I saw her at the corner of Bliss Street and Greenpoint Avenue in Queens. She was in a hype, put down and out, raving. It is only because I have an obsessive compulsion for reading signage, large and small, that I was able to make sense of what she was seeking. I had caught sight of and mentally cataloged a discrete sign for a notary public on the glass window of a otherwise unspecific business. She was desperate for a piece of paper she'd left in a copier at "the notary." For each storefront she entered in search of said notary, a nervous shopkeeper pushed her back into the public domain of the sidewalk. They were guiltless immigrants, hard-pressed to understand most English, let alone the inflected rants and troubled lunacy of this seedy woman.
A sense of personal responsibility crept in as I took stock of this play's characters and their charitable deficit. I stopped to direct her to the correct shop, and in so saw her face fully. She was high, or mentally decimated by a cumulative life of high lows, eyes filled with oozing yellowish puss, sick in head and body. Relieved at the assistance, she unnecessarily elaborated her predicament to me: She had a client, who in order to receive tax deductions for services rendered, required a notarized invoice. I struggled to make any sense of this. The only indication of her profession (aside from her unsavory decorum) was her constant reference to her client as "this john i got." No pretense, no hiding in the broad daylight, just an unapologetic, half-insane, half-financially-rational neighborhood prostitute going through extraordinary motions to satisfy her clientele down to the tax benefit. She was right grateful, finally retrieving the lost document from the shop that indiscriminately housed a notary and a copy machine.
I thought about how the world must look to her: each shop the same as the next, no identifying features that would permit her to return to the place she had left, by her own admission, just moments before the escalating sidewalk crisis. Deteriorated memory and senses contributing to a funneling hole of disorientation. The puss in her eyes, obscuring sight for pure bacterial sport; her life had long since made clarity obsolete. How out of place she was on this block filled with families, in the daylight, rendering sexual services disguised by notarization as legitimate business expenses. And the more thought I devoted to it, there was really something to be said for how easily sex work fit into the tax category of "meals and entertainment." I gave as much thought to it as there was walk back to my apartment, and filed the whole incident away, along with all the other strange things I've seen.
a church sign in rural PA
As memories go, it was undisturbed for some time, resurfacing a couple years later, in a strangely opposite landscape. Out of the city, in the rural backlands of Pennsylvania, where Lover and I would often visit to hunt for vintage, antiques, and fresh farm food. Where we had concocted a satisfying ritual of attending a particularly elaborate Mennonite-run buffet called Shady Maple. We left one such meal in an over-stuffed haze, still buzzing from the spoils of our hunt. On the stretch of road leaving the mega-restaurant, rows of cornfields, and in the far of center of the vast fields, a lone tree, growing so decisively in a westerly direction that I became a little obsessed over it during the span of our many journeys here. Often asking Lover to pull over so I could photograph it against a new sky. Often soliloquizing how this was definitely not a morning tree, that it favored the afternoon, the sunset over the sunrise. How did it even come to grow there, why was it left to grow there, so crooked, alone and misplaced?
We pulled off to a farm-stand, an afterthought to procure some freshly picked fruit before returning to Philadelphia. I got out of the car, while Lover stayed in. I approached the stand, attended by a lone man, his face darkened to a mere shape by the afternoon sun burning behind him. On task and fully focused on fruit, my city habit carelessly forgot to make use of country niceties and automatically inquired the price of the blueberries as the man surreptitiously greeted me. The instant guilt of failing to observe a customary greeting made me up look to his face for forgiveness. To regain my ground as a kind person, not callously interested in a mere transaction, but mindfully engaged human interaction. Reminded that his interaction was relatively limited on this bare stretch of road, in this land of closed communities. Where the thrift stores we pillaged were often occupied by families of Amish and Mennonite children that escaped the heat outside to pour over foreboden books, inspecting a haphazard cache of technology and casual commodities for which they lacked permission to incorporate into their lives.
I can follow the path of my gaze in this moment with microscopic detail because it is now etched into my fundamental understanding of the world and its contents. It moved up from the fruit to his hands, which were the first thing to unsettle me. His fingernails were long, curled over and nearly into his flesh, positively stuffed with dirt. As if he had never washed his hands in all his life. Or had decided washing was an superfluous exercise given his hands were more or less perpetually submersed in earth and fertilizer. His hands were rough, thick, dirty: farmer's hands. Stocky build, worn and worn out clothing: the more utilitarian pieces of the Amish uniform. His face reflected the vague disorder of inbreeding, come off the genetic assembly line wrong, suggesting a simplicity of mind. As my eyes adjusted to the shade of the stand, I came to see his eyes. They were filled with oozing yellow puss.
My kneejerk guilt from the haste-made rudeness was now tempered by the discovery of his apparent abnormality. His eyes cast down in disapproval that the first words out of my mouth were essentially, "how much?" I had outed myself as locally-bemoaned cityfolk. I was now repentantly captive to the exchange. I said a proper hello, asked about his day, beamed as big a smile as I could conjure. The same smile that has breezed me through countless similar scenarios. He softened his judgements and began to question me in a vein of usual small talk. He spoke very slow. Where do you live? He wanted to know about the boy in the car, I told him we were a couple. He asked if we were married. Not quite, I answered. Where does he live? We live together. How old are you? When will you be married? At this, discomfort sunk deeper, I sensed a sermon was brewing. He picked up the carton of blueberries with his foul bare hands and dumped them into a paper bag before passing them to me. Then he asked, with a new, darker tone, "D'ya let him do things to you?"
I fumbled out an, "excuse me?" which was equal parts shock and confusion. It all cracked open in a way I'm sure makes irises dilate. You feel it in your stomach. The new truth aches and when you know, you know it so fast. He repeated himself, and took breath to elaborate--but I turned and ran to the car, opened the door and loaded myself in, screaming at Lover to drive as fast as possible away from this newly horrible place. When we were sufficiently far enough away, my nerves begged Lover to pull over again, so that I could trash the blueberries. I could not even stand to have them in the car with us. They were poisonous. Everything that grew here, suddenly and absolutely, was poisoned.
Hard to encapsulate the glimpse of true sickness and abuse that this man had presented in our short exchange, but it was thick. It was the black dirty soul of this whole repressed sect. This humble community sustained itself, asked for not, offering salvation to members who were able to compress their humanity into the confines of its doctrine. Only, the excepted behavior was not absent but made to spill out the seams under an immense, inescapable pressure. Dirt caked under the fingernail, puss out the corners of eyes. The secret of the whole thing revealed itself in a subtle shift in tone, a choice string of words. Even the tree was in on it, in spite of nature grown toward the encroaching darkness and not the sustaining light.