I admire their consistency, and they like my eyes.
The corner guys at 174th always watched my car while I ran upstairs for my wallet that I’d left on windowsill.
They chased down the 12-year-old boy who had stolen my bike and painted it white. When we moved, they helped us load the truck, gave me a light hug goodbye and my husband daps and fists. I tried to steal the basketball they always dribbled one last time. I missed.
The Inwood corner guys had folding chairs, but most of them would still stand. They wore nice heavy necklaces and I wondered how their shoes stayed so white. Mine always got brown and scuffed from my bad habit of resting one foot atop the other.
The thing about the corner guys, I always needed them more than they needed me.
When I had my first baby, I got this awful fucking umbrella stroller that always got stuck open and closed even though it had the best reviews and was like $200. When I walked around Buy Buy Baby with that registry scanner gun, it had careened around the linoleum floors like a Volvo, but alas, my own left me stuck, baby gripped in one arm as she pulled out my hair with her tiny frog palms, and I couldn’t even yell OW as I fiddled with a green fancy stroller that wouldn’t shake open no matter what. Thank god for the guys on that Inwood corner or I would have had to put my new baby down to crawl away on the cigarette butt and gum-stained concrete into Dongan place. Sometimes, they would open and click the stroller for me, other times they would grab the baby and Goo and Ga at her while I clicked it myself. She never tried to grab their hair, she only smiled and looked at their spikey five o’ clock shadows and their bark-colored eyes like they were a semicircle of Gods.
The guys on the corner always saw me struggle before I saw me struggle. They had probably even warned me not to get all mixed up in this damn mess of motherhood to begin with, probably sucked on their blunt and shook their head during one of our late night talks and really meant, girl, wait until you have that baby, you will lose yourself and everything you ever dreamed of, you will see what kind of impatient, unable to unfold a stroller dipshit you really are. They probably even warned me that holding on to that stroller would make me forget what it felt like to need to hold my husband’s hand. But the next thing you know, I was shaking the ribbons of black and white film in their faces and pointing to the little sacs or peanut outlines and telling them no more Percosets for me. Oh, that’s a girl, the guys on the corner told me, before my doctor did, Trust me that’s what my Abigail looked like, that ain’t no boy.
And then, when I sat on the front step crying into my belly that afternoon after the ultrasound tech told me something about club foot and Trisomy and other things I was scared to type into an internet search: Don’t worry she’s gonna be fine, they told me, one of them waving the other’s smoke from my head. Them doctors always be saying shit, but it’s gonna be alright.
Just watch mama, the guys told me, she’ll be here soon enough, and she gonna have your eyes.
These days, I don’t live near any guys on the corner. I moved away as my daughters grew and now there are only trees on corners and older people with little white dogs who aren’t as nice to my children or me. Some streets don’t have sidewalks at all. I miss them, the sidewalks, but mostly the guys. There’s a group of them in the next town over that I pass on Coyle Place when I drive to yoga on early mornings and the streetlights still shine on styrofoam containers spilling out on the road. Maybe I’m getting older, because they are starting to look less like guys, and more like tall skinny-legged boys. Sometimes they pull a big, industrial-sized trash can and lean it up on the fence next to where they stand, and I appreciate their commitment to keeping the streets clean. After it rains, their umbrella that they’ve somehow attached to the side of the brick building stays up for a couple of days.
There’s a strange house on the bottom of the street where the Coyle Place corner guys stand that has different color towels hanging as drapes in each window, and for the longest it had a big bare mattress propped up and leaning over the fence out front. Some days it looked like a full size, some days it looked like a queen.
But then one day the mattress was gone, so I slowed. In its place was an empty litter box, the kind with the cover on it, and it looked like it was holding a coat inside. I almost pulled over to snap a picture, but for the first time, I was scared about the guys on the corner, what would they think if they saw me pulled over, snapping pictures of a house that may have belonged to someone who knew someone who knew them? I knew that all guys on every corner in my life have always trusted me, and I didn’t want to let them down. So I peeled off and then I sat at the stoplight by their usual post, but that day, they weren’t there.
Waiting for the red to change, I felt myself leaving too. What I think I’m saying is that I’m pretty sure I’m getting older and becoming less appealing to guys on corners or just maybe a little more invisible like women always become, although green eyes stay green even as we age.
In my yoga class, my teacher gave us this big meditative talk, and I usually hate meditative talks, because I come to yoga to sweat and stretch and blast my heart into heavy beats while judging my neighbor’s toes and punishing my body so it can feel some type of pain and then relief and maybe change. But on this day my teacher talked about knowing where we stand. When you know where you stand, she said, it makes so much room. I tried to clear my head but all I could picture were all the guys on every corner, the way they always stood. Same spot, swaying, hands in pockets or not, but feet planted, upright. All my life, I’ve been running, tricking myself into believing that we arrived in places in relation to one another, that being somewhere could make you ahead of someone else. But you could see all that beautiful room those corner guys made, nodding their chins up and waving to me, standing there.
Emily James is a teacher and writer in NYC. Her recent work can be found in Guernica, River Teeth, CHEAP POP, Pithead Chapel, Pidgeonholes, Hippocampus, the Atticus Review, The Rumpus, JMWW Journal, among others. She is the recipient of the 2019 Bechtel Prize from Teachers and Writers’ Magazine. You can find her online at www.emilysarahjames.com and tweet her @missg3rd.
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