A Raleigh writer and illustrator outlines what can happen when you sit still for one morning downtown
by Leah Finch
It’s a Saturday in summertime, and I’ve made it to the weekend, no plans in tow.
In a blush-striped dress with sketchpad in arm, I adopt a Citrix bike for the day. I ride around without an agenda, weaving in and out of the streets, the heavy front basket threatening to topple me over.
I spin into Moore Square, park my bike in the grass and let the time tick away as I settle in. My eyes scan the PNC building, towering over the businesses on Blount Street. I fling out my picnic blanket; it parachutes down on the wind. I pull my sketchpad out. My pen aims to bear witness to time, structure, place.
All around, there is movement, laughter, and conversation. Young and old, families, friends, and individuals give color to this communal space. This collective hum falls around me as I zone in on the skyline.
Thirty minutes into my sketching, I hear the trills waft over my picnic blanket. A bright, curly-haired little girl soars her doll in flight as her parents watch on. Her younger sister tries to keep up.
“I like your doll,” I say. This turns into shared paper: mermaids, rainbows, and flowers make their way across the pages. I chat with her parents; they’re visiting from Myrtle Beach, considering making Raleigh their home. A family of passersby in our park.
We exchange hugs when they leave. Solitude replaces laughter, and I engage my pen and pad once more.
Ten minutes later, a thin, dreadlocked, tattooed millennial walks up from the periphery. With a pizza box in one hand and skateboard in the other, he asks, “Can I sit with you?”
“Sure!” — I hear no objection from the picnic blanket. I learn, between bites, about the best friend he’s had since childhood and his enjoyment of art. His crew of about eight skaters appears 15 minutes later.
We exchange our goodbyes and they walk off in clustered conversation, headed towards Person Street with the ease of youth. I return to my patch of Moore Square, my pen and ink, my ticking bike rental on the perimeter.
Every few minutes, I glance up and let my eyes sweep the crowds before they return to study the structures in front of me. My eyes connect with a towering, middle-aged man walking by. “Hi, how are you, sir?” I say. “It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?”
He turns around. “Ma’am, would you like this Sunkist?”
It’s practically 90 degrees, so a sinfully sugary drink is the last thing on my wish list. Besides, I know it’s not wise to take open containers from strangers — especially during a pandemic. But I can see it was recently obtained from Square Burger, and I’m not one to say “no” to kindness. The decision to drink it can come later.
He decides I’m safe enough for him to sit down and converse. I take one sip. His first question out of the gate: “What do you think when you meet someone like me?” A question of honesty, indicating some trust. I do my best to meet him with an equally honest and vulnerable answer. I pull up a Google document on my phone and read a poem I’ve recently written:
If my existence weren’t a threat
if my glory could be a complement to yours
woven together like the coat of many colors
maybe we would both be free.
My new friend shares that he recently got out of prison. He’s looking for work and learning the bus route to reach more interviews. With gratitude for the gift of shared story, I encourage him in his bravery and diligence. We exchange numbers and with a firm handshake, he rises and walks off toward Martin Street.
I settle back and let these experiences soak in. My blank pages — the sketchbook, and my heart — have been filled. These faces, these people, and their stories are etched into my life.
I didn’t know where to go and found myself in the heart of our city. In these faces I call home.
This article originally appeared in the September 2021 issue of WALTER magazine.