BY KATHY F. BOULIER
When I was a kid I lived in New York City in one of those wonderful brownstones across from Central Park. The summer before I began Kindergarten I recall my mother taking me and my baby sister to the park. We would go every nice Sunday afternoon. That weekly visit was much anticipated!
We would situate ourselves on a bench, then mother would slowly push my sisters’ perambulator back and forth, soothing her to sleep in the fresh air. She tended to cry quite a bit back then, but the fresh air and the gently buggy movements never failed to quiet her into slumber. I never could understand what she had to cry about! She certainly commanded more attention than I from mother and father, mother especially. She was never hungry or cold. Mother saw to that extremely efficiently. We made sure the sun was out of her eyes when we visited the park every nice Sunday afternoon.
There was a man who sold balloons in the park. He would be on site like clockwork every nice Sunday afternoon. Kids followed him everywhere he walked: a happy, noisy conglomeration of children chattering, laughing, playfully pushing their equally boisterous companions and generally eliciting a carnival atmosphere.
The balloon-man was a pleasant sort, enjoying the park, the weather, and obviously the overt attentions of his small admirers. I remember him well. I saw him in the park many times during that gentle summer.
I never knew the balloon-mans’ name! I think it must have been Pierre! To me he looked more like a “Pierre” than anyone I’ve ever seen outside of picture books. He probably wasn’t French. He was short, squat, and had a huge belly which bounced up and down when he laughed. He wore a type of suit with a vest. The multi-colored vest was always in attendance, bouncing along with that jelly belly of his, straining to burst it’s buttons. He resembled the balloons which he sold!
Two or three times that summer my mother drew a shiny nickel from her pocketbook and held it out to me so that I might partake of the wonders of the balloon-mans’ wares along with the other children. My small hand would quickly retrieve the old buffalo head and off I would scamper as fast as my short legs would carry me. I would approach “Pierre ” very bravely indeed; my eyes as shiny and round, I am sure, as the nickel I proffered.
I cannot remember the little round man ever speaking! But how I recall that laugh! His brilliant banners would sway with each breeze and make squeaky noises as they kissed one another in the air. He would hold them shoulder high with one plump hand , while holding his obese belly with the other as it shook and bounced with gaiety. He never gave his petite customers any reason to believe he was laughing at them; rather that he was encouraging them to be as happy as he.
Upon accepting payment from me, and after I chose my color (red, of course), he would disengage the long twine and bend over to help me tie it onto my wrist. I would thank “Pierre” as my mother had taught then run back to show her. I remember my baby sisters’ big blue eyes following the sway of my lofty toy as it strained against the twine with every breeze. That balloon stayed high in the air the rest of the day. (But the next morning when I awoke, I would find it asleep on the floor. Quite astonishingly depressing to a young child!)
There were so many fun things in the park on nice Sunday afternoons! I could trot over to a spot not too far from my mothers’ watchful eye to where a group of children were invariably playing vague games. I seldom attempted to join in. I preferred my balloon if I had one. Even if not so encumbered, I was a shy child, perhaps afraid to assert myself with other children. I was happy to watch.
Occasionally I would wonder if the balloon-man lived close by, and whether he had children like me. What made him so jolly? He brought to mind my idea of Santa Claus. I never had nerve enough to begin a conversation. Perhaps instinct told me to leave that illusion intact. Who knows.
I had attained the ripe age of fourteen and was looking forward to riding the bus to the new High School a couple of miles across town. I truly did not know what to expect. I was, however, looking forward to the first day of school. The last Sunday before school started broke hot and sultry. Our apartment reached out to the heat outdoors and invited all of it in. Mother was mending in the corner of the living room by the light from the window. She was in her favorite vinyl recliner. Once when I was four I got hold of her metal fingernail file. It had a slightly pointy end to it for cleaning under your nails. I sat in that red vinyl chair and bounced that nail file on the vinyl armrest. Soon I was punching the pointed end into the vinyl making really neat poke holes in it. Very fascinating till mother caught me and beat the living hell out of my bottom. Another memorable occasion from my childhood with lasting power.
I donned cutoffs and a tank and wandered listlessly outdoors into the oven. I made sure I avoided my 9 year old sister. I really was in no mood to listen to the never-stopping chatter she would rain on me after she whined her way into going with me. Didn’t matter where I was going; if she caught me making to leave I was basically screwed. If I said no the whine would escalate till it would begin to turn mothers’ ear into the most annoying part of her anatomy which would subsequently cause her to make me take the source of the annoyance out of doors with me.
The last of the energy I had was sucked out of my body by the innocent-looking sidewalk. But I persevered and ended up in the drug store down the street at the soda fountain counter. Cherry cola was something back then made with syrup and soda. My dad would take me to this self-same soda fountain when I was three or four, to bide the time while mother was in church, as I was too young for Sunday School. He would smoke and drink coffee and chat (do men chat?) with his cronies (peers, anyway) and I would nurse a cherry cola. Needless to say, I used to look forward to Sunday mornings, too. Presently I rose, paid my quarter and headed to the beckoning shade of the Central Park trees.
Quite a number of people were frequenting the paths and benches, staying close to the shade. A scuffle began between two young teen boys that rapidly escalated into an all-out brawl which began drawing a noisy group of young on-lookers, egging them on, cheering and shouting advise to one or the other of the contenders. I watched distractedly for a few minutes. Presently I caught sight of “Pierre”, the balloon-vendor. I noticed he was watching as well, inching closer to the struggling youths. He held three balloons. Being late in the day, his wares were nearly depleted.
One by one the onlookers sheepishly fell silent as they noticed the balloon-man approach. The sound of the scuffle was now plainly heard. The boys were dirty, shirts were torn and hair was tosseled. One had a bloody nose, but other than that, neither really looked the worse for wear.
As the cat-calling died down and the onlookers began to disperse in twos and threes, the steam went out of the fight and the boys began looking around to see why the difference in the general atmosphere. They noticed “Pierre” standing close, watching them. The whole scene probably had lasted only a few minutes, yet I felt it had been going on for hours, drawn out by the heat, apparently. The boys each got up from the grass and brushed off their clothes and ran dirty fingers through their hair. A little boy ran up to the balloon-man just at that moment, offering a shiny dime (inflation, you know). He pointed to the last red balloon. The smile on the balloon-mans’ face brightened as he served his young customer. The two boys drifted off, the air let out of their fight.
The afternoon slowly slid down to early evening. It was time to get back. Mother would welcome help getting supper on. You know, I’m glad I never knew his real name, whether he had children, or a wife, or what his dreams may have been. I know that man was happy. Had been, at least as long as I knew him. It occured to me then that had I known of his life “outside the park”, it would destroy my first magical impression of him which was still as clean and shiny as that first nickle I placed in his hand when I was five.