The Garden in the City
The Garden in the City
A story about service, homelessness, mental health and, most of all, about friendship
by Sophie Goldstein
It is 6:00 am, and Lily is already awake. She rubs her eyes, sits up, and looks out the window. Her room sits at the top floor of the Community House, and from her window, she can see the City. It’s gray outside, and the rooster next door has yet to crow. She loves the early mornings in the City, especially before the first light hits when the ever-present brown fog is barely visible. She can see the fruit seller setting up at his regular corner and the man who drives the taxi having his first cigarette of the day. She can smell the tamales and champurrado cooking from two houses away; the woman will be selling them in several hours. Carl, one of the founders of Community House, is already moving around downstairs. He’s whistling and stomping loudly around the kitchen. Carl thinks that just because he’s up at the crack of dawn and working, everyone else should be too. But since she’s already up and knows she has to water The Garden this morning, she pulls herself away from her window to get ready for the long day ahead.
She and Carl sit out on the stoop, each smoking a cigarette and drinking a cup of instant coffee. As she sips, she makes a sour face and continues to smoke.
“What? Instant ain’t good enough for your exquisite taste?”
Instead of answering, she looks at him and blows smoke in his face.
“Hey! You’re rude, Kid.”
“Yea, old man, but you still love me.”
“No I don’t...and don’t call me old.”
“Yes you do...and you are old. I’m 19 and you’re pushing 60. That’s old.”
“...you are so rude.”
She finishes her coffee, puts out her cigarette in the ashtray, and kisses Carl on the cheek.
“Yea, but you love it.”
“Just go water some plants and be nice to the people as you serve them beans. Not your rude self.”
“I’m always nice. What kind of Community member would I be if I were rude to the homeless people we serve?”
“Well, that’s something to think about isn’t it, Kid?”
She rolls her eyes at him and goes to meet Alejandro by the van. Like Carl, Alejandro has been a member of Community House for a long time. The majority of the two men’s lives have been spent in the service of others.
“Si, señor. Vámonos.”
Alejandro talks about the political climate while they drive. Normally she wouldn’t mind this, but it’s early and her coffee has yet to kick in. It’s election time and that usually gets Alejandro in a frenzy.
“The system is rigged. It has a ridiculous two-party system, and if you don’t want to vote either Republican or Democrat, then you’re screwed. If you vote as an independent, then you might as well throw your vote in the trash because it just won’t count.”
She nods like she’s listening, but really, she’s looking out the window at the old downtown buildings speeding by and inhaling the smells of sewer, hot dogs, coffee, cigarettes, and an indescribable grittiness that only the city can give off. She’s watching as the first rays of sunlight come over the mountain and the flock of crows flying through the skyline blend in with the smog. She’s counting the tents lining the sidewalk, and when she gets to 12, she stops cause she knows that if she gets angry before she arrives at the Garden, the day will only be worse. Carl has told her that in order to do Community work long-term, she has to learn how to occasionally detach herself. She watches the sun continue to rise and nods appropriately to Alejandro’s political musings until, within the depths of the CIty, they pull into a nondescript driveway. She steps out of the van and stares through the chain-link fence at the mosaic tiled fountain that sprouts clean water, the burgundy benches that will be filled with the City’s people in a few hours, and the wall that surrounds the Garden. The wall has pots along it that are filled with tulips and roses and lavender and rosemary and birds of paradise. Even though she’s been coming to this place three days a week for the past year, it never fails to catch her by surprise, making her breath stop in her throat and her heart beat a little faster. For the moment, she imagines she’s not in the City anymore. And it certainly feels like she isn’t. She’s been transported to the Garden.
She’s watering the posies in the back of the garden when she notices a man watching her from behind the gate. He’s tall, mid-60s, and muscular with a dirt-covered face and piercing dark eyes that make most people want to look away. He wears a black hooded sweatshirt and is leaning on a tall black cane for balance.
They stare at each other.
She wonders how long it will be before one of them cracks.
Then he laughs, and she smiles cause she knows she’s won this time.
“Hey Kid, what are we having today?”
“Don’t know, Jerry. I think limas... or black beans... or pintos. Or if you’re lucky, maybe we’ll get lamb chops. You never know.”
“Did anyone ever tell you that you’re a smart-ass?”
“Never. Not in my whole life.”
“Well, you are.”
“Yea, well, what do you expect? You’ve been coming here for years, and you know better than I do what the possibilities are: beans. Different kinds of beans. A variety of beans.”
“Thank you, Jerry. I love you too.”
“Yea, yea, yea...you gonna let me in?”
“Yea, yea, yea.”
She turns off the hose, walks over, undoes the latch, and opens the gate. She lets Jerry take her arm and escorts him to a burgundy table. She tries not to notice how his limp, a constant reminder of Vietnam, has gotten worse.
Jerry looks up at her and smiles. She immediately gets suspicious.
“What’s that smile for?”
“What do you mean? A man can’t smile at a pretty woman anymore?”
“You never smile...unless you want something. So get it out. What do you want?”
“...got any juice?”
“You know the Boss will kill me if I give that to you now.”
“Yea, but you’re sneaky. You can do it. I believe in you.”
“I despise you sometimes, old man.”
“You love me.”
She shakes her head but finds herself sneaking into the kitchen. She looks around and sees Maria, the Boss, reading the paper on a stool by the large chopping table. She is about 5-feet tall with long gray hair and a sweet face. But that sweet face could turn into the wrath of Medusa if things weren’t organized to her liking or if someone did something they weren’t supposed to do—like getting juice for someone before it was time. The Community survived on donations and went through periods when they had very little, so Maria is a stickler about rationing.
“Hey Maria. How are you this morning?”
“Fine, Lily. Whatcha doing? Aren’t you supposed to be watering?”
“Yea. Yea, just getting some water.”
She watches and makes sure that Maria keeps reading her paper. She walks into the back as casually as she can, and keeping one eye on her task and the other on Maria, she pours a cup of juice as sneakily as she can. She starts to exit out the back when she feels a tap on her shoulder. She turns and unsurprisingly enough, there stands Maria.
“OK. Just remember, you ain’t sneaky. Got it?”
She shakes her head and smiles as she takes the juice back to Jerry.
“She caught you didn’t she?”
“Yea...but she wasn’t mad.”
“Really? She must really love you... or me...or both. Or maybe she was just in a good mood. Who knows?”
Jerry shrugs and sips his juice. She watches as his eyes start to glaze over and he begins to softly mutter to himself. She walks away and lets him alone with his own thoughts. She’s come to realize that this is the best course of action.
The watering is finished, and Lily is inside buttering bread. The Saturday volunteers have arrived and everyone is either chopping salad, helping cook the beans, or preparing the bread. The piles of wheat, white, and sourdough tower in the basket, and Madame Lydia, a long-time volunteer with the Community, is marching around making sure everyone is on task. The other volunteers have gathered and are chopping onions, lettuce, and cucumbers. Alejandro is at the front cooking up the limas, and they smell pretty damn good today. A group of high school girls are standing with her in silence. She knows they’re scared. They’ve heard what happens in the depths of the City, and they don’t know what to expect. But they need their service hours, so here they are.
Lydia marches toward Lily’s table, “Can’t you pansies butter faster? We have 30 minutes before we’re supposed to serve, and unfortunately, those breads aren’t going to butter themselves.”
Madame Lydia laughs and continues slicing the French bread at her own table. A tall man with a floppy straw hat stands at the back door with his big smile. His two front teeth are missing. His right hand is permanently curled from too many years of working out in the field.
“Buenos días, hermanos!”
“Buenos días!” everyone yells.
“How’s the grandkids, Lydia?”
“Just fine Manuel! Thank you!”
He nods and glances at Lily.
“Dondé está, Maria?”
She jerks her head toward the front of the kitchen where Maria is still sitting on her stool reading her paper.
“Dáme el pan?”
Lily glances at Maria who is staring right at her over the newspaper.
She glances at Manuel and shakes her head.
“Stop trying to break the rules, Mani! You can wait your turn,” Maria shouts over the bustle.
He laughs, winks at Lily, and heads back out.
Marcus, the organizer of the kitchen for today, walks up to her and pulls her into a big hug. Marcus had once lived in Community House like Lily, but now he lives with his husband in a place of their own. He is one of Lily’s favorite volunteers because he’s goofy.
“Hey, Lily. How’s it going over here?”
“Fine. You want white, wheat, or sourdough?”
He looks over at the girls buttering the bread, glances at Lily, and winks. Without warning, he slams his hand down on the table, and the girls squeal in fright.
“HAHAHA! Lighten up ladies! I’ll take the one with the most butter on it.”
Lily smiles and steals the white bread that the girl across from her has finished buttering.
“Thanks, Lily. We’re almost ready.”
She nods as he walks back to the front of the kitchen. She looks up at the girls who now have terrified looks on their faces.
“Don’t worry, ladies. The homeless don’t bite...hard.”
The girls’ eyes widen even more, and she can’t help but laugh.
She’s outside, wet rag in hand cleaning tables, and sees the people already standing in line. She can already tell that it goes beyond the gate and probably down about two blocks towards the park. Cause that’s how it always is. She sees Rainbow, an older woman with long, beautiful dreadlocks, standing near the front with her cardboard sign strung around her neck. “Only you can bring Peace,” it reads in great big, multi-colored letters. Rainbow wears a different sign every week. Lily remembers the one Rainbow had several weeks ago that read, “You are more than the mistakes you’ve made.” Lily saw it and immediately got teary eyed. Rainbow noticed and gave her a big hug and a smile and walked away without saying a word. That was the thing with Rainbow; she didn’t have to say much to have a huge impact.
Lily smiles as she sees Louis strut into the Garden. She smirks to herself because that’s the only way to describe the way he moves: as a strut. As she watches him, she imagines what he must have been like as a young man. She pictures an Old-School Zoot-Suiter cruising down what used to be Brooklyn Ave., probably smoking a cigarette behind the wheel. He catches her smirking and struts right up to her.
“Hey there, Lily. What’s cooking?”
“Hahaha! When’d you get to be such a smart-ass?”
“You’re the third person to call me that today. I’m beginning to think it might be true.”
“Yea, well, if enough people say it, you might want consider the possibility.”
“Yea, yea...how are you?”
Louis shakes his head, and for the first time, Lily sees his usual smile begin to fade. He stares out at the line of people. He looks back towards the main entrance and watches the other people walk by. He looks around at the garden with the many bodies sitting on the burgundy benches and along the wall.
“It’s peaceful now. Now it’s peaceful...here. But not always. Most of the time it’s not. Most of the time it’s crazy. Most of the time, a guy will cut you for a piece of bread. A piece of fucking bread, you feel me?! It’s the fucking City, and we got lofts, and we got restaurants, and we got fucking cafés all over the place, and we got more doggie spas than we do affordable housing. And here?! Here a guy will cut you for a fucking piece of bread...”
Lily looks up at Louis. She takes his hand, and he smiles down at her.
“It’s ok. It’s just the usual.”
“So, why do you stay?”
He laughs, and the smile she knows so well returns, “Where would I go, Kid?! Besides...I love this City. It’s my home.”
Lily is sweeping up the garden, stopping occasionally to say hello to people she knows. She smiles broadly when she sees Steve march in. Even in the 100 degree weather, Steve dons his black leather jacket, long black pants, black boots, and large black ear phones. Steve is one of the smartest men Lily has ever met. Steve could tell you the intricacies of American history. He could break down every major philosopher’s ideas and theories. He once gave a lecture to a group of volunteers from Jet Propulsion Laboratory about Einstein’s theory of relativity, and they almost recruited him to join their team. When Lily first met Steve, she wondered why he was down in the depths of the City, but it became clear after a few months of knowing him. One day, Lily and Steve got into a deep discussion about religion and in the middle of a sentence, Steve stopped to watch a plane fly overhead. He dropped his plate of beans and put his hands to his headphones. Lily was shocked but already accustomed to odd behavior in the Garden, so she tried not to make a big deal out of it. Once the plane was gone, she asked as casually as she could,
“What was that, Steve?”
“What was what?”
“Oh, I can’t tell you. It’s confidential.”
“Yea. They send me messages. But I can’t tell you. Otherwise, they’ll kill me. And probably you too. And I couldn’t have that blood on my hands. Oh shit! I dropped my beans! I didn’t even notice...”
She brought him another plate of beans and didn’t mention anything about planes to him afterwards. But she began to notice that whenever a plane passed over, Steve would stop whatever he was doing to listen to the messages. He also had a silver spoon he would bring to the Garden; he refused to use any of the plastic spoons that were offered. On one occasion, someone stole his spoon, and Steve refused to talk to anyone, which was a shock since Steve never stopped talking. But he was silent, and he wouldn’t eat. A couple days later, Maria bought Steve a new spoon. He was so elated that he started calling Maria, “Madame Warrior.” Maria claimed that it annoyed her when anyone called her that, but Lily knew that the Boss secretly loved it cause there would always be a slight smile on her lips despite the eye-rolling.
While wiping a down a table, Lily feels as if someone is staring at her. She looks around, but everyone seems to be doing their own thing. Madame Lydia is smoking with Jerry. Carl is playing a game of chess with Steve. Maria is sitting on her stool outside surveying the land as she always does. Everyone is either eating or sleeping or talking, but no one seems interested in her. She tries to dismiss the feeling and keeps working, but it won’t go away. She notices a flash of red dart behind the back fountain. She smirks and slowly walks toward the back part of the garden. As she approaches the fountain, she can already hear stifled giggles coming from the other side.
Harry pokes his head out with a disappointed frown on his face. He stands about three feet taller than her, is about 35 years old, and is always wearing his red sweatshirt.
“Thought I had you this time.”
“Maybe if you didn’t wear that bright red sweater all the time, you’d have more of a chance of surprising me.”
“I’m just giving suggestions.”
“Yea, well, fine. I read this book I think you’d like.”
“Yea, what is it?”
“It’s about this girl who’s going to look for her brother in the City, but the City is in ruins. The people scavenge for food; they try to sell trash for canned goods; there’s no government, and you have to pay if you want to kill yourself.”
“You have to pay to die?”
“Yea. Cause you have to pay if you wanna buy a knife, right? But stabbing yourself is too painful. So, let’s say you wanna jump off a building—they’re called jumpers—you gotta pay someone if you wanna do that. You could also join the runners, which is pretty much the way it sounds, where they run until they drop dead. You could also just stop eating altogether and wait until you float away. But if you really want upscale treatment, you gotta pay a lot. And if you have the funds, you could die very prettily in a bed and everything where they inject you after you’ve eaten a good solid meal.”
“So...like the death penalty?”
“Exactly, but you gotta pay for it. Fucked up, right?”
“Yea, but if you think about, it’s kinda where we’re going. And if you really think about it, we’re already there. You gotta pay if you wanna do anything. People are already scrounging for food, fighting over bread and water, killing each other for small plots of land. And what’s that shit about anyway? Legacy bullshit. Everybody wants to leave a fucking legacy, and they’ll kill however many it takes to make sure it happens.”
“Maybe, but at least you’re here now. And I’m here. And there’s vegetarian lima beans waiting for you just a few feet away. And John is around here somewhere waiting to talk more politics with you.”
Harry laughs and smiles at her. He puts his hand on her shoulder, and she can feel the usual butterflies start to gather in the pit of her stomach.
“Remember, Kid, we can’t be friends.”
“Yea, yea, yea. Cause friends are a liability, right?”
“Well, I’m guessing it might be too late for both of us then.”
“How you figure?”
“Cause you wait for me here behind this fountain three days a week, and three days a week, I come back here and we talk. Just like we’re talking now.”
Harry’s smile fades, and without another word, he walks toward the front of the garden and gets in line for beans. Lily stands there staring, wondering if she went too far. She had tried to come off in her usual joking manner. But maybe it was too much for Harry. Harry, who does his best not to make connections with anyone.
A little later, Lily is sweeping by where John and Harry are talking politics. John is older than Harry, though by how much Lily isn’t sure. The two guys are usually together when they’re in the Garden, but she has a hard time understanding why since they never seem to agree on anything.
“A pedophile deserves to be castrated first, then his head chopped off, then the rest of his body parts sold to the poor. That’s what I think,” John is saying with his mouth full of beans.
Harry shakes his head, “Don’t you believe in any kind of forgiveness my friend?”
“Not when it comes to pedophiles. They’re the worst. Don’t you think so, Lily?”
She stops sweeping and looks at John. She glances at Harry, but he won’t meet her eye.
“I’m not sure if I should take part in this conversation. You guys always get so heated. You don’t need me around to make it worse.”
Harry cracks a smile, but John remains persistent.
“C’mon, Lily! You’re smart! Imagine, you’re 12 years old and a guy rapes you in the ass...“
Harry slaps John on the shoulder, “Hey man! Cool down with the language.”
“What? You cuss around her.”
“Yea, but...I don’t give her images like that.”
“It’s hypothetical, Harry. Chill. Anyway, Lily.”
“No. She doesn’t need to hear that shit. Not put in those terms.”
Lily can’t help but laugh and smile, “Oh, Harry. You really are my knight in shining armor.”
He rolls his eyes, but she can see his smile getting bigger. She continues to sweep and leaves the two men to their debate. A little later, while she’s getting a glass of water, she feels a tap on her shoulder and turns to see Harry looking sheepish.
“You ok, Harry?”
“Yea. I just wanna tell you something before I go.”
“You’re a liability.”
He walks away before she can respond, and she starts to wonder how exactly she began to fall in love with a crazy man.
She’s wiping down another table when she notices a man by the water cooler about to pass out. She runs up to him and catches him before he can fall.
“Hey! You ok, sir?”
“Huh? Yea...yea. I think I need to sit down.”
She guides him toward a table, and she notices Jerry rolling his eyes. She knows why. The guy she’s half-carrying toward the table is high, and Jerry has no pity for drug addicts. But Lily knows what it’s like to have an addiction and tries not to judge.
“Thanks. Thanks, Kid. Did I almost pass out?”
“...yea, you did.”
“Shit! I’m sorry...I’m trying to quit you know.”
Lily doesn’t say anything. She just smiles and nods. She’s come to the conclusion that this is the best response.
“I really am. I need to. My daughter won’t see me if I keep doing it...I just...it’s hard you know?”
“But I love my daughter. She’s my fucking blood, you know?! And I know she loves me. She says she does. And she loves having me around. All her friends like me. I used to take them to the pool, Six Flags, have them over for ‘tea parties’ when she was little. When I had a house, you know? I was the cool dad. I didn’t let them do anything they wanted, but I let them have fun, you know? And now she won’t talk to me. And I get it...I just...I just miss her...I don’t know why I’m telling you this.”
She nods. She wants to ask him where he gets his needles cause judging by the tracks on his arms he may not be using clean ones. She tells him about the Needle Exchange, and he just nods. She can tell he’s not really listening. A little while later, the same man starts to pass out at a different water cooler. She runs over to make sure he’s ok.
“Hey, thanks, sweetie. Who are you?”
As it nears the end of the day, Lily sits on the edge of one of the walls and looks around at the little oasis. She watches as the high school girls get into a deep discussion with Jerry, who is probably educating them in a way they had never expected. She watches as their stares turn from pity, to admiration, to awe. She knows that their preconceived notions are being broken to pieces. Jerry, the educated Black Panther and humanitarian who lives in a single-room-occupancy housing unit, is living off his meager veteran’s salary and schooling them in ways they had never imagined.
She watches as Rainbow creates another sign to wear around her neck. She admires the various colors that Rainbow uses and the way she treats the cardboard as if it were precious porcelain.
She wonders if Harry will come back next week as Harry or as his alter-ego, Saul, who speaks of nothing but the apocalypse and who can never remember her name.
She wonders if Steve will lose his spoon again.
She watches as Louis flirts with a volunteer and laughs to herself at his ability to make any woman swoon.
She watches and she wonders.
Right before they’re about to close, an elderly man with a cane marches in screaming,
“Fuck the police! Fuck the police! FUCK THE POLICE!”
Lily freezes where she is.
“FUCK THE POLICE! I was just sitting down on the bench, you know? Just sitting down! And they gave me a ticket. Just sitting. Can’t a man sit anymore? Can’t a man SIT?!”
She watches as he all but collapses to the concrete. She watches as his body convulses in sobs. She watches as Jerry, Steve, and Louis surround the man. She watches as they all crouch down and wrap their arms around him. She watches as they all whisper comforting things into his ear. She watches as he slowly regains his composure. She watches as Maria gets him a plate of beans and as all four men exit the Garden arm in arm. She watches as they exit the oasis and go back into the City.
She walks slowly after them. She watches as they walk down the street, the man’s head leaning on Jerry’s shoulder.
She locks the gate and cleans up the rest of the garden. She says bye to the volunteers and gets into the van with Maria, Alejandro, and Carl.
They head back to the Community House. Carl makes her eggs. They sit in silence and drink coffee. They go outside and share a cigarette. She kisses his cheek before heading upstairs to her room for her afternoon nap. She climbs onto her bed and stares out the window. The window to the City.
Before she closes her eyes, she whispers a silent prayer even though she doubts the existence of God.
Before her dreams take over, she sees in her mind’s eye the four men walking arm-in-arm and hopes her prayer will catch up with them. §
Sophie Goldstein is originally from Los Angeles and has spent most of her time working in theatre. She teaches dance and mask performance part time to both children and adults at various arts organizations and schools around Los Angeles. She has always enjoyed writing poetry and short stories.