February 20th, 2014
Nothing in life is ever clear. That’s what they say, anyway. I was born in Louisiana, where the river ran through the wet, swampy land like a dark, muddy snake. Ma said that living life in Louisiana was as clear and as easy as that river. She was probably right.
Once a week Ma would take Jonny and Billy and I into Dawson and take us to the library. For most people, this library would’ve been appalling. What it did to deserve the title of ‘town library’, I’ll never know. I guess it had more books than any other building in Dawson. Even still, it was an embarrassment to literature.
One day, we got to the library and I started sorting through the dusty old books that I’d sifted through the week before, and the week before, and the week before. “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie”, “The Cow Jumped Over the Moon”, “The Phantom Tollbooth”, ‘Peanuts Book of Comics” (The one that had dog-eared corners).
In the midst of looking at this collection of musty books that I’d looked at again and again, I came across one that I had never seen before. It was thin, and had yellow edges, like it was framing the world in yellow. On the cover it said “National Geographic”, in such a declarative manner that it could have said anything and I would have respected it.
I took this book and studied every page. After looking at every picture, I went back, and read every word.
From this day onward, I did the same thing every week. At the beginning of every month, I couldn’t wait to get out of the trailer park and get to the library just to read this magazine. This magazine that took me places.
In the third issue that I read, I saw something that I’d never forget. I saw a picture of the city of New York, taken from the top of one of those huge skyscrapers that they have. The only things you could see for miles and miles and miles were buildings. Buildings on buildings. The story told about people who lived in the most expensive parts of the city. The bankers. The investors. The lawyers. The politicians.
But the next page was the thing that changed my life.
The next page showed the people that lived only a couple of streets down from these bankers and politicians. People that lived in slums underneath other slums. Packed into closets like sardines. These people were the trash. The homeless. The injured or the infirmed or disabled.
The story was like a terrible mirror, split into two. One side was a glorious reflection, the other side was a disgusting reality. Only blocks from each other.
I didn’t understand how these people could be so far away from each other, yet so close. I didn’t understand how I could live in a trailer park in Louisiana, and yet bankers in New York lived in a skyscraper. I didn’t understand how I walked a mile to get to a shack we called a public library, and someone else could walk a block to enter into the largest public collection of books in the world.
On the last page of the National Geographic magazine, there was a picture from some tropical islands. The water was so clear that you could see the sand at the ocean floor.
Ma always said that nothing in life is ever clear.
I think the only thing in life that’s clear is that ocean water around those tropical islands.
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