:: Article

Park People

By Kimberly Nichols.

I knew I was one of them the day “Hey, Patty Patty!” turned into “Hey, Party Patty!”

I started watching the park people my junior year of high school. The park separated my school and the public library with its sprawling lawns, leisure center pool and colorful, plastic playgrounds with turtles that sprouted waterfalls. I would walk through it everyday instead of attending sixth period, to pore through the Dewey Decimel stacks on my own terms. One day the main park person asked me my name and the rest of them started screaming “Hey Patty Patty” for a while everyday. I would smile shyly while continuing on to my haven of books and silence.

I always figured “why bother” with my education. No one else gave a hoot. I was an unenthused me with a Mensa invite. I would go into the library and pore through the psych books, the beatnik books, the bohemians and the hippies, the plays and the poetry, the craft instruction, the “who’s who”. I could always for one brief second light up with the instant knowing that I was that caliber of brain, that I could master anything be it yoga or physics. My eyes sparkled over karate instruction illustrations and tests of endurance I itched just to try. I would run home eagerly off the desperate city bus and yell to my mother, “Please give me lessons,” but it was always, “No. Go play.”

One day they noticed my wounds and my consistency at the art of ditching and called me over to join their small slacker crowd on the grass between four trees that stood in a square. The park people were made up of four diverse characters.

Carol was the leader, black as sod, with mass amounts of cornrows spilling out from under a bright red bandanna she wore wrapped around her forehead. She was the momma of the group and you didn’t fuck with her lest she open her huge mouth and start to put you in your place until you promised never to open your mouth again. She sold various drugs to desperate Mexican gardeners who would park at the library and walk sheepishly up to her, taking off their baseball caps, and asking “Mamacita, jew have bueno speed?” Then she would disappear in their gardening trucks for five minutes while none of us batted an eye.

Gloria was a fat Hispanic girl of about fifteen who lived on the streets. She wore jeans and a navy hooded sweater and her long hair up in a tight bun every single day. Even when the others weren’t around she would be in the park, walking up to Penny to ask about the others, dipping into the grocery store across the street for a banana, sitting on the grass pulling blades up one by one. She was constantly occupied by the most mundane tasks of life and no one knew where she came from or where she went every night to shower because she always smelled clean like gardenias.

“Hey Penny!” Gloria would call whenever Penny showed up. Or “See ya girl” whenever Penny would leave. Otherwise she didn’t speak much to anyone, just sat around in the circle observing.

Penny was nearing fifty with a faded halo of frizzed red hair that landed above her shoulders soft but motionless like a cotton puff. She wore tee shirts and shorts that matched, probably a ten spot for each pair at the local Walmart, and she chain smoked Salem Lights. She didn’t seem the type to be homeless but she was. She slept nights beneath the bottom bleachers of the baseball stadium and ventured out each morning before anyone could see her bedroll. She spoke in a scratchy voice that belied years of heavy drinking and bar brawls. We never asked.

Then there was Heeb; I never knew his real name, nor did we ever speak. He laid on his stomach reading tattered copies of whatever he could find in the library trash. He couldn’t sit or stand for long as his legs were royally screwed up in the nerves from years of amphetamine abuse. He just kind of laid there, comatose, reading a page every few days, his wild tumbleweed hair see-through in the sun.

“Hey Party Patty!” they’d call as I would try to walk past them, eyes down and diverted away from their pipes and their dreadlocks, their wildly untamed freedom. But the marijuana fumes would grab me and the promise of delicious oblivion and the sense of family found at sundown during perpetual days of anxious rebellion.

So I put the books down but kept secret, a lifelong pelvic thrill surrounding study: something far removed, something always started and then swiftly aborted. Something I always led myself away from, copped out on, in lieu of perpetual distraction from shame. I was a walking hole and hungry and the park people knew it and filled me up with love.

When high school ended the future beckoned and as chaotic as it looked, it led me away from that park. The spark of something better is always equivalent to the realization of one’s potential and I fled.

Sitting in the library parking lot now, I recall that thrill, the newspaper on my lap like that long ago notebook of my thoughts, and I stare out over the grass where I see the new hippies, the homeless, the addicted: my history, in both geography and inhabitants, occupied here in this parking lot and it hurts like a tiny pain in the throat and miles of the most splendid green grass.

Even the crisp, glee-filled screams of children makes me cry, especially so.

Kimberly Nichols is a writer and artist living in the California Desert. She has been widely published in literary journals internationally and is the author of the book of literary short fiction Mad Anatomy. She is currently at work on her novel The Four Gentlemen.


First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, April 22nd, 2011.