There are people we
do not notice, and so we think they do not notice us. How many
people did we see and not notice in the course of a day? That
would have depended on where we lived, how we traveled, what we
did for work, when we slept.
This, then: in a
city, dense and boiling with the energy of poverty, every other
immigrant an entrepreneur, working at a gas station or nail
salon in order to save enough money to open a restaurant, a car
dealership, a construction company; this city lies across a
from a bigger, denser, more hectic city, to which all the
buses go and come, come and go. There are no skyscrapers in our
city, but across the river the skyline is crammed with them, rows
and rows of crowded, uneven incisors. Used cars are relatively
cheap, so many people drive. Others take the bus, or the small,
entrepreneurial vans the drivers of which have licenses valid in
another hemisphere and who duel to be first to the bus stop. We
sleep depending on our shifts, and our families or roommates,
and our neighbors, and their shifts and families and roommates.
So: hundreds of
people, perhaps thousands, whom we saw every day, but did not
Somebody was always
noticing us when we weren’t noticing them, though. Every single
minute. Invisibility is a social convention, to ease the stress
of living enveloped in each other’s cooking smells and musical
tastes, cell phone conversations and screaming fights. You
learned to shut people out, to ignore them, in order to shield
your own nerve endings.
This didn’t change
after the streets turned wet and soft and the buses died and the
cars fled to higher ground. Or lower ground. Who knows where
they went. They never sent back word that they had arrived
safely. Perhaps they were too busy with their new lives, or
they believed we wouldn’t care.
The river rose,
golden and sticky, and no one trusted the tunnels, though for a
while some still used the bridge. Then one day soldiers in
brown uniforms blew the bridge to pieces. Planes and
helicopters filled the sky, ferrying people, carrying supplies
to the bigger city. Or so we imagined they must have been
doing. We had no airport in our city. The planes and
helicopters ignored us.
The sidewalks were
still all right, but few had faith that this would last. The
more optimistic tried laying boards and ladders and salvaged
furniture from corner to corner; they knocked down light poles
and pulled up parking meters to construct paths, but everything
laid down sank into the softness and disappeared. We had more
success throwing together skyways, ropes from roof to roof, down
which we slid buckets, trading baby food for beer, batteries for
aspirin, magazines for cigarettes. Everybody was an
A couple of people
tried tightrope walking, but that wasn’t an option for most of
us. Besides, even those who didn’t waver and fall and plunge
into the softness weren’t any better off. They merely got stuck
on a different block.
We don’t trust the
sidewalks, but sitting inside is so painfully lonely, without
telephones and television, the internet and DVDs. Those with
families or roommates soon ran out of things to talk about.
Everyone longs for distraction. Batteries have become so
expensive, and there’s no way to recharge the rechargeable
sort. The packrats are kings now, however much good that does
Any day now, we
expect the sidewalks to soften as well, but still we walk.
Around the block, and around the block, for hours on end. As
long as there is light, people walk. And still, in the midst of
this shared, obsessive activity, we do not look at each other
much. We do not speak. What is there to say? We edge away
from the ones who start talking, even if they are our next door
neighbors, even if they are our roommates, even if they are our
husbands, wives, lovers, or children. Talking, outside, beyond
perfunctory hellos and nods, those fragments of politeness that
have survived, simple exchanges such as: Any news?—Nothing
and Did you hear those planes yesterday?—Sure did is a
bad sign, an indication that the speaker has used up all of his
or her self-control. Such a person rushes out on the sidewalk
too fast, or else begins walking normally, then stops abruptly.
Then the words come. It scarcely matters what words—remarks on
the weather, recounting of dreams, recollections of childhood
memories, complaints about food, recitation of prayers—the
progression of events is the same, with the speaker’s voice
either rising to shouts or screams, or descending into inaudible
mutters. There is arm waving, or else hugging of the body.
Often there is rocking; sometimes there is tearing of hair or
clothes. We don’t try to stop these people any longer. Even
the small, even the elderly, become very strong in the grip of
despair. Soon enough, the talker runs out into the street, into
the wet softness. The first ones to do took others with
them—loved ones, bystanders attempting to prevent a suicide. We
are more wary now. We no longer try to save them.
So, not much
talking. We walk, and nod, the first time we encounter someone
else walking that day, but not the next time, or the next. We
walk around the block, and we walk around the block. We know
everybody by sight, but can attach no more names to faces than
before. And even in one square block, the same four sidewalks
again and again, there are people we do not notice, and so we
think they do not notice us.
She was sitting on
the sidewalk. It was the eastern sidewalk. Possibly this is
not relevant. She was sitting close to the middle, in terms of
distance from the corners. Possibly this is not relevant,
either. She was sitting very close to the curb, and that, as it
turned out, was most definitely relevant.
She was a small
woman, not very young. Mid-forties? Early fifties? It’s hard
to tell nowadays; everybody looks older than we used to. She was
dressed in sweatpants and a hooded fleece jacket, though the
hood was down; she’d brought a cushion to sit upon. When we
began to notice her, people asked around for her name, but no
one on the four sidewalks knew it. Perhaps everyone who had
known her name had run into the street and the softness, or it
could be that she had been nameless to her neighbors even
before. Possibly she had moved here recently. We could not
claim she did not look familiar. None of us pretended that we
had never seen her before. Of course we had, hundreds of times,
as we walked and walked around the block. Hundreds of times in
one day, even. But we had not noticed her. The first time we
noticed her was the morning she was sitting on the sidewalk,
very close to the curb.
She had very long,
very straight hair. When she’d been younger, it must have been
jet-black; now the black was shot through with gray. It would
be poetic to call that color silver, but silver is brighter.
Silver glinted; gray absorbed light.
Her nearness to the
curb made us anxious. We walked around the block and walked
around the block, and hesitated to approach her. It was not that
she appeared unfriendly or standoffish; it was not, really, that
we feared she was about to cast herself into the softness. It
was true that she was sitting very close to the curb, but she
was not staring at the street, as those who were moments away
from running out usually did. She wasn’t talking to herself, or
the sky, or some long-gone person from her past.
She was busy. She
seemed completely absorbed in what she was doing. We didn’t
want to be rude.
She was plucking out
her hair, yard-long strand by yard-long strand, black and gray,
and weaving the hairs together into a thin, almost invisible
Everybody needs a
some of us muttered.
The next day she was
back in her spot on the sidewalk, weaving.
We were noticing her
now. She was dressed the same as the day before. She’d brought
her cushion with her again. We could not clearly see the cord
she was fashioning, not even its length, as she kept the
completed section coiled on her lap. In one day of work, she
had used up about half the hairs on her head. The right side of
her head was particularly denuded. We noticed her reaching more
and more for the strands on the left.
We did not notice
the long-haired boy across the street, exactly across from her,
also sitting on the sidewalk with his head bent over his lap.
At the beginning of our new reality, we used to shout and wave,
and our across-the-street neighbors, on all four sides, would
wave and shout back. Now they walked, too, and mostly we
ignored each other.
She spoke to us
first. Her voice was soft, and her gaze stayed on her
ever-moving hands. “I’m doing this for you,” she said.
Once she had spoken,
some of us grew a bit bolder. A few stopped walking to watch
her. Then more stopped, then more, until a crowd had gathered.
“I’ve been thinking
about this a long time,” she said, to no one in particular.
Finally one of us
asked, “What are you doing?”
“I am making a
But we had tried
bridges. We had laid planks and boards and extension ladders;
we had slung ropes from roof to roof.
“A bridge of hair?”
“Yes. This is how
we’ll cross the chasms.” Her voice was calm, and full of
certainty, and a slight breeze blew through our hearts. Some
said the breeze was chill, some that it was warm. All felt it.
“How do you know?”
“I learned to do
this when I was a girl. My grandmother taught me. I thought I
had forgotten how, but the skill comes back with practice.” She
still had not looked up from her lap, from her busy fingers.
“You mean this is
not the first time—” Excitement, skepticism, hope, pure
disbelief; the same words, in dozens of voices. And none of us
sure how to finish the sentence.
“No, this is the
first time. For this.” She nodded her head toward the street.
“But not the first time a bridge has been needed.”
“How are we to
“First it must be
“This is imbecilic.”
“It’ll snap with a
twist of finger.”
“It is difficult to
cross, but it can be done. This weaving will not break.
However, it’ll be a long time before we complete it.”
She raised her head
then, and gazed pointedly across the street. That was when we
noticed the longhaired boy.
“I’ve never met
We fell silent, and
watched her, and watched him. The walkers across the street had
not noticed him yet, or, if they had, he had not spoken to them,
and so they were keeping their distance, as we had done the day
“You said you were
doing this for us,” several woman murmured.
The men snapped to a
quivery alertness. “Not for yourself?”
The children kept
silent. The children had long since fallen silent.
Even the teenagers were subdued. This made us think,
conjecture, that the longhaired boy across the street was older
than he looked, although all of us on this side now looked older than we were,
including the smallest children who walked. The children
watched with bruised eyes.
“For myself? If I
catch a spider, and set it free out of doors, do I do so for
We did not like that
analogy. Later, we wondered why she had chosen a spider, when
she could have used the example of a fly, a ladybug, a
centipede. Perhaps it was simply the weaving that had brought
spiders to her mind. Perhaps there was no hidden meaning at
“I have seen how
much you suffer,” she said. “So I weave.”
She had noticed
us. This was startling. It was even a bit disturbing. We
make ourselves believe that we are invisible, but in truth we
are not. No one is.
I spoke to her
then. It was the first time, and to date, the only time, that I
have. I asked her, “How is it that you decided to suffer like
this, for strangers?”
“Because I can,” she
said, after a moment. “This is all I have. This is what I can
do, and so I do it. Is that so strange?”
Yes, I thought, but
Others spoke then,
“Will you pluck out
every strand of your hair?”
“And that will be
“No. Not even with
my partner there, weaving to meet me halfway.”
“Hair grows back,”
she said. “And grows long again.”
“But that’ll take
“It will take some
We could not think
of anything more to say, so after a while we walked again. The
next day was very cloudy. The rain started early. Most of us
walked anyway, as being outside and moving eased our nerves.
The woman was sitting in her accustomed spot, weaving her hair.
The young man was also there, across the street, weaving his.
They had rigged up tarps, tying old car covers to walking sticks
inserted into breezeblocks, with rags wadded up and pressed
inside the gaps to hold the canes upright, in order to keep the
water off their work.
I wondered what the
woman used to be, before. No one special, I imagined. No one
important. Nobody anyone would look at twice.
I had been the same.
“Can’t you do that
inside?” someone inquired, with what sounded like true concern.
“It’s better to do
it here, where we intend to raise the bridge.”
We didn’t ask why.
We walked, and stopped to watch; we walked on. Perhaps some of
us were beginning not to notice her again. After three days,
she would have become part of the scenery. For some.
By then, she was
nearly bald. Despite the tarp stretched over her, we could see
her bent head, and even in the gray light of a rainy afternoon,
her scalp looked very pale. We could not see the young man
across the street as clearly, but his hands never stopped
Who was first? We
discuss it sometimes, on our walks, for none of us will come out
and say It was me. It is widely agreed that an old woman
named Sara, or possibly Sally, was among the first. Her hair
was a deep dove gray, and when she unbound it, it reached the
middle of her back. Another early contributor was a young man
with shoulder-length hair. Another was an older man with not
much left on top, but a respectable pony-tail. Those of us with
short hair stood back silently, but the woman sitting on her
cushion on the sidewalk said, “Short hair grows. There will be
many bridges to weave and raise.”
She does not require
us to pluck out our hair, as the first to approach her believed
they would have to, as she and the young man across the street
were doing. It is enough to cut it and hand it to her. Her
fingers work swiftly. Our bridge grows, a bright and colorful
work. Across the street, the boy seems still to be on his own.
We do not know if they talk to each other, our woman and the
young man, when we are not present.
Our bridge now spans
the street. It is anchored on the sidewalk on either end, and
arches across the wet softness, two yards in the air, perhaps,
at its highest point. When the wind blows, the hair bridge does
not waver, or sway, or tremble. We cannot see where our section
ends and the young man’s section begins.
The young man’s
people have been watching, but none have tried to cross. A few
have waved at us. Naturally, we wave back. We smile and shout
encouragement, but they are afraid.
We can understand
that. None of us have crossed yet, either.
Our woman stretches
her back, shakes out her hands; she twists her neck from side to
side, and lets out a long sigh. “That is the first,” she says.
“There are hundreds more to make. Thousands more.”
“But how long will
“As long as it is
“We’re afraid of
“Of course. It’s
one foot after the other, but it’s still a tricky business.”
We expect more.
Instructions, training, tips on how to keep our balance. We
expect her to at least tell us not to look down. We know this
bridge is not the same as the tightropes we tried before, but we
don’t know how different. Her mind, however, is already far
away from the eastern sidewalk and the first bridge of hair.
She picks up her cushion and brushes it off. It is much the
worse for wear; she has been sitting on it for weeks, in sun and
“Where are you
Suddenly everyone is
nervous, fearful of being abandoned.
“Why, to the next
sidewalk, of course,” she says. She waves at the young man on
the other side of the street, and he nods.
Some of us, with the
excuse of still having hair to give, follow her. Those with
short hair, or no hair, are left on the eastern sidewalk, to
look at our new bridge. Presently, we begin to smile and once
more call out encouraging words to our neighbors across the
way. They smile and shout out encouraging words in return. We
are smiling and waving like idiots, all of us, and finally
someone starts to laugh. The laughter is instantly contagious,
so suddenly there are gales and tornadoes and hurricanes of
laughter roaring up and down and back and forth, because we all
know that though we are terrified and will continue to be
terrified for a very long time, soon the first of us will step
up on the woven and raised bridge and cross it, that by tomorrow
at the latest some of us will have gone to our woman and asked
her to teach us, too, how to weave and raise. Damn the planes
and helicopters that ignore us; damn the radios and phones that
have gone dead. Damn the cars that have fled. Perhaps we will
notice each other more than we did in the past, perhaps not.
But we will have our bridges, and though we understand we cannot
restore our city to what it once was, in a few days, in a few
weeks, a few months, we will make a start at building something
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