People, Unnoticed
by Patricia Russo


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 notice.

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 entrepreneur now. 

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 them. 

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 cord.

Everybody needs a hobby, 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 bridge.”

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 cross?”

“First it must be built.”

“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.

“Your brother?”

“Your husband?”

“Your friend?”

“Your son?”

“Your lover?”

“I’ve never met him.”

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 before.

“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 myself?

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 all.

“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 said nothing.

Others spoke then, ignoring me.

“Will you pluck out every strand of your hair?”


“And that will be enough?”

“No.  Not even with my partner there, weaving to meet me halfway.”

“But then—”

“Hair grows back,” she said.   “And grows long again.”

“But that’ll take forever!”

“It will take some time.”

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 moving.

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 it last?”

“As long as it is used.”

“We’re afraid of falling.”

“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 in rain.

“Where are you going?  Stay!”

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 new.



About the Author:

Patricia Russo's stories have recently appeared in Fantasy, Electric Velocipede, Flytrap, Diet Soap, and Not One of Us.  She is currently unemployed, and pretty cool with that at the moment.



Story © 2009 Patricia Russo. Photo by Tomas Castelazo, 2007.