Aisha in Wonderland


May 6

It feels like summer, the shorts are shorter than ever and arms and legs are turning darker in the sun, which beats down so early in the morning you mess up timings. Is it really 6 am and so bright? Were people always out and about so early with their sneakers and dogs and we can see them now because it’s light out or is it to match the new sun schedules? It feels like its noon even though it’s barely 9 am, and I try and squeeze into the three inches of shade under the bus stand.
The evenings are nice though and patio furniture is out, the sun lightening colors and bleaching old cushions. Can you smell the barbecue? Man I miss the barbecue in Karachi. I think I even dreamt of a tikka! Yum.

My list of things to do has petered out, all assignments have been crossed out with gusto and I give my final presentation tomorrow. I came home today after a meeting and there was not much to do. It was a rare feeling. My day wasn’t planned to the half hour, with 20 minutes for dinner and an episode of some silly sitcom. I could just choose to sit and let my mind wander, pause for several minutes and look at how nice the bookshelf looks now that I dusted it off (OCD, much? I think it is getting worse… in fact, I know it is getting worse). So I sat on the futon, and as warm as it was outside, in my airy lounge with the fan twirling like an old, slow dervish lost in time, it was quite comfortable, enough to sip on some strong tea. Read my book indefinitely. What joy. How grad school makes slow afternoons and alarm-clock-less mornings so special.

I scribbled a list of fun things to do in St. Louis for the month of May. And just like that, the days will slip away and fall in place with the past, and it will be time for travelling. I do hope I get my visa for Canada.

I must go see my magic garden. Did I talk about the magic garden? Or the Iraqi grocery store man? The Dutch Leprechaun? The ignorance in America about the terror that their war has dropped like a million grenades in my country?
So many stories to tell. I guess I’ll start with the wonderland that I stumbled into last weekend.

Wonderland Down the Lane

Joe wears a golfer’s cap and khaki pants. He has white hair, and is tall but doesn’t really walk with his shoulders held straight and upright. He owns a wonderland on a residential street with a small park nearby and mismatched, cute houses all around. It is a pretty regular neighborhood, with lots of old, worn-out trees. It costs $2 to enter his little museum/café and you walk into a quiet gallery with signs from all over the Midwest, metallic church symbols hanging sturdily, eternally, a neon bakery boy sign covering an entire wall and glowing happily, glittery, moving lights in a square sign, 2D, 3D, just intricately beautiful in its disjointed cohesiveness.

Joe owns a wonderland, and he is quite grumpy. It seems like he doesn’t agree with a lot of stuff that goes on, and you can tell he wouldn’t be the sort of guy to have a Facebook account. You could tell he appreciated art, and if you seemed genuinely interested he might not frown too much at you and even let you go out into his sculpture garden. Which is the wonderland I walked into, thankfully with my camera.

“I don’t usually let people go there…” he said as he pointed to a door leading out from the opposite side of the museum. He seemed disinterested in my utter amazement. I stepped out from the room into a garden with an old broken gray tiled path, and just ahead, right in front of me behind small bright red flowers rose a large metallic sculpture, a dark gray face with a cigarette held between its lips. The landscape of the garden was incredible, with wooden structures holding old folding chairs, a tree growing out from a perfectly spherical hole in a bench, old lanterns standing peacefully broken on a rusty table. I stood there on the gray path, frozen because it was so serene, beautiful, unexpected. It is like a secret garden, nobody really knows about it even though it’s so amazing with little details (the word idiosyncratic has never been such an apt word before), huge statue-like structures, a fountain, a bridge. The sound of birds and water flowing down over a little turbine is all that you can hear.  

It was a fairly large garden (a well you could stare into and see the reflection of the storm clouds forming above), a red robot stood bright red in one corner, a chair gathered rust and slowly disintegrated, a marker of time in its own way, in another corner. A pile of broken glass glittered under a wooden structure, with a sign saying “the lost Dutchman’s mine”, a milkman with a bottle three times taller than me sprouted of the ground, behind a small animated boy face smiling eerily.
I could have walked around for hours, taking pictures, just looking and inhaling deeply. I wanted to make it my own spot, my favorite place in St. Louis, a sanctuary to escape to with a sandwich, strawberries, tea, a book, papers to scribble on.

Joe had a helper, who was a nicely built man, perhaps in his early 40s. He was welding some new sculptures or signs when I walked out into the garden. He made up for Joe’s lack of friendliness and shook my hand, telling me about the café (with its bright, Bohemian look, red, pink, orange tablecloths on different sizes tables, a small stage for performers, all sorts of signs and pictures and knickknacks on the walls), which only opens on Thursday after 7 pm and doesn’t let people below 30 years in. “There used to be lots of kids here before, they could bring their own beer so they would all come and hang out but then they’d get wasted and super loud, and Joe had to shut his place down because of all the noise. Now he only lets people 30 and above in. But I think he’d let you in, you should come and check it out next Thursday. I’ll probably be around anyways so I’ll let you in.”
Joe said the same thing to me later after I told him how much I loved the place (he couldn’t care less about what I thought of the place, though) and he said he doesn’t let young people in to the café anymore. “I don’t drink though, I think you should let people like me in,” I told him, and he looked grumpy as ever. But he muttered, “I might make an exception” with just enough conviction for me to grab a hold of and say, “I sure am going to try!”

Old, grumpy Joe and his café/museum/garden of wonders. He lives in an apartment above the museum. I wonder if his house is as interesting to look at with pictures and signs and oddities all over or is it just plain and austere, with whitewashed walls and the only picture is a black-and-white photograph of his girlfriend, who he never married and who lives with an ordinary nice old fellow across the country, growing old with someone she cares about in an ordinary, mediocre way. Does he eat sandwiches every Tuesday evening and have a TV set with no cable or DVD, just a box with buttons? Does he come down and sit next to the tree on the bench and wait for the sun to rise? Does he sit in the evenings and smoke cigars, thinking of his girlfriend and poetry and birds and wars? Does he sing to the wooden squirrel perched behind the bench? Or is he a regular old Joe who eats boxed dinners and watches sports?

I’m going to win Joe over. That is my plan. 


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