Once I saw on the sidewalk a man shooting up. He knelt at curbside as though praying, his skinny white ass peeking out from his too-tight jeans and too-short shirt. Thwap-thwap-thwap went his needle. We walked away before we could see him do anything. When we returned, he was gone.

The day before I’d seen on the sidewalk a handful of spilled needles. Their plungers were orange, and I recognized the orange-plungered-needle in the not-praying man’s hand.




santas on polk street




Once I saw on the sidewalk a man unconscious, an empty vodka bottle beside him. It was cold, and we wore our winter coats, and we saw how utterly still the man was. “Was he breathing?” I wondered as we passed. When we returned, we found an ambulance and police car, their red lights flashing, and we thought, Oh Christ, we walked right past a dead man. But then we saw the police officer standing casually, hands in pockets. We saw the paramedic shake the man – “Hey buddy” – and the man promptly sitting up.

“We saw him earlier,” we told the policeman. He was young-looking, smooth-cheeked.  He half-smiled and shrugged.

“Merry Christmas,” he said.




street shoes




Once I saw on the sidewalk a perfect pair of shoes. High heeled, tan with brownish spots and buckles. Size 12. A perfect pair of very large shoes. What would have prompted the sudden and immediate removal of a perfect pair of shoes?




Once I saw on the sidewalk a young Asian woman. She wore all white and sat cross-legged with a trio of transients. She was describing something, her slender hands aloft, while the trio stared, rapt. She might have been a missionary but for the dark circles under eyes, her words slurring, in imitation of story.

Once I saw on the sidewalk a young white woman, her legs straight out in front of her, her feet as twisted as a dancer’s. She wrote intently in her notebook. A college student maybe. But then I saw her hair, wild like black tumbleweed. I saw what was she writing, not words, not pictures, but only the imitation of words, the imitation of pictures. Thick lines that went nowhere and everywhere, over and over, again and again.

I saw the young woman again later, bumping fists with an older black man who reeked of whiskey, then later again, shaking her head at the black man, in the rain, her eyes wide with fear. No, I don’t want to do that. No, I don’t want to go there. I saw her still again, not-drawing, not-writing, her legs straight out in front of her, in the middle of the street.

The next day she was gone.





Once I saw on the sidewalk a condom. Then another, and another. I have seen on the sidewalk used and unused condoms. What situation would warrant the sudden and immediate tossing of a used condom in the middle of the sidewalk, on a well-lit street, nowhere near an alley? Fornication against a building, or perhaps a car?

What of the unused condoms, still in their packs? Three in a row, bright purple? Was there a fumbling in a purse and dropping? Or was it tossing caution to the wind? Forget it, I don’t need these! Or was there a struggle, a threat? I don’t use condoms, the john said, knocking them out of her hand. Her need for money, a fix, that orange-plungered needle sliding warm into her arm.








Once I saw on the sidewalk an old Chinese man. His gray hair reached past his shoulders and his gray beard reached his chest. His clothes were ragged. I was 10, and when we first passed him, on our way to the grocery store that smelled of fish, we didn’t see him. I only felt a pulling of my hair. I turned around, and the old Chinese man was grinning and pointing at me.

Once I saw on the sidewalk a Chinese boy, his legs crooked and covered in an inch of dust and grime. He bowed his head to the sidewalk, begging for yuan.

Once I saw on the sidewalk a white boy with dreadlocks. He was strumming his guitar and begging for change. He was filthy, his fingernails, his clothes, his face, but beyond the dirt I saw a clean patch of his milky white skin, his good leather jacket, his good leather shoes, his three hundred dollar tattoo, the pure-bred pit bull curled at his feet.








Once I saw on the sidewalk a ripped picture of a woman. Once a lonely plastic skull. Once I saw fish drawings, gold and black, gold for good luck, black to suck in the bad. I had just learned this, that black fish weren’t bad luck, that you were mistaken all these years, you and your mother, that my gift to you was not a bad omen, that while I am the black fish, I am not bad luck.

Once I saw a bright red and gold Lunar New Year remnant, the dull red shreddings of Lunar New Year firecrackers. Once on the floor of a temple, firecracker shreddings so abundant, they wafted around our ankles, the air thick with prayers and incense.

Once I saw an old Chinese woman paint Chinese characters made of water, water characters quickly evaporating, till once again they appeared under her water brush.

Once I saw a man drawing the world in chalk. The chalk would disappear. It would scuff under people’s shoes, the rain would wash it away, but still he drew as though it would last forever, as though it would remain as perfect, emerging from his dusty fingertips.




street drawing


Once I saw on the sidewalk my own reflection in a dirty broken puddle. Once I saw my own shadow, long and lean, and wished I was as long and lean as my shadow. Once my father said, “I want to show you the name of our street,” but I didn’t see it. He was pointing up while I was looking down because the name of our street would be on the street, on the sidewalk, and that was when I saw my shadow, as tall as my grown-up self, in the orange of the setting sun, as tall as my father who was always the tallest father. I knelt down, and my grown-up self disappeared. I put my hand on the sidewalk. It was still warm.

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A long-time New Yorker, ANGELA TUNG is a writer in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in CNN Living, The Frisky, Dark Sky Magazine, Matador Life, The New York Press and elsewhere. Her Young Adult novel, Song of the Stranger, was published by Roxbury Park Books.

Her latest book, Black Fish: Memoir of a Bad Luck Girl, chronicles the failed marriage between a Chinese woman and Korean man, both American-born but still bound by old world traditions. Black Fish was short-listed for Graywolf Press' 2010 Nonfiction Prize.

In addition, she's a writer/editor at Wordnik.com, an online word source, and has an MA in Creative Writing from Boston University. Visit her at angelatung.com.

30 responses to “Sidewalk Tales”

  1. Irene Zion says:

    This is beautiful , Angela.

  2. Jessica Blau says:

    Wonderful. Beautiful!

  3. Finding photos is so cool. Finding music, too. Car-less in Los Angeles, I had a four mile walk to work every day, and I found some really interesting things.

    Gorgeous writing, Angela.

  4. […] other writing news, I’ve published a new piece at The Nervous Breakdown, about the lost things I’ve found on the sidewalk (hmm, that sounded a lot more exciting in […]

  5. Great stuff as usual, Angela. Sidewalks (we call them “pavements” in the UK) are fascinating and disturbing… This reminded me of a Paul Auster book about a man who reinvents language by walking around the city and cataloging what he finds on the sidewalks – giving them names that are more apt than the ones any language creates.

    • Angela Tung says:

      David, that book sounds interesting. I love the idea of cataloging everyday things and, obviously, random stuff on the ground. I’ll have to check it out!

  6. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    Beautiful, Angela. The world is so much bigger and more intricate when one bothers to notice the details. I love the chalk art photo you posted.

  7. I have a photographer friend who has spent years documenting underwear she finds on the street…. what she thought was an oddity has somehow turned into a more common occurrence… almost as if the first forgotten pair brought the rest into focus. The photos have an eerie quality, and always, imply far more than what meets the eye. A wonderful piece, Angela. As always, the way you wend your way into a story is simply poetic.

    • Angela Tung says:

      Robin, that’s fascinating. You’re right: you wouldn’t think you’d spot underwear too often on the street, but I guess you do. Same with shoes. After I saw that first pair, I saw an abandoned pair nearly every day. I keep meaning to start my own photo project about that.

  8. Great stuff! This made me miss San Francisco. I think I know that dreadlocked guitar player…we might have shared a burrito once.

  9. Angela Tung says:

    Haha! I’ll tell him you say “hey.”

  10. Elizabeth says:

    Usually I like to mention specific images or phrases that knocked my socks off, but this is one of those rare moments when I’d basically have to highlight the whole piece.

    Your writing is crazy-good, Angela.

  11. Angela Tung says:

    Elizabeth, you’re so kind!

  12. Nathaniel Missildine says:

    One of the greatest things about TNB has to be watching a writer like you, and others I always look for, reach deeper with each piece. Beautiful imagery throughout this one, Angela.

  13. I love this.

    The part with the condoms made me think about various times I’ve seen those, or torn underwear on the street/in the woods and hoped it was disgusting in a consensual way…

    People are strange. This is beautiful.

    • angela says:

      Thanks James! Yeah, the underwear thing. That’s even more disturbing, and now for some reason I’m suddenly remembering the time there was a pair of crap-laden jeans on the sidewalk. Too bad I didn’t include that in the essay, but I probably blocked it from my mind.

  14. Erika Rae says:

    You, Angela – wow you’re good. Respect. This was gorgeous – left me breathless. Also, the shoes are a clear-cut case of spontaneous combustion. Note the mild charring on the instep.

  15. angela says:

    Thanks Erika! Haha, I think you’re right about the shoes. The thing was they were placed so neatly, and smack in the middle of the sidewalk. Maybe that tranny prostitute was the one individual who was actually Raptured.

  16. Zara Potts says:

    Just gorgeous. Such a beautiful meditation.
    I just love your work so much, Angela. It is a quiet and gentle place in a world full of noise.

  17. Uche Ogbuji says:

    Lovely, Angela, even where it’s covered in grit. And what an absolutely superb ending!

  18. […] I started tweeting a lot for work, beginning with a live tweet of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. My piece that won Bellingham Review‘s 2010 nonfiction contest was published, and the contest judge wrote something very nice about it. I received my first real review (thanks Ed Lin and Giant Robot!). For the anthology Wisdom Has a Voice, I wrote about my dear grandmother. For The Nervous Breakdown, I wrote about things I’ve found on the sidewalk. […]

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