Sixteen or so of us adult students (don’t you just love that term, like it’s important to indicate we aren’t teenagers) are given the assignment to “go to the park”. The instructor has a philosophy to use whatever comes your way and that class trips give us a common experience we can use to share our views of the world; we’ll have 16 sets of senses and come away with at least 16 sets of different views, different levels (from world to grain of sand), and different stories captured that reflect who we were when we made this trip to the park. So we gather up our notebooks and pens, coats and backpacks and dutifully head to our first outing.
My walk starts off with a lot of “background” processing in my head: What does the teacher expect? Will I be good enough? Will I be embarrassed? Will people roll their eyes when they hear what I’ve written? Can I get kicked out of class just from not being observant enough? How the heck could I get kicked back to “Observance 101”? Is there such a class? And where is this park and how do I get there? True embarrassment would be to get lost in the first class getting to the park across the street; so much for common experience although it could be a funny story. Maybe. Ah, I feel better. I at least see other classmates and can follow their lead, as long as I keep them in sight. One crisis down….
I push through the glass doors of the school and start my adventure. I walk past the Pink Elephant car wash. I love this place and I smile every time I see it; it’s so commercial and urban and sixties. It’s my landmark and I know I’m at school when I see the Pink Elephant car wash sign. I wonder why they named it that – the sense of humor or personal experience that launched the Pink Elephant car wash business. There’s a story there, I’m sure. The huge pink sign should spin, but doesn’t, and probably hasn’t for years. The neon all lights up and the blue water blinks to show water flowing, it’s tricky to show flowing water in neon, but they’ve tried and I know what it is. A white conservative car rolls to the end of the car wash tunnel. The headlights flick on and the car wash blower starts up to blow the water off, erasing any other noise I might have heard. Pacing the sidewalk, there is a well dressed man, in his white shirt and professional suit, talking on his cell phone. Business doesn’t stop and he takes every advantage to conduct business or maybe he’s making evening plans, pacing outside the car wash, while other people work to make his car acceptable and ready for the business world.
I arrive at the corner, where I hope to heaven someone has pushed the walk button, trying not to show that I’m out of shape and so I stand a bit taller. Another student arrives and they just mash the button. We wait. The walk light blinks on; I look both ways and then walk between the crosswalk lines. At last, I arrive at an entrance to the park. The hydrangeas are beautiful, shade of blues: bright, power, country, and some with touches of pinks and violets. One is shorter than its seven foot brethren and it’s a cross between burgundy and country rose. They are all shaded by the tall evergreens.
I head for the bench across the center. The benches are all rough grey wood, clearly sitting the in the sun, wind, and rain for time. The first bench I chose had a very happy bird there fairly recently and I don’t necessarily want to experience bird poo on my pants, so I go to the next bench. No happy bird has been here and I sit, pulling out my notebook and pen and start to take notes.
There’s a man, sleeping with his arms crossed, lying on the bench across from me. He has dirty jeans, a dark plaid shirt, and a bright blue jacket covering his forehead and eyes to block out the muted sun. Class mates have positioned themselves at various benches around the center or down the sidewalk spokes a bit. I look at them and they are either writing feverishly, observing, or staring into space. Of course, we all look the same and they could say the same thing about me. I feel a small laugh inside. I’m sure the “park usuals” have stories to tell and laugh at us being so serious, with notebooks balanced on our laps. We’ll be a mention at the dinner table or cell phone call later. “I saw the weirdest thing coming home; a bunch of people sitting in the park writing” before they move on to more important topics like work or after dinner plans or gossip.
I pause to listen for sounds. Now that I’m away from the car wash, I can hear the whine of an airplane in the background. A car horn honks, faintly, so it’s clearly a distance away. One bird chips over behind me on the right and then several start up, over on my left. Some cart squeals behind the bushes away from me; I turn around to try to see what is causes the “nails on blackboard” screech but it’s too far behind the bushes and I can’t see it. Whew, at last, that stops. Truck gears engage and clank and I can see in my head a puff of grey smoke coming out of the tailpipe. I’m studying my notebook and don’t look up to see who belongs to the steady and regular sound of flip-flops walking past, other than they belong to someone with a white skirt. An old bike rattles by.
Friends (or at least fellow-smokers) from class greet each other and move over to the same bench, next to the sleeping on the bench. They each light up a cigarette. The man on the bench is now sitting up. He looks around and gathers up his blue coat and walks along the sidewalk spoke near the next of my bench. I wonder what he thinks of all these notebooks and looks and people writing. I think if I were him, I would have moved too, for fear of being studied and documented and part of some “urban survey”. I watch the “regulars” walking home, every night they go through this park; what a sight the group of us must be. I’m sure they are making up their own stories about why we’re there and what we see.
The air is still, but every now and then a small breeze flutters the leaf tips and then all is still again. There’s not enough wind to move the dried brown maple leaf on the ground near my bench. The grey blotchy clouds are still above. The block the sun and there are no sharp, severe shadows. All is muted and blend to dark under the larger trees and bushes.
A bird flutters down, I could hear his wings as he fluttered past, and lands at my feet. He looks up, surprised to see me, and quickly flutters away. A class mate walks by, looking at the dried flowers that were struggling in the garden next to my bench. She sits down, wriggle her feet, and picks up her notebook, reviewing what she’s written so far. There’s a small tickle in her throat and she coughs, and then clicks her pen. She writes a word or two and flips her book shut and moves on.
The cars are all lined up the street, waiting for the light to change to let them move forward. They roll slowly up the slight incline and go out of sight behind the bushes and trees, to be replaced with a similar set of cars, now waiting their turn to move. The greys and blacks and tans, all still, until they too are released, to be replaced again.
The garden mount in the center is lined by a cement curb. The one plant has three foot stalks with pink flowers on the tips. There are a couple of “wider than tall” bushes and a rusted five foot pole in the center that had some purpose at one time, but has been forgotten and now just stands in the dust. There are a few low grey rocks, and clover and grasses, clearly there by willpower and not planning, covering some of the grey-brown dry dirt. It wouldn’t take much, a few hours and $30 in plants to make this a colorful, inviting spot to just sit and soak up the sun and nature. Now, it’s just a place to pass on your way to someplace else, except for us writers.
A float plane flies over, loud enough to make me look up away from my notebook and watch. A tiny white piece of what I like to think is a speak of lint floats down and lands on my black pants. A couple of class mates chat and laugh, clearly sharing a common moment and they are getting restless. They have had enough of the “Observe the Park” adventure and are ready to move to someplace else. The cars waiting for the light have been replaced by a green and yellow bus with amber letters. And the English sparrow that was picking up pits of brown has been replaced by a pigeon, head bobbing picking over the same bits left by the sparrow.
It’s time to head back to the class room, to compare and share what we’ve seen. We’ve gathered up our belongings and troop back across the street, past the five tan plastic chairs outside the car wash. No cars there now, and no suited man pacing the sidewalk. The pink sign still doesn’t spin and it’s a lonely place without people and cars. I’ve done my observing and am pretty convinced that I won’t get kicked back to “Introduction to Observation”. Now, will what I see actually be interesting? And how would I tell some profound story from my walk? It’s always going to be something, some concern, some “oh, what about this?” line of thought that brings out the critic. That’s another story for another time; for now, my notes are captured and my senses are aware. That’s good enough for this adventure and I can close my notebook with a bit sense of satisfaction.