So often, know it or not, we are looking for seams in the propertized world—ideally south-facing, to sit down and stretch out, listen to birds, write a few sentences.
W was walking to the store to get some groceries, looking for a warm nook to sit in, a place I might scoop up some sun, wake up my sleepy melanin, which is not the easiest thing to do in this town. I don’t mean unhibernating my melanin, I mean finding the public place in which to do so, which in plenty of other places are in abundance. But in these parts, it’s slim pickings. “These parts” is a geographical project above my pay grade (I loathelove that stupid, meaningfully meaningless phrase), but I do wonder about how regions, and the people who people them, do (or not) common places. One meager, possibly dingbat, and kind of counterintuitive theory is that if a region is less populated there will be less public space, and perhaps more private. Another has to do with money—counterintuitive again, but so proven as to be obvious: the more money, the more richness, the less public space, i.e., the more likely you are to be trespassing. Another has to do with when and from where the most recent settlers arrived. Another, ancillary to the previous, is how mixed—religion, ethnicity, etc.—the area is. Climate matters, too, I bet. Obviously, this is another book—The Book of Public Space—and it ought to have beautiful colorful and somewhat lyrical graphs like the ones in W. E. B. Du Bois’s Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America.
Long story short: there’s no pocket parks here, so I find myself looking for seams in the propertized world—so often, know it or not, we are looking for seams in the propertized world—ideally south-facing, to sit down and stretch out, listen to birds, write a few sentences. Rub that sun all over my body, as Richard Pryor as Mudbone I think put it. The seams take different forms for me: an alley, a milk crate behind a convenience store, a low wall in the cemetery. But today it’s a church. In fact, it’s a church I have frequented, not for the eucharist inside, but for the one that comes in June from the two cherry trees, one tart and one sweet, out front. My friend Chris showed them to me. Baptized me I guess, for they were the first cherry trees I’d ever harvested from. I was inside this church once, too, invited to a day of shape note singing, which I cannot really explain aside from saying it is old-timey, gothic, and punk-rock Holy Roller-y all at once, and if there was a little less burning in hell, which took a sec to detect given how otherworldly the choiring, Stephanie and I might’ve stayed longer than ten minutes.
On the side of that church is a staircase going to a double door. And though staircases make excellent pocket parks, it is also the case that they often lead to someone’s home or business—someone’s property. Which is to say, they are excellent though temporary pocket parks. But a church is different. Or it ought to be anyway. A church, belonging to God, who is everywhere and everything, kind of belongs to everyone. Seems to me, anyway. And if you get kicked off the steps of a church, well goddamn—we better turn that church into a library or basketball court or something.
Anyhow, this is a good godly spot: full sun, comfortable stairs, and across the alley is a lilac bush blooming against a house the color blue that makes me want to congratulate and thank whoever lives there. From this tucked-away staircase you can see the passersby, and the passersby can see you, if they look, which, being in a pocket, they mostly don’t. But one person did, and she smiled a little bit and waved.
Ross Gay is the New York Times bestselling author of the essay collections The Book of DelightsandInciting Joyand four books of poetry. His Catalog of Unabashed Gratitudewon the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, and was a finalist for the National Book Award; and Be Holdingwon the 2021 PEN America Jean Stein Book Award. Gay is a founding board member of the Bloomington Community Orchard, a nonprofit, free-fruit-for-all food justice and joy project and has received fellowships from Cave Canem, the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, and the Guggenheim Foundation. He teaches at Indiana University.