Bryant Park On A July Afternoon

LawnBryantPark

I remember a time, back in the 1970’s and ’80’s when Bryant Park was a certain kind of place for a certain kind of person.

I was not one of those people.

There was a public restroom…a small stone building on 42nd Street.  If you entered to use the urinal, in the day, in the afternoon and especially after dark, it could cost you your wallet, or worse.  Anywhere around the park, if you were so inclined, you could purchase a vial of crack, a needle, a joint, smack, coke or a woman.  All very affordable.

It was a creepy place and when I needed to get to nearby Grand Central Station to catch a late train back to Connecticut, I usually crossed the street.  But there were temptations there as well.  The girlie-peep shows weren’t limited to Times Square.  There were a few scattered along 42nd St. all the way to the dismal dark and dangerous lower levels of the train station.

Things change.

I took an afternoon stroll through the park a week ago on a warm Saturday afternoon.  The atmosphere and the park had done a complete 180 degree turn.  The lawn was full of people soaking up the sun.  A nearby carousel, with twelve animals to ride.  It was tucked off to the side near 40th St.  The kids clung to their parents as the ride rotated to the music of an organ, up and down, sitting on such creatures as horses, a rabbit, and a rather creepy frog.

CarouselBryantFrog

A walk across the lawn was hot and very humid.  Thick grass puts out a great amount of moisture.  I rested at one of the plentiful small metal chairs.  I thought how much better the entire place seemed.  On Monday nights they show free movies on the lawn. (In the winter, the lawn is a skating rink).

I looked at the sycamore trees.  Strange trees with bark that was mottled and patchy.  The rows of planted trees seemed to all lean toward the lawn, toward the people, protective and guarding us from the riot of the city just outside the green boundaries.

Sitting in the middle (actually, off to one side where the shade was dense), I thought of how Bryant Park stood up against the other Manhattan parks.  Central Park is huge, complex and has as many micro-environments as small country.  Bryant was small, concise, intense, crowded and yet, still a haven.  Union Square Park had little grass, as did Madison Square.  Washington Square had fenced off mini-lawns that grew short grass just five feet above hundreds of decaying bodies that are still buried there…Yellow Fever victims…all wrapped in a particular colored shroud.  I forgot the color but I always think of the dead beneath the Great Arch.

From the 50th floor of the Grace Building on 42nd St., looking down at Bryant Park would be like examining a rare postage stamp.  At one end, on 5th Ave. was the bulk of the N. Y. Public Library where I can sometimes be found on rainy days, writing stuff like this or working on the Great American Novel.  It’s a great place to dream.  Behind the library is a comfortable place to have  cold glass of white wine or a chilled beer.

It all reminded me of the Garden of Luxemburg in Paris, only much smaller.  But the spirit was there.  Large vases of flowers and places to sit and write, read or think.

As I sat and sipped my drink, I looked across the park toward Avenue of the Americas (6th Ave.).

I sit and look at the people around me.  I can’t just sneak a photo and move on…it’s not my nature.  I have to know their life story, their pains and sorrows and reasons to laugh.  I need to invent a life for the human being I’m looking at.  I’m not invading their privacy.  All this happens in my mind only…and then shared in places like this post.  It’s fiction…probably.

I see a woman intently reading a book.  Is she reading Proust?  Grisham?  Me?  Perhaps she’s found a leaked copy of  “50 Shades”, Part XII.  It doesn’t matter.  Maybe its the Bible or the Book of Mormon?  It doesn’t matter.  She’s absorbed in someones world, maybe escaping her own.

WomanReadingBryantPark

Near me is an old woman knitting.  She’s bent and aged.  I imagine that her hand has the muscle memory to flick and work the needles without a thought of a knit or purl or a dropped stitch.  Is she thinking of her sister, back in the apartment, and is she wondering when the fever will break?  Is she think about dinner tonight?  Or, is she think about how she broke a heart in 1951?  Maybe her will to be happy left her after what happened in 1962?  Maybe she’s praying for the lost soul of her daughter? Granddaughter?  Is she still missing her father who never came home from a war?  She looks lonely among the crowds.  She seems oblivious to the crowds.

KnittingLadyBryant

I can create an entire life for any individual I find myself sitting next to.  But, I know that whatever worlds I build for a person, their own reality, their own life is infinitely more interesting.  Because it’s real.

I recalled a time when I sat at the far corner of Bryant Park with a high school friend of mine.  We were talking of the years gone by.  Then, without warning, she turned to me and told me that she had just been diagnosed with breast cancer.

I think she cried on my shoulder.

I was a man without words.  What do you do?  You say how sorry you are?  You hug?  You hope?

That was almost fifteen years ago.  She’s a survivor.

Aren’t we all survivors, to a point?  Don’t green spaces of all sizes refuel our needs?

I felt the urge to use the restroom.  This time, I had to edge my way past a large vase of fresh flowers as I made my way to the squeaky clean urinal.  Years ago, I would have tried to do the deed with one hand on my wallet.

This time, I just relieved myself to piped-in music coming from small speakers in the corners.

I think it was Vivaldi or maybe Scarlatti.

Things change.

 

The Preference For Fog On The Downtown Bus

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The M1 bus stop where I was standing was on 5th Avenue and 98th Street.  It’s across the avenue from Mount Sinai Hospital.  It wasn’t raining…it was a downpour.  My flimsy $5.99 umbrella protected my head and shoulders but little else.  The front half of each shoe was soaked.  My outside flap of the shoulder bag was wet, dampening my small notebook and my three sheets of passwords I needed to carry with me.

I should have stopped at CVS and bought a box of ziplock baggies.

It was a chilly windy and very wet Monday afternoon in Manhattan.  I held my MetroCard in my teeth, keeping my lips open.  I didn’t want the chapstick to smear the little plastic case that I used to keep my card.

With my one free finger I felt the inside of my right arm.  The gauze wad was still in place.  I was hoping the needle prick wasn’t leaking and a red line of Type O Negative blood was not flowing down my forearm.  Moments earlier, I had a sample taken…two vials.  I need to be checked every six months or so.

Twelve years ago, I stared into the eyes of a hematologist as he said: “You have leukemia.”

It’s a hard city, full of angles and straight lines.  There are exceptions, of course, always exceptions.  The winding paths of Central Park, for example.  But mostly, it’s a city of unforgiving hard edges.

That’s why I didn’t mind the fog that covered the inside of the bus windows as I sat for my ride downtown.  There were three other riders now…more would be getting on as we approached mid-town.  Sure enough, after three stops, there were a dozen people.  A bold man in a black trench coat was staring at the front page of the New York Times.  Three others were working their mobile phones with a frenzy.  The rest just stared out of the foggy windows…like me.

We were moving along Central Park.  I could see enough through the condensation and trickles of water to notice the sidewalk, a low stone wall and green beyond.  A blurred smear of pink reminded me that the flowering trees were in bloom.

But I really wasn’t paying close attention.  I didn’t want to see certain things right now.  There has been sadness in my life in the past few weeks…the loss of a dear friend, the violent death of a former student.  It all weighed heavy on my mind.

I was grateful for the mostly obscured view I had of the outside world.  I was lost in thought and memories.  My iPod Nano was playing Iris Dement then Mary Gauthier and then Townes Van Zandt.

I was grateful that I had some control over what I was looking at.  A wipe of my hand on the wet inner glass of the giant windows allowed me to see what I wanted to see.  Like what street we were crossing.

Fog, on days like this…fog on any day, hides the things I wanted to turn away from.  I didn’t wish to see the homeless man huddled under a few square feet of cardboard.  I didn’t want to see an elderly person staring at a giant puddle and trying to negotiate a way around or through it.  I certainly wanted to avoid seeing a lonely woman, standing in the rain with a red umbrella and wearing a green plastic raincoat, staring at the lover who was walking away.

Was she wiping away tears or raindrops?

I didn’t want to see a couple in the heat of an argument on the lower step of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

There was a line at the hot dog vender.  A couple stood with four kids.  The mother (?) was staring off into the trees of the Park.  I could read her thoughts:

“What if…?”

I looked back down the central aisle of the bus.  The dripping coats and umbrellas were making pools of water on the rubber floor.

Even if I closed my eyes, I could see what life was like outside the window.  Kids with blue rubber boots jumped in puddles, splashing strangers.  Flowers were drinking liquid after a bitter winter of ice and snow.  The street drains were clogged with dirty water, but at least it wasn’t yellow slush filled with dog waste and empty coffee cups.

I opened my eyes.  A teenage couple ran through the rain, her mascara running over smiling cheeks.  They laughed.  They stopped long enough to kiss.  They knew they were soaking wet and they didn’t care.  What they didn’t know was that they would be young for only a few more moments before they would head for the cover of a damp bus stop, seeking shelter from the storm.

And they would look out through the foggy windows, not wanting to see the angles of the city…but still seeing everything.

I wiped the window.  The sign reads 42nd St. and 5th Avenue.  I was at the main branch of the Public Library.  I was about to step from the bus into a puddle deeper than my shoe.  It was raining like a monsoon in Manila.  Hesitation.  I stepped back from the automatic door and went back to my seat.  If I stayed on the M1, I would continue downtown, past Madison Square Park and the Flatiron Building…more angles.  I would pass near Union Square, one of my favorite places.

It continued to rain and the streaks of water continued to make vertical lines on the windows.  The fog still veiled the view.  I still couldn’t see the people struggling through the falling water.  Somewhere, there were sinful things being done behind foggy windows…but, in this city of contrasts, objects of art were also being created.

I was nearing the West Village and entering the NYU neighborhood.  There was youth here, energy, beauty, love, learning and hope.

It came to me then.  The whole city was shrouded in this mist, this fog, this curtain.  New York, on days like this, was like a sensual exotic dancer with the final veil hiding her beauty, not a perfect flawless beauty, but a real nakedness that was blemished and imperfect.  The best and most real of all that is uncovered.

The persistent fog just made the anticipation more intense.  Tomorrow was expected to be fair and clear in the skies above these giant towers.

Soon, the bus would be heading north again.

I wiped at the glass window one more time.  The rain was letting up.  The fog was brightening.  The sad dripping people were shaking the excess water from their umbrellas.  Still, wet hands were holding wet hands…but that was far better than a sad wave of good-bye.

It was going to be a better day.

 

Between Patience and Fortitude

LibraryButtonCoat

Despite what my weather app informed me about this afternoon–that the temperature was heading toward the low 40’s, I’m still having the feeling that my wool jacket (more of a pea coat) is merely for show.  The cold wind slices through me like a Triscut dips through Roasted Red Pepper and Garlic Hummus.

I’m chilled through four layers of silk, fleece, wool and thick cotton flannel.  There’s no cold like New York City cold on the second day of March.  Spring may be three weeks away on the calendar, but it’s ten thousand miles from where I stand waiting for the M3 to take me down 5th Avenue to the Main Branch of the Public Library.  To my back is the Plaza Hotel and behind my left shoulder is Central Park.  Perhaps that’s the source of the cold wind?  The snow-covered Great Lawn?  The ice of Wollman Rink?

No, it’s not the park.  It’s the never-ending frost that clings to my flesh and bones…and mocks me in my ear, saying: “It’s no use wearing clothes, Boy From The North Country.  I’m the cold that will follow and find you.  May as well be naked, my friend.”

I consider this.  A holding cell at a mid-town precinct has got to be warm.

Here’s the M3.  I’m saved from having to make any decisions.  I’m going to a special place in a heated bus.  I step off the coach into several inches of slush from last night’s snow fall.  I push past the tourists.  I’m standing on the third step of the library.  I climb the partially shoveled stone steps, passing between the two lions that guard this monument to culture.  The lions are named Patience and Fortitude.  Someone told me that they were named by Mayor La Guardia in the 1940’s.  The point being that in those trying and harsh times (WWII), those are the virtues that all good New Yorker’s need.  I didn’t have time to fact-check this (when he was the mayor) but the pamphlet says they acquired their names in the 1940’s so I’m going with that version.

FrontOfPublicLibraryLion

[Patience. Or is it Fortitude?]

I push through the revolving doors and find myself in the Astor Hall.  The architect who built this must have had access to unlimited white marble, for that is what I see everywhere I look.  On either side of the great room, sweeping staircases takes me up to the second floor.  I slowly climb the steps, sliding my hand along the foot wide marble railing.  What famous author had his or her hands on this stone?  I’m told that my favorite poet, Bob Dylan, came here to research the Civil War when he was writing a song called, Across The Green Mountains.  Maybe his hand paused where I am pausing.  Perhaps an atom of Bob is still embedded between the Calcium Carbonate molecules of the marble?  Then it occurred to me that he probably took the elevator.  I looked at the dark stains on the white stone.  When I get to the top, I dig for my bottle of Purell.  I make my way to one of the public reading rooms.  [The world-famous Rose Reading Room has been closed for nearly a year.  Apparently, part of the ceiling had fallen.]  I can think of worse things that can fall on your head while you’re sitting in the famous room and reading a boring book.  Like an idea for instance.

But, I’m not here as a tourist.  No, I am here to work on my novel.  It’s going to be a ghost story.  I plan on it being scary and tension-filled, like the half-time shows of the recent Super Bowls.  And, this is where I can get inspiration.  Most American writers of the last 50 years have been in these rooms.  Literary ghosts must walk these halls.  I’m sitting in an oak chair as I write this.  Who once sat here?  Norman Mailer?  Scott Fitzgerald?  Jane Smiley?  Jennifer Egan?

Yes, I’m sitting in an oak chair.  The table is massive and also oak.  There are four of these tables in this room (Room 217, if you ever make the trip.  See the guy behind the glass partition who is in charge of research?  I’m in the corner nearby.)  I look around the room and see many laptops, each with a bright white apple glowing from the silver lid.  Oh, there’s a Dell.  Poor devil.  I have a new MacBook Air and the battery life is 12 hours, but some of those less fortunate have older models.  They need to feed their computers with juice, so the library had positioned power bars in the middle of each table.  Some of these are so overloaded, I worry about an explosion.

WiFi MAYHAM ON FIFTH AVENUE!

I can see the Daily News headline now.  I just hope I’m in the men’s room when it goes.

I find my memory stick that holds all 13 of my completed chapters.  It slides into the USB port like…(I could use a dirty metaphor here, but I do have some standards.)  I’m going to write a frightening chapter.  I need to concentrate on building tension.

Then my inner critic peeks over the top of my laptop and with devilish eyes and a mocking grin says:  “Who do you think you are?  You can’t write.  This is crap.  You have no talent…go find something useful to do for society, like picking up litter on Staten Island or scraping chewing gum from the subway platform of the B train.”

He’s right.  I’m no Stephen King.  I’m not John Steinbeck.  I’m not even E. L. James.  I begin to unplug my computer, when I realize that I have a 12 hour battery.  I feel so independent.

I must have patience.  Good writing doesn’t come easily.  Just ask Nora Roberts.  No, I must plug along.  And, I must have fortitude.  I must kill the demon inside me that holds my fingers from typing a scene so scary that you will keep the lights on all night.

My fingers return to the keyboard.  I glance at the time display in the upper right hand corner.  They’re going to close in a little over 30 minutes.  Then I realize that I’ve spent all my time writing this blog.  Now I have to pack up and walk back to the hotel on 28th Street.  Only now, my load will be heavier, with all these words in the memory of my laptop.  They were only in my head before I sat down.

In a few minutes, I’ll head to the revolving door.  I’ll pause to open my shoulder bag to show the security guard that I’m not taking the Gutenberg Bible or the Declaration of Independence.  He knows me because I’ve been here before.  He’ll wave me out and wish me a fine night.  I’ll say the same to him.

Then I’ll stand on the third step, between the two lions, facing the rush hour traffic of 5th Avenue.  Maybe I’ll go behind the library and walk through Bryant Park.  I’ll watch the ice skaters.  I’ll try to turn my collar to the cold and damp.

Music will be playing.  I’ll put my ear buds in and listen to Townes Van Zandt.  Or Iris Dement.  Or Mary Gauthier.

I’ll walk down 6th Avenue to 28th Street and go back to my hotel room.

I’ll have a smile on my face as I walk and shiver, along the busy sidewalks.  I’m smiling because this time tomorrow, I’ll be sitting by a pool in San Juan.

The poolside, in the late afternoon, in Puerto Rico.  Now, that’s a fine place to write a scary chapter.

I’ll just need patience to stay out of the sun for a little while and fortitude to keep me from diving too often into the warm deep blue waters of the deep Caribbean.

CordsInLibrary

[Adaptors in the process of feeding. Watching them made me think of Guatemalen vampire bats sucking on a dead goat.]

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[Astor Hall]

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[Two of a thousand arches]