Clothes to Grow Into

I memorized all English-language warnings before I left. Keep your important documents in a money belt close to your body. Bring change so you don’t have to pull out a large bill. Don’t wear jewelry or nice clothing. Carry your backpack on the front of your body so it cannot get yanked or cut away. Never walk alone. Don’t hang your camera around your neck. Never leave your hotel at night. Yet, there I was, in a town square, snapping pictures of a church when I realized I had lost my friends. I was alone in a strange and dangerous city.

I sat down on a bench hoping they would find me if I just didn’t move. Despite my dirty-hostel-staying hair and complete lack of jewelry, I was approached by everyone: the lady with the watermelon slices she carried on top of her head, the man with heavy blankets draped over his arms and his shoulders, the guy pushing a homemade, rather broken cart full of candy, the woman with an overflowing handful of plastic bags filled with juice. And I rigidly refused each of them, covering my money belt and hiding my camera (in an inconspicuous plastic bag.)

A young boy approaches me and asks me what I am doing. I guess he’s about eight years old wearing clothes he can grow into. I tell him that I lost my friends. “They will come back for you,” he assures me. “Don’t be scared.” Its adorable, his concern for me. I’m surprised that he can read my fear. My pale skin and weird hair did not frighten him away and this immediately puts me at ease.  But then he asks if he can shine my shoes.

“No,” I say, trying to smile, “These are sandals. You can’t shine sandals.” I wanted him to go away, but I wanted him to stay. I wished he was just a kid. I could not, with any sense of justice, let this child shine my shoes. “You will see”, he says, “I will make them beautiful. Please.”

My heart became lead when I handed him that filthy sandal.

But then I thought of the many times when I, as a kid, would earn a quarter and run with joy to the store around the corner to buy some candy, remembering how it felt to skip back to my street with a little brown bag stuffed full of glorious, sweet, colorful sugar. While he scuffs and wipes, I try my best to talk to him about kid stuff in broken Spanish. He kindly corrects my words without judgment, like no adult ever could.

Another younger boy comes over, his brother. He seems shy or suspicious of me and sits a safe distance away, sneaking glances in my direction, but never making direct eye contact. I don’t blame him; I don’t look like anyone else around here. How old is your little brother? “No sé”; I don’t know. Well, how old are you? “No sé.” When is your birthday? “No sé”, he shrugs casually.

My friends find me and the boy is genuinely as happy about this as I am. Even the tiny one lets out a sly half-smile. We pour coins into their hands, more than the cost, but much less than we could spare. And we ask, “What are you going to buy?” He looked up, smiling huge, the way I must have smiled on my way to the candy store with a quarter, and he replied, “I’m going to get shoes someday”. My eyes dropped and for the first time I noticed his bare feet. And my head just remained fixed in that downward position. He did not ask to shine anymore of our shoes and he just walked away across the hot cement with his wooden kit in his hand and his silent little brother a few paces behind.

I realized then that all the fear-inspiring travel warnings I had been adhering to had ironically been what robbed me.   Holding on so tightly to what I possessed, I missed the chance to appreciate what I had, what I had to share, and what I had to learn. This little man showed more compassion and humanity to me than I had offered anyone that day. That shoeless boy with no birthday changed my life.

Monet Waits

He was Italian, she Slovakian. Stuffed backpacks sit on the ground beside them. I see the guidebook. The entire US of A squished onto the pages of a book the size of a brick. I have held so many of them in my hands, but never, not once, was it my country.   I’m shamefully over-excited by them, or more accurately, by that brick-book they have. They hand it to me and I eagerly flip to the page where My City will be rightfully glorified in words.

“Halfway between Syracuse and Buffalo,” it reads, “sits Rochester, NY.” Then, to put it mildly, it tells you to continue on your merry way because everything worthy of seeing is certainly not here.   I’m hurt.

I’ve quit my job to travel nine times.   But I always return home, to this not-even-a-paragraph-worthy-city in the US.   Travel is always an unleashing of sorts. It is not intended to do this, but then we are there and it happens and we return. We leave for a month and we have been away for decades. And everyone else is still, still pushing something heavy up a hill. Only in coming home do we realize the depth of the journey.

“Go to the museum, go to the steakhouse”, I robotically direct the European duo. It’s a pathetic, soul-less suggestion, and I know it. My city has flesh and I had handed them bones. I want to take it back. I want to re-write that sentence in the book.

My hotel is clean and crisp and immediately I itch to get out of there. Dutifully, as a “tourist”, I head to the museum. Yes, to the one I sent Mr. Italy and Miss Slovakia to, but had never once set foot in. I’m one block away from Monet, next to the railroad-track-dump when I see it, a portrait of feet on the side of a building. It is just two feet, but precisely and intensely a person; going somewhere. It startles me.   I get lost in the immobility of it, the story of it.   There’s a fleeing in them. There’s also a freedom. Then I continue walking, right past the museum.

He’s short, stocky, bald, and smiling and he’s waiting for the same bus as I am. I point over to the feet that blew my mind and he says, “Well, our pockets is ripped out, but we still have hands, right?” He was a Rochestarian, I knew by his ‘a’s. We draw the sound out of our ‘a’’s with a whiny long swagger. The statistics say my city is poorer than I. This frightens me in the way that my mom must have felt when I travelled alone far away. But I was never hurt, bothered, or even cursed in those muggy cities.   I walked next to them and they walked next to me.   But my pockets are still firmly intact. “We still have hayaands”, he said. We have hope and strength beyond substance. I smiled tightly and slowly nodded sideways like a “no”, which is to say, “ain’t that the truth, though, ain’t that the truth?”

I don’t get on the bus.   I just keep walking. I continue past the cascading river and duck in to grab a local blue collar beer. It’s cold and bubbly and tastes like beer, so I have another. There’s a crowd here, listening to music on a Tuesday night. “Roch-ster” people that all seem to want some meatloaf, some spicy hot sauce poured on sausages, and some cold, unpretentious beer. The band plays jazz. These are men with last names like Hochstein, O’Malley, Douglass, and Gonzales. These are men whose great-grandfathers built the railroad and the canal, men with day jobs and neckties, men whose kids draw murals of feet on hidden buildings.

The beat gets stuck in my mind and it becomes my eye-opening soundtrack back to the hotel. Past the old subway stop, past the immense library, past the community garden my mom helped plant, past the mansions and the slums, past all the things I used to just drive by. The bravest thing we can do is to re-examine who we are and where we are and why. Sometimes it takes distance to accomplish this. Sometimes it does not.

I collapse in my foreign bed in my cozy hometown and I have a journal that seems too small to hold all my words. Right here, halfway between Syracuse and Buffalo, in the enchanted land of graffiti-meatloaf-jazz, some flesh got on some bones. I dissolve into my dreams. And a decade passes.

About the Author: Tina Murty is a waitress who saves all her money to travel and never wants to retire. Her journals are her most prized, but most easily burned, possession.

(This story was my first submission ever to a writing contest and won First Place.  http://wesaidgotravel.com/winners-independence-writing-contest-2014/ )