Friday, December 01, 2006

The kid from Ethiopia who had never been to the beach

Riding home today, I try to observe the lakefront bike trail as if for the first time. I am inspired by a kid I met on Saturday, a kid from Ethiopia who had never been to the beach before.

Saturday was a national beach clean-up day, and I was a somewhat reluctant chaperone of about 140 inner city high school students out to get six service learning hours each. As small groups fanned out to pick up bottles and cans and cigarette butts, a student approached me and asked if I had a Band Aid. I didn't.

"I don't," I said, "but I'll take you to the people in charge. I'm sure they have one." Osterman Beach seems like a pretty small beach, but when you're walking with a quiet teenager holding up a bleeding index finger, it starts to feel larger.

"How'd you cut your finger?"

"Broken bottle."

"Oh. Gotta be careful." Ten paces. Twenty. Silence. "So, other than cutting your finger, are you having a good time?"

"Yes, very much," he replied. "This is my first time on a beach."

"First time, really? Where are you from?"


"No kidding, and you never went to the coast there?"

"Ethiopia doesn't have a coast. It's in the ... middle."

I didn't know that, but still, I said, "Oh yeah, that's right. In the middle of Africa. So ... what do you think of the beach?"

He looked around. "It's nice."

I looked around. At the vastness of Lake Michigan, the water ending in a curve on the horizon, and I wondered what it looked like to someone looking at it for the first time. I've heard people from New York and California are surprised by how large it is and say that it looks just like the ocean. But this kid had never seen an ocean either.

"How long have you been in Chicago?"

"Six ... months."

"So, you came in, what, March, April?"


"So, have you ever seen snow?"


"Wait until you seen snow. You'll love it." I was reminded of this Australian girl I knew in Japan, where I taught English. One day she came to work, all excited from a weekend trip to Tokyo. "I was on the train, when all of a sudden I saw all this stuff falling. I thought it was dust," she had said. "And then I realized it was snow! That's the first time I've ever seen snow. I'll never forget it."

So there I was on the beach with a bleeding kid from Ethiopia, who had never been to the beach before, and still hasn't seen snow. "Guess you'll never forget your first trip to the beach," I said.

And now it's after 9 p.m. on Monday in late October, it's dark and windy and cold, and I'm cycling home from downtown, trying to imagine what all this would be like for the kid from Ethiopia.

This is what I feel: Cold, biting wind, biting through my too-thin North Face jacket. My guess is that the wind in Ethiopia is never this cold.

This is what I hear: The constant swooshing of cars on Lake Shore Drive, an irritating sound, one that never goes away, although every once in a while, when I'm lost in thought, I'm able to ignore it.

This is what I smell: Nothing. Maybe it's too windy--and of course I'm riding right into it, a northerly wind, which explains why it's so icy. If I were cycling along the Pacific coast, I'd smell the saltiness of the ocean, but I can't think about that because the kid from Ethiopia has never been to the ocean so he doesn't know that smell, and I'm trying to experience what he might experience on this ride in the dark.

This is what I taste: Remnants of an oatmeal raisin cookie I bought for $1.25 earlier.

And this is what I see: Cyclists with their blinking lights, though not too many of them out tonight. A pair of rollerbladers, hand in hand. Two Asian tourists with a guidebook, looking like they want to ask me a question. I slow down a little. Ask me, ask me, ask me, no, too late, I'm past them. I probably don't look all that friendly with my own blinking light and all, scowling into the wind. Still, I like it when people ask for directions, I like to show off Chicago. What else? The lake, as far as the eye can see, is black. Here and there are blinking lights. Boats. Above, planes fly low already, making their descent into O'Hare. I wonder if the kid ever saw so many planes, heard so many cars in Ethiopia. I wonder if he comes from a big city with noisy, crowded streets, or a small village where people rely on animals for transportation. I wonder what a city, any city, looks like in Ethiopia. And what would the kid think about this bike trail? Does his country invest this much money on leisure?

What else is there to see? A guy standing next to his bike, peeing on the edge of the trail. An illuminated statue of an Indian on a horse, proudly holding some sort of spear, near Diversey Avenue. A little further north, a statue of a man, possibly an ex-president. Then, at Addison, a colorful totem pole. I hope the kid wouldn't get the wrong idea. We don't really hold the natives of this land in such high regard. Belmont Harbor is full of boats, and I wonder if the kid would think that they're fishing boats, or would he realize they belong to people with nothing better to spend their money on?

Then, there are sports facilities. At Recreation Drive, the tennis courts are lit up, mostly empty, but there is one group of girls practicing. Possibly a high school team, judging by the poor serves, but would high school students really be practicing so late? On every beach stand white posts, about ten feet high, at regular intervals. If I were the kid from Ethiopia, would I know they were for volleyball nets? Or would I be puzzled? Not being the kid; in fact, being someone wondering about the kid, I wonder what sports they play there in the middle of Africa? Certainly not beach volleyball, considering, as everyone knows, that there is no coast there. Later on, around Montrose and Wilson, are giant, bright soccer fields, also vacant, except for one where a group of friends is playing touch football. Looking at them, I run over some glass. It crunches under my front tire. Damn. Hope I don't get a flat. Still have a long way to go. To think. To marvel at the joggers, especially the women running solo. I wonder if they get nervous. I notice they don't make eye contact.

There are fewer people the further north I ride. Around Foster, a basketball court stands empty. And unlit. Even if someone wanted to play, basketball's off limits at night. The trail ahead looks empty, and I am deserted in my thoughts. Trying to think like someone else, I see so many things I normally miss. Maybe there's a lesson there. I also realize that I cannot possibly think like him, considering I know nothing about him. Or his home.

At an intersection, a car pulls up to the stop sign just as I'm heading across the street. Hope he sees me. I often wonder if this is how it'll end, all this night-time riding and thoughtlessness. I keep peddling, wishing I'm seen, knowing damn well that if I'm not, I won't win the collision. One of these days I'm sure it'll all end with my head going through a windshield. My family and friends will say that they insisted I wear a helmet, but I was too stubborn or too vain, whatever they say about me. And on my headstone will be something to that effect: "He should've worn a helmet." And I'll be mad about the whole thing because no one listened when I said I don't want to be buried, that I want to be cremated. No one listens anymore. If they did, all they'd really hear is cars swooshing along Lake Shore Drive, hurrying away from here.


Anonymous said...

Yo, AP! Thanks for the refreshing story about stopping to smell the flowers now and then. Typical old "five senses" scenario but very creatively put together. You must have written that in your head since I know you didn't stop peddling to take notes! I'm particularly impressed by the reflections (by someone living in the Great States) to try and connect with thoughts of someone who is from a much different place.

ap said...

Actually, I did stop once to jot down some notes on that ride. I wanted to make sure I remembered the guy peeing. But I wrote it as soon as I got home, so everything was fresh. I think I started off trying to connect with the kid but realized I couldn't because I know so little about where he's from, so it mainly turned into a story about me.

Jenska said...

Of course we'll get you a headstone! It'll be out of spite if you die from not wearing a bike helmet.

I wonder if the kid from Ethiopia was actually unimpressed by the beach, though. Lake Michigan is beautiful, but doesn't have that same power as the ocean. I wonder if he left thinking that it wasn't what he expected?

ap said...

To see how helpful a helmet really is, read this depressing story. Helps explain Chicago's cell phone law.