The first thing I remember about Stephanie was her odd yet joyful habit of jumping in and out of our front door onto the grass. To a little kid from a New York City ghetto, that was apparently the greatest thing in the world. Landing on grass at her high-rise/low-income home involved a major hike and probably some risk. So as soon as she got to our house, she hopped in and hopped out, over and over and over. We’d hear the screen door banging closed again and again, and we knew Stephanie was having fun.
One of the easiest ways to figure out what you have is to be with someone who doesn’t have it. The Fresh Air Fund is a non-profit company that helps inner-city kids get out to the country for a while. They either attend a camp or stay at a private home. It’s a great program and still going strong. I guess the stories about livestock roaming our living room or giant moths attacking our dinner never made it back to the Fresh Air people, because they kept sending us kids every summer.
One thing Stephanie had that I didn’t was confidence. She would go anywhere, anytime, even at times defying my mother. Up until then I thought anyone going up against Herself would vaporize instantaneously. Not Stephanie. She had a Teflon soul. I wanted to be Steph-tough, too.
Stephanie was black. Her mom had sent instructions on how to do her hair properly, and my Mom did her best. But I still remember her frustration as she gamely attempted to put conditioner on Stephanie’s hair and turn a tidy corn row and pigtail or two on a very busy eight-year-old. Low-brow hijinks on a quiet country night. Kids don’t care about whether something is politically correct – it’s either funny or it’s not. Now that’s fresh air.
One thing Stephanie absolutely refused to do was pick crops. She had toiled as a child laborer, doing that for a living for a few summers to help pay bills. I found it fun to pick corn and dig for potatoes. I’m sure if I had to do it all day until my fingers were numb and my back ached I’d think otherwise. But at least I got to sling the slimy 'taters at my brother and flick potato bugs at my sister, so all was not lost.
Stephanie had her own priorities, soaking up the summer every minute she was with us. She was outside nearly all the time, picking flowers, climbing trees, playing with dogs, swimming in the pool. I got tired just watching her. Yet she made it pretty obvious, like only a kid could, just how much I had. Yes, it was different. Yes, I had to shovel chicken poo and heft itchy, heavy bales of hay. But I got the feeling from Stephanie's manic cavorting, that this poo-hefting and bale-pitching was something special. Smelly, perhaps, sweaty, yes, but special.
Later, during my college years, I would swing back and forth between campus life and working construction. Very early on Saturday mornings, I would literally step over my roommates' tipsy bodies to go work the first shift at a blacktop plant. Once a coworker at the plant was gloating over hitting a great garage sale the weekend before. He beamed because he was able to buy decent back-to-school clothes for his kids. At a garage sale. Meanwhile, my snoozy roomies at the university had spent three times that amount on booze the night before. Did this give me perspective? Of course. It also gave me mental whiplash.
There's something to be said for not fitting in, for riding the rail between farm and city, rich and poor. For one thing, when you perch yourself on a fence there's usually a pretty good breeze. And more than one view.