I had planned to exit the subway station here at 12th St. and walk south to the meeting on Perry Street. I had planned to pick up a coffee, go to the meeting, sit in one of the predictable metal folding chairs, and be anonymous. Sit and listen and perhaps laugh and listen and learn and be grateful, today. One day at a time.
Perhaps providentially, to use a word that was used surprisingly by a young blonde woman who looked too New York to speak so 19th century Presbyterian, I was not to be completely anonymous today, but rather to be asked to share my story, which in the parlance is called “qualifying.”
“Our speaker seems to be absent,” said a man named Michael to me before the meeting started. “Would you be willing to speak if he doesn’t show up?”
I’ve been out of the program for a long time, Michael.
“What better reason than that then to share your story!”
And so I did. For about 15 minutes.
And then, during the section we call “a show of hands,” man after woman after woman after man shared their stories and while we were mostly older and sometimes younger and male and female and sometimes straight and sometimes gay and sometimes transgender, we all shared the one thing that brought us each to this morning’s cold folding chair, warmed after a few minutes, to make the room feel like it had its own hearth blazing there in the center.
The shed with the wood awning to your right as you come down the S-curve stairway, like a spine poster in a chiropractor’s office, reminds me of “The Hobbit” movie.
My back is to BMCC (Borough of Manhattan Community College) where streams of brown, cream- and rich coffee-colored faces walk in and out of the brick building. A stiff wind greets me as I enter Washington Market Park.
It is not trite to describe the pathway to the north as “serpentine.” It leads past a community garden to the left and then around to the playground to your right and then around again to the left and right and out to the northeast at Duane Street. I walk through here just to walk through here. On warmer days I have sat here just to sit here, and of course to look to the southwest at the towering Tudor Woolworth Building.
A black couple, maybe in their mid-30s, stands close together looking at a cellphone at the eastern side of the upper level of Marcus Garvey Park. I walk past them to the north and look out at a few church steeples and office buildings and tenement tops.
It’s sunny today, and the play of the warmth with the occasionally stiff wind is pleasantly incongruent. Now looking east I can see the Triborough Bridge, which has been named the Robert F Kennedy Bridge. We are probably a couple hundred feet above sea level and the neighborhood, since the park is built on a large outcropping of schist that the original city workers in the early 19th century must have decided to leave alone. Stone walls and chain-link and wrought iron fences are broken, crumbled, rusty. A 10-ounce plastic Starbucks cup is wedged carefully between a rock wall and a chain-link fence. The grassy areas are just that: areas of dirt with some grass mixed with twigs acorns leaves and occasional coffee cup or a Snapple bottle. “Grassy”: an adjectival modifier for an area that is mostly not grass. Unintended and largely neglected, except for the occasional writer or poorly funded community group.
It’s a brilliant park: seated squarely in Harlem, with a sweeping 360° view of the neighborhood.
I hear a crow not far off. It may be a raven, because I’ve heard they’ve returned to Manhattan.
An older black man, in his 60s, wearing a fedora, nods to me and says “good morning!”
This is pretty much my favorite coffee place. Doma Café. Used to be on Perry Street and then moved down to Morton Street, still on Seventh Avenue. The floor-to-ceiling façade wraps around the corner and forms a 120° angle, giving it a feel of natural light on two sides. A blue awning hangs over two rows of tables out front with planters separating them from the rest of the sidewalk. Today it is raining, and the water comes off the awning in irregular but coordinated drips. I try to take a photo of this but can’t capture the moment. It is peaceful. Makes me sleepy. Or relaxed. Not sure which.
Doma is less of a coffee place and more of a creating place. When I would go to the Perry Street location, typically also on Friday mornings as is today, there was a square oak table that seated 6 to 8 people in the middle of the small room. The same group of writers was there every time: women and men discussing and arguing matters related to a screenplay (that one of them had written) or a play or a novel or a newspaper article or a politician. Sitting near them gave me a contact high.
There has yet to coagulate here a similar group of thinkers who assemble and debate and theorize and storm and form together. I’m told that it was around the common tables in Paris in the late 18th century where revolutionary ideas percolated along with the coffee. In America and even in this city, there is a slow morphine drip that numbs us, so that we don’t notice those sitting next to us. Or if we notice, we do not see. If we see, we do not engage. If we engage, we dare not offend. So we sit silently, and slowly we die.
The rain dripping from the awning. The morphine dripping into my arteries.
Gansevoort Street is where, 205 years ago, the City Commissioners decided to make Manhattan a real estate Mecca. Well, less a Mecca for pilgrimages with a return ticket than a Valhalla to die for.
I am seated in front of a store called Ample Hills Creamery and facing the street looking south. To my right is Bubby’s, a restaurant that is known for high-priced if top-notch fried chicken, and movie stars. This street forms part of the southern border wending the width of the island and, combined with its northern companion at 155th Street, makes the former “Island of Many Hills” (“Welikia,” in the Lenape tongue) certainly unattainable to any descendants of tribe, and all but unattainable for most who don’t look like me or come from the Pacific Rim.
That aside, it’s a beautiful day.
The highline is one block west, and its southern terminus is at the new Whitney Museum. This Whitney houses art that is just as inaccessible and oblique as that of its Upper East Side forbear, but the institution’s pretentiousness is redeemed by its multiple terraces, which afford views east toward the Empire State Building or south toward Freedom Tower. It is, indeed, a great addition to the neighborhood.
Pedestrians are enjoying the seasonable temperatures in the low 60s, yet not quite ready to ease their grip on the low 80s of Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.
Autumn will seek to wipe its muddy feet at the threshold and find that the welcome mat is still stored in New Yorkers’ hallway closet.
Ostensibly, I’m standing at the northern end of Verdi Square because I needed to go to Levain Bakery on West 74th Street to pick up some cookies for a colleague’s birthday party. But I picked the bakery location so that I could come to Verdi Square.
This space is a teeming mass of people mainly going into and some coming out of the 1/2/3 subway station, as well as the nearly ubiquitous pigeon shit on the benches that would otherwise be delightful to sit on. I almost never sit here; if I do, I always catch myself looking up.
The morning sun strikes the backs of those walking west and then south in the Square, each woman and man obediently following a personal 12-foot-long shadow. Catty-corner to the southeast is the famous Gray’s Papaya, where one can occasionally enjoy a “Recession Special” of two hotdogs and a papaya juice for $5.00. The hotdogs are grilled, not boiled. To the northwest, at 73rd and Broadway, is the beaux-arts Ansonia, the gray lady of the Upper West side. Directly to the north is the one-block-long Apple Bank. It’s block façade beckons the rock climber. The carving over the unused southern entrance says “Central Savings.” On the Broadway side, The carving says, “Erected MCMXXVIII.” Since one year before the great stock market crash, this Roaring 20s-era building has watched over these teeming masses as they wend their way along and down into one of Manhattan’s major arteries.
The 12-foot-long shadows dance clumsily on the hexagonal concrete tiles in front of me.
When you enter the men’s restroom on the lower level at Grand Central Terminal, you see a sign behind glass and contained within a simple brass frame: “Rules of Conduct.” The homeless men come here to wash themselves off and prepare for the day. As I wash my hands and dry them in the Xlerator, I am standing next to an African-American man who must be in his late 60s or early 70s. He’s talking to a worker, also black but younger, standing behind a utility closet door that’s ajar. The older man’s wire grocery cart has today’s New York Times lying face up on a stack of torn-up square pieces of cardboard. I am unsure what is below the cardboard and don’t want to stare in order to find out. The man’s torso is bent at almost a 90° angle. I wonder how he gets through his day.
Upstairs and now outside Grand Central for the remaining minutes before my train – so I can get some fresh air – I see well-dressed white people going to some sort of event at the job site of One Vanderbilt, the block-long and -wide building that purports to remake much of Midtown East. It is now just a hole in the ground. I catch a glimpse of one of the actors from the television show “ER.” I forget his name (Anthony something. I look it up: Edwards), but that’s not important. He’s here as a “sparkly,” as one of my friends in politics used to say. He embodies in personality and symbol what the police and ambulance lights and the glare of the news reporters’ cameras do nearby.
A mustached man in a dark blue suit walks by. He is on his cell saying, “… so we get on the phone with him and say ‘We feel that our working relationship has run its course.'” He continues to walk toward the check-in desk. There’s construction equipment to the left, just out of direct view from the street where I’m standing.
Three young women dressed in black sit at the desk. They have clipboards and greet him and people like him.