Rather a lot happened to me in 1961: a new school, a new state, a new experience living in the projects, and Del Shannon's "Runaway." For a kid just creeping up on eight, this was a whole lot to undertake in a short time. But I remember it as if it were yesterday. There was the discovery that "the projects" were two separate housing areas separated by a four-lane road that didn't seem to have any crosswalks, and that our cheap-but-serviceable quarters to the north were carefully designed to be slightly less cheap and decidedly less serviceable to the south, one of the more recent inspirations of that terrible creature Jim Crow. (About the most "ethnic"-looking person on our side of the wall — um, the road — was Mr. Scannelli in 17B, who was sort of Sicilian.) Until I got myself a proper bicycle, I never would have learned this stuff.
Meanwhile in 16E, I contemplated how I'd gotten to where I was, and wondered what might happen next. What happened next, as it would turn out, was a family moving into 18B, just across the sand pit that passed for a courtyard. I can tell you very little about them, although it turned out that they had an eight-year-old daughter, and suddenly I had a playmate. We'd walk through the thicket — shorter that way — to get low-end soft-serve from the Dairy Something-Or-Other; we'd expend way too much money on chalk to play hopscotch. Once we drew a court that ran the full length of unit 17, a duplex; it had over 100 sections, and it took rather a long time to traverse. It did not, however, last long; for it was the rainy season.
At this point, being the superficial late-20th-century guy that I am, I'm supposed to tell you what she looked like. But somehow I can't; apart from the fact that she was slightly taller than I was, I think, I can't describe her at all. She wasn't the least bit forgettable, and yet I've completely forgotten her.
But that's not true either. And this fake ad, posted to YouTube this past weekend, may help explain things, or at the very least may make me look sillier:
Of course, the scene is absurd: the angry dog would have detected the scent and put up a fight against the unseen intruder. Still, if anyone I'd ever known could have pulled this off, she could have.
Maybe. There's no replicating the conditions now. But it started off something like this:
She: What's the funniest thing you ever saw?
A couple of days later, I felt a tap on my left shoulder. I turned, and saw no one. I kept turning; I still didn't see anyone. I did not, however, run for my life.
Next time I saw her, I made a point of not discussing that incident, partly because I really didn't want to know what actually happened. She didn't bring it up, and I decided to leave matters be — until the next time I got the tap. It was at that point I decided I didn't want to know.
In 1962 we moved out of the projects; there had been a waiting list for military housing, and we'd finally made it to the top of the list. I never saw her again. But occasionally I wondered if she'd been there anyway; after all, how would I have known?
Years passed. More girls would enter my orbit briefly. And I remember almost all of them: the seventh-grader who'd already written (and had had published) a book; the 11th-grader who would not graduate with the rest of her class because her dad moved her to another school that wasn't going to desegregate; the other classmate who almost perfectly replicated the waif-thin British model of the era; and her younger sister, whom I was in love with after a couple of hours.
But I can't tell you a thing about the girl in 18B, except that I'd like to think she wound up like the woman in that fake ad: smart, beautiful, and making the most of her considerable talents. I suppose if I had never thought of her as being invisible, I'd still remember her face. Or her legs. Or something. Maybe she'll show up some day and I'll recognize her on sight, or on the very lack thereof.
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