For some the street is a way to get to a place and for some it is a place. But it is a place. All it takes for a place is for a man to stop. The question is, who stops on a street. Where I lived it was beggars and writers. They were both stopping to ask for something, and what they were asking for was similar. Sometimes a beggar would ask a writer, and the writer would look at him because he was interested in a fellow asker. Sometimes a writer would ask a beggar, only with less directness. Or more directness, depending. It didn't seem like there could be anything more direct than an empty stomach, but sometimes it could seem like there was. Nothing was as good as food for an empty stomach, but that wasn't always the only emptiness. Those writers whose fathers had been revolutionaries who had told them about hunger strikes knew somewhere inside them that an empty stomach was no match for a full heart.
That was another time when the street was a place, when people gathered to say that nobody should be a beggar and everybody should be a writer, at least in terms of writing their own story. That was why the writers were always stopping: Walking past and not stopping was somebody else's story. They didn't know exactly whose, but it wasn't their own. Until a man had learned to see the street as a place, he was operating under the conditions of somebody else's story. Until he had seen it like that, he had not seen himself.
That was the thing about destinations, they had a way of clearing up all that uncertainty, of making a man feel like he knew himself through and through, so much so that he could start feeling it on the way there, and he wouldn't have to see the street at all. It was the beggars and writers for whom a destination wasn't enough. There was an emptiness, either of a stomach or a heart, and if they didn't get it straightened out right there on the street, it was going to be with them when they got to their destination, wherever they were going. There was no choice but to look at the street, and to see it as a place, because it was as likely as any place to be the place where they got it straightened out, where that emptiness was made, at least a little and at least for that day, full.
There were people there, that was a start, but they looked like they had far different concerns from those of the beggars and writers. The matters of a stomach and a heart looked like things they had figured out a long time ago. It was breathtaking to see the ease with which they seemed to handle them. They wondered if the people had ever been hungry. Everyone they saw seemed to have a little bit of it, but what they were wondering about was that absolute hunger, that hunger with nowhere to go because hunger was going to be there whether they went to place A or place B, so there was nothing to do but to sit.
There was energy being conserved at least when they sat, and it would come in useful the next time they were walking. When a man made a decision to sit in a street, whether it was with a cup or with a pen and paper, he was making a commitment to the street as a place, as a place where his intention was to survive. There was a love he had for a place like that, however hungry he was and however far away everybody else's concerns were. This place can help me, he thought, if I can get down under it. If I can get inside of it, if I can prove to everybody that it is a place, that just because you're walking, it doesn't mean that all the love and beauty and sorrow is reserved for coming out only at the place you're trying to get to. All that stuff isn't temporarily on hold walking down a city street. If it was, I wouldn't see it so clearly.
That was what he was after, even more than quarters and stories. If he could get that, the quarters and stories would come. He was asking the street to be what it could be, and in a way he was saying that he would return the favor. Okay, street — me and you. I don't know how, but somehow or another: me and you. One of the things a man did when he sat in a street was face its people, and in facing them, he was saying that he was not going to take them for granted. He was not going to act like there was anything of theirs with which he was going to take liberties.
It was a way of meeting that hunger that could seem like the slower way. There was another way that could seem like the faster way. It involved a man saying to the world that he already knew it, that the street was not something he was under, but over. Its people were defined by what they were to him, and if they did not seem to share his hunger, that was all he needed to know to dismiss their rights to their quarters and their stories. That was how fierce his hunger was, that he could look at all of it and say: For what? For what all this acting like there was love and beauty and sorrow in the world when a man was hungry? For what acting like he was any different from everybody around him if he were to take without asking?
Something about the street would not let him do it though. It was the way that people became a one-at-a-time thing when a man stopped, and one at a time, it made sense to ask. It made sense to look at each one of them and say: I don't know. I don't know anything except that you are worth asking, that what you could give me is something worth asking for. It wouldn't even be what it was if it was taken without asking. Quarters taken without asking would not lead to a sandwich eaten in peace, and stories written like that would not lead to any peace either. A beggar and a writer were exercising greatness in not taking, in handing their fate over to time. A man had to choose between being under and being over, and under was the only place he could ask from.
What happened then was that he learned to take some of that asking with him when he was walking. It was something he could take with him anywhere. There was something that stayed still as he was moving. It was something that had to do with his concern for the place-ness of where he was more than where he was going. If a man was smart about his hunger, he knew that it was never really met, and so there was no point in thinking of when it had been or dreaming of when it would be. All a man had was the place in front of him, and if there were things he wanted to tell the people while he was there, all he could do was remember to tell them with asking, with the spirit of asking, which was the spirit of the people themselves, who were asking the same question: Is there love and beauty and sorrow in the world?
The beggars and writers where I lived were stating things by doing their asking aloud, by sitting in the street and doing it up front and out in the open, for all to see. They were stating that it was a good place to do it, for one thing. They were stating that they could not wait a while and take it as an article of faith later on that the answer was yes, neither could they take it as such that it was no. Faith was a nice thing, but the question was too earthly for that. It had the earthliness that needed answering where it was hardest to find it. The only faith was that somehow the cause of their hunger contained its alleviation in it. Their hunger had given them a chance to see just how much of a place the street was, and in a way they were thankful for that. It wouldn't be good to have walked down the street for years and then finally see that it was a place itself.
There would be a lot that would've been missed. The beggars and writers told themselves that if they were ever lucky enough to have destinations, they wouldn't start missing the street itself on the way there. They told themselves that even if it were the best destination, the place where love and beauty and sorrow could be found in perfect measure, they wouldn't start missing even the smallest part of the street. If anything, they would start seeing even more of it, because that was the place where they could afford to walk slowly and take their time. They wouldn't have to have any rush to it, because that was where they always knew they were going anyway.
Subscribe to The Iranian newsletter
Sign up for our daily newsletter to get the top news stories delivered to your inbox.