Aug. 16, 1982

Fish bowl


 I am a fish in a fish bowl, my past swimming down the long stream of Van Houten Avenue, Clifton, New Jersey. My Fotomat booth glows jealously at twilight at this side of the parking lot, so far from the nearest building it might be a confused Pluto seeking an appropriate sun, or one small, desperate yellow and blue pool of water kept apart from the flow, while fast cars spill down Van Hounten deeper into Clifton.

  This same road challenged me as a teenager, marking the west boundary of high school. I crossed it routinely in mid-day, to the shouts of protest from the gate guard. Now, I sit beside the bank of this road, deep into adult life, a prisoner of job and paycheck, grimacing as the sun streaks off dirty windshields and people shove rolls of film at me, Across Van Houten the flat roofed two-storied string of Woodrow Wilson Junior High stands like a monument to the past. It is not the school I attended, but its competition. These souls are those ``other'' souls we learned to hate, beating them up when we met them on the street, being beaten by them when we merged later in high school.

 In all these years, I never saw their school before, though the tiled windows and broad lawns remind me of high school, though her the sparse lawn looked diseased and the ball fields -- with potted and pitted infield -- looked abandoned. Men already survey the damage, looking to repair now in autumn what they could not rescue in spring, planting and seeding and hoping the winter will protect their investment.

 On my side of the road and just up the sidewalk, another house of investment stands in stark competition, the brick face of Clifton Savings grinning at the school buildings with despair, as if its glinting windows sees more than students or teachers can, predicting the future of those tumbling and bumbling children with arms full of school books. But even this building seems dilapidated, stuck out with me on the far edge of a strip mall parking lot, its slightly slanted roof reminiscent of the neighborhood, more house than bank, with a garage port like roof in back for people too lazy to exit their cars -- where the windows are stained yellow by the endless procession of house wives and senior citizens pulling up to invest their fortunes.

 On my other side, along the south end of the parking lot, my neighbors stare out over a sagging cyclone fence, neighbors whose faces are as imprisoned as mine, framed by Garden Apartment windows, angry senior faces who bought the condo-change-over rip-off the previous owners sold, and who stare out over the new sign that calls their world "Whispering Acres" at the Junior High that denies them their silence. Sometimes these angry seniors stare at me, objecting to my small fish bowl amid their retirement, complaining over the fumes the endless stream of cars sends flowing into their yards.

 It is hard living in a fish bowl, hated by the bank on one side and the seniors on the other, deluged by the kids who demand change from me for bus fare that the bank won't give them, shouting at me when I tell them I don't have enough. I find the windows assaulted with eggs and soda each morning when I arrive, and spend a good deal of the morning cleaning up around myself, as if I was to blame.

 I might as well be living under a microscope, just one more atom studied for posterity, whose past, present and future pass in such a short time I cease to exist before the powers on the other side of the lens notice, moving from Junior High to Senior Housing in the blink of God's eye, imprisoned by walls of blue and yellow, unable to penetrate the reason for my being here or what my purpose is, giving out free film with each developing, taking back those pictures people find offensive or inaccurate or not their pictures at all. These people, customers, patrons, consumers and clients learning to hate me in the same way the juniors and seniors do, demanding things of me I'm not entitled to give.

 Only the thin glass protects me from them. Only the thin glass says that I have done more than walked up from the high school between classes for a drink of soda or a puff of pot. I don't feel old, but the fish bowl tells me I've grown old, and angry, and fearful. It seems that I've come to believe in these walls, found respect for these walls, and would die without these walls. I sniff out the corners, dig through the dust, settling into my chair and cash register as if I would never leave.

 I imagine myself traveling through time with this booth, moving across the road from Junior High school to the senior building without any sense of change, this booth lacking memory or time. The absence of past therefore means the absence of pain. I suppose the glass protects me from memory as well, keeping me from touching the street or the rain, keeping from wandering out into the unshaped flow of time. I could look out and recall those places, but I cannot touch them. I cannot leave. I am caught here forever between two extremes, unaware of movement, unaware of change, aware only of destination -- and dying.

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