“Hey mister, ya’ talkin’ to the squirrels?”
Having had children, and now with grandchildren, E. George Smith is no stranger to interruptions which crash against his thoughts, but this intrusion jolts him. He, ungracefully and with some neck pain, swivels his head leftward to discover the source of these words.
He sees a child, a boy in dirty clothes, his dark skin revealing the lighter-colored dust on him, body and limbs moving in loose concert, on the grass near where George sits on a bench. Did I speak aloud?
“What’s a list?”
Yes, I must have spoken aloud. George watches the boy shoving a stick in and around a hole in the grass.
“Yes. A list,” he says to the boy and, as he likes to give straight answers to straight questions, he adds, “a list is writing on a piece of paper of all the things one should do.”
There, a straight answer a boy can understand.
“Who says you have to do ‘em?” the boy responds, while shoving gravel from the nearby path into the hole, his hands and limbs raising a cloud of dust that seem like the boy’s natural aura.
“Well, when I make my list, it is I, me, who says I have to do ‘em.”
After a few moments the boy pauses in his work. “I have a list but it’s too big to write and anyway I don’t write real good yet.”
Without preparing his words in advance (which is his usual way) George says “I used to write my list but then I could remember everything on it well enough, and anyway I don’t have a list anymore. No.”
“No” is a word George has avoided using in his life and, that he has now used it jolts him.
Then it is as if a dam has burst inside of George. Several great drops of water form and slowly fall from his eyes as he inclines his head forward and downward toward the gravel path. His head is directed somewhat away from the boy who lies prone on the grass at the edge of the path near where George sits on the wooden bench.
George’s body doesn’t move. Both he and the boy consider this surprising event while more tears fall heavily from George’s eyes. He visualizes a sheet of yellow notepaper bearing the word “list,” slowly dissolving in his mental image.
This is an extraordinary event for E. George Smith, both in meeting the boy and in weeping, even for a precious lost list. He could not have anticipated such an occurrence as he begins this first day of his retirement.
George Smith prefers his middle name to that of his first given name, Ebenezer, the “stone of help” in the Old Testament book of Samuel.
George lives austerely compared to his friends and associates. This is not to say he isn’t comfortable. He is wealthy beyond need by virtue of his ancestral inheritance which he has prudently and profitably husbanded, and which he has augmented through his own labor.
George and his wife Marilyn have fewer objects of the type that others in their San Francisco enclave have in the public areas of their homes. Marilyn happily subordinates herself to George’s taste for decorating their large, two-story apartment in Seacliff, so she can think about and do other things. George does not like clutter.
George is a rather large fellow, standing at no less than six feet with excellent posture, with firm, stout, arms, legs, and middle. He likes to be able to move his body and extremities around the apartment without worrying about knocking things around. He likes space.
But there are certain things he treasures and makes room for in his private areas. These are from his family’s past. George is the great-great grandson of Luke Smith (1826-1900) who emigrated to California from upstate New York in 1851 to set up a business serving the Gold Rush— hardware and machinery and, later, clothing. Success in these businesses eventually led the family to real estate and banking. So, George has placed, where Marilyn will least likely have to encounter them, several pieces: a gold pan, a rusty section of plume from a placer mine, the handle of a windlass from a mine shaft, and several more. On George’s home office wall hangs a faded and valueless stock certificate for shares in “The Lucille Gold Mining Company Limited” of Amador County, California, named after George’s great-aunt.
These all remind George of his family’s humble, hard-working and sometimes precarious origins, reminders he welcomes to keep him in balance with the weight of his wealth and social position in San Francisco.
There is one thing, however, that George cannot resist placing obviously in a visitor’s field of vision upon entering the apartment: a very ugly painting of great-great-grandfather Luke Smith, in a French Empire style frame and illuminated by lamps at top and bottom. It’s the only cross that Marilyn has to bear for George, so she constantly reminds herself to count it as a blessing.
Now on this beautiful day in autumn, E. George Smith had begun his new life by preparing to take a walk in the park of his childhood.
George and Marilyn live north of the park, near the cliff overlooking the ocean side of the Golden Gate and its famous bridge. Seacliff is an area where mansions on small and carefully manicured grounds are sometimes squeezed between tall, immaculate apartment buildings. George, having been a very busy man in his employed life, has always preferred to live in an apartment to minimize his household responsibilities.
Marilyn is from the same solid group of San Franciscans whose ancestors came from the east during and shortly after the Gold Rush of the 1840s and ‘50s. Their children, and George’s children from a previous marriage, are adults, some with their own children. George and Marilyn have retained their large apartment so that all their descendants, and their friends, may comfortably visit them upon a whim.
So, here is George, his long years of schooling and employment having ended, starting the traditional golden years of his leisure, contemplation and enjoyment of the family he helped to create along his life’s way. Yes.
George has been, from his beginning, a positive sort of fellow. He developed the habit of saying “yes” often, to himself and sometimes out loud. It is one of his harmless, some say charming, peculiarities that have buoyed him through the difficulties a d challenges of life. He feels fortunate in that he has had to face fewer challenges than most people by virtue of his family’s social and economic position upon his birth. He often includes this when he counts his blessings, another of his harmless, even admirable, peculiarities.
Yet another of George’s peculiarities is his “list”. From his earliest student days George has maintained a list of things to do on a yellow eight by five notepad. The one remaining item on his list at the beginning of this day is to visit Golden Gate Park. He sees nothing beyond this, and purposefully so. He feels the park will somehow show him what to do next.
Throughout his life he has harked back to his boyhood and the wonderful family times, picnicking on the grass near the stands of lordly oaks, tall conifers, and the grand, gently drooping eucalyptus branches. He has memories, even has had dreams, of searching for tree cones and eucalyptus acorns, and other adventures in the thick underbrush at the borders of the rolling lawns and meadows.
Walking is George’s favorite exercise. He doesn’t like to carry things, especially not golf clubs and fishing equipment. He likes to be free to move in any direction. This allows him the feeling, seldom realized but nonetheless satisfying, of being on the verge of an adventure that has an unknown outcome, so unlike his workaday life.
Marilyn has heard stories from her friends about the problems they have had with their “retired” men, but she feels no concern for herself or George because he always has his list of things to do. She accepts George just as he appears to be— positive, solid man, methodical but not stuffy, loving and friendly to his family and others.
“Still plan to take that walk in the park, E.G.?” She pronounces it “eejee,” her pet name for him, one he has never cared much for but doesn’t complain about. After all, it is such a small thing and it pleases her.
“Well, dinner will be at around seven o’clock. It’s just us.”
“I’ll be here.”
Having this validated by George, Marilyn goes about planning events and corresponding with family and friends, her usual activities in their large apartment, while George prepares a light lunch for himself.
Upon cleaning up after his meal and dressing suitably, E. George Smith leaves his home in the early afternoon on the first Monday of his new life and walks briskly toward the tall, un-gated columns at Lake Street that signal the portal to his neighborhood.
He continues south on 25th avenue, crossing streets and avenues with names that George has always felt as childhood friends: California, Clement, Geary, then the alphabetical Anza, Balboa and Cabrillo, which on the south side of the park continue faithfully from Irving through Wawona.
George begins to feel quite light around the shoulders and bouncy in his step. My new life. I am prepared for the unexpected.
George reaches Fulton, the long avenue defining the north border of the Park. He strides with a rising sense of purpose across the avenue. What new things will I put on my list?
He feels immediately at home upon entering the park, the menthol odor of the eucalyptus trees welcoming him. He espies the tree’s familiar round-capped seed pods on the ground and stoops to pick one up. He breaks it open to expose the still unripe seeds to smell the essence of the tree even more fully.
He wanders until he reached a curving, gravel path that brings him
to a familiar clearing with benches arrayed along the border of the grass and gravel. He sits on a bench with the sun behind him, facing a great live oak. He rests for a while, feeling his heart racing a bit from the walk and from his still unrealized sense of purpose. As his body’s rhythms slows, thoughts begin to form. What am I to do with the rest of my life? This he silently addresses to the newly cut grass, standing at attention on the other side of the gravel path. As usual when he is uncertain about a next move, he recites his blessings, a long list.
Then George moves on to the next item on his perennial agenda: his list of things to do. He reminds himself that having reached the park he has just completed his list of things to do. I am list-less, he thinks, with a sense of self-mockery at the unintended pun.
So here I sit, in this pleasant familiar park, wondering what to do next.
“I have no list”, he says toward the squirrels scrambling in the great oak tree above the attentive grass across the gravel path from the wooden bench on which he sits, comfortably clothed.
George’s tears form and drop for an unknown time until he sucks in a volume of air sufficient to cause his body to straighten, perpendicular to the grass and the gravel path. The boy’s body and limbs are still as he watches George closely. Eventually George turns his head again to his left.
“What’s your name, young man?” asks George, consciously using a diversionary tactic to distract the boy and to compose himself.
“Harry. What’s yours?”
“Harry. Yes. A good strong, manly name,” George says to the boy. “My name is George.”
They both consider each other’s names for several moments.
George’s eyes no longer leak, and he is still sitting straight, but now he feels unusually peaceful and relaxed. Yes.
“Uh, are you OK George?” the boy asks in a manner that seems to George to contain an unexpected degree of sensitivity.
“Yes, Harry. I feel quite good, actually.”
George looks again at Harry. Except that he is seemingly bright and appears in good health, the boy looks like a ragamuffin. What an old word. The boy would not know the word. The word no longer exists. He speaks with a musical lilt. Perhaps his family is from south Asia, India?
“What’s on your list, Harry?”
This opens what appears to George as the boy’s floodgates, words tumbling forth in verbal pictures, non-sequiturs, neologisms and street slang. His small and wiry body rises up from the grass and dances in accompaniment to the recitation of his list. What George can grasp is that on Harry’s list are mostly action items: achievement in sport; doing anything with cars; finding strange animals and doing things collaboratively with them; traveling in space; exploring secret caves; jungles, mountains, rivers, boats…
So much in such a small person.
Harry finally stops, then drops to his former position on the grass while looking intently at George.
Having scrutinized Harry further during his recitation, George sees that the boy is actually well dressed, including expensive-looking sport shoes. But everything he wears seems recently to have been through a shredder. It is Harry’s accompanying cloud of dust, continually precipitating on him that initially impressed George as shabbiness.
“That is a very big and wonderful list, Harry. You will do great things in the world.”
Harry smiles. He, too, seems more relaxed now.
George smiles back at Harry. “Do you often come to this park?”
“Yeah. After school sometimes.”
“Do you live nearby?”
“I don’t know. Not so far. Near the thin part of the park. On Page Street.”
“Oh, you mean the Panhandle. That’s pretty far away. Does your mother know you are here?”
“Sometimes. I don’t know. She wasn’t home when I left. She helps people.”
“Do you mean she works, that she has a job?”
“I don’t know. She helps the neighbors. Then I get bored with my sisters and come here after school. Baba has the job.”
Hearing Harry say “Baba,” apparently for “father,” George asks, “Does your family come from India?”
“Yeah, but I was born here. My sisters were born there.”
“What kind of work does your baba do?”
“I don’t know. Tech-nickel something. He takes a train every morning.”
George infers this to mean Harry’s father is a technician or engineer working for a dot-com on the San Francisco Peninsula.
George begins to feel uncomfortable about the boy’s safety, being so far from his home, and feels certain his mother will worry.
“Uh, Harry, I was about to walk toward the Panhandle and wonder if you were going to go home soon. Perhaps we could walk together.”
Harry starts poking more vigorously at the hole while he thinks about this.
“Well, I’m gettin’ kinda hungry but mama will be mad. Maybe you could tell her we were talkin’?”
“Ok, Harry, since it’s the truth.”
And so, they both stand up and arrange themselves to be side by side, as they aim eastward toward the center of the city.
“You will have to lead the way, Harry, since you know the way back home better than I do.”
“OK,” says the boy and begins swiftly to traipse along the path, George just a few inches behind him.
What a strange pair we are. We come from different worlds and now we are connected. The park connected us.
Page Street runs parallel to and one block south of the Panhandle starting at the eastern edge of the park proper, so they head east and south as the many curved and interconnecting paths will allow.
George and Harry don’t talk much during their long walk. Occasionally Harry points out a bird or a squirrel to George who responds, “uh huh,” and both emit other sounds that come naturally to men engaged in common effort.
After around twenty minutes of walking, they are suddenly back in the city with its traffic and noise and clumps of moving people. Harry, seeming more eager to get home, picks up his pace, allowing George to stride vigorously behind him.
“Ariya! Where have you been? Come here you dirty, sneaky boy.”
Aha, enter mama.
They are in front of a well maintained, typical San Francisco Victorian-era house, subdivided, showing four entrances side by side above the front steps. Here is mama in bright Asian dress, angry as a hornet.
She is a plump woman of medium height, appearing around 40 years old. She has a prominent streak of gray in her long, dark hair, all pulled back and secured by a colorful band. The brown color of her face is brightened by the red of her cheeks, apparently rouged to some degree, but certainly in higher color due to her current emotions.
Harry backs into George, stuttering to mama, “I wa-wa-was in the park and we sta-started talkin’,” indicating George with a backward wave of his hand.
Anger, relief, suspicion, and curiosity all seem to mingle on Mama’s face as she focuses her gaze on George.
“I thought it wise to accompany Harry home,” says George to mama. “Harry! Is this what he told you? This is what his stupid friends call him, ‘Dirty Harry.’ His name is Ariya, an honorable name.”
“We had a rather nice conversation, but we thought it was time for, uh, Ari? to be home. And so, here he is. My name is George.”
Mama lapses now entirely into relief that her precious boy is home. “Look at how dirty he is. Ariya, thank the man and go in the house and clean yourself before we eat. Tell your sisters to help you.”
Harry turns toward George, abashedly saying “thank you George,” and goes quickly up the stairs and into the first door at the right of the house’s porch.
“And, uh, thank you Mr., uh, George, for watching out for him. You seem to be a good man.”
“I had nothing else to do. I live on the other side of the park and was taking a walk.”
“Are you out of work?” Mama asks directly and seemingly without judgment. Her English shows an educated background, and her eastern lilt does not interfere with George’s understanding of what she says.
George chuckles softly and says, “Yes, I don’t work, I have retired from work. I have nothing else to do until I find out what to do next. I am open for suggestions.” George surprises himself by being so bold and in feeling drawn toward this friendly question from Mama. She seems to care, just as an ordinary matter of course.
“Perhaps my husband has some ideas. He’ll be home in around thirty minutes.”
“Well, this is a very kind suggestion, but I feel you must want to be with your family for dinner.”
“This is true,” mama says, “but here, take my card and give us a call when you like.” She quickly pulls a business card from somewhere in her clothing and hands it to George.
Not knowing exactly what custom to follow in receiving the card, he decides to treat it with the greatest respect, as do the Japanese, just to be safe. He carefully reads the card to learn that he has been speaking with Sonali Bose, a childbirth educator and a “doula” for expecting couples.
“You are very kind Mrs. Bose. My name is George Smith. I live over near Seacliff. I used to be a businessman, but have now retired, as I said, and so I have no card to give you. I started my retirement today by walking through Golden Gate Park, just as I did as a boy. I have grown children, and some grandchildren near Ari’s age.”
Mrs. Bose is quite attentive to his words but before she can respond, George asks her “may I know what a doula is?”
“Oh, it’s a bit complicated to explain just standing here, but mostly it’s to attend a woman in childbirth, but not help directly to deliver the baby. It’s an old practice that has been revived in the U.S., but it’s just a matter of course that women help each other during childbirth in other countries. Look, my husband is a very clever man and is well connected in his scientific field. Please give us a call and we can talk about anything you like. I am really so grateful to you for bringing Ariya home safely. I have to attend a birth tomorrow or the next day, so maybe you could come for dinner a few days from now, if you like. Anand, my husband, loves to talk with people from different backgrounds. He is insatiable. It would be a relief to me to have you talk with him so I could attend to my things, I am so busy lately,” she said quickly, almost breathlessly.
George could see in the rapid speech of his mama and in the description of his “baba” where Ari got his energy and his interest in the world as Harry currently imagined it. I am having the adventure I hoped I might have, and so soon. And so unpredictable! I could never have put this on a list.
George responds warmly, “Mrs. Bose, you are a gracious person and I will not deprive myself of the chance to meet your husband and talk with you both. I promise to call.”
Mrs. Bose smiles at George, as he offers his hand both in greeting and goodbye.
“Today has been a wonderful day for me, thanks to your son. I look forward to more conversations with him, too. It’s a bit of a walk back to my home, so I will leave now.”
Mrs. Bose nods, squeezes George’s hand and says, “Ariya is a good boy, I just worry so much about how to keep him interested in things near home where I can know he is safe. And how to keep him clean! Well, I am babbling, and you need to go, and I need to make sure the girls are getting dinner ready. I do hope you will call us. Goodbye.”
She squeezes his hand one last time, turns and quickly walks toward her front door, giving George a brief glance and a friendly wave before she enters her apartment.
George turns slowly to begin his walk back home, dazed by all the new impressions and all the energy he has encountered from the Bose family seen and unseen.
As he walks toward the sun, now descending toward the Pacific Ocean beyond the western boundary of the park, George walks pensively toward home, now over two miles away.
So much new has happened in such a short time, he needs the long walk to process it, and thinking how to recount this day to Marilyn. And how to tell her he would be soon be at dinner with an immigrant family from
India? This is a new world for both of them.
George suddenly realizes two new things have happened: he no longer needs to concern himself with a list—life will show him what to do.
And, he has met some of San Francisco’s new pioneers.