Ne-Yo performs at AFRAM 2022 in Druid Hill Park. Photo by Jalynn Harris.

There’s a tree in a field near a goal post in Druid Hill Park that grows tennis ball-sized fruit. When the fruit is overripe, it falls down like heavy elbows. If I knew the name of the tree, perhaps then I would be wise enough to know how far away I should sit from it. But in my ignorance, I sit close and choose wincing as my only defense to the tennis balls falling down around me.

Some trees, like people, are like this. Irresistible to be around despite the potential of getting hit by the gravity of their fruit falling from the leaf.

Admittedly, this is my crying tree. And sometimes, I cheat, and sneak a bit further from the tree– beside the goal post to sink tear after tear into the net.

On the first weekend of Teacher Summer – named this precisely because I am a school teacher and this is my 100 days of summer (god lovingly sans Zoe Deschanel) – I went to Druid Hill for AFRAM.

AFRAM, for the uninformed, is the biggest Black arts festival in Baltimore. When I was kid, I remember taking the train down to the Orioles stadium and wandering from booth to booth, with no money to speak of, but rich with eyes that drank in Kente cloth and Bantu jewelry on mamas with bantu knots. The memory of those excruciatingly hot summer days are always chips to cash in for later inventions of myself.

Who else was there the year SWV performed and one of the sistas passed out on stage and we all gasped while they rushed her off and the other sistas used their voices to tell us they had to go with their home girl and then the show was over? Who else was there that summer Ella Mae came and crooned about how deep in her feelings boo do ba da so deep?

This year AFRAM was at Druid Hill Park. The first time in-person in 3 years and first time at Druid Hill Park in even longer. I followed the music and biked the mile from my house to Druid. And imagine my surprise to find that a mere tennis ball throw away from my crying tree, stood Ne-Yo.

After the initial Rona outbreak, The Maryland Zoo reopened to the public on June 27, 2020. It was one of the first non-exclusively academic institutions to reopen that year. In the 2021 Maryland State Zoo Fiscal Year Report, there’s a section called “New to the Zoo” in which new animals acquired either by hatching, birth, or acquisition are detailed. It reads, “We welcomed one of the world’s tiniest antelope, two tremendous herbivores, a baby chimpanzee, and a pair of pelicans with nine-foot wingspans, among many others.” Oh, and three bonded armadillos.

Since moving back to the city as an adult, I’ve been fixated on Druid Hill Park. Already, I’ve lived in 3 different apartments in different places around the park.

Perhaps it’s because my belief that Ova West is a nature park veils my imagination’s ability to only see beyond that belief. The trees, the birds, the long stretches of trails, all mix together like a salad tossed in the vinaigrette of motor bikes revving.

Perhaps it’s because Druid is a cultural center of the city. The botanical gardens at Rawlings Conservatory are more than a cute place to take someone on a date. More than a yard to watch miraculously turn from verdant green to all the colors of the rosarian rainbow. More than a place to bench and eat a sandwich with a childhood friend.

Perhaps it’s because I love biking in the cold and Druid is the perfect acceptable & accessible place to wander through in the dead of winter on top of a strong consortium of metal and rubber.

Perhaps it’s because I am one of three bonded armadillos.

As a child, I’d only go to Druid Hill to go to the Zoo. But I hated zoos. Every trip a hot metal handle under the sun with no hat to shield me from all of the uncomfortable staring we’d be doing that day. The day would go like this: one or both of my parents would ride us to the park. We’d enter and immediately be curtailed into an infinite loop of pathways. Children wearing yellow field trip shirts flooding the place like snakes on a plane. And me, straddling one long awkward stare at an elephant to the next. The giraffes, spindly and chewing a long piece of plant – a sight my young pre-vegan heart took to mean that big things can eat little things and still survive. And as we walked from habitat to circular enclosure to shallow water dolphin show, it became clear that the only way out of here was the way we’d entered.

Ne-Yo did his thing. Baby faced music videos of him played in the background as he gave us a healthy sampling of his prolific discography. All of his RnB classics, with a smattering of his EDM hits, as well as songs he’d written for other people – Beyonce’s “Irreplaceable” and Rhianna’s “Take a Bow” and Keri Hilson’s “Pretty Girl Rock.” His eyes hidden beneath his tilted signature fedora.

I felt like I was 10 years old again. Walking home from Johnnycake Elementary school with my older brother while somebody’s car radio crooned out Ne-Yo’s running question, “Why can’t I turn off the radio?” Barrett clad at the crown of my head, and dressed in my favorite floral pink leggings and a striped shirt combination, I belted along with him. I sang because he sang. I questioned because he questioned. I felt young because I was and the song of the summer always and is supposed to.

Deep in this daydream, “Miss Independent” playing in the foreground, I looked up and saw a gaggle of people running towards me at full sprint. Clinging over the metal of my bike, I had to make a decision: run or ride. I froze. The whole western half of the crowd stampeded towards me. I saw no evidence of threat, but that seemed enough threat itself. I picked up my bag and got on my bike and cycled away screaming, “What the fuck! What the fuck! Is going on!”

When I got to the outer edge of the park, two breathless best friends answered my question, “No idea. We just saw people running and started running too. And now, “ one said pointing to their feet, “I don’t have any shoes.”

Breathless, I gripped my bike close and looked around for some clue as to what just happened. A cut on my ankle – metal never excuses flesh and panic – just beginning to throb.

“Is everybody alright? Is anybody hurt?” Ne-Yo asked in the distance. “Should we keep going? Y’all with me? Alright, let’s keep going.”

Home is the animals you keep in it. At least that’s what I understood the zoo to mean. When I was in the 9th grade, I read the play “The Glass Menagerie.” It was easy to relate to. Easy to see myself as the sister, Laura, the shy, young womanchild who, while preoccupied with inanimate glass figurines, was worried over the edge of two options: to be made into something treasurable by being kept in a new home by a new man or by earning a college degree. And more, the word “menagerie,” a syllabic treat my young poet’s ear held close. Its meaning: “a collection of wild animals kept in captivity for exhibition.” The metaphor felt clear and relatable: Laura kept her glass figurines enclosed because she was making a home she could control.

When I went to college, I left Baltimore because I thought there were better things out there. Better people, better feelings, better memories. A better way I could make myself either through education or relationships. How could I be treasurable? I thought, much like Laura. But college, a haunted and harrowing menagerie, taught me, above all, to love two things: the place in which I am most at home and free public space.

Anyways, that inner child bit that my therapist keeps mentioning? Ne-Yo healed it. Right beside my crying tree. And sure, I don’t love the zoo, but there’s more to the park than the menagerie. And that’s what I didn’t know as a child. I didn’t know that while the memories in one place never get replaced they can be reshaped by returning.

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Jalynn Harris

Jalynn Harris (she/they) is a writer, educator, and book designer from Baltimore. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in Little Patuxent Review, Feminist Studies, Poem-A-Day, The Hopkins Review, The...