I remembered ten minutes ago, though, when my mom and I had been driving around the northern end of Baltimore, exploring the unfamiliar city. "We're going to see what's above our apartments," she'd said, pointing to the map, "and then we'll go down south to see Dad while he's working at the hospital." As I'd gazed at the shady green maples that lined Charles Street, the vast stretches of perfectly mowed lawns that enveloped each Victorian-style mansion, I hadn't noticed the steadily rising temperature. I suppose I'd been too busy admiring one house's white balcony and columns, or another's lush garden of roses, irises, and daisies. Just as I had expected, not a blade of yellow grass insulted the scene.
Our car was now driving down St. Paul Street, and my eyes still followed the images rolling past my window, but I noticed that the bright lawns had all disappeared. A long stretch of faded bluish-brown apartments ran by, but all I could see was a wide strip of sidewalk lining the one-way road. After the Jeep had slowed to a crawl, caught in a sluggish line of rusty cars, I looked closer, discovering that the buildings were actually twenty, maybe thirty identical houses jammed together, with no yard, no grass in between. They each had two columns, but these rotting stumps of wood were barely five feet tall, their ragged faces covered in only a thin layer of yellowish chipping, peeling paint. Windows and doors were boarded up, yet the slabs of plywood were even worse off than the columns–while some exposed streaks of mud and dirt, others were bundles of shreds that termites had devoured long ago. A breath of air hurried through the street, sending crumpled old napkins and yellow potato chip bags rolling
like tumbleweeds across the deserted sidewalks.
Stopping at the traffic light, we spied an old black man shuffling along, five or six feet away from the Jeep. Peering at his wrinkled forehead soaked in sweat, his tangled knots of dull grey-black hair that begged to be washed, I couldn't think, "Ha, ha, he's out there in the heat and I'm here in my comfy, air conditioned car." I could only stare–at the rag with yellow and brown stains, which might have been a clean t-shirt years ago, or at the tattered jeans he wore...jeans that were no longer blue, but grey-brown like the apartments' faded paint or the sheet of dust that covered the sidewalk's jagged surface. I wondered why the man didn't turn to meet my eyes or even glance at the glistening green surface of our Cherokee.
Five blocks farther down, more people were roaming the sidewalks, but their dead eyes and dragging feet revealed they weren't really getting anywhere. A woman no older than twenty crossed in front of our car, ignoring the rusty sign flashing "don't walk" in faded red letters. My mom pushed her foot onto the break, but the woman's eyes–like those of the old man's–didn't even flicker in our direction. "You idiot," I wanted to say at first, "You're pretty lucky we weren't going faster than ten miles an hour." However, watching the sweat trickle down her neck and seep through the thin yellow tank-top that clung to her drearily stooped back, I hesitated. "Mom, she didn't even look at us," I whispered.
Watching the little wrinkles form between her two eyebrows, I studied my mother's face for a moment. Her mouth rose into a faint smile tinted with sadness, and she did not curse the careless woman whom we had nearly hit. Instead, she said, "You can't blame these people for being who they are–do you think they chose to be poor? No," she shook her head, "You can't pretend that they aren't hopeless, and you can't make believe they're happy. You have to see what's going on here, and you have to feel it."
As we stopped at another intersection, I stared down the side street, still foolishly hoping I might see a father and son tossing a ball around, or little kids tumbling through a sprinkler. Spotting two children sitting at the steps of a gray, five-story apartment, I saw the same dust smother the cracks in the brick walls and cling to the brother and sister's sizzling black skin, but at least these two kids weren't hopelessly wandering up and down the street. Pressing my forehead to the window, I strained to see beyond the light reflecting off their sweaty cheeks.
I fixed my eyes on the girl. She'd been trying to huddle up in the single inch of shade the scraggly tree nearby offered, but now she gave up. Sprawled across the rocky steps, she was perhaps too hot to notice the sharp edges biting into her bare legs. Darting my eyes to the boy, I saw that he was grasping a dusty glass of murky brown water. Watching him gulp it down, I felt my own throat, parched, asking for a cool rush of water, and oh man, I hope his drink tastes fresher than it looks...He gagged and dropped the glass down the steps, and a puddle of water and dust slowly inched its way across the cement. The boy and the girl just sat there.
I jerked my head from the window, suddenly remembering the entire bottle of Poland Spring I'd chugged down an hour ago at lunch. My throat cramped up, and thoughts frantically tore at my head as a sharp stinging pulled my eyes shut. Of course I knew big cities had poor neighborhoods, "bad" areas; I was almost sixteen–I was supposed to know all about "those less fortunate than us." But why didn't the boy have clear water to drink–and why didn't they have any shade to sit in, when the only reason they were sitting out there on 102 afternoon in the first place was because their room inside was hotter?
Remembering the mansions on Charles Street, only a ten-minute drive away, I saw evenly cut green lawns, and then I saw no grass at all. Look at you, I said to myself, You might've spent more on that one terrycloth t-shirt you're wearing today than that twenty-year-old woman has ever spent on her entire wardrobe. Prying my eyes open, I found myself face to face with the diamond-sapphire ring wrapped around my left pointer finger. It was the same ring I'd worn when I'd picked out the old clothes I was taking to donate to the salvation army, the same ring I'd worn when I'd sorted out cans of Progress at the church's annual food drive, and the same ring I'd worn that past Sunday when I'd kneeled in the pew and prayed "for the homeless and the hungry." Ashamed, disgusted, and confused at the thought of stained shirts, leftover food, and insincere prayers, I grabbed the air conditioner switch and shut it off.
Carefully watching me, Mom softly said, "I think that's enough–we'll visit Dad at work some other time," and we turned onto Charles Street and headed north, back to our apartment. As she placed one of her palms on top of my hand, I remembered what she'd once told me: "The worst part about life is that the more the ‘haves' have, the more the ‘have nots' have not." I guess that's why neither of us switched the air back on.
As we approached the entrance to the Broadview, I was ready to open the door, except that the doorman had already tripped across the floor to hold it open for us. His warm "How're y'all doing today?" echoed inside my chest. The elevator gently lifted us to our tenth floor room, and my eyes avoided the shiny metal buttons and smooth tiled floor, but all they could stare at, then, were the green marbled walls. Stumbling into my apartment room, I heard the soft lull of televisions and air conditioners, but they, too, seemed to echo inside my hollow body. I turned to the left and crept into my bedroom, and curled up on top of the bed that the cleaning lady must have made this morning. Clenching the thick comforter, I felt the sharp stinging in my eyes again and all I could wonder was...what if I had no bed at all?