Vignettes

Copyright 2003-2006, Adrian Robert

Down in lower Manhattan, east of that most storied immigrant neighborhood the Lower East Side, so far from any subways or most Manhattanite's lives as to be nearly forgotten, a park sits on the East River. It is a beautiful time in early autumn, when the trees are just beginning to turn, but a warm day comes every now and then and makes you wonder why they're in such a rush. A beautiful day, yet no one is in the park.

There is a highway thrusting past, just to the west. Cars are barrelling down and up this highway, engines screaming, hoods shoving air out of their way, throwing a sussurant blast, a white roar out across the river. It is an alien sound, a harsh whishing that does not rise and fall like the wind, and contains no notes. It is not a human sound, such as may tell of individuals and their sentiments or happenstance. You may imagine yourself, hearing it, surrounded by flying meteorites, breathing acid gas, standing on a hard, flat surface insufficient to support human comfort, designed for machines.

You may so imagine, but you need not, for that is the reality.

I walk in the park. It is washed by alien sounds, but it is still a park, and the layout of trees and benches amidst the grass has a certain spirit to it that is civilized, but not mechanical. It feels like it has been here a long time. Fresh breezes sweep in from the river; and looking out across it brings to me a satisfying sense of space, absent in the city's interior. Despite it all, there is peace.


*  *  *


I rode my bike out in Brooklyn. I was hoping to go down to Coney Island but somehow took the wrong road. It was too late to correct the error now, and so I simply headed out, in a direction that I knew to be away from my house. 21st Street, 22nd, 23rd. I lived on 11th. 33rd, 37th, 42nd... Brooklyn has the reputation of being poor, and these areas were far from Manhattan and its high-paying jobs. I expected things to be ramshackle.

But they weren't. In fact some of these areas seemed cleaner and more pleasant than where I lived, paying Manhattan-like rents. There were still the same bay-windowed brownstones here and there, the mark of quality to my eye -- but there was also a new and unexpected innovation: houses. These didn't have actual yards around them or anything like that, but there was at least a walkway or an alley between one building and the next, and the building would be a modest two-story structure rather than a tall, blocky edifice with a glass door. People who lived in these were out washing their windows or painting their fences, or tidying their gardens. Pride of ownership. The American way.

46th, 50th, -- wait, here must be the area where the Hassidic Jews come from that I see on the subway each morning. All male adults that I could see wore the black coats and black pillbox hats, had the shaven lower head and detached sideburns.

55th, 58th. Chinese. I was at 16th Avenue and the Brooklyn "Chinatown" was centered around 8th I had heard. It spread far.

65th, 74th. Russian. A mix.

80th, 86th. At last I reached the sea. Off to the right the Verrazano bridge stretched its great span across the Narrows. To the left and ahead was open ocean. A mixture of all the people who had come over it strolled, biked, and sat talking along the walkway by the rocky shore, and I listened to the music of a dozen different tongues intermingled with the sounds of lapping waves. America, the Conglomeration.

The climax thus passed, tired, hungry, I headed back. 82nd, 79th. Russian again. 70th, 61st, 56th, 44th. I stopped at an intersection. Across on the other side two police cars jutted from either side of a blue barrier. Fortunately it was a parade, not a crime scene. I crossed and stopped to watch, as a strange procession, led by a phalanx of priests dressed in white robes, went by. The leader carried a wooden cross on a staff, its outlines curving out at the ends. A German cross? Russian orthodox? Behind the white priests came a group of women dressed in black gowns. Despite this dignified attire they did not seem so serious about the affair as the priests, for they spoke to one another and even laughed from time to time. Behind them was being carried, or actually rolled, a statue on a wooden platform. This was presumably of a religious figure, but before telling about it I should describe what came behind that, for without knowing it you may fall under the pretense -- most assuredly false -- that you understand what was going on.

Behind this religious statue, which was behind a group of black-gowned women, which was behind a phalanx of white priests, who marched behind their leader carrying a German Christian cross, was no less than a police marching band, dressed in summer short-sleeved blue, an American flag sewed to each right-hand sleeve (no doubt after September 11th). Three white tubas, trumpets, clarinets, and of course bass and marching drums. What business did the police have marching in a religious procession? Did they hire themselves out as a performing band?

At any rate, the statue that was clearly the focus of the procession was a painted ceramic affair of an old, bearded man, wrapped in actual brown robes. He looked just like the saint or apostle he probably was. And he had dollar bills pinned to him all over his clothes. Maybe they were 10s and 20s, all I know is they were real money. The white priests began leading the procession around the corner, but the black ladies dragged their feet, and finally the statue was stopped right in the intersection and much fanfare was made of a little girl going up and pinning another dollar bill (or larger) to the saint. Then, as if to show this was not just a game for young children, a middle-aged woman from among the bystanders went up and pinned a bill on herself. Then the police band struck up a fresh tune, the black ladies turned ahead towards the priests, and the procession was moving again.

When people think of New York variety they think of Manhattan. But while there is Chinatown, and a few remnants of Little Italy, and even a mini Jewish area here and there, Manhattan is really too much of a jumble for the variety to show through. Pole lives next to Mexican lives next to Russian lives next to "American". Here in Brooklyn there's more space and less competition over it. Neighborhoods still develop here, and maintain identities. I don't know what it was about, but there was a substantial audience cheering that procession. The Chinatown here stretches far further than the one in Manhattan -- and came about more recently. The city-within-a-city of Hassidic Jews has to be seen to be believed. The great experiment continues.


*  *  *


I'm on the subway (A line) near Canal Street. We stop at a station, and two gangling black youths are horsing around on the platform. One of them playfully shoves the other, and they both guffaw loudly. They wear the long t-shirts down to their mid-thighs and baggy pants that are popular among African American men here in the city.

Onto the subway car they tramp. I commence an internal groan -- now the ride will no longer be peaceful, to the extent it was, at any rate. But then I notice that they are carrying violins, of all things. When the doors close, they lift them to their chins.

Suddenly one of them is playing, firmly and surely, a stark baroque melody. The second joins in a few bars later, interweaving counterpoint and harmony; I do not recognize it but think it must be Bach. As the train accelerates, so do they, easily matching the train's volume with their own. Faster and faster, with utter seriousness they let fly the noble music, baggy t-shirts flapping about their knees, forgotten; the subway car, forgotten.

A crescendo -- and then they are winding down, the train coasting to a stop in the next station. They lower their violins for a time, then the first begins playing again, something a bit less formal, while the second doffs his cap and strides the car in pursuit of donations.

We are taught that things and people should not be judged by their appearances -- yet unfortunately there can still be a nagging tendency to do so. Luckily in New York this failing is eroded daily, and in the most pleasing and unexpected ways.


*  *  *


I'm walking near the Lower East Side in Manhattan, in Tomkins Square Park. "Park" is probably stretching it a bit, it's even worse than the French places that go by the name: you can only walk on asphalt. There are trees, there is grass, and there are even scattered brown leaves, but every last bit of it is walled off by iron fences. Wide paths criss-cross at varying angles, cutting up the park into arbitrarily small pieces, but even cells a few feet across are separated from me by a barrier of black bars. "Who is the imprisoner and who the imprisoned?" I inquire discretely of a tree.

I am startled amidst this consternation by blaring brass music, interspersed with a piercing, militaristic voice, almost sounding as if carried by megaphone. Cacophony, as if this park weren't having enough of a hard time already soothing my jangled urban nerves. But it takes me momentarily somewhere far, far away. Then I notice the music is moving closer, and it sounds tinnier than I remember it.

There! An old Chinese man is walking slowly in my direction, a small transistor radio cradled in his hands, facing outwards. He has a blue cap on but I can almost see the grizzled white stubble on his head beneath. He stares blankly ahead, oblivious to my eyes unlike any New Yorker. But his face is not expressionless; there is a wane sadness there, a sadness that has had time to mature, and whose owner knows it will probably never go away.

In the parks in China music blares from loudspeakers fixed to posts -- traditional music, but jazzed up, given larger arrangements; brass bands and amplified orchestras. At certain times of the day, particularly in the early morning and evening around dusk, the volume of this music increases, and exhortations are called out over it. I never discovered what they were. Calisthenics? Proverbs and similarly healthy sayings? ("Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise!!?") Inspirational tales from the glory days of the revolution? It is annoying to western ears, looking forward as they do to peace in a park. But peace could not be found in a park anyway during these times; Chinese people would be out in droves, exercising, talking, strolling, looking about. The music was a part of it, providing a melodious, boisterous body to the atmosphere, a kind of motor pushing a little bit of extra energy into all that went on.

I do not know when this man came to the United States, but it was a long time ago. Only the young emigrate. He might have been looking for wealth, maybe adventure, perhaps just a way out of his dead-end town. He misses it now, he has missed it since the day he left. Even though there are many Chinese here they are shy and cannot maintain all of their culture's practices in a land so different. Parks aren't fun here, the man has learned. They are quiet, dead places with few people and no interesting action. People enjoy themselves -- if they do at all -- in other ways.

The man is old, his health is failing, he has little money. He cannot go back to China now.

I do not know where the music he was playing came from, whether it was a tape, or whether in all the industriousness of Chinatown a radio station is broadcast. Walking in that asphalt park, he recreates what he can, in the haze-filtered light of an early summer morning.


*  *  *


I'm sitting in a Starbucks on the Upper East Side, near 92nd Street. It's not too crowded, and anyway the tables are not too close together. This seems to be part of Starbucks' strategy in the City -- provide an excess of space to differentiate themselves from similar establishments, which typically pack tables so tightly into their small, expensive parcels of Manhattan real-estate that any entry or exit of customers is invariably encountered by at least one or two "excuse me"s. This brings Starbucks patrons to feel relaxed despite themselves, even as they disparage the steady pushing-out of "mom and pop" places with non-cookie-cutter atmospheres. In suburbs Starbucks puts their tables close together, providing a tingle of urban tension that rings pleasantly against the broad, largely empty background of suburban parking lots and untrodden lawns.

So, I was sitting there, tapping away on this laptop, when I look up to notice an old woman I had not seen before standing beside my table. She is not unhealthy looking -- her flesh is still firm, her hair, though gray, is long and straight instead of being curled up into the "standard" perm utilized by millions of old women across the United States and not a single younger woman. She wears a gown and has a long-strapped purse and a black and gold cloth bag hanging at her side. I do not understand at first what she says to me, and ask her to repeat it.

"Do you like to play scrabble, young man?"

Ah, I realize I did not understand because I was not anticipating the question. Expectation is ever the mother of comprehension.

"Well, yes," I stammer, "I mean, sort of."

"Would you like to play with me?"

I had not expected this. She had a vague accent that I could not place -- perhaps Russia, or somewhere else in Eastern Europe. Funny that she would play a word game when it was not her first language. Why not chess, I wondered? However I was already late for a musical performance down on the Lower East Side. I'd been just trying to finish up one last thing before heading out. I apologetically explained this to her, and she nodded and walked away.

I had just turned back to my laptop when I saw her go up to another table across from me also holding a lone occupant, this one reading.

"Young man, would you like to play scrabble?"

I did not hear his reply, but it was not as long as mine and probably did not involve explanation, but merely a short "no". The lady said "OK," and moved on.

There were two or three other occupied tables at this Starbucks, but only one of these held a lone person. She went up to it now.

"Hello young lady," she said as politely as she had spoken to me, "Would you like to play scrabble with me?" Though I had not cared or known about this woman before just now I found myself hoping desperately that she would say "Yes."

But she did not, and moreover her answer was no longer than that of the man across from me. The old woman stood back and looked around the coffee shop. I wondered if she would sit down and wait for someone else to come in, perhaps someone she was waiting to meet, maybe an old friend and scrabble partner who despite a long friendship could never be relied upon to show up on time.

Instead she strolled to the entrance and headed out as quietly as she had come in, walking down the avenue past the window, carrying her two bags, one of which, I now realized, must have held a scrabble set. I couldn't help but think she was going to go to another Starbucks a few blocks away, to ask her same question again. But I was not optimistic as to the results. Why shouldn't somebody play with her? Why should people prefer to sit alone instead? Sometimes you realize that it is a hard and unfortunate world.


*  *  *


I'm rushing down the stairs to get on a subway train before it leaves. The doors start to close, but I lunge for it, assuming they'll touch me gently and open again, like an elevator. In fact I make it in, but my bag doesn't. The doors are like a vise, clenching it tenaciously, repeatedly opening up just a fraction before closing again, like a pair of jaws chewing food. I'm in a pickle now, for I can go neither in nor out. Then a man in the train next to me squares his stance and wedges his hands against the edge of one door. He puts his shoulders into it and strains motionlessly for several seconds. I have only the time to wonder that a total stranger is exterting himself so on my behalf -- then my bag pulls free, and I lurch into the car gratefully and more than a bit sheepishly. I turn and thank my unknown benefactor, but he just shrugs and turns away. I glance around and try to act nonchalant, surprised but glad no one is laughing at me.


*  *  *


There's a small section of asphalt at the edge of a street I cross every day walking from my apartment to work. For some reason it started to break down at one point, and, as cars went over it, a larger and larger pot hole started to form. Until, finally, one day, evidently it had been noticed somehow, and a street crew came and filled it in with asphalt.

But the asphalt they used wasn't strong enough. Something about this little section of road right next to the sidewalk, on a street about to turn onto York Avenue, caused it to receive a lot of stress from passing traffic. And soon the repair started to break down again. A few chinks formed in the rubble, a bit popped out here and there, and a hole grew, until it was nearly as large as it had been before.

Once again, in some way, it came to the city's notice. A street crew came and paved it over. A spot repair done with shoveled asphalt. But, once again, it was not good enough to stand up to what passed over it. A third time, a street crew came. And this time they used a stronger mixture. Coarser rocks mixed in with the tar.

This time it held for a while, and it seemed like perhaps the repair had been good. But again, it began to fail. Much more slowly this time. But as I walked by each day, each week, I would notice the chinks growing -- the hole spreading and deepening, bit by bit. And finally, once again, a repair crew came. And this time they put a metal plate down in the rift, before paving over with asphalt. And while this, too, started to crumble somewhat, it seemed to reach a kind of steady state, where the metal prevented things from breaking down further.

Watching this process I could not help but see that the city was healing itself, not unlike a biological organism. You got a cut on your finger, and somehow chemical signals are released, picked up by agents that come through the bloodstream and carry them to other parts of the body. There, supply depots are found. Certain types of cells are mobilized, move to the vicinity, and repair. And if a reinjury occurs, repair occurs again. If you get a blister on your foot, the skin grows back with a stronger, thicker callus. If it again comes under stress, and starts to break down, the callus will grow thicker still. In such a way was the behavior of the city with respect to the pothole.

And yet, there was something insufficient in this aspect of the city -- for even the last repair had not been as good as a fresh road had been. Although the job that was done was good enough to hold together, still, it was obvious that there was a repair there. As cars drove over it, they experienced a bump. As I walked over it I saw a blemish. It was not complete.

But the body is the same, I realized. Do we not form scars in places where wounds have occurred? Are there not affronts that never heal completely?

At the same time, we can see this small incident reflecting something very general of the character of the City. For the same thing occurs over and over again in countless places. Subway stations being reworked, old train cars replaced, scaffolding going up the sides of buildings, sidewalks and promenades resurfaced, landscaping cleaned out and renewed. The whole City is literally a patchwork of ongoing repairs and jury-riggings. Can there really be said to be a part of its substance that has not been repaired or replaced at one time or another? This, too, is similar to the body. It is said that every molecule within our bodies is changed out within a year. Substance is not constant -- only pattern is. The City is an organism.