breeze offers redemption freely. It offers democracy too as it bathes everyone equally. It also offers, in its clean-water scent, hope—at least for an hour or so, maybe a day, for all of the people who, because there is nowhere else to go, spend time on the Fresno Mall begging for goods and money, people, their faces grim as storm clouds, who sift through trash cans methodically.
But when I see a guy standing on one of the mini-bridges that cross the little rivers that run the length of the mall (this time near Kern Street), somehow the breeze stops cold. Just like that. He is holding on to the rail, making the bridge seem smaller than it is, as if it had been built by Lilliputians.
It’s always the eyes. His have no fire of any kind. His are simply dark, and it feels as if I am looking into two impossibly small and infinitely deep caves. Nothing at the end of those tunnels. His posture reminds me of a huge plastic bag that looks like it had once held some type of heavy content and is now on the verge of sagging or ripping open completely, of deflating and being wind-whipped onto Kern Avenue, where cars would run over it again and again.
I have just about walked past him when he says, “Excuse me, sir. I just got out of jail and I missed my ride to Corcoran. Can you spare some change? I’m trying to get enough to take a bus there.”
I give him a couple of bucks in change I happen to have. He holds out his hand as timidly as a small kid, though he must be in his late 30s. His voice shrinks as he says thanks. I nod and, not knowing how to make him feel optimistic about having been in jail and coming out broke, just say good luck and I hope you get home soon.
His being on that little hump of bridge makes him look as if he is taller than Shaquille O’Neal. But there is little in his body movement that shows confidence. Little that can be seen of a person who can imagine how to construct a future that doesn’t include jail time every few months.
I’d seen him before, in the faces of my friends whom, in the early 1960s, Fresno High School had suspended, in the faces of fellow workers at a San Jose factory where we prepped mortar shells with copper and flux so they could be welded correctly and so they could presumably fly straight and true into clumps of people who were sleeping or eating or tending to animals.
I often imagined, as I coated both ends with flux and snapped copper rings on the nose and base cones, people disappearing in pink mists and chunks of what looked like stew meat. In movies, it’s depressingly intriguing to see such carnage. But to know that people actually died because of my mortar shells was something that grew and weighed on me like an insidious and inoperable tumor.
The things in his face, and in mine at one time, are the effects of knowing that his being in jail and begging from bridges and my having made bombs were things and actions that we could never change, just regret until our own lives are shattered by disease and old age.
As I walk away, the breeze no longer around, I am surprised at what I remember because of how he looked at me and because of how he seemed to be melting slowly before me. The Vietnam War is nearly 40 years in my past. I don’t know if he knows much about that war, given the situation now with Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran. And I wonder who now, newly married, having no education, having a baby and a wife to support, is making bombs in some factory, who now knows that his handiwork means people are being blown to hell like bugs on a windshield.
On my next lap, there is only the bridge and the water trickling beneath it. There are a few leaves falling from trees onto the bridge then into the water, which takes them, like little rafts in a movie, toward a drain where they collect, where they wait until another guy with a haunted face comes and scoops them up, knowing his job will always be necessary, like the bomb makers and like the jailers.
The more I walk the mall, the more people I see. The more I walk, the more it becomes clear that those of us who have food and places to sleep are somewhat like the homeless, who don’t have “civilization’s” camouflage to hide their mortal soul wounds. Those of us who don’t sleep in tents and who get some kind of check every month–do we know how it’s only fortune, and clearly not divine power, that has kept us off the streets asking for money and wandering far away from what was once home and family?
I long ago stopped trusting the priest proclaiming like a debate teacher that faith is all people need. (The preachers from the churches near Fulton and Stanislaus, it seems to me, are offshoots of the portly, short, old-school priest apocalyptically thundering away in Latin at St. Alphonsus when I was a kid. But they’ve been absent from what I call The Crucible at Mariposa and Fulton, lately. The intersection is strangely silent as it suffers the sun’s full force.)
Some of the drifting and lost people on the mall are on automatic pilot. When they ask for money, one can tell they’ve rehearsed some lines, something they think will get people to cough up a few bucks. But at times when they’re turned down, the kind and self-deprecating look on their faces, as they “beg,” disappears in less than an instant.
The steeliness, the mistrust, the “I knew it,” the “yeah, f**k you anyway” look comes back. It’s a look that, like that of the young man on the little bridge, that makes me think they see, ironically, something like the dark matter that beguiles astrophysicists, a path maybe overgrown with Spanish moss with the consistency and intractability of smoke.
I try to see what my face must look like as I think these things, as I feel again the smells and sounds of that bomb-making factory, as I still recall the too-many faces of people on this mall in my hometown who also face demons, but without any support systems, without knowing a paycheck is coming tomorrow, which is one of the few things that keep people from being on this mall, on these forlorn streets.
So what happens if that paycheck disappears? Savings? For how long? Borrowing from friends and relatives? How long will they put up with that? How long before a breeze bearing dignity arrives for those without any?