Natural Storytellers

My son Sam is an early riser. For the first 16 months of my his life, give or take a month, the day began in the same way. I’d get up with him at 5:30 or 6 (or, on lucky days, 6:30). I’d turn on the radio, make coffee, eat a bowl of oatmeal, bundle my son, bundle myself, pour the coffee into a travel mug, strap on a harness used for tethering babies to people, and walk out the door. Judging by the looks of people on the street, I looked like a vagabond who had raided an orphanage. Twenty steps down the street, I’d realize I had left my coffee at home and, depending on the grayness of the sky or some other arbitrary measure, I’d go back and get it or make a beeline for Fuel, a small coffeeshop where they knew me and knew my son.

As he got older and the seasons changed, we introduced some variation. I stopped bundling both of us. He started riding in the stroller. I frequently planted him in a raised bed while I planted seedlings in our plot in the William Street Community Garden. Snacks became paramount to the success of the adventure. We went to Willoughby’s (big mistake with a baby when you’re facing off against the early morning rush hour), Moka/Koffee on Orange/Bru, Koffee on Audubon. Sometimes I remembered my coffee. Sometimes he ate croissant. We took long walks to marvel at the Quinnipiac River drawbridge in Fair Haven, or to marvel at the view from the Leitner Observatory, or to try out a distant and fabled playground.

There was one part of every day that did not vary during that time. There’s a man who lives on our street who I believe is a natural storyteller. We saw him every day, either in front of his house or in the garden or on the next street over. Because of him, I suspect there must be dynasties of storytellers, passing the storytelling gene from generation to generation, each new iteration changing and adapting the same stories. That isn’t to say they don’t have to work at it, but in these families I imagine a high premium is placed on telling the right story, at the right time, in as few a words as possible.

He’s known my son longer than anyone outside our family. I don’t know anything about him but his stories, and they’re kind of incredible. His stories stick: They bounce around in my brain and surface in my thoughts frequently throughout the day. He greets us with “Hello good people” or something similarly benign, and then he starts telling. The first one I remember well is the day it was particularly windy, and as we made our way down William Street he joined us and walked for a while. “Did you hear what happened in Washington?” he asked. He proceeded to tell me about a man who was walking his baby, in a stroller, along a river. The wind, he said, was so strong and so fierce that the man had to fight hard to finish the walk. But in the end, the wind won: The man and his son were blown into the river and disappeared, and they still hadn’t found him. “Okay, good people!” he said cheerily. “Have a great day! One day we’ll all serve Sam!”

As he left, I wondered it nature overtake us while we’re out in the world, just trying to have a normal existence. All day, I thought about strollers blown away by the wind; tornadoes taking away our children and our parents; waves rising up from Long Island Sound. I thought how the telling of the story seemed so effortless.

One time, the time it began to occur to me that he might not be the best company for our walks, I asked him how he had come to New Haven. He said that his probation officer was transporting him from Stamford to Hartford. They were handcuffed on the train, he said, but when the train pulled into Union Station in New Haven, his probation officer was asleep. He reached over, stole the key to the handcuffs, and escaped the train. Once inside the station, he ran in John DeStefano. The two of them chatted amiably; by the end of the conversation, DeStefano had offered him a job with the city, working as a counselor with recent inmates who had been released. Don’t worry about the probation, he said, I’ll take care of it. And ever since, Sam’s friend had been working in the prison system in New Haven.

I was both enthralled and disturbed by that story. I had known our neighbor for months: At what point do I start avoiding him in the morning? Do I have terrible judgment in the company I keep? What was his crime? He really does work for the city, and very well might have been on probation, but did he really know DeStefano? What was his connection to the way everything works?

My favorite story was about our neighborhood. We were walking down Lyon Street, and our friend pointed out the chimneys. He said he had worked on restoring most of the chimneys on that street, that I wouldn’t believe how many of them were on the verge of toppling. It’s barely safe to keep walking here, he said. Immediately I conjured up an inner movie, in which a whole block of houses just started crumbling, from the top down. He laughed and laughed to himself, and I asked what was so funny. He told me that when they renovated the house I’m living in, an opossum had been living in the basement; the first time they lit the pilot light, the opossum caught fire and made a beeline for the natural gas tank. (I was a little surprised at how well he knew the layout of our basement.) They caught him, doused him and expelled him. Don’t worry, he said, that opossum (of fire!) doesn’t live in your house anymore.

He then pointed to a house and said that many families of birds had been living in its chimney, but the new owners didn’t know. The first time they fired up the furnace (lit a fire? I don’t remember now), the flames ignited the nest, and the nest ignited the birds, and the birds came flying out of the top of the house. He opened his arms and fanned out his fingers, saying the sky was full of burning birds. That had happened so many time he couldn’t remember, he said. A house renovation, a pilot light, a furnace, and voila! Burning animals are running down the street; burning birds are filling the sky. It made our neighborhood seem dangerous but at the same time mythological.

I feel happy to live on a block where the oral tradition is alive and well, where stories circulate and grow. On the other hand, it’s time to move. We’ve got another kid now, and I’m tired of having to scan the nearest playground for rusty lighters and broken vodka bottles before I let Sam scramble. I don’t want to wonder if my walking companion, no matter how talented a storyteller he is, is a walking manifestation of my bad judgment. My New Haven street may not be the best place to raise a kid – indeed, most young families in Wooster Square eventually migrate to Westville or Whitneyville.

But hey, time passes. Things change. I’ll miss the natural storyteller on my block when we go, and I’ll probably always think of him when the wind blows so hard I wonder if it’s going to whisk us away.