“Hey, excuse me?” called a voice.
I jerked awake; and was horrified to find I had slipped into fetal position mid-doze. I pushed myself up to lean, awkward, like some uni-legged creature.
There was a man standing behind the knee-height wire fence which separated Starling Park from the streets of Ranui. He had black pants and a dusty white t-shirt, which revealed sleeves of tattoos. He looked mid-twenties. Arriving at my mermaid seat from the heart of deep sleep, I was confused at his expression. He wore a mixture of concern and immense curiosity; as if he had never seen a female before, or he didn’t know the earth was round and was aboard his first airplane ride.
“Excuse me?” he repeated.
“Yeah?” I replied, leaning back on my arms to balance my posture.
“Are you alright?”
I paused, unsure of how to respond. Was I alright? That kind of question implied at least one person was convinced of its negative. I looked down to check that I was wearing clothes. Yes, clothes on, in proper order. Checked for signs of cuts or blood or scratches, perhaps inflicted upon me by taunting birds in the rafter tree branches. Nope, blood-free. My bike was still propped up against the tree, and unharmed as well. So, confused, I answered:
This struck him as odd. He shuffled on his feet, looked around. “I think you’ve been here an entire day, no?”
It was my turn to be struck.
“What? No, I’ve been here for about an hour.”
“No,” he insisted. “I saw you here yesterday.” He pointed to the tree I was sitting under.
I followed his finger. I looked down at myself, over at my bike, and back at the tie-dye blanket I was sitting on. Boy, I was confused. Had a whole day passed during my doze?
“It’s just been an hour,” I said slowly. My mind was so loopy.
He nodded, unconvinced. “Alright, well, I just wanted to make sure you’re okay. But you are. Okay?”
“Yeah, I’m okay,” I said, and smiled like a normal person to prove it. He remained doubtful, and offered a little wave, which I returned as he retreated back to the streets to a waiting white car. Looks of worry were plastered on the faces of the Concerned Man and the female driver as they sped off.
How odd, I thought. I looked at my watch: the little face still read Mon Nov 12, which fitted my expectations Am I alright? The interaction rendered me questioning the status of the question in question. Am I alright?
Yeah, I think I’m alright, I thought. I mean, I’ve got an even slice of life stressors. Such as dealing with cultural identity. Or how to maintain autonomy in the setting of being an au pair. I was a bit stressed about what I would do once I left Auckland, but now that that’s all settled, I’m okay. And in the thick of it, I wouldn’t have said “no, I’m not alright,” to him anyways, it never got that bad. Actually, I thought, I’ve been quite lucky. Perhaps through this process of learning about myself and what inspires me, I’ve been able to get out of the “no, I’m not alright” moments relatively quick. Well, perhaps that’s arrogant to say. Not that quick, really.
And then it struck me.
“Ooh,” I breathed. Then began to laugh. A long, loud, embarrassed laugh, like I had just been caught by the librarian pulling Pornography: an Intimate Study off the non-fiction shelves, and I didn’t have time to explain I thought the cover read “Photography”. I wanted the white car to pass by again, so I could hurdle the wire fence and explain the misunderstanding.
Today I was wearing a striped merino hiking shirt and black jeans, my hair swept into a messy ponytail; messy because of the nap-turned-fetal-position, not because of anything trendy. My colorful tie-dye blanket–acquired at the flat picking festival in Winfield, Kansas, ten odd years ago—was spread out underneath the large oak tree in the corner of Starling Park. My bike, black and looking sporty in its waterproof saddle bag, was propped against the oak tree. The teva sandals were cast aside next to my backpack, and Kafka’s The Castle kept them both company.
This layout—the clothes, hair-do, blanket, oak tree location, bike placement, sandals, backpack, and book—was the exact same layout as yesterday, at roughly the same time.
I had been biking back from a shift in the city and decided to stop in Starling Park for a read while the weather was so sunny. I was under the oak tree for two hours before I got chilled and biked home.
The Concerned Man had also passed by this corner of Starling Park in those two hours. He noticed me—unsurprisingly because, as others had remarked in the parks dotting the Ranui suburb of Auckland, “you don’t see many people reading a book here in West Auckland, ha-ha”—and then went about his business.
Until the next day, when he passed again, and saw the same chick in the same striped shirt under the same tree with the same book, bike, backpack; this time curled up and sleeping like the world’s gone dark.
I was both impressed and embarrassed. Impressed because it must take a lot of good character to go up to someone and ask them if they’re alright. Because if they say, “no I’m not”, you can’t just say, “well, bummer” and walk back home for supper. By asking, you’re assuming responsibility for the answer.
I was also embarrassed. As if I had been caught doing something wrong. Perhaps it was being startled out of fetal position—com’on, Jos, you know the art of sleeping in public!—and being vulnerable like that. Perhaps it was a pride issue, as if I were too weak and helpless to take care of myself, I had to rely on others. Oh, the horror! Relying on others for help!
But I couldn’t analyze the source of my embarrassment to a level that satisfied me. I simply gathered my belongings, shoved them into my saddlebag, and pedaled to the other end of the park where another oak tree stood in the sunshine.
At the dinner table that evening I recounted the misunderstanding to Max and Samuele. Samuele laughed and clapped his seven-year-old paws together with glee. That sort of stuff really tickles him. Max said he understood why I was embarrassed, and that it was likely he would have been the same.
“There’s a language of shame around outcasts, around homeless people, around homeless youths in particular, which are alarmingly frequent in Ranui. It signals you’ve done something wrong, and homelessness is your punishment. That you’re a troublemaker, difficult to live with, or lazy.”
I felt my ego bristle–as if it wanted to say, no no, I don’t think of homeless people or troubled youths as lesser, I think of every-one as equal—but I nodded. Because he was right. It’s shameful to be homeless, not because it’s shameful to be homeless, but because it’s a signal. Signal of troublemaker, difficult, lazy-ass—characteristics I can’t judge from a glance. But do, anyways.
I leave this encounter in mixed emotions. Impressed with the character of the Concerned Man, and empowered by the reminder that good people exist. Embarrassed, because of the showcase of deeply engrained stereotypes I am ashamed to possess.
And just as much determined to keep away from fetal position when I doze in the sun of public parks.
Peace and blessings,