By Carissa Gordon
He walks in the desert beneath the weight of too many books in his backpack. He walks too far in the cold rain to arrive at a bus station full of too many people. Some look dangerous. Some are in danger. Boy’s desert isn’t like others. Boy’s desert is wet and cold.
The bus arrives late. He prefers it arrive late—it’s better than the alternative. He steps over a needle on the sidewalk as he boards. The broken glass that litters his path reminds him of being smaller—of the tiny, sparkling grains of sand that filled the sandbox in the park where his mother would sometimes take him. That park is gone now. He can’t remember what was built in its’ wake.
Boy is hungry. He finds his seat on the bus and opens his backpack, pulling out a pop-tart. Tearing away the familiar plastic packaging and throwing it to the bus floor, boy eats.
A six mile bus ride takes sixty-three minutes, and in those sixty-three minutes the city takes a picture of Boy sixty-seven times. He passes eighteen homeless people with cups of change on the ground in front of them, and five liquor stores. He passes twenty-one restaurants and zero supermarkets.
Boy looks down at the plastic he threw on the floor. It lays amongst a landfill of similar plastic wrappers. Boy thinks that every other boy who sat in this bus seat before him must have eaten his breakfast here too. He wonders if those boys feel as sad as he does.
Something buried within the garbage catches his eye.
It’s yellow, and appears bland compared to the mountain of shiny plastic strewn beneath his feet. He touches it, and pulls his hand away instinctively, a jolt of adrenaline and disgust washing through him. It feels human.
He reaches toward it again, cautiously, hesitating to see if it will move. And in a moment of brash courage, he picks up the alien object.
He pokes it- wondering if it’s alive. There is no respiration—no sign of life. But it feels so alive. Slowly, he digs his fingernail into its’ surface, awaiting a reaction, but none comes. It doesn’t scream or jump or attempt escape. Maybe it was alive once, he thinks, and he is holding a corpse— desecrating it with his dirty fingernails.
He puts his fingers to his nostrils and inhales. They smell sweet. Rancid. Is this food? He licks it, but tastes nothing. He takes a slow bite, and finds the inside is white and sweet and pleasant.
He looks around the bus, nervous, but no one seems to notice him or what he’s eating. In Boy’s desert, he is invisible.
When the bus arrives at the station, he puts the strange object in his backpack. He feels nervous and excited. He has a secret. A little piece of knowledge that no one else has access to.
This secret could get him in trouble. Or, maybe, it could make him famous.
He could find more. Sell them to hungry people on the street in front of his house. He hatches a business plan—he’ll his best friend to search every bus in the city. There are millions of busses, he thinks. If each bus has one, and he sells them for a dollar a piece…
Boy thinks these things as he studies the cracks in the sidewalk, walking beneath the weight of his backpack through the cold, wet desert. He walks 1.7 miles from the bus station to his school. In that time, he walks over 5,673 cracks in the sidewalk. He walks past thirteen broken bottles and sixty-five plastic food wrappers. He passes three gas stations and zero supermarkets.
Boy sleeps through his classes. He is often tired, because in Boy’s desert, a siren passes his house an average of seven times per night. Each night sees an average of sixteen audible gunshots and two domestic disputes. On an average night, Boy eat zero home-cooked dinners.
But now it’s lunch time, and Boy lifts his head from his desk and stumbles toward the cafeteria. He gets thirty minutes to eat lunch, but ten of those are spent waiting in a line outside the cafeteria to walk through metal detectors, where eight students have their bags rummaged, and five have personal items confiscated. Another ten minutes are spent waiting to receive his food in the lunch line. He and three hundred other students will pay zero dollars for their lunches, which are subsidized by the city.
He sits and looks down at his plate. One microwaved pizza. One box of chocolate milk. A bag of ruffles chips. Thirteen canned green beans. Boy’s lunch costs hime zero dollars and has zero fresh food.
On the bus ride home, boy eats his secret food. The bus trembles as it moves over the cracked pavement.
An old man sits next to Boy. Boy smiles at the man, and the man smiles back. He notices the object in Boy’s hand. “You must have a good mama,” the man says, nodding. “It’s been a minute since I’ve seen a place around here sellin’ fresh fruit.”
It takes seventy-two minutes for the bus to arrive at the closest station to Boy’s home. In those seventy-two minutes, the bus passes three crime scenes and twelve drug deals. It passes six night clubs, and three cash-for-gold stores. It passes zero supermarkets.
Boy wrinkles his eyebrows, looking up at the man. “Fruit?”
The Desert aims to conceptualise the reality of living in a food desert. This is a topic that has recently fallen under scrutiny, and I personally find it both horrifying and dystopian that there are areas of urban environments completely devoid of access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Neil Wrigley investigated food deserts in the UK in 2002, in a paper titled ‘Food Deserts’ in British Cities: Policy Context and Research Priorities. The paper addresses the nutrition gap between high-income and low-income households. Another study done in 2010 titled Disparities and access to healthy food in the United States: A review of food deserts literature investigated the various studies of food deserts. It made a comparative analysis of the many studies’ inciting cause of food deserts. Those causes included access/ mobility, income, and race, among others.
People living in these environments are shown to have problems with nutritional deficiencies, and the staples in their diets mainly consist of saturated fats and simple carbohydrates. Although fresh fruits and vegetables are relatively cheap in the United States, this doesn’t offset the power balance when people in impoverished areas are incapable of procuring those produce items.
There are a lot of numbers in this story. Part of this is to point out the disparity between where money is spent (alcohol, metal detectors, security cameras), and where it is not (high-nutrition food). However, I also implemented a lot of numbers in this story because, as sociologists, we utilise numbers as a way of solidifying our theories. In this story, the numbers help solidify the subjective reality that Boy is experiencing.
I decided to write on this topic because I think it is a relatively important sociological problem existing in urban environments in the United States, and could see the potential for this problem to grow as we move towards larger and more corporate-focused (as opposed to human-focussed) megacities and urban planning models. This problem, however, could be solved by sociologists and urbanists working together to make sure that as our cities grow, we develop them in a manner that allows even the most impoverished districts to have access to fresh produce.
Carissa Gordon has a double Bachelor’s degree in sociology and psychology. She is an avid fiction reader and writer. She also writes non-fiction, mostly aimed at calling into question the misuse of pop-psychology on the internet and in popular media.