Riding the train to the city I looked idly, almost blindly at the garbage that had collected at the side of the train track. Now that is something that you normally do not get to read in the tourist guides to New York and its vicinity.
As the train ran into Newark we passed a housing project that in 1972 was still fairly new and reeking of some warped idea about how people want to live. Even at 14 I wondered which architect had considered it likely that people would want to live stacked up by the dozen or that even if they wouldn’t choose to live like that but had no other choice than to accept it that at least this kind of home would allow them to still feel dignified and human.Passing the place by slowly rolling into the Newark I also routinely thought of the kids living there. Even back then I realized that their childhoods were eons away from my own – and yet neither they nor I had done anything to earn or deserve our respective places.
The people living in the project showed their disdain for their environment and the esteem they thought they were shown by that part of society that thought it convenient to stack them so they should not spread out so much by simply tossing out all of their garbage down from their balconies as if they were sailing on some ocean liner and were expecting to be separated from their litter by the sea-miles the boat would eventually put between them and their debris. Maybe they were right. As a matter of fact every couple of months the city of Newark sent up public works people to accomplish some provisionary clean-up. It would take the people living in the place but three days to reclaim the roof of the parking deck for the surreal landscape of garbage that would pile up like a contemporary piece of art. Every time I passed that particular project in the train from Summerville I marveled at the amount and variety of debris that the people had discarded like this. Toilet bowls, umbrellas, junk food containers, baby wipes, plastic bags filled with undisclosed content, baby carriages, lamps, pet cages, sofas, shoes, a broken guitar, a variety of clothing items including baseball caps. One jacket had caught on the fragile branches of a small wild tree that had dug its roots into the concrete and held on for dear life. Passing by that day I very much felt like that tree. The jacket kind of dressed it as a human and made it appear to be a malnourished yet utterly determined person. I liked the tree and hoped nobody would eventually label it as an overgrown weed and pull it out. I don’t even know whether the scrawny thing had any leaves in summer and yet it seemed to me a small encouraging sign that you can never bury the human spirit entirely under a heap of junk. I might have been sentimental but, for heaven’s sake, I was 14 and felt entitled a bit of sentimentality to endure the discovery of a less than perfect world that our parent generation had left us as our inheritance.