Thursday, October 20, 2005

Mr. Bruce

Compared to the leafy suburbs where most of my schoolmates lived, the street where I grew up was unglamourous. It was a bit like Sesame Street, minus the fantasy elements. We had a real mixed palate of people. Out of perhaps 25 houses, there were four Caucasian families (including us). Of the four corner houses, three were owned by African-Americans, and the fourth by Chinese immigrants whose daughters, at times, babysat my brother and I. Directly across the street, behind a brick wall that grew a layer every few years, lived Mr. Hutchinson and his family. If you took Archie Bunker, excised the bigotry, and inserted a community-minded heart, you’d have Mr. Hutchinson. One year, he blacktopped his entire backyard.

Next door we had the most valuable of city-kid real estate: a vacant lot. Everyone simply called it The Vacant Lot, the way New Yorkers refer to The Park. My brother and I played a lot of quasi-baseball there. The weeds grew high and we hid in them. There were chunks of crumbling concrete, from whatever structure had once been there, and we pulled those up to play “archeologist” or to use as projectiles. We didn’t grasp the concept of land ownership—who but kids would want The Vacant Lot, anyway? One day, though, grown-ups started excavating and the Lot turned into someone else’s house. I don’t believe there are any vacant lots in the neighborhood these days.

Further down the street lived all sorts of people—African immigrants, Asians, Middle Easterners. And somewhere across the street from The Vacant Lot lived Mr. Bruce. I don’t know where, exactly, Mr. Bruce resided— he spent all his time on the sidewalk. Nor do I know, to this day, whether Bruce was his first or last name. Visually, Mr. Bruce’s ethnic background was indeterminant. So far as we kids were concerned, he just fell into the class of people called “old”. My parents told me that Mr. Bruce was nearly a hundred years old, and that his parents had been slaves. These facts awed me equally. I often searched his face from across the street for evidence of African heritage, and for signs of some specific sort of suffering that I imagined the child of slaves would have. But all I could really see was oldness and skin so leathered and fatigued that any number of life stories could have hidden behind it. At times I imagined him, as a child, down in the dirt of some Reconstruction deep-southern sweet-potato sharecrop ex-plantation. At other times, it seemed more probably that he had been born right there on my street.

Mr. Bruce dressed in once-dapper clothes that now hung too loosely on a narrow frame. A faded pork-pie hat lived permanently on his head. He leaned heavily on a carved wooden cane, but managed to wield it more like a fashion accessory than a medical device. He shuffled up and down the sidewalk. Whenever my brother and I came in range, he would bellow something at us. I only remember hearing two words: “LITTLE BOY!”, he would woof. I’m sure he intended a friendly greeting, but the volume of voice from such an ancient man invariably frightened us, and we ran. Whatever words followed, hoarse, southern-drawled, and pursuing from behind, I’m not sure I ever distinguished. Brother and I likened his voice to the sound of sea lions at the New England Aquarium.

I’ve often wondered, in more recent years, what Mr. Bruce wanted to say to us. I’ve often wished I had been brave enough to listen. I wonder what he thought of me, and if anyone knows what became of him.

1 Comments:

Anonymous Turboglacier's mom said...

Whenever we came back from the park with you and Jake, Mr. Bruce would say, "You people really know how to live" (because Pop and I spent so much time with you two).

He also thought Grandma and Gramp were rich because every year they brought us a load of horse manure which I shared with him for his garden. He figured they owned stables.

12/23/05, 11:26 PM  

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