Weary feet pace the cracked concrete, uncaring of the gum and the spit that stain its surface. The cars sweep the garbage into the gutters, their restless tires pounding the potholes and tossing pebbles at the homeless, who hug the walls of the downtown vendors beneath vintage graffiti.
Beneath looming towers of rusty brick, standing still and alone on the sidewalk amidst the rush of pedestrians, is a young boy. A small pack sits on his shoulders and his eyes pass easily over the city street. But he is only pausing here, and as a bullet-proof cruiser rounds the corner, he turns and strides steadily in the opposite direction. He calmly passes the rags of the homeless, side-steps a man in flight, and simply ignores the cold stare from the passing cop. But he doesn’t walk with the protective stance of a man in danger. Indeed, he is only a boy, and he walks as if down a path through his neighborhood.
He soon joins an unruly crowd on the curb, garnering several suspicious looks as he stops between a large tattooed man and a frail woman with cigarette skin. A city bus arrives in a squeal of dusty fumes. The passengers jostle while afraid to touch, and they file awkwardly into the bus, grumbling over the fare. The boy is last to board, and he smiles and greets the driver as if he knows the man. He then seats himself by a window.
After a moment, a large black man leans over the hard plastic seat. “Aren’t you a little young to be traveling alone?” he asks.
The boy shakes his head. “No sir,” he says. “I’m a whole nine and a half years old.”
“Yes,” the man says. “That’s what I mean. You’re nine years old. These parts of town are dangerous.”
The boy shrugs. “These parts of town are my home,” he says. “Not gonna live in fear. And I know my way all over town, you know. All the buses. Even at night.” He thinks that this will reassure the man, but it only receives a frown.
“Why would you be out alone at night?”
“Exploring,” the boy says. “I don’t drink like my friends; don’t think I ever will.”
“Your friends?” asks the man. “Are they as young as you?”
“Well, not really my friends. I just know them.” But the boy is only interested in his dreams of exploring. “This one time I found a set of stairs to a rooftop garden. It was so cool up there.”
The man gazes at the buildings of crumbling plaster and brick that sit along the street like vacant skulls. He gives a sour smile. “Yes,” he says. “I suppose it depends on where you go.”
The boy nods. “Some of the condos have nice courtyards; it’s easy to climb the fences. I’ll live in one of those condos by the river some day.”
The man chuckles. “Well,” he says. “I don’t think you’ll be moving out for some time.”
“All I need is a job,” the boy says. He is serious, and he adds a further statement of conviction. “I hear word that some kitchens are lookin’ for washers.”
“Now why would you want to wash dishes?” The man is indignant as he grips the seatback with two large hands.
“Just a thought,” the boy says. “I gotta find work sometime.”
“But you’ve got your whole life to work! Right now you should be living like a kid and not thinkin’ you’re some grown up.”
The boy smiles. “What’s a grown up?” he asks. “Someone who’s grown all they want and refuse to grow anymore? That’s not me. I’ve only just begun. I’m gonna get myself outta here soon enough. It won’t be long.”
The black man rolls back against his seat and folds his arms with a deep throated laugh. The boy moves for the door and the man speaks after him in a voice loud enough for the bus to hear. “You have yourself a good day,” he says. “Hey. Stay young. Stay strong.”
The boy nods with due respect. “I will.”