I was always referred to as a “bright child.” I was an early reader. I even occasionally think of the right thing to say at the best possible time to say it, though admittedly, that is rare. But I’ve never been what one might call “street smart.” It turns out that’s important, especially when you play in the streets sometimes.
Let me preface this by saying my parents were very good parents. They only lost one of us once, and that was so temporary it was less than a blip on the radar of our collective memories. Plus it was Mike. He was scrappy. He could have taken care of himself, maybe joined a pack of wild dogs. Whatever, they went back for him, it worked out fine. But on the whole, they were very good parents and kept us all safe and fed and warm and well-loved.
So, yes, they let us play in the streets and alleys from time to time. They trusted us to avoid danger, which we mostly did. When Jessie was six and I was nearly five, we were parked temporarily in Tucson, Arizona, and not in a pretty part. This was before we found the other bus people, or right around the same time, and we were in a business district of sorts, new to town. The only person we knew by sight was Shuffles, a local homeless man who was evidently known for the way he walked and the accompanying sound of his unique foot drag. We were pretty new to bus living and everything seemed strange to me, so I stuck close to my siblings and the bus.
One fine day (I actually recall it as overcast, but it’s Tucson we’re talking about, so it probably was a fine day that only seems gloomy as I recollect it, due to what happened), Jessie and I were playing outside, probably 50 feet or so from the bus proper, when we happened upon some swell cardboard boxes. You know the sort, completely intact, unsullied by rain or alley gunk, and big. Boy, were they big. You could fit a child in these things, which struck us as a pretty good thought. First they became race cars, as we ambled into them and, knees practically at our ears, hands held out in front of us gripping imaginary steering wheels, we “vroom vroomed” for a little while, careful to mind the clutch as we downshifted. Then they were tables at a restaurant. We flipped them over and set about serving up hot dishes in pantomime.
Eventually we tired of serving our imaginary guests for tips only and we decided child-in-box was more fun, but this time we were spies, sneaking along like cartoon characters with the boxes over our heads, peering out the bottom so we could see where we were going. At least that’s what Jessie did. I, the genius child that I was, let the box hang heavily over my entire body, the only things visible to me being the pavement, my own feet, and the backs of Jessie’s sandals, as I followed her through the alley. One could be forgiven for mistaking me in that guise as just a box. Which is, of course, exactly what happened.
Jessie saw the car driving slowly through the alley and alerted me to stand to the side, which I tried to do, honest, but I was disoriented and possibly prone to panicking, so I only scooted backward and not quite fast enough to get out of the way of the sedan. I think the driver was as surprised as I was when he ran over my foot, probably more so, since, again, I looked like a box. Jessie and I suddenly emerged from our cardboard hideouts, appearing to the driver, I would guess, as cute yet still very surprising Jack-in-the-boxes, one of us wailing in pain. The driver, a nice man in his thirties, picked me up and carried me to the bus, following Jessie’s lead, and proceeded to explain/apologize to my mom as I sat blubbering on his hip.
I longed for a cast. The man drove my mother and me to the nearest clinic for x-rays and treatment and the whole time I fantasized about getting a hard cast, something my siblings could sign and envy, but in the end I only qualified for an ace bandage. Still, I earned some cred just for the whole car-foot thing, and my brothers and sister signed my ace bandage anyway.