Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña
There was a small earthquake the other night and I just lay and waited for it be over, thinking, “yep, this is an earthquake.” Then it ended and I went back to sleep. I felt quiet, relaxed, patiently waiting for the bed to still.
“Patience is not what you should bring to an earthquake,” a friend laughed later, a friend who had instead jolted out of bed and put on her boots, grabbed her emergency pack. Me, I felt tired. More shit I need to learn, more “working on myself,” like if I just cultivated the right affect or habit or mindframe I’d be assured survival in even the most unpredictable of situations.
I’ve been reading recently about the origins of “self-work” and “self-help,” curious (if skeptically) about why and when we started believing in these forces and approaches so pronouncedly. On a walk around Lake Merritt I tell Rachel about the Micki McGee book I’ve been reading. McGee describes the delusion self-help foists upon us: one that implies that anything bad that happens to us is our own responsibility, the way it convinces us that whatever misery we might experience must be our own fault, as opposed to that of an external power worth pushing back against, worth fighting.
“It’s fascinating to me,” I remark, “that it’s so easy to turn away from any sense that the responsibility is with something or someone larger than us.”
“What about a Higher Power?” Rachel asks. I can’t see her eyes behind her big orange reflective sunglasses. “Like, what are you praying for these days?”
“I don’t have a regular prayer practice,” I blurt back, half sheepish and half rolling my eyes. Like, am I supposed to have one? The whole point is that I’m trying not to ask for more things for myself. I’m trying not to get chained further inside.
• • •
In Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson’s Last Stop on Market Street, the characters have a Sunday practice, but it’s one that gets started right after church, and reveals itself slowly over the book’s few beautifully collaged and illustrated pages. When CJ and his nana finish up at church, they take the bus down Market Street, San Francisco’s main boulevard and central artery, on an errand the child vaguely yet progressively questions, wondering why he and his nana have to do something so different from the other kids.
Each time CJ asks his nana about a difference–why they have to take the bus instead of drive? why a man on the bus can’t see and is led by a dog?–she replies by broadening his landscape a bit, by placing these differences in reimagined relations. When CJ asks why a man on the bus is blind, she tells him some people see with their ears. When CJ asks why the two of them have to wait in the rain for a bus, she explains the trees are thirsty. Her responses subtly but completely shift responsibility and attention, forcing CJ to stop feeling sorry for himself and those around him, and instead consider him- and them-selves in a new, appreciably altered field.
• • •
When I ask Katie about her plan for the Big One, the killer earthquake purported to be on deck for the Bay Area, she tells me she is “cultivating responsiveness.” She’s been organizing with her neighborhood to create emergency plans and I ask if this is what she means.
“More than that,” she says, “we don’t know yet what we’ll need when the Big One comes, so the best we can do is learn to respond to one another’s needs generally, and get used to that.” A different mode, definitively, than earbuds and chill. Instead, a periscopic broadening of our public eye. “Learning to respond,” sounds instinctively right to me, but I can’t tell yet what it means.
“We are training each other in acts of communication we barely understand,” writes Donna Haraway. So I nod and try to listen more. Without totally comprehending, we move forward into responsive survival, survival as a feather dropped from a window, turning and turning over again in the open air.
• • •
Once Josh burnt the inside of his nose by sniffing hard on a Bay leaf he’d crumpled off the tree. He wept for a while as his whole nasal cavity inflamed, but promised me he felt it was good for him.
“A good medicine also includes a delivery system,” writes Aurora Levins Morales, “something that gets it to the parts of your body that need it.” I think here of the bus in Peña and Robinson’s book, the bus down Market Street: Market Street as the body, and the boy and his nana getting to the part of the body that needs them.
On the last page of the book, it turns out that CJ and his nana are making this journey to go to a soup kitchen, where it appears they then serve food for regulars, many of whom they recognize in line. They arrive at a destination they seem to have arrived at many times before and will seemingly arrive at many times more, without ever being static in their relationship to their surroundings: the people, the bus ride, the weather.
Haraway: “Co-constitutive relationships in which none of the partners pre-exist the relating, and the relating is never done once and for all.” What I love about Last Stop on Market Street is this ongoingness–CJ’s progressive questioning and nana’s drastic reimagination, our wide-open bus ride of porous affiliation. No one is explicitly trying to solve anything; rather, they are trying to develop an ongoing routine of relating that renews their surroundings and moves us into an uncertain future, a routine bold and pictorial enough for a child to care for and imagine a world inside.—Leora Fridman