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Alleyway Memories by Genta Nishku

Every day I sit in this same spot and look out onto the alleyways to my left and right and watch the same people walk one way in the morning and the other way in the evening. On my stool, I sit unmoving. My mission is to see and remember everything. I become overwhelmed immediately: someone passes on a bike, and their smile is too beautiful, a dreamy look in their eyes, and then, another person walks by, holding a clear plastic bag full of persimmons— I mean, it’s nearly bursting, because on top of everything, he has placed an umbrella over the fruit. Will it break before he reaches home? It’s too much to keep track of, you see, I can feel my body tense up with every passersby and the small acts of intimacy they carry out without even noticing, but that to me, to my trained eye, appear as a demand to record the stranger’s story.

And so when I see the mother and child walk outside of their building— the child trodding along, then sneezing, which makes the mother turn around and give the child some attention, completely no-nonsense as she wipes his nose with her hand and then they are on their way—I tell myself, you must remember this. There is no selection process, it applies to everything. Everything I see from my spot on this so-called sidewalk on this alleyway, I must remember, I must note down. Sometimes important things happen, or at least, things I have been trained to see as important, like a police car with its siren blaring, or a visit from the group of ethnographers who are studying our neighborhoods. But it’s the pace and sights of daily life that torment me the most.

From my little corner, I can see, for example, the old man who has had a tailor workshop on this street for decades, and for as long as I remember, has been sitting in the basement workshop cutting and mending and sewing. I only see the top half of his body, his serious glasses and the undivided attention he gives his garments, so concentrated on the task that he never sees me. Today, he is mending a backpack. I know the woman who works at the fishmonger across the street brought it to him two days ago, it must be her son’s, whom she takes to school every morning before work. I know because I see them pass this way when I’m taking my seat on the sidewalk, and once I’m all settled, I see her walking back to start work. She waves at me sometimes, even though I always wear the same old raggedy grey suit, and then when business slows down because everyone has bought the fish they need for their soups and their grilling that week, I see her cut two slices of bread and warm them on the burners, still hot from the pans of frying sardines, and that image, I can’t tell you why, makes me want to cry.

It’s the same feeling I get when I see person after person approaching the woman selling flowers on the corner opposite mine. Each person takes a concerned look at the bundles of white or yellow wildflowers she’s selling for just a few coins, they hold the flowers to their faces and examine them carefully for any deviation from perfection, then argue with her about the price being too high, soon walking away without buying anything, a scene that repeats over and over again during the course of the day. I would buy some flowers, I would, but how would I be able to enjoy them when I’m never home to place them in a vase full of flowers, when I am busy sitting in this corner.

I used to spend more time at home, it’s true, but my family staged an intervention of sorts, and told me if I didn’t stop staring at the same old photographs all the time, or re-reading the same old letters, I would go crazy. They told me to go out and do something, but what can a retired man do? What good is an old man for? They pressed me so much and for so long, that I left the house just to get some peace of mind, and on the first day walking around the neighborhood, found this corner, this perfect spot where four different alleyways intersect, where the sun hits just right, not too much or too little, where the loquat trees peek their heads over the fences. And so now, after having my coffee and toast in the morning, I get dressed in my old grey suit and come down to my spot, where the day passes before me like the elegant, dramatic movements of those professional ballet dancers who sometimes appear on TV, where I exercise my right to remember everything and slowly, methodically and with two fistfuls of patience, make my memories the memory of all those who walked these streets.


Genta Nishku lives in New York and grew up in Tirana. She tweets sporadically @gentanishku.

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