The American Tableau at a Riverside City Park

Photograph by Douglas McCulloh
Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

I was walking the loop trail at Andulka Park on a recent hot night, where my youngest daughter and her friend were running. They're sixteen. They ran, swerving among the
thin blonde women powerwalking, the tall black man who looked like a former basketball
player jogging patiently as if his knees had a lot of memories, among the older Mexican-
American women strolling with daughters and grandkids, and a young tattooed white couple with Chihuahuas straining at their thin leashes.

I walked. And just ahead of me, another woman walked slowly, heavily, her ankle-
length black dress, coat, headscarf and big purse unfathomable to me in the heat. When
she heard footsteps, she moved anxiously to the side of the path, and I saw that she was
very pregnant.

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I smiled, and she smiled back. Then I walked past, toward the beautiful old
eucalyptus trees along the edges of the park.

Andulka, in central Riverside, was finally completed in 2009. Thirty years earlier, a UC Riverside Professor named Charles Roos donated 30 acres of land adjacent to a major avenue to the city, and he built apartments on the other side of the road. The land sat unused for decades except by kids like my brother and his friends, who loved to ride BMX bikes and skateboard in the flood control channel. But now Riverside has a park named for Roos' wife, Anne, whose childhood name, Andulka, means Little Anne in Czech.

I like thinking about that when I walk here. She was born elsewhere. My parents were, too. Lots of obsession these days with who is an immigrant, who has a birth certificate, and who is a true Californian. I like to look around at Andulka for the classic American landscape.

My youngest daughter has skin the color of a new penny, and her hair is a million black Slinkys cascading down her shoulders. She and her friend were lapping me again, of course. Her friend is blond, Nordic in appearance, eyes like icewater.

Photograph by Douglas McCulloh
Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

Hundreds of people were in the park on this weeknight at 7 p.m., after a 95-degree day, cooling now as the rabbits crept onto the edges of the grass near the trail. This is what I passed, along with all the walkers:

First, the tennis courts. Two more of my daughter's friends - one whose parents were born in Mexico City, one whose parents were born in the Midwest. Many of the teenaged tennis players were Asian or Southeast Asian, and the adults were white, black, Latino, and moving a little more slowly.

Photograph by Douglas McCulloh
Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

Then the basketball courts. A few white guys, a few Latino guys, and a lot of black guys of all ages. Adjacent to the court was a low cement wall, where I passed three young black women definitely hoping to be noticed by some particular players - I heard them saying, "Is he looking over here?"

Next, an impromptu soccer game on an empty grass area, with about twelve young men who spoke a language I didn't recognize. They were Middle Eastern, with beards, black hair, and all of them wore nylon sweats. The game was boisterous and noisy, with a lot of friendly shouting and ribbing. Just past them, three youth soccer teams had actual practice, with a young Latino coach making his small charges run, run, and dribble the ball. The kids' faces were apprehensive - first practice - in all shades of nervousness. "It's all about speed," the coach was calling to them.

Watching all those little soccer players were lots of parents on canvas chairs - and a whole group of bored older sisters gossiping in Spanish.

At the sandy beach volleyball court, a club team was practicing - high school girls, mostly Pacific Islanders. Past them on the grassy verge were picnickers with toddlers. Then dogs, more exercise walkers, and last, baseball practices on the two fields. It looked like the Olympics - every nationality represented, which made me happy because Riverside's always been a baseball town. Born here - Bobby Bonds, Dusty Baker, Adam Kennedy, and Alvin Davis, who went to school with me. Along the field were baseball parents with their EZ-Ups and coolers and the easy camaraderie that comes when your children spend this much time with each other every week.

Photograph by Douglas McCulloh
Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

Soon I was back to the beginning of the trail. (My daughter and her friend had lapped me twice.) And there she was, in almost exactly the same place where I'd passed her before, near the damp place where the small rabbits were creeping forward again in the shade. The pregnant woman, clutching her bag, tottering forward in a lopsided way that I recognized now as painful in her right hip. The same hip where I'd had immense pain when I was pregnant with my first daughter, twenty-two years ago, when I walked exactly like this, dogged and resolute, determined to get exercise because it was good for the baby.

She heard my footsteps and edged off the path, head down. I stopped and said, "Hot today, isn't it?"

This is what we're supposed to say to each other, in an American park, on an American sidewalk, in the aisle of an American grocery store or on the sidelines of a baseball game.

She lifted her face, and smiled. Her eyes were heavily outlined with black kohl. Her forehead was gleaming with sweat. She had let the bottom half of her veil dangle toward
her throat. "Yes, very hot today. Very hot."

Photograph by Douglas McCulloh
Photograph by Douglas McCulloh

"When is your baby due?" I said.

She put her fingers on her belly, in the universal gesture of not-long-now. "Three weeks," she said. "Is my first baby."

"Oh, I remember that," I said, walking slowly beside her as she lurched that leg forward. "I walked all the time when I was pregnant with my first baby, and I had such a bad pain in the same hip." I pointed to mine.

The woman stopped and said, "How many babies you have?"

"I have three daughters," I said. "All born when it was hot."

Her eyes were huge and dark in the shade where we stood now, near the eucalyptus trees I've been seeing since I was a child. "I am from Saudi Arabia," she said. She told me she'd been here for a year, with her husband.

"I'm from here," I said. She would have the baby in the same hospital where I was born.

Then I said, "Keep walking and you'll both be fine. Even though it hurts."

She nodded. Then she broke my heart. "Thank you, for talking to me," she said. "Thank you."

I walked a little more quickly, seeing my own child's pink shirt bobbing in the distance. When I looked back, the woman had stopped near the soccer players - her husband must have been the bearded man who was walking away from the game.

And I went another two loops around Andulka Park, named for Little Anne.

Susan Straight was born in Riverside, where she still lives. Her latest novel is "Take One Candle Light a Room." She teaches at UCRiverside. Read all her posts on KCET here.

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