The other day, while engaged in my usual rushing around from one place to another, I had to walk down a street that was in disrepair. The sidewalk was badly cracked and weeds were sprouting up in all the cracks. I don’t see much of that in the white-collar world in which I live and work. My first thought was “Yuck, someone should fix this sidewalk.” Before that thought was even completed, I found myself back in the world in which I grew up.
In Philadelphia, in the extremely not trendy blue-collar world that was my life, we called our houses old, not historic. I lived in a row house, not a townhouse or a brownstone. We covered the old floors with inexpensive wall-to-wall carpeting, and we covered the old furniture with inexpensive slip covers. Nobody oogled the lavish woodwork or the 100-year-old kitchen tile. Had they had any money, my parents would have preferred a newer house that shrieked modern, not a house that always seemed to be in disrepair.
Outside, beyond the concrete slab that served as a front porch and the concrete driveway/alley that ran the length of the street in the back, there were few trees and fewer patches of green. Like the other neighbors, we had a tiny sloped front yard that my mother, after giving up on growing conventional flowers, turned into a “rock garden.” There was an abandoned playground at the corner, with the skeleton of an old swing set rising from the rubble. Instead of grass, there was dirt, punctuated by broken bottles. My mother told me it was a dangerous place and never to go there. Until I was about eight, I obeyed her.
The elementary school sat in a sea of concrete. On the way to school, we passed a house in which the owner had removed what tiny front yard existed, concreted it over and then painted the concrete bright green. Not a green that vaguely approximated grass. A green that mocked any color found in nature.
In that world, any trees or flowers we saw growing were an anomaly. We called irises “flags” and saluted as we walked past. We put little green seed pods on our noses and strutted around like soldiers at attention.
We walked pavements that had more seams and cracks than smooth places. My first sight of a weed growing from a sidewalk seam filled me with awe. I always slowed down to think about those tough little weeds, seeking the sun under sidewalks. They were stronger than concrete and even managed to push the concrete up in places that made my mother’s walk home from the supermarket with her grocery cart more difficult.
They were relentless, and, in their own way, quite beautiful. Nobody would have stopped to pull these weeds, because nobody cared about the sidewalks. In the absence of a car, sidewalks were simply places to set one’s feet, one after the other, to ultimately take one to where one wanted to go. But those weeds were my constant reminder that the world was more than concrete.
In the decades since, I have graduated to neighborhoods where lawns and backyards are carefully tended. Friends, upon retirement, have become “master gardeners.” I sell homes in neighborhoods where the only people outside during the heat of the summer are the paid gardeners. My own yard is cared for my lawn person, Jorge/George. When people compliment me on my beautiful front yard, I tell them I write checks well.
But none of the lavish and beloved landscapes, whether created by professionals or by amateur gardeners, will fill me with quite the same sense of wonder as the sight of ragged little weeds poking up from the city sidewalks that I walked. Those little weeds had no hands to guide them. They depended on no one but themselves. They carved out an existence in the most hostile of environments, for no reason other than to announce, “I am here. I will survive.” They gave me strength back then, and I am grateful for their message now.