She was jay walking.  Already I can’t keep my eyes off her.  It’s a busy street.  Maplewood locals follow the rules.  A rich history of carefully plotted and planned land gives these streets their name.  Founded in the late 1800s, Maple trees were tactfully planted as the land was developed.  I imagine some of the very trees with which I find refuge from the late autumn sun may in fact be originals.  The land was divided and mapped with the utmost care and precision, something she clearly lacked while gliding across the street.  She ought to think twice. 

          People crowd the corner coffee bar, carefully tucked behind a wrought iron fence.  To defy the rules is to jeopardize her life.  Seems selfish.  What’s the hurry?   Her carefree movements emphasize her visibly too-thin body.  As my friend notices her we exchange glances.  No discussion needed; we’re thinking the same thing: too damn thin, almost misshapen.  The young lady borders on repulsion.  In that split second our thoughts switch to mean. 

          “Maybe we should buy her something to eat.” 
          “Well let’s see if she sits down and maybe we will.” 
          “Likely she’d get ticked and refuse.”
          “Ugh, she looks terrible.  Get some meat on those bones.”

          Sliding through the gate she tosses her bright, tattered bohemian-style shoulder bag on the table and plops down, the beginnings of dreads show just slightly from under the edge of a bright, puffy, earthy colored hat.  She looks kind of greasy.  Again she seems to be concealing something. Yet she flows.  No air was moving nevertheless everything about her was like a whisper; quiet, almost graceful.

          “Would do her some good to clean up a little.”
          “Right.  A shower then a meat lover’s sandwich.”

          Crashing glass and a howling dog grab our attention.  Gypsy girl gets some relief.  Some poor kid wearing a white apron and slicked-back hair stands bewildered over the splintered glass.  Nearby, the shop owner stands, arms flailing; his foul mouth burning everything around.  Yet, his over-the-top ranting and commotion go almost unnoticed.  The kid just stands there dumb-looking staring at the shards.  Another worker with a broom in hand hovers nearby.  Finally the owner retreats, arms still flailing, voice still cutting and the kid and the worker make quick work of tidying the mess.

          The young lady is scribbling in a notebook, sipping coffee and eating.  Her hand furiously swaths the pages, laying thoughts by the moment.  This passionate fury diminishes her frailty.  No longer can I focus on her feeble appearance.  The vitality with which she presses forward, hurrying to capture something on those pages has me mesmerized.  My friend is still carrying on about the young lady’s shagginess; her too-thin body; her likely offenses to the world.  Unaware of her seething audience, of perceptions or misperceptions, she remains confident and focused.    She scribbles a few more moments, takes a final bite of a crusty scone and a last swig of coffee.  Floating away, her skirt flutters in the light breeze, her bag dangling from her shoulder. 

          The street-hum grows.  As the heat of the early afternoon rises, we share a hug and go our own ways.  A million things lay in front of me.  Obligations crowd my carefully-planned, weekend-moments of freedom but I just can’t leave this quaint little place I’ve discovered.  There’s got to be more.  From the crumbling brick storefronts to the shiny steel and glass remodels, I just know I need to stay a bit longer.

          Growing up where I did, this mid-county part of town was for ‘other’ people.  Parents warned shady characters lived here and there was no reason to hang around.  They cautioned, ‘out-there-folk’ roamed the streets and to always choose the highway to get where we needed to go.  Slightly scared and definitely obliging then, I avoided Maplewood.  Damn I’d been fooled!  With a little patience, it’s really quite inviting.  Leaving my car behind today was wise.  My regular “thing” can wait.  I want more.  I want to experience more of the earthy-comfort of these streets.   I want to really uncover its treasures.  I want to find my own little secret.  Strolling east I peer into nose-smudged, plate-glass windows.   Loving everything I see, I resist the urge to enter if only to abate wasting time and missing a perfect chance to see more.  The smells change by the minute.  From the musty antique typewriter repair shop to the Nuevo organic bath-and-body store to the chocolate boutique; I just can’t get enough to satisfy.  I think I’m in love. 

          I didn’t notice The Maple Leaf Barber Shop on the first pass and barely on the second pass.  It was the peeling 1960-era, striped wallpaper tucked in the corner of the plate-glass window held fast at one time with cracked yellow scotch tape that caught me.  I wanted to be discreet but it’s nearly impossible from that side of the fishbowl.  A small place, it was certainly cozy.  You had to be on good terms to go in for a haircut or a shave because there was surely nowhere to hide.  It reminded me of Alice in Wonderland with the vanishing room growing smaller and smaller toward the back.  Two cracked-leather chairs furnished the right wall.  The counters were uniformly prepared; a pair of scissors, a hand mirror, a tub of hair goo and a razor.  By the only wash bowl was a bristle brush and a bowl of soap.  I never saw shampoo.  Neatly equipped and ready-to-go, I could imagine the precision cut I might receive.

          Two bare bulbs poked out of the ceiling.  I don’t recall if they were on, the window provided all the necessary light.  In the back was a desk with a strange accordion-style partition.  Something fluttered.  I took a deep breath.  I do believe it was the shop owner.  Seemed he was stealing a moment of privacy.  His feet shuffled underneath the desk.  Startled again, I moved on down the block.  Mysteries and treasures were my pleasure this day.  Looking around.  Cranking my neck.  Feebly attempting to be inconspicuous I bordered on overload.  The warnings of yesterday’s parents seemed faded and the days of longing for urban living reignited.  Long ago traded in for the perfect suburban life with a yard, a dog and two kids, I felt a strange pull, a primitive urge. 

          Rounding the corner under a maple canopy, there awaited the perfect oasis in the urban bustle.  A balcony like I imagined might line the alleys of Paris.  No wider than a man and no longer than a bicycle.  Yet a black, wrought-iron chair and a simple side table, adorned by a vase of red roses, fit perfectly.  My soul drifted up.  Seated under the arms of the maple tree my spirit shook open the day’s paper and caught up on the world.  Surging traffic brought me back, my feet firmly placed on the sidewalk below.  Time to go.

          One last time; just one last time, I’d walk by to steal a glimpse of the mysterious Maple Leaf Barber Shop caretaker.  He had moved.  Sitting in the first chair closest to the window, now hidden behind a new barrier and wearing brown slippers with white socks to mid-calf I spied his nubby fingers holding the days’ crisp newspaper.  Erect and almost statuesque, he did not seem to breathe.  Never saw his face.  The buzz of the town carries on.  Traffic surges.  Spoons and forks clank. Hairdryers hum.  A Bohemia guitarist strums in the distance.  Muffled chatter of passersby.  Yet his world is refreshingly slow and predictable; maybe too quiet.  Unbothered by the pace, there is business to be done in keeping those barber shop doors open to potentials.  For now, there is learning to be had in the lines of the paper.  I walked on holding my breath, glad I had returned.

- Jessica Passow